Campbell, Star Wars and the myth

© Muriel Verbeeck


  1. Campbell and Lucas
  2. The "campbellian" pattern of analysis
  3. A myth in the "Cambellian" sense

In fact, if I have become interested in Star Wars, it is for its mythical angle. I was, the first time I saw the film, struck by the recurrence of the archetypal images and the traditional patterns wich were developed. It appeared to me very quickly that the saga of G.Lucas had been made the subject of a multitude of articles (see links), to the point at wich the association of the terms "Star Wars" and myth can from now on be thought of commonplace.

First observation
Large numbers of contributions are purely repetitive, duplicating, more or less randomly, previous analyses -and without always giving their source. If one sorts out this web of repetitions, one arrives easily at Joseph Campbell. This is not really surprising as we shall see.

Second observation
The reference to Campbell is at this point omnipresent, that it eclipses all other analyses: and this is a shame, because those who say myth say polysemie -thus a multitude of approaches remain possible. (I am thinking of structural analysis, specifically Jung or of categories of Dumezil etc...)

I.Campbell and Lucas
Relativly unknown in Europe, Joseph Campbell (died in 1987) was an American mythologist, author of several works, of wich The Heros with thousand Faces was discovered by G.Lucas during his studies.

Campbell's popularity across the Atlantic is principally linked to the broadcasting of a television series, in fact six interviews on the theme of myth, led by the journalist Bill Moyers and recorded at Skywalker Ranch.

These interviews have since been published under the title Power of Myth.

Bill Moyers, George Lucas, Joseph Campbell at Skywalker Ranch. © Douglas P.Simpsel
George Lucas very soon acknowledged his debt to Campbell, saying that he had read the book during his years at college, then later re-read it more thoroughly and again several more times when writing his scripts. But he observed in passing, that it is in the dynamic of the writing and not in a prepared plan that the most obvious links with The Heros with a thousand Faces become obvious 1.

But when G.Lucas some years later paid tribute to the professor at the time of his retirement, by calling him "my Yoda", his inspiration and master of thought, he was not refering only to the conception of "Star Wars". The two men had met each other previously and were tied by friendship. This personal relationship was established during the time wich Lucas called his 'hiatus-period" -a time when, in fact, a crisis in his personal life threw everything into question. From that time onwards the contribution of the mythologist was for him more of a spiritual order than material.

I do not want to say by that, that Lucas became "campbellian" but that drawing from his experience and vast culture, Campbell provided elements of reflexion for a man in the process of self exploration. By doing this, he gave Lucas the "materials" for personal reconstruction. At the late stage of his live, he was publically delighted that a part of his work was able to help Lucas "to define his own truth". This one returned to the subject in one of his latest interviews in May 1999.

When I started out making the movies, I was working toward making it modern mythology. I had studied anthropology in college, and social sciences was my major before I got into film. So, I'd taken a class in mythology and read some of his stuff there. I did more research before I wrote the screenplay for Star Wars. I read and reread Heroes of a Thousand Faces and a few other things he did. That was the extent of the influence he had on me. Later, after I did Jedi, someone gave me a tape of one of his lectures, and I was just blown away by it. He was much more powerful as a speaker than he was as a writer. Shortly thereafter, we became friends. I met him, and we were friends for a period until his death. In that time, he was a mentor. He was an amazing scholar and an amazing person, and I was privileged to be around him. That was later on, in my so-called "hiatus period." 2

It is easy to guess that across this friendship and mutual respect, the affinity between the two men had been more than a simple working relationship relative to scripts

II. The "campbellian" pattern of analysis

Relying on this evidence that G.Lucas had read and appreciated The heros with thousand Faces, a number of authors have seen and re-read the Trilogy applying to it Campbell's pattern of analysis. It is this wich still serves as the theme of the exhibition wich is at present being held in the Smithsonian Institute in the U.S.A. The website allows the exhibition to be seen virtually "from chapter to chapter", so to speak. The work of Mary Henderson, Star Wars, the Magic of Myth, adopts the same theme. Throughout the media and notably on the Internet, the same reference is established. It is in this way that the commonplaces are created.

III. A myth in the "Cambellian" sense

The work of Lucas is not a simple application of the "campbellian" patterns, reproduction of archetypes, or "recipes" for success. If it were, it would be to put it in the same category as Pocahontas or the Lion King (for Hollywood and Disney used and abused the campbellian inspiration.3)
If the "Star Wars" film had and still have such resonance, it is because they are much more than that: they are bearers of an intrinsic truth, the experience and the intuitive recognition of the reality of initiation rite. Films of fiction do not less assert a conviction, and it is the force of this conviction wich is transferred to the public, to enthuse and to stir the emotions.
Whereas the aim of mythology, reminds Campbell, is precisely to teach us how to "go out" of oneself, to circumvent the situation wich has no way out, by giving us examples which are as much as the elements of response. It teaches us to live, and in this sense, it is more than ever necessary in a society wich has lost its religious and social reference points. Star Wars is, in fact, a "working" myth, a myth wich functions as such. This is the first and most fundamental link between the works of Lucas and Campbell4.



Comments? I'll be happy to read you!


Map of the site Articles' summary