Throughout history, from the Greek myths to Star Wars and beyond, there are common threads that run through a majority of humanity’s heroic tales. Regardless of the cultural context, time period, or which particular hero, there are certain elements that seem to always appear in these myths. Joseph Campbell, an American mythologist, calls this the “monomyth,” or the “hero’s journey.”
George Lucas’ Star Wars is steeped in myth. While writing Star Wars, Lucas became fascinated with Joseph Campbell’s book on myth and heroic archetypes The Hero with a Thousand Faces. While not necessarily the basis of his story, he was certainly influenced by his obsession with the monomyth. You can see elements of this theory throughout the saga, but especially in Luke’s journey from boyhood to Jedi-hood.
Traditionally, the hero’s journey has 17 individual stages, which we will look at in-depth a little bit further down. Not all hero’s necessarily experience all 17 stages during their journey, and oftentimes these stages appear in a different order depending on the story. These events, however, are relatively persistent throughout the history of human storytelling.
Below we will look at each stage of the hero’s journey and how we see this mythological journey play out in the Star Wars universe. Fair warning, this article is a bit longer than… well, than anything else we’ve put out. I tried to shorten it, but there isn’t really a spot to split this article into two parts.
- The Call to Adventure– The hero’s story typically begins in a relatively normal situation before receiving a call to head off into the unknown. In A New Hope we find Luke living the life of a typical moisture farmer. He dreams of bigger things, but is constantly needed by his Uncle Owen to help with the harvest. This normalcy comes to a halt when R2-D2 arrives on the Lars’ homestead intent on delivering a message to one Benjamin W. Kenobi. After a run in with a band of Tusken Raiders, we are introduced to Obi-Wan Kenobi, the hero’s mentor. R2-D2’s message serves as Luke’s call to adventure.
- Refusal of the Call– In most myths, the hero refuses to leave the normalcy of his/her day to day life, at least at first. This could be due to a sense of obligation, fear of the unknown, or a whole range of range of reasons. When Luke meets Kenobi, he is asked to join him on a quest to Alderaan to aid the fledgling rebellion. But Luke, worried about shirking his responsibility to his uncle and his moisture farm, tells Kenobi that he has no business going out on some galactic mission with an old hermit he just met.
- Supernatural Aid– After the hero has committed to the quest, either consciously or unconsciously, the mentor will present the hero with something that will help the hero during the quest. In A New Hope, Luke is presented with his father’s lightsaber (“An elegant weapon for a more civilized age.”), but this is not the only supernatural aid he receives. Kenobi also introduces him to the ways of the Force, which starts Luke on his journey to his “apotheosis.” Luke continues learning the ways of the Force throughout the saga.
- Crossing the Threshold– When the hero crosses the threshold and begin their quest, they leave their normal life behind and venture into the unknown. When Luke’s aunt and uncle are killed by the Empire he joins Kenobi on his journey. Their first stop is the wretched hive of scum and villainy which is the Mos Eisley Cantina where Luke is immediately threatened by Dr. Evazan and his cohort Ponda Baba. Evazan and Baba are one of many encounters Luke has with “Threshold Guardians,” whose primary function in myth is to be an asshole that stands in the way of the hero, which is even more appropriate when you consider Ponda Baba looks like he has an ass for a chin. Luke’s crossing the threshold of the cantina is a physical representation of him leaving his innocence behind and crossing over into the unknown.
- Belly of the Whale– The belly of the whale represents the final separation from the hero’s normal life. In this stage, the hero faces some sort of peril, and is showing a willingness to change. This particular stage can be applied to several different events throughout the original trilogy. Luke is always yearning to leave Tatooine behind, and when given the opportunity literally enters into the belly of the Falcon, leaving behind his previous life. Other examples include Luke and his cohorts getting pulled into the Death Star via tractor beam, the unfriendly meeting with the Dionaga in the trash compactor, and Luke’s descent into the mystical Tree Cave on Dagobah.
- The Road of Trials– The road of trials is exactly what it sounds like, a series of tests that the person must undergo to begin their transformation. This stage is probably one of the most common elements of the hero’s journey. We see this when Luke enters the Death Star to save Princess Leia; when he jumps on the Millennium Falcon’s quad-laser turret to battle incoming Tie Fighters; when Luke trains to become a Jedi on Dagobah, and later battles Vader on Cloud City. In Return of the Jedi, we see Luke face off against the Rancor beneath Jabba’s throne, and later face Vader and the Emperor. Luke passes a majority of these trials, but does have his share of failures such as his inability to defeat Vader in Empire Strikes Back, which costs him a hand.
- The Meeting with the Goddess– In this stage the hero experiences unconditional love. This is often represented by the hero finding the person that he/she loves most completely. This is point of some embarrassment for some Star Wars fans since the Goddess Luke meets and falls in love with is his sister Leia. This love remains unconditional when it is discovered that they are siblings, although it does develop into a familial love once their family ties are discovered.
- Woman as Temptress– The hero will often face temptations that cold cause him to stray from their quest. Luke is not tempted by an honest-to-God woman, instead he is tempted by the power of the Dark Side. This temptation is most prominent in the finale of Return of the Jedi when Vader threatens his sister. In a fit of rage, Luke relentlessly attacks Vader, and almost kills him, before finally rejecting the pull of the Dark Side.
