Star Wars Star Wars As a Mythology Fifteen years ago, I set out to make a movie for a generation without fairy tales. -George Lucas There exists in every culture a series of folk tales and stories, which make up a part of that culture’s history. These stories, called myths, often venture into the magical and fantastic, with great heroes battling terrible monsters to save exotic lands. As the human race has evolved, we have moved beyond the need to attribute unexplained events to supernatural workings beyond our ken. As a result, modern culture puts its faith in science and organised religion, and for centuries there have been no new myths. In the nineteen-seventies, a young and enthusiastic film maker/director put his imagination and heart into changing that. George Lucas’s now legendary Trilogy of movies and books, Star Wars, is the result.
To the casual observer, the movies are only exciting science fiction stories, but a closer look reveals nothing short of a complete mythology within. George Lucas collaborated with Joseph Campbell on the making of the first movie of the Trilogy, A New Hope (A New Hope is more commonly known as Star Wars, but to be accurate, Star Wars will be used when discussing the entire Trilogy and A New Hope will be used when discussing the first movie only.) Before he died, Campbell was widely accepted as the foremost authority on myths and mythologies in the world. Campbell strongly believed that every culture’s myths and legends were strikingly similar, even identical, to those of every other culture. His The Hero With A Thousand Faces compares the trials and traits of heroes from all legends. Lucas incorporated Campbell’s model of the Hero in developing Luke Skywalker as the Hero in A New Hope.
The plot line of A New Hope is very similar to that of many mythologies. In order to better understand how Luke evolves as a Hero, it is necessary to examine the early events of the film and note how these key events are typical of other myths. A New Hope takes place in a typical science-fiction galaxy. There exist many planets and races of intelligent life. The galaxy’s government has recently been thrown into turmoil by the emergence of the evil Emperor and his Empire.
The Empire is the typical tyrant of mythological stories. In Greek legend, the creation of the universe proceeded smoothly until Cronos, father of the gods, decided he wanted supreme power. He took over and ruled ruthlessly, and it was up to Zeus and his divine siblings to overthrow him and restore peace. In A New Hope the Rebel Alliance takes the place of the gods. As in many myths, the Rebellion is young and hopelessly outnumbered.
Campbell wrote that the Hero is almost always a youth and weak relative to his enemies. The Rebellion has just won its first victory by stealing classified information from the Empire and smuggling it to Princess Leia, a high ranking Alliance member. Princess Leia is on her way to deliver the information to Obi-Wan Kenobi, a former general. It is the Alliance’s hope that Kenobi can safely get the information to the Rebel base. Obi-Wan lives on Tatooine, a desert planet on the outskirts of the galaxy which happens to be home to a young Luke Skywalker.
Luke knows Obi-Wan as Ben, and believes he is only an old hermit. This element is also present in Greek mythology. Cronos swallowed all of his children to ensure that they could not overthrow him. His wife hid his last son and gave Cronos a rock to swallow instead. The youngest son, Zeus, was sent away to live in a remote mountain valley until he grew old enough to challenge his father.
Tatooine corresponds to Zeus’s valley as the distant sanctuary for the growing Hero. On the way to Tatooine, Leia’s ship is intercepted and boarded by one of the Empire’s ships. In desperation she sends the information, stored in a droid named Artoo-Detoo, to the planet’s surface. Artoo-Detoo and his companion, an interpreter droid named See-Threepio, meet and are bought by Luke’s uncle. Thus, Luke enters the story. An introduction of some of the story’s key characters will also help in analyzing the Hero Cycle.
Luke Skywalker will become the Hero. He is nineteen years old and works as a farmhand on his uncle’s moisture farm. He is bored with his life and wishes to submit his application to the Starfighter Academy. Luke’s dream is to be a starfighter and go on grand, epic adventures. Another classic element of mythology is this yearning. Campbell thought that one of the basic prerequisites of the Hero-to-be is the desire to become something great.
Han Solo is another key figure. Han is a smuggler, and earns his living shipping cargo for unscrupulous characters. He has incurred the wrath of several crime lords, and is currently looking for easy money to pay his debts. Han joins the adventure in Mos Eisley spaceport on Tatooine and becomes Luke’s closest friend. As the plot progresses, Han along with Ben plays the role of Luke’s tutor.
