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Star Wars and History: Joseph Campbell and the Urban Myth with a Thousand Faces

January 19, 2016

~ This is the third of a six-post series called Star Wars and History. (See below for the six posts’ titles.) ~

Hercules_&_the_old_man_of_the_sea_(Walter_Crane,_1910)

Hercules, mythic hero par excellence

In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, mythologist Joseph Campbell argues that the same basic stories and themes appear in all the world’s myths. It’s widely believed that George Lucas built Star Wars around these “monomyth” elements from Campbell. For instance, Campbell says the hero in any myth at first refuses “the call to adventure” but then relents — just as Luke Skywalker refuses Obi-Wan’s invitation to Alderaan but later agrees to join the quest (after finding his aunt and uncle slaughtered). Campbell’s hero also finds a wise mentor — Obi-Wan or Yoda, for Luke — as well as an animal familiar — presumably R2D2. And the myth hero confronts a father figure and must reach atonement with him. Luke, of course, fights Darth Vader, his father, but they reconcile as Vader lies dying, in Return of the Jedi.

Those are just a few of the Campbell myth elements in Star Wars. Go online and search “campbell lucas star wars,” and you’ll find many more — several that never crossed George Lucas’ mind, I suspect.

If Lucas did use Campbell’s themes in Star Wars, he apparently wasn’t following an entirely reliable guide to the past. Many historians and mythologists question Campbell’s scholarship, and they don’t consider his myth elements all that universal. It’s a shame, really, since Campbell tells such a great story.

But the fact that Campbell’s themes might not be universal doesn’t mean they have no connection to real myth. So it’s likely The Hero with a Thousand Faces did help Star Wars resonate with all of us, by contributing mythic themes. There’s no doubt that Star Wars tells mythic stories, as we’ll see in this series’ next two posts …

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If you like fantasy + history, you’ll love my book, The Jericho River, A Novel About the History of Western Civilization!

Below are the six posts in this series, Star Wars and History:
1. Roman Republic and Empire
2. Fall of the Knights Templar
3. Joseph Campbell and the Urban Myth with a Thousand Faces (above)
4. Father vs. Son in Myth
5. Divine Conception in Myth

6. Samurai and Nazis

See also, Why Sounds Yoda So Archaic?

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Image: Crane, Hercules & the Old Man of the Sea, 1910

© 2016 by David W. Tollen. All rights reserved.

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