Joseph Campbell (1904-1987) was a world-renowned mythologist who helped modern society understand the true power that storytelling has in our culture and within our personal lives. He studied and identified the universal themes and archetypes that are present in mythical storytelling across history and across the world. His seminal work, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, outlined what Campbell called the Hero’s Journey, a motif of adventure and personal transformation that is used in nearly every culture’s mythical framework. George Lucas was an avid admirer of Campbell’s writings, and used them as a direct reference in his creation of Star Wars. The two didn’t meet face to face until after Lucas had already finished his original trilogy of films…
We look to the stars and wonder. Light from infinite directions and distances meets our gaze. And within our “mythic imagination,” as Joseph Campbell described it, we begin to tell stories. As Campbell points out, the visual beauties that inspire a saga like Star Wars are derived as much from within us as it is outside. “The imagery is necessarily physical and thus apparently of outer space,” Campbell says, “The inherent connotation is always, however, psychological and metaphysical, which is to say, of inner space.” As we look to the stars, we are inherently reflected. It is what Campbell calls the “inner reaches of outer space.”
In 1984, Joseph Campbell came to the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco, an architectural beauty rebuilt from the Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915, and near the current location of Lucasfilm’s headquarters. The iconic dome had been constructed to reflect the classical styles of ancient Rome and Greece, and evokes emotion as if it could be an archetype of myth itself. It was an apt setting for Campbell to lead discussions on the inner reaches of outer space.
George Lucas was in the audience. Though he had long admired and studied Campbell back to the time of his early drafts of Star Wars, he had yet to meet the man who he would call, “my Yoda.” San Francisco certainly wasn’t the swampy planet of Dagobah. The meeting would in fact be the opposite of Master Yoda and young Luke Skywalker’s. This time it was the master who was to learn just how pivotal his teachings could be for the apprentice.
“[…] Outer space is within inasmuch as the laws of space are within us; outer and inner space are the same. We know, furthermore, that we have actually been born from space,” Campbell told audiences in San Francisco. He continued to describe the “wonderland of myth,” where an almost circular path of inspiration moves between that which we see and that which we imagine. “From the outer world the senses carry images to mind, which do not become myth, however, until they’re transformed by fusion with accordant insights, awakened as imagination from the inner world of the body.” As Yoda tells Luke in The Empire Strikes Back, “Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.” The light of the stars is fully within us.
After the mesmerizing discussions, Lucas was introduced to Campbell via their mutual friend, scientist and Nobel laureate Barbara McClintock. Though they did not connect at first words, as McClintock would remember to Campbell’s biographer, “I got them sitting together, but Joe was holding court like he would…There was a young man there, David Abrams, the only true magician I’ve ever known in my life… I called David over and said, ‘See if you can get these two talking to each other.’ David went over and did a trick…it involved putting George’s hand on Joe’s hand and that was it.”
The spark had been ignited and a friendship had begun. Campbell and Lucas took a liking to each other. They enjoyed discussing ideas of mythology, and in particular the influence of Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces on Lucas’ filmmaking. Their relationship blossomed over the coming years, though surprisingly, Campbell had yet to see any of the Star Wars films.
A few years after their first meeting, the time finally came for Lucas to show Campbell his work. Lucas would tell Campbell’s biographers: “[…] At one point I talked about Star Wars, and he’d heard about Star Wars. I said, ‘Would you be interested at all in seeing it?’ At this point I’d finished all three of them. He said, ‘I’ll see all three of them.’ I said, ‘Would you like to see one a day?’ because he was going to be here for around a week. ‘No, no, I want to see them all at once.’”
And so Campbell, along with his wife Jean, came to Marin County north of San Francisco. It was on a Sunday when Lucas took the Campbells to the recently finished Skywalker Ranch. Lucas remembered, “I showed them one in the morning [A New Hope], and we had lunch. I showed another one in the afternoon [The Empire Strikes Back], then we had dinner. Then I showed another one in the evening [Return of the Jedi]. It was actually the first time anybody, I think, had ever seen all three of them together at one time!”
Their mutual friend, Barbara McClintock, joined in for the third film, and she remembered the moment after it had ended. “It was just us and George. It was very quiet in the dark, and Joe said, ‘You know, I thought real art had stopped with Picasso, Joyce, and Mann. Now I know it hasn’t.’”
Myth is often something experienced unconsciously by a collective. Most audience members in the summer of 1977 were not aware of the age-old archetypes at work in A New Hope. They simply enjoyed the film; the story had their attraction. Even the creators themselves can be part of this collective unconscious. Composer John Williams was in the audience for one of Campbell’s lectures at Skywalker Ranch and commented, “Until Campbell told us what Star Wars meant […] we regarded it as a Saturday morning space movie.” Nevertheless, the power resides in the experience equally as much as the understanding.
In his book, The Inner Reaches of Outer Space, Campbell meditates on the universe’s immensity, “[…] twenty Milky Ways of billions of exploding nuclear furnaces, flying from each other through spaces not to be measured, the universe (of which we speak so easily) compromising, literally, quintillions of such self-consuming stars.” To contemplate a starry sky itself is to contemplate on a mythical level. And as scientific discovery continuously redefines our understanding of the cosmos, certainly our mythical perspective must change as well. Campbell himself states, “What does all this do to mythology?” George Lucas would help to redefine this mythical framework for the Space Age, and in effect prove that the discoveries and revelations of a storyteller could be as influential as those of an astronomer.
In the late 1980s, as Campbell entered the final years of his life, his friendship with Lucas continued. The apprentice would perform a fitting tribute to his mentor. Together with journalist Bill Moyers, they’d ensure Campbell’s teachings would remain as immortal as the very myths themselves…
The story continues in the second and final installment of this two-part article…
- Baxter, John. George Lucas: A Biography. Hammersmith, London: Harper Collins Entertainment, 1999. Print.
- Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Novato, CA: New World Library, 2008. Print.
- Campbell, Joseph. The Inner Reaches of Outer Space: Metaphor as Myth and as Religion. Novato, CA: New World Library, 2012. Print.
- “Interview with Ron Suskind.” Telephone interview. 18 Feb. 2015.
- Larsen, Stephen, and Robin Larsen. A Fire in the Mind: The Life of Joseph Campbell. New York: Doubleday, 1991. Print.
- Moyers, Bill, prod. The Power of Myth, The Hero’s Journey. PBS. 1988. Television.
- Seabrook, John. “Letter from Skywalker Ranch: Why Is the Force Still With Us?” George Lucas: Interviews. Ed. Sally Kline. Jackson: U of Mississippi, 1999. 190-215. Print.
- Taylor, Chris. “Between the Wars.” How Star Wars Conquered the Universe: The Past, Present, and Future of a Multibillion Dollar Franchise. New York: Basic, 2014. 277-79. Print.
- The Mythology of Star Wars. Dir. Pamela Mason Wagner. Perf. George Lucas and Bill Moyers. PBS, 1999. DVD.
Lucas O. Seastrom is a writer, historian, and filmmaker living in Marin County, CA. He grew up on a farm in California’s Central Valley, is a lifelong Star Wars fan, and volunteers at Rancho Obi Wan. Twitter: @losnorcal.