He represents physical discipline and proficiency in combat. It is Han’s job to instruct Luke as a warrior. Ben Kenobi is Han’s spiritual counterpart. Ben lives as a hermit on Tatooine and is regarded by the citizens as a crazy old man. He was a general in the Clone Wars long ago, and was close friends with Princess Leia’s father.
It is for this reason Leia seeks him out. Ben is also a Jedi Knight. The Jedi were the protectors of the galaxy during the reign of the Old Republic but have become extinct, exterminated by the Empire. Ben is the only Jedi remaining. It is his role to instruct Luke in the Force, the Jedi’s source of power. Ben represents mental control and self-discipline.
He is Han’s complement in Luke’s teaching. A New Hope’s version of the classic damsel in distress is Princess Leia. She is a senator in the Republic and one of the Rebel Alliance’s key members. Leia is captured by Darth Vader and taken to the Death Star, a mobile space station and the Empire’s newest and most powerful weapon. There she is interrogated and, after giving up no useful information, is scheduled to be executed.
It is into this situation Luke and his friends enter, and it is Luke’s goal to rescue her. Here George Lucas reflected the modern view of the role of women. Instead of designing Leia as a meek, subservient woman, he has her take control and join Luke and Han as an equal. In the Trilogy, she is developed into a full-blown character. Despite her haughtiness, both Luke and Han become enamored with her. This creates something of a love triangle between the three, but, as in most fairy tales, the heroes work through it (actually, Lucas didn’t elaborate on it much.) The two most amusing characters in the movie are See-Threepio and Artoo- Detoo.
They are both droids, artificial life forms with intelligence. Artoo is an astromech droid. These types of droids are used for navigation and are frequently placed into starfighters as an engine enhancement. Artoo is placed into Luke’s starfighter later in the movie, and this gives the two the chance to develop a master-pet relationship. See-Threepio is an interpreter droid, working in human-cyborg relations as he is fond of saying.
See-Threepio is the closest thing A New Hope has to a narrator. Most of the comic relief and release of tension in the story occur as a result of the interplay between Artoo and See-Threepio. Their role in the mythological aspect of A New Hope is that of the faithful companions of the Hero. These companions serve him because they know no better or have nothing else to do or, as in the case of the two droids, because they are programmed to. The last remaining key character in A New Hope is Darth Vader. Vader is the villain, evil, sinister, and powerful.
He is dressed all in black and is half mechanical, giving his voice a deep, metallic sound which is quite intimidating. Vader plays the role of the Dark Knight in mythology. He is the being of unstoppable power and evil which plagues the land. Old Celtic legends hold that there once was a mystical island named Eire, which is Ireland today. Eire was peaceful and idyllic until the coming of Balor of the Evil Eye and his minions. Balor was a huge, one-eyed Fomorian (Irish giant). He brought hundreds of his Fomorian followers and settled in Eire, enslaving the populace and ravaging the land.
After many years, a band of heroes killed Balor and restored peace to the land. These heroes became the Celtic gods, and included Manannan Mac Lir, Lugh, and Dagda, all prominent Irish deities. Darth Vader is the Balor of A New Hope. Vader is extremely powerful and the best starfighter in the galaxy. Although he tortures Princess Leia and pursues the heroes throughout the story, he never directly threatens them.
The fact that Luke never faces him is the concession of his power; Luke, even with his newfound Hero powers, cannot hope to match him. Even at the end of the story, Vader doesn’t die; he escapes into space. Campbell’s model of the Hero involves what he called the Hero Cycle, or Adventure of The Hero. The cycle is circular, with steps along it which the Hero takes on his journey. The circle is split into two semicircles, with a line splitting the circle called the Threshold of Adventure. Those events which occur in the place where the Hero grows up and lives, called the Homeland, lie above the Threshold of Adventure.
Those which occur in the realm of the fantastic and supernatural, called the Land of Enchantment, lie below the Threshold. The steps of the Cycle are, in order: the Call to Adventure, the Helper, the Threshold, the Tests, the Supreme Ordeal, the Flight, the Return from the Threshold, and the Elixir. The crucial part of the plot of A New Hope, as in any folk tale’s, is the development and evolution of the Hero through the Hero Cycle. The first part of the Cycle is the Call to Adventure. Here, the hero discovers that there is something beyond his normal, everyday existence.
