Since May 25th, 1977, Star Wars has been igniting the imaginations of viewers all over the world with its futuristic, neon-tinged take on what is actually a very old story archetype. It is because of this connection not only to the future, but to the past, that Star Wars continues to captivate audiences to this day.
In 1984, a young, dark-haired man named George Lucas took a seat at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco, a beautiful, dome-shaped structured that hearkened back to the styles of ancient Greece and Rome. It was the perfect venue for the man Lucas was there to see: Joseph Campbell.
Campbell was a Columbia University-educated mythologist whose work George Lucas had long admired and studied. Campbell, who Lucas would later call “my Yoda,” is the man who studied and chronicled a mythological pattern he called the Hero’s Journey—a pattern Lucas would later use as a template for his Star Wars films.
The Hero’s Journey is the story that Campbell claimed lies at the heart of every myth in every culture. Campbell first described this pattern in his book, “The Hero With a Thousand Faces.” The idea that all mythic narratives are variations of one story isn’t new, but Campbell is the first to have distilled it into a definite central pattern, and in a way that was easy for anyone to understand.
After Campbell finished his 1984 discussion, he and Lucas were introduced through a mutual friend, and a friendship soon blossomed. The two men enjoyed discussions of mythology, and Lucas would go on to show Campbell the films that were so influenced by the mythologist’s work. Campbell loved them.
In the darkness of a movie room on Skywalker Ranch, the credits rolled on Return of the Jedi, and Campbell said “You know, I thought real art had stopped with Picasso, Joyce, and Mann. Now I know it hasn’t.”
Joseph Campbell was a man who saw the internal in the external. In the myths we create—those big overarching narratives that speak truth through fantasy—we can see ourselves. Campbell was a student of psychology as well as myth and history, and connected his Hero’s Journey to the human mind in an unprecedented way. It is this psychological connection to certain kinds of stories that makes Star Wars such a powerful and personal experience.
Campbell believed in the psychic unity of humankind, which is the idea that all human beings share a basic mental framework—that we all think alike to some degree. Campbell was a fan of the work of famed psychologist Carl Jung, whose work embraced the idea that the human collective unconscious is driven by instinctual symbols such as the “Wise Old Man,” the “Shadow,” the “Tree of Life,” and many more. Campbell saw these same symbols throughout world’s mythological stories and incorporated them into the Hero’s Journey as the steps every hero will encounter during his or her adventure.
The outline of the Hero’s Journey is fairly simple—you can view its 17 stages here. Campbell, himself, summed this universal story up as “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.” For Campbell, this was the story behind Ulysses, Prometheus, Christ, Buddha, and so much more—it was the symbolic story from which every other story is derived, and which reflects our innermost desires.
“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,” said Campbell in his 1984 speech in San Francisco, elaborating on the mental processes that take the physical world around us and transform it into stories. In his view, because myth comes from a psychological process common to us all, the form lends itself to universally appealing storytelling.
The Hero’s Journey begins with an ordinary person in an ordinary, recognizable world. This person receives a call to adventure, come across an older mentor, and undergoes trials in his quest to confront and defeat a great evil. Eventually, this person returns to his or her homeland, changed in some way. This story structure, according to Campbell, resonates with the human mind, and when a film or a novel uses the Hero’s Journey as a template, it gets the approval of our subconscious.
Lucas took advantage of this as he developed the Star Wars films, using Campbell’s teachings to reinvent mythology for contemporary viewers, tapping into the collective unconscious mind. Luke’s journey, from Princess Leia’s holographic “call to adventure,” to his “apotheosis” in becoming a Jedi, to his meeting with the “Wise Old Man” in Yoda, consciously conforms to the Hero’s Journey in a way that had never been seen before on the big screen.
Lucas, however, also diverged from the Hero’s Journey in a few important ways. Campbell’s Journey focuses solely on the hero—everything in the story exists merely as a tool for the growth of the protagonist. Star Wars, however, embraces something that Campbell, perhaps, missed—the essential interconnectivity that is innate to humanity. The struggles of secondary characters are just as real and important as Luke’s, and it is only through the importance of reciprocal social relationships that Luke is able to succeed. Lucas knew that, to survive, we all need one another, and that idea came forth in his own interpretation of the Hero’s Journey.
The mythological stories that inspired both Campbell and Lucas may be fiction, but they tell important truths about our lives. They, including modern myths like Star Wars bring into focus our human problems, but through a completely new lens, allowing us to reflect on moral issues in ways we might never have considered. These common issues that run throughout all of humanity’s tales speak of our essential needs, wants, ambitions, and dreams, and by taking a closer look at them, we can learn much of ourselves.