The Hero's Journey reaches cosmic proportions.
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… In case you missed it, be sure to read part one of our look at this historic meeting, and enjoy the conclusion below.
Skywalker Ranch was a newly-completed filmmaking oasis in the late 1980s. Nestled amongst rolling hills of gold, bespeckled with live oaks and cattle, it was an environment wholly conducive to creative thinking. In June of 1988, courtesy of PBS, television audiences across America had one of their first glimpses of this hallowed locale. They watched journalist Bill Moyers and mythologist Joseph Campbell walking together in conversation with serene nature in the background, eventually making their way up the steps of the main house and into the library. It was the first episode in a six-part series, The Power of Myth.
Campbell had passed away some months before the broadcast in October of 1987, but not before over 40 hours of interviews had been recorded between himself and Moyers. Campbell, who in his life had enjoyed minor celebrity status and great admiration from his colleagues and peers, was soon to become even more famous through the medium of television.
For some time, Bill Moyers had entertained the idea of interviewing Campbell for a television series. When George Lucas caught wind of this developing project, he contacted Moyers, remembering to Campbell’s biographers: “I said, ‘Let’s bring him out to the ranch here […] Just point the camera at him and turn it on. Let’s not make a big deal of this, let’s just get him talking.’ There’s nothing wrong with having people carry on a lucid, intelligent conversation -- which is something that Joe is extremely good at […] If you can take wisdom and somehow capture it with the human element, that’s so inspiring, that’s part of what we can do today that we couldn’t do a hundred years ago.”
Lucas, always recognizing the practicality of modern technology, understood the impact Campbell would have on television audiences. He would financially support the project in its early stages.
The Power of Myth series “made Campbell a rock star,” as journalist Ron Suskind puts it. Audiences could connect with Campbell as he recounted the great myths and their unifying motifs. This included Star Wars. As Suskind told Moyers: “It does the [mythical] cycle perfectly. It’s not a simple morality play; it has to do with the powers of life and their inflection through the actions of man […] One of the wonderful things about this adventure into space is that the narrator, the artist, the one thinking up the story, is in a field that is not covered in our own knowledge. Much of the adventure in the old stories is when they go into regions that no one has been in before.”
The famed cantina sequence from A New Hope was Campbell’s favorite, symbolizing the mythical first step into the wider world. He’d celebrate Han Solo, a character we first meet in the cantina, commenting, “He thinks he’s an egoist; but he really isn’t. That’s a very loveable kind of human being. There are lots of them functioning beautifully in the world. They think they’re working for themselves, but there’s something else pushing them.”
Though Campbell didn’t live to see the immense success of the program, it proved the universality and appeal of his ideas, which he would have considered more important. His works became standards in classrooms around the world, and storytellers in various mediums continued to adapt the Hero’s Journey and its motifs. This included George Lucas, who would soon be ready to continue developing his mythical saga.
The world of the late 20th century was a smaller one with bigger horizons. As world cultures blended in an increasingly connected global society, we looked to the stars as a frontier. In his book, The Inner Reaches of Outer Space, Campbell states, “And so now we must ask: What does all this do to mythology? Clearly some changes have to be made.” With a shift in cultural perspective also comes a shift in mythological horizons. In the past, myths began on the limited tribal level. “Such mythologies are neither addressed to, nor concerned with, humanity at large,” Campbell tells us. “The tribe and its landscape are the universe.” Literally, the horizon was small for myth, limited by an ethnocentric outlook. But as the Space Age transformed this perspective and scientific communicators such as Carl Sagan began to show us the beauties of the wider universe, a new myth was waiting to be born.
In 1997, George Lucas would tell journalist John Seabrook: “When I was in college, for two years I studied anthropology […] myths, stories from other cultures. It seemed to me that there was no longer a lot of mythology in our society, the kind of stories we tell ourselves and our children, which is the way our heritage is passed down. Westerns used to provide that, but there weren’t Westerns anymore. I wanted to find a new form. So I looked around, and tried to figure out where myths come from. It comes from the borders of society, from out there, from places of mystery […] And I thought, space. Because back then space was a great source of mystery.”
Part of Lucas’ mastery may be in the dichotomous nature of Star Wars’ central storyline. Luke Skywalker, a young farm boy yearns to escape the confines of his geography, as did young George Lucas growing up in California’s Central Valley. The famed scene of Luke staring off into the binary sunset, dreaming of his future, may very well have been Lucas watching the sunset behind the coast range west of Modesto. Here lies the quintessence of Star Wars. A cosmic story is at its heart a deeply personal tale. Lucas had already explored this theme in American Graffiti (1973), and for Star Wars he used such as his own key into Campbell’s concept of the Hero’s Journey. He harnessed these personal themes and set them against a galaxy far, far away where mythological limitations were non-existent.
For Joseph Campbell, Lucas’ vision may well have been that of a “true prophet,” as he describes. “[The prophet] knew the difference between his ethnic ideas and the elementary ideas that they enclose, between a metaphor and its connotation, between a tribal myth and its metaphysical import.” Campbell points out this mythological awakening had taken place before in ancient Mesopotamia, an era “when writing was invented; also mathematical measurement, and the wheel.” Is it coincidence that Star Wars also came at the dawn of a technological revolution? From a connected global culture is derived a global myth, and Star Wars serves that need. As in Mesopotamia, “The leap was from geography to the cosmos.”
Star Wars is the gift that our global culture receives from this natural evolution of mythic tradition. The Space Age, with its planets and nebulae, asteroid belts, and starships, is the next step along this pathway of storytelling. We stand at a new avenue of mythic discovery, where archetypes intersect on a global level, as audiences experience a film from one continent to the next. But within this avenue individuality is still paramount, as the Hero’s Journey is one of endless possibility. “This thing communicates,” Campbell would tell Moyers. “It is in a language that is talking to young people today, and that’s marvelous.”
In December of 2015, audiences will once again return to the cinemas -- as ancient peoples once gathered round a fire or into an amphitheater -- and collectively partake in the magic of myth. As Lucas and Campbell sat together in front of a silver screen to share an experience, so too shall we with our friends and family. It’s time for another good story!
- 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