Monday, July 25, 2005

The Mythology of Star Wars

Bernadette and I saw Star Wars Episode III over the weekend. I finally get it! For years I wondered why the great mythologist Joseph Campbell was so enamored with Star Wars. Now I understand.

Campbell, now dead, was friends with George Lucas and often spent time at Lucas' Skywalker Ranch. Campbell spent his lifetime studying the similarities between human cultures and was responsible for identifying many of them for the first time. His book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, for example, notes that hero myths follow a similar pattern around the world. A hero (any hero) starts off easy, goes into the underworld where things are tough and comes out the other side transcendent. That is, the basis for a good story anywhere is pretty much the same! Christopher Vogler even used this phenonenon in his guidebook for writers, The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers. Star Wars clearly has this aspect in its first three stories (Episodes IV-VI).

Campbell's wonderful four-volume study of worldwide mythology, The Masks of God, culminates in his theory that post-modern humans (that's us, folks) are making our own mythologies. This is described in Creative Mythology : The Masks of God, Volume IV. He has cited Star Wars as an example of this phenonenon.

The part of Star Wars that confused me was how the hero motif fit in relation to the latter episodes (I - III). Darth Vader is really the bad guy and very much anti-heroic. Even though he had his moment in the dying gasp of Episode VI, it just didn't seem to work for me. Then I re-read Campbell's take on Judaism's great memetic leap, the concept of the Chosen People. Campbell notes that the myth of Moses, which has no historical or archeological basis (and not for want of looking!) is really a hero myth with a twist; the Jewish Partriarches go "down into Egypt" and the transendent hero which emerges on the other side is not them, but the people as a whole. The authors, as Campbell said, understood exactly what they were doing. I think Lucas did the same thing.

Star Wars, for all the rational criticisms levied against it (compare to rational criticisms levied against the Bible or the Koran), makes perfect sense as a hero myth with a twist. Episodes IV - VI are a classic hero myth, but incomplete. The completion (Episodes I - III) fill in the gaps and provide the twist: Star Wars is now a hero myth which takes two generations to complete. Anikin Skywalker goes down into the underworld and his son emerges transcendent. Campbell would have loved that!

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