I was a freshman in college when I took my new girlfriend, (now married for over 30 yrs.) to see George Lucas’ 1977 film “Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope.” This movie literally blew our minds!!! Audiences were not used to the great special effects this film introduced to the world! Even more compelling for me was the story. The movie had a visceral magnetism that took hold of me. It was only years later when I found out why that was, and the answer that I found is going to be the basis for my review. Let me first say that I love finding out about the “back story” of the great works of artists, the answer I found to this work of art filled me with joy and a sense of satisfaction beyond my dreams!!!
I saw a several part series on PBS moderated by Bill Moyers talking to George Lucas about the inspiration for his “Star Wars” story. Lucas gave most of the inspirational credit to a book he read by one of the world’s preeminent scholars on religion and myth, Joseph Campbell; his book is “A Hero With A Thousand Faces.” I gained a whole new perspective on religion after reading this book and understood why it was so compelling to Lucas. What Campbell was able to ascertain by studying religion and myth is that in every culture there is a foundational “monomyth” describing a “hero’s” journey that is at the center of every culture’s belief system. I am going to describe the “monomyth” cycle within the “Star Wars” movie to make the point.
Campbell discovered through extensive research that humankind shares a universal monomyth in its various religions and legends especially pertaining to the creation of the world and humankind. Campbell borrowed the term monomyth from James Joyce’s book Finnegan’s Wake. Campbell’s intuitive insight in human myth proves that for thousands of years these myths display a certain standard structure, which he summarizes beautifully in his book.
"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" (Campbell 30).
There are at least four major stages that a monomyth has however, in his book, Campbell goes on to describe seventeen stages that some monomyth's posses. The four stages making up the cycle of a monomyth are “passage: separation-initiation-return:” In the first stage, known as the passage stage, the hero is summoned to journey or embark on an adventure by some kind of event that takes place or from a message, he receives. The hero may embark on this passage willingly or reluctantly. For instance, in the movie, the young Lukeskywalker returning to his farm from performing some errands finds his aunt and uncle killed by shock troops of the Empire. He had been itching to leave the farm to go to the flight academy, so faced with this tragedy he finally has a reason to leave the farm, to start his “journey.”
Campbell says that during the second stage, the separation stage, the hero meets with a mentor or wise man who gives the hero either an amulet or some words of wisdom to be of help to the hero on the adventure. In the movie this is where Luke meets with former Jedi Knight Obi-Wan Kenobi who gives him a light saber and starts to teach him the ways of the “force.”
During the third stage, the initiation stage, the hero goes through several trials or tests. The hero will go through his first transformation, also known as “crossing the first threshold,” as he crosses over to another world or dimension leaving behind the old world. The hero often receives help in these ordeals along the way by allies or from a supernatural force. In this case Luke is helped by Han Solo and Princess Leia on his quest to fight against the Empire’s dark force Darth Vader.
As the hero completes these ordeals successfully, he proves himself more worthy to continue the adventure. Most importantly, during this stage the hero must pass through a major ordeal that will expand his consciousness, and thereby change his character forever. Often, this ordeal entails the death of an ally or enemy.
This is where Luke’s mentor Obi-Wan Kenobi meets his death at the hand of Darth Vader, which enrages Luke and will eventually cause him to fight Vader in a duel with light sabers.
In the fourth stage, once the hero successful accomplishes his ordeal he is rewarded with a gift, it could be intrinsic like the “holy grail, or it can be new found knowledge to better the world with. This last stage the hero travels is that of the return whence he came. Often the hero will undergo further trials on his return before he is permitted to cross the threshold back to the world he left. During his return journey, the hero will use his newfound wisdom or gift to make a safe return home. Once home the gift is used to cure some ill in the hero's home or to impart new wisdom to his neighbors.
In the case of Luke he will continue with the help of other mentors like Yoda, to become a Jedi master, completing his last stage wherein he receives “enlightenment” the gift that he can bestow on his world.
Campbell points to the significance of the monomyth in the fact that it describes the cycle that Moses, Jesus, Buddha, and the Mahavira had gone through according to their religious adherents. This is not to mention the hundreds of other monomyths told throughout human history. The monomyth proves that humankind shares a common creation DNA in a sense. No wonder Campbell’s monomyth was the perfect vehicle for Lucas’ “Star Wars” story!!!
I hope you enjoyed the journey!!!
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