Star Wars & Thousand-Faced Heroes

John Boyega in "The Force Awakens"

John Boyega in “The Force Awakens”


If you have children, you probably know that today is the release of the new Star Wars movie. To mark the moment, here’s a poem by Katy Giebenhain that appeared recently in The Glasgow Review.

Surrounded by Star Wars action figures as she is falling asleep, the poet thinks of some of the limitations of Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Campbell was a major influence on George Lucas, who says that he probably couldn’t have finished the script without the aid of the myth anthropologist:

Falling Asleep in a 300 Year-old Industrial Cottage in Derbyshire Surrounded by Star Wars Action Figures

By Katy Giebenhain

Did you know a Storm Trooper Red Eye
has higher mechanical skills
than battle skills?
Did you know an Imperial Storm Trooper
has higher leadership skills
than intelligence?
Flanked by shelves of Jedi
a weekend houseguest
channels Joseph Campbell, says
out loud, in the snug dark
What about the Non-Hero’s journey?
Alongside the call to adventure
are the other calls.
And someone appears at the right time.
The enemy with a thousand faces.
The mentor with a thousand faces.
The waitress with a thousand faces.
The Hero doesn’t get
through anything alone.

All creators worth their salt know this.

Campbell claims that “the journey of the hero” is a monomyth that shows up in all cultures (thus “the hero with a thousand faces”). In the story, the solitary protagonist receives a call that launches him or her (generally him) upon an adventure. The hero must overcome a series of obstacles in order to obtain the “elixir” that will save civilization. Giebenhain’s insight, a version of which I encountered recently in a Salon article, is that the hero is never as solitary as he or she seems. Others in the story, while vital participants in the journey, don’t receive hero credit.

The poem points to two problems with the monomyth. If even the bucket-headed storm troopers have individual skills, then peripheral characters can’t be lumped into a single, undifferentiated mass. On the other hand, overemphasis on the hero gives us a distorted view of the journey. It’s like how the sun erases all the stars in the sky. Giebenhain restores individuality where it has been overlooked while complicating the heroic journey.

In his Salon article, John Higgs makes this second point. Campbell’s monomyth, he says, is an indication of how the 20th century (and, I would add, the 19th century) elevated the individual above the collective. Increasingly, however, we are beginning to see multiple heroes. Individual protagonists are becoming a thing of the past:

[I]n the early twenty-first century, there are signs that this magic formula may be waning. The truly absorbing and successful narratives of our age are moving beyond the limited, individual perspective of The Hero’s Journey. Critically applauded series like The Wire and mainstream commercial hit series such as Game of Thrones are loved for the complexity of their politics and group relationships. These are stories told not from the point of view of one person, but from many interrelated perspectives, and the relationships between a complex network of different characters can engage us more than the story of a single man being brave.

In the twenty-first century audiences are drawn to complicated, lengthy engagements with characters, from their own long-term avatar in World of Warcraft and other online game worlds to characters like Doctor Who who have a fifty-years-plus history. The superhero films in the “Marvel Cinematic Universe” are all connected, because Marvel understands that the sum is greater than the parts.

Higgs makes the nice point that even Bilbo, who fits Campbell’s template, must share the stage with others when The Hobbit is made into a series of films.

A simple Hero’s Journey story such as J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit becomes, when adapted for a twenty-first-century cinema audience, a lengthy trilogy of films far more complex than the original book. We now seem to look for stories of greater complexity than can be offered by a single perspective.

Higgs would agree with Giebenhain that “all creators worth their salt know this.”

Added note: Slate also has a fine article on the original Star Wars, which Forrest Wickman calls “the epitome of a postmodernist film.” The article lays out the collaboration between Campbell and Lucas and shows how it follows the model:

“About the time I was doing the third draft I read The Hero With a Thousand Faces,” [Lucas] later said, “and I started to realize I was following those rules unconsciously. So I said, I’ll make it fit more into that classic mold.” He became convinced that “There’s a whole generation growing up without any kind of fairy tales,” he said, “and kids need fairy tales.” So he strove to make Star Wars follow each of the steps of “the hero’s journey” as laid out by Campbell: “The call to adventure” (R2-D2 shows Luke Princess Leia’s plea for help); “the refusal of the call” (Luke thinks he should stay home with his family); “supernatural aid” (the Jedi Obi-Wan); “crossing the threshold” (Luke escapes Tatooine); “the belly of the whale” (the trash compactor inside the Death Star); “the meeting with the goddess” (Leia); and so on.

Here’s Wickman describing how the first Star Wars is postmodern:

Star Wars is a WesternStar Wars is a samurai movieStar Wars is a space operaStar Wars is a war filmStar Wars is a fairy tale.

A Jedi craves not such narrow interpretations. In fact, Star Wars­­­—the original 1977 film that started it all—is all these things. It’s a pastiche, as mashed-up and hyper-referential as any movie from Quentin Tarantino. It takes the blasters of Flash Gordon and puts them in the low-slung holsters of John Ford’s gunslingers. It takes Kurosawa’s samurai masters and sends them to Rick’s Café Américain from Casablanca. It takes the plot of The Hidden Fortress, pours it into Joseph Campbell’s mythological mold, and tops it all off with the climax from The Dam Busters. Blending the high with the low, all while wearing its influences on its sleeve, Star Wars is pretty much the epitome of a postmodernist film.

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