- Atonement with the Father– This is the part of the journey when the hero must confront whatever holds the ultimate power in their life. In many myths this is the father, or a father figure, who has power over life and death. All of the previous events have been shepherding the hero to this place, and it will effect everything that is to follow. The Original Trilogy is about the maturation of Luke into a Hero, but the inclusion of the prequels re-frames the story, and shifts the focus to the fall and redemption of Anakin Skywalker, which is brought about by his son Luke. At the end of Return of the Jedi, Luke is able to call his father back from the Dark Side proving that despite all of his loss and anger, Vader still has the capacity to do what’s right.
- Apotheosis– This occurs when the hero either dies a physical death or dies to the self, the hero moves to a state of divine knowledge, love, and compassion. One could also look at it like a period of rest and fulfillment before the hero begin their return home. We can see Luke reach his apotheosis in A New Hope when he lets go of his reliance on technology and trusts completely in the Force, which allows him to destroy the Death Star. In Return of the Jedi, Luke reaches his ultimate apotheosis when he turns his back on the Dark Side, throws aside his lightsaber, and refuses to perpetuate the continuous circle of violence regardless of the consequences.
- The Ultimate Boon– The ultimate boon is when the hero obtains the object of their quest. The ultimate boon in Star Wars is the destruction of the tyrannical Galactic Empire so the galaxy can once again know peace. In A New Hope, this comes in the form of the destruction of the Death Star, and in Return of the Jedi it comes in the… well, the destruction of the Death Star with the added bonus of the literal fall of Emperor Sheev Palpatine.
- Refusal of the Return– Having found enlightenment in the other world, the hero may not want to return to the ordinary world to bestow the boon onto his fellow man. We don’t really see this in Star Wars. Although he’s very whiny, Luke is pretty selfless. This isn’t to say he hasn’t changed though. At the end of Return of the Jedi we find a much wiser, but more solemn, person than the wide-eyed farmboy we first met on Tatooine.
- The Magic Flight– Sometimes the hero must escape with his/her prize, and it can be just as dangerous as the journey itself. This occurs in all three films, but is seen most prominently in Return of the Jedi, when Luke must escape the second Death Star before its destruction.
- Rescue from Without– Just as the hero usually needs the help of friends as they set out on their quest, often they need someone to bring them back to everyday life. At the beginning of Return of the Jedi, we see a Luke Skywalker that appears to be toeing the line of the Dark Side. He dresses in all black, appears to Force-choke the Gamorrean guards in Jabba’s palace, and is relatively quick to violence throughout the movie. This reaches its peak when Luke channels his anger and hatred to defeat Vader on the second Death Star. There is a telling moment, when Luke is standing over the the defeated Vader and stares down at his own robotic hand. At this moment, Luke realizes just how close he’s come to the Dark Side and makes a conscious decision to turn away from that path. We could attribute this solely to Luke, but Luke has the love of friends, the teachings of his masters, and the belief that his father can still be saved, that there is still good in him, and this is what brings him back to the good.
- The Crossing of the Return Threshold– When the hero returns to everyday life, he/she must retain the wisdom gained on the quest,and figure out how to share this wisdom with the rest of the world. We don’t see this in the films per se, but it is implied that Luke, having become the last of the Jedi, must rebuild the Order thus sharing his newly found wisdom with the galaxy.
- Master of Two Worlds– In this step the hero achieves a balance between the material and the spiritual world, and the person becomes competent in both the inner and outer worlds. At the end of Return, it appears that Luke has turned away from his old life of simplicity and has taken on the mantel of wisdom and serenity. He has gone from ignorant farmboy, to Galactic hero, to the last of the Jedi Order.
- Freedom to Live– Mastery leads to freedom from the fear of death, which in turn is the freedom to live. This is sometimes referred to as living in the present moment, and not living in the past or future. Not to beat a dead Bantha, but again at the end of Return of the Jedi, when Luke casts aside his lightsaber and refuses to give in to the Dark Side, he is no longer concerned with death. He knows that by throwing away his weapon he most likely will not survive, but refuses to continue the destructive circle of violence by killing his father.
You can see that these stages of the Hero’s Journey occur multiple times throughout the films. Despite the obvious homages to Cambell’s theory, Lucas does include personal flourishes that give the story additional depth. For instance, one of the most iconic images in Star Wars is when Luke stares off into the twin sunset of Tatooine. This imagery conjures up a sense that nothing will ever be the same, that this might be Luke’s last moment of innocence. Additionally, the score by John Williams provides us with a sense of awe and urgency – that this journey is increasingly important.
Another key area where Lucas diverges from Cambell is that in Campbell’s idea of myth, the hero is the sole focus of the story and other characters are merely a means to an end. The side characters are just tools to help in the maturation and growth of the hero. Lucas, however, focuses on how the struggles faced by the hero are just as real to all of the other characters involved. The fate of the entire galaxy is at stake, and all of the characters are vital to the success of the hero’s mission. This idea can be seen in all of the movies, but especially in Return of the Jedi when the destruction of the second Death Star relies on Han and Leia leading a strike force to disable the shield generator, Luke to bring take on Vader and Sheev, and the entire Rebel Fleet to fight through overwhelming numbers to try to destroy the reactor core of the Death Star. In fact, it seems that all of the redemptive moments in the saga occur specifically through social relationships, and these in turn help the hero develop. In fact, the only true individualists we see in the saga are the Sith who use everyone as a means to their own end.
Most myths, including Star Wars, are fantasy, but this does not mean it is simply mindless entertainment. By relegating it to that status, we ignore the potential for learning and growth that myth provides. The Star Wars universe is alien to our own, but this allows us to view our cultures problems through the lens of our popular culture. This, in turn, encourages us to reflect on the moral issues presented through the fantasy setting, thus allowing us to think on these issue in a way we might not have been able to any other way.