“A hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself.” Joseph Campbell
When he first began writing the Star Wars saga in the early 1970s, George Lucas already had a tremendous vision for the movies he wanted to create. Influenced strongly by serials like Flash Gordon, Lucas knew he wanted to produce a “soap opera in space” full of lasers, spaceships, aliens, yet true down-to-Earth human interactions as well. What he lacked though was a depth in the story.
That is when he turned to the most popular mythologist of the 20th century (if not all-time), Joseph Campbell. Joseph Campbell, born in 1904, had been studying and writing about mythology since the 1920s, and taught on the same subject until his death in 1987. He first fell in love with the symbolism of Native American mythology, but would later delve into many of the world’s ancient myths, especially that of Greek mythology. Campbell would also become enamored with the story of Buddha’s enlightenment, a source for a plethora of his writings.
Possibly the most famous book ever written by Campbell was The Hero with a Thousand Faces, first published in 1949. It was from this book that George Lucas gained his true inspiration for Star Wars. One could argue this work acted as a muse for Lucas, and this is evident when Campbell once said that the filmmaker was “his finest student.”
The most popular theme from this book was “the hero’s journey,” and when watching Star Wars, it is easy to see Luke Skywalker transform through this process. In the hero’s journey, an unlikely hero begins his or her life as an ordinary individual — someone whose finest joy is going to the Tosche Station to pick up some power converters. Seemingly out of the blue, they receive a call to adventure — a feisty little less-than-honest droid who is carrying a message from a beautiful woman saying “help me!”
Two of most important elements of the hero’s journey are meeting a mentor, and refusing the call to adventure. Many mythological stories feature a wise hermit (“Hello there!”) who sometimes even comes bearing gifts — Excalibur, a lightsaber, etc. This mentor, this teacher, will show the hero that there is something larger in this world than their own existence, such as the Force. Overwhelmed, the would-be hero will often refuse the mentor’s suggestion to step into the larger world, saying “I have to stay here.” Something however, such as gazing at your crispy aunt and uncle, will make the hero cross the threshold and truly begin the heroic adventure.
From there the hero will make friends and allies to help him or her on the journey. They can come in many forms such as scoundrels, Wookiees, and even droids. One may even find a “damsel in distress,” who is hardly in distress, and would probably slap you if you called her a damsel. Together the group will go through numerous trials all while collectively and individually develop into higher beings.
The hero will then usually find themselves in a foreboding cave — sometimes this is also called “the belly of the whale.” This cave can take many forms, including a large trash compactor that is home to a not-so-friendly Dianoga. From this cave the hero will shed their old skin and emerge more confident and focused.
The pinnacle of the hero’s journey happens when the protagonist must apply everything he or she has learned and overcome a great ordeal. In Star Wars, this obviously happens when Luke Skywalker takes his X-Wing into the Death Star trench in an attempt to blow up the space station (with a special shoutout to Galen and Jyn Erso). Whereas other flying aces relied on technology to try and make the kill shot, Luke instead turned off his targeting computer and used the Force to make the shot. And boom goes the dynamite, or, in this case, the Death Star.
At the end of the journey the hero will earn a reward (unless your name is Chewbacca) and return home. The reward will come in different forms, but will usually mean a higher state of being, a state of enlightenment. Rarely do truly mythological heroes triumph in order to gain physical rewards.
There are some key things to remember about the hero’s journey. First, generally a hero does not go through this process just once. Luke can be seen going through this in every movie of the original trilogy. Second, sometimes these journeys can be part of an even larger adventure, as is the case with Anakin Skywalker. His particular story spans all six movies, and he does not receive redemption until the last ten minutes of Return of the Jedi. Lastly, the hero’s journey can happen in anybody’s life. If you watch closely, you can even see Han Solo go through his own journey who some find even more interesting than Luke’s.
With all that being said, I encourage you to study the works of Joseph Campbell (jcf.org) and apply this theme to all characters in the Star Wars universe. Jyn Erso and Rey (Skywalker? Solo? Kenobi?) are powerful female characters who go through their own unique journeys. But most importantly, I encourage you to apply the hero’s journey to your own life. Yes, every single one of us has the potential and the capacity to be a hero — just look at the work of the 501st Legion. Where are you in your personal journey? Many of us have received the call but have spent years refusing it. I strongly suggest you take the first steps into a larger world — you never know what’s waiting for you out there.