Many Irish and Celtic folk tales begin with the hero riding in a forest and discovering a ring of small standing stones with a luminescent rock in the center. The hero enters a doorway in the rock and is transported to a land of faeries and magic. In A New Hope, Luke chases a runaway Artoo- Detoo into the desert which makes up the vast majority of Tatooine, and is ambushed and knocked unconscious by a group of desert scavengers. Luke is saved from certain death by Ben Kenobi, a mysterious hermit. Ben takes him to the cave where he lives and tells him of his heritage as the son of a Jedi Knight.
This is his entrance into the faery rock. Sometimes the Hero refuses the Call to Adventure. In his cave, Ben asks Luke to accompany him off-world and join the Rebellion. Luke declines and decides to stay. Campbell said that this refusal, although seemingly against the Hero’s wish to accomplish legendary deeds, is present in every Hero, representing his desire to lead a normal life. Luke feels that he should stay and help his uncle despite his adventurous nature (Reference A New Hope, 4342–4513). Meanwhile, the Empire’s soldiers, which have been searching for See-Threepio and Artoo- Detoo, track the droids to Luke’s uncle’s farm and kill his aunt and uncle. Upon returning, Luke realizes that there is no reason for him to stay (Reference ANH, 4724–4914 and 5000–5946), and agrees to accompany Ben to return the stolen data and join the Rebellion. Campbell repeatedly emphasized the importance of the revenge factor in the Hero’s evolution.
The Hero’s most common Call to Adventure is the response to some action taken against him. The brutal killing of Luke’s family is what makes him change his mind and answer his Call to Adventure. He leaves his previous mundane existence and enters the realm of enchantment and danger. The next step in the Hero Cycle is the introduction of the Helper. The Helper is a character who aids the hero’s first faltering steps into the Land of Enchantment. This character is often a supernatural, mysterious entity who instructs the hero and equips him for the trials ahead.
When Perseus set off to slay Medusa, he was told to seek out advice and aid from the gods. Medusa was the only mortal sister of three Gorgons, and was so hideous in appearance that any who glanced at her would immediately turn to stone. Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom and honorable warfare, lent Perseus Aegis, her brass shield. She told him to look into the shield and fight Medusa while viewing her reflection. Hermes, the god of thievery and trickery, gave Perseus a magic sack and a pair of magical sandals.
The sack would grow large enough to contain anything put in it, and was to be used to hold Medusa’s head should Perseus prove successful. The sandals would enable Perseus to fly and bestow upon him superhuman speed so he could escape the wrath of Medusa’s sisters. Thus armed, Perseus was ready to engage his foe. Ben Kenobi and Han Solo play the roles of the helpers in A New Hope. Ben instructs Luke in the ways of the Force, the Star Wars equivalent of magic.
He gives Luke a lightsaber, the weapon of a Jedi Knight. This enables Luke to compete with the enemies he will face in his adventure. Han Solo is Luke’s friend and companion. He doesn’t give Luke anything tangible, but serves as the guide from the Homeland to the Land of Enchantment. His ship, the Millennium Falcon, is the physical mode of transportation between Tatooine and elsewhere.
The physical transportation to adventure is easily seen in Greek mythology. Several Greek legends take place in Hades, Greece’s version of Hell. In order to cross over into Hades, the traveler must cross the River Styx. This river flowed with poisonous, acidic water and killed all who came into contact with it. The only way to cross this barrier was to pay Charon, the boatman of Hades. Charon would ferry the souls of the dead or those heroes brave enough to enter Hades for a price. The dead had only to pay a single silver coin, which they were buried with.
Charon refused to ferry living beings across without an extravagant form of payment or persuasion, however. Han Solo’s price for taking Luke and Ben to Alderaan, their destination before it was destroyed, was ten thousand credits. Luke balked at the price, as Ben and he didn’t have that much money, but Ben offered to pay Han a small amount now, plus much more upon arrival at their destination. Han agreed, and they were on their way (Reference ANH, 5539–5709). Han also defends the passengers throughout the voyage to Alderaan and ultimately the Death Star, providing Luke with his first taste of combat.
Immediately upon leaving Tatooine, Han pulls some fancy maneuvers to evade two Imperial Star Destroyers, huge ships which would have easily destroyed the Millennium Falcon. Han’s role as defender is the same as that of the Argonauts as they accompanied Jason to Colchis in the Greek legend of the Golden Fleece. Jason had a huge ship built to fetch the prize which would restore him to the throne of his country. He invited the greatest heroes from Greece to accompany him, and they defended and aided him on his journey to Colchis. The peril the Argonauts faced which is most similar to the Star Destroyers in A New Hope is the Clashing Rocks of the Symplegades. In order to pass, the Argonauts had to follow a specific procedure, and succeeded with only the stern of the ship being crushed.
Han is able to save the heroes with only superficial damage to his ship. A necessary part of the Hero’s journey is the actual, physical transport out of his previous life. There is a gate or Threshold which the Helper from step two aids the hero to cross, and on the other side of the Threshold lies the Land of Enchantment. In Norse mythology, there existed a rainbow bridge which spanned the gap between Midgard, the land of men, and Asgard, the home of the Gods. This bridge, named Heimdall, was one such Threshold.
The Threshold in A New Hope is the spaceport of Mos Eisley. It is an extremely dangerous place, as Ben warns Luke. Luke responds arrogantly, as the naive Hero-to-be often does. (Reference ANH, 5047–5106 and 5217–5230) Mos Eisley is where Luke sells his landspeeder, a representation of his former life, and enlists Han Solo’s aid. The Threshold contains a guardian of some sort which must be passed. This guardian dwells within the Threshold, and is usually a creature or living enemy.
Heimdall was guarded by a god of the same name whose sole purpose was to prevent the crossing of the bridge by mortals. Luke’s first encounter with such a danger occurs while Ben and he are attempting to enter the spaceport. They enter the city with See-Threepio and Artoo–Detoo, and are stopped by a group of stormtroopers. The stormtroopers, which are the Empire’s standard soldiers, are searching for the droids, and begin to question Luke about his ownership of them. Ben uses the Force to exert mind control over them, and convinces them to allow Luke and him to pass. This is Luke’s first taste of the magical power which he himself will come to possess.
Another significant encounter takes place in the Cantina, Mos Eisley’s combination bar/information center. While talking to Chewbacca, first mate aboard the Millennium Falcon, about securing passage, Luke is left alone for a brief time. He is bullied by Ponda Baba, a walrus-headed monster. Ben attempts to calm the situation by offering him a drink, but Ponda Baba’s friend, a humanoid mercenary who has the death sentence in twelve systems, attacks him. Ben slices off Ponda Baba’s arm with his lightsaber and ends the conflict.
Here Luke first witnesses Ben’s power in combat. According to Campbell, this is characteristic of the Threshold. In addition to being the gate to the Realm of Adventure, it offers the Hero his first glimpse into a bigger world. The Hero exits the Threshold eager for more excitement and mentally more able to accept the wonders he will face. After leaving his Homeland, the Hero finds himself faced with many challenges along the path to adventure.
After overcoming these challenges, the Hero is then presented with a final difficult task and finally the prize. In one Germanic/Norse myth, the hero, a mighty warrior named Siegfried, seeks to win the hand of Brunhilde in marriage. Brunhilde has been asleep many years atop a mountain, placed there by her father Odin as a punishment. Siegfried sets out and must fight many monsters and face myriad obstacles to reach the mountain. Once there, he is faced with Odin disguised as an old man.
Siegfried passes by Odin by breaking Odin’s staff–representative of disarming him. Upon climbing the mountain, he is faced with a curtain of magical fire which circles the sleeping Brunhilde. The only way anyone can pass through the flame is to plunge immediately into it without hesitation, and Siegfried does so, making his way to his bride. Luke faces obstacles from the start, but unlike Siegfried, he is unable to cope with all of them by himself. He is aided by helpers as described above.
After facing the obstacles, the Hero enters the Land of Enchantment. In A New Hope, Luke enters the Death Star and attempts to rescue Princess Leia. The Death Star is Luke’s Land of Enchantment, where he faces most of his personal challenges. Here there is a minor discrepancy between the hero cycle in A New Hope and that in most other mythologies. In nearly every folk tale or legend, the obtaining of the prize is preceded by the Supreme Ordeal, a task of seemingly impossible difficulty.
Siegfried’s Supreme Ordeal was the fiery curtain. Perseus had to kill a monster he couldn’t look at. The Hero’s Supreme Ordeal was the biggest, most impressive encounter he had to face, and was the highlight of his adventure. Luke’s rescue of Princess Leia was indeed spectacular and daring, as he an …