Friday, 5 February 2016

A Hero's Journey is Born

 A Star (Wars) is Born 
Since the 1st installment of Star Wars was made back in 1977, George Lucas had given birth to the movie genre that based on the Hero's Journey narrative structure. Quite appropriately the birth took place in a hospital. After an accident, while Lucas recuperated in a hospital, he read Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949).

The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949)
First published 1949

In this his seminal work, Campbell described the mythic Hero's Journey of narrative structure, of how stories were being told for thousands of years throughout different cultures.

It was after reading Campbell's book that gave rise to the idea of Star Wars, and Lucas had credited Campbell for his influence as this youtube video shows.




 The Hero's Journey 
One can say that Homer's the Odyssey is the very 1st popular literature that was written in the hero's journey narrative structure (it's entirely true that many of Greek literature or stories in the Bible have their roots in Near East - today's Middle East - and one such example is The Epic of Gilgamesh).  In his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, for the first time, Campbell shed light on this narrative structure, and he used The Odyssey to illustrate this idea. It was the reading of this book that I learnt that why some classical works of literature have universal resonance.

Note the word "journey" in the title of The Odyssey. The title comes from the name of the story's hero Odysseus. But the word "Odyssey" has come to mean epic journey (for example, 2001: A Space Odyssey). It isn't hard to see that, the idea of journey plays an integral role or intertwines closely with the hero.

Hero's journey (monomyth), The Hero with a thousand faces
This schematic of the Hero's Journey comes from the copy of the book I own The Hero with a Thousand Faces.
Today, you can find far prettier diagram on the internet. Mr. Campbell was obviously not a diagram man, but an idea man.
(click to enlarge)

 The Brilliance of Star Wars 
Since Campbell used various ancient cultures and history to support and illustrate his theory of the monomyth or the basic Hero's Journey narrative structure. So it isn't surprising that when Lucas created his Star Wars universe, it made up of dimensions from different ancient cultures. Lucas's brilliance comes from combining the seeming contradictory elements of the ancients with the sci-fi, which had long been associated with the ultra modern future, until Star Wars. Somehow, he managed to merge these ancient cultures of knighthood and ancient idea like "The Force" with the sci-fi of future technology and even modern political concept like republicanism, and make it work like magic. Cinema magic.

The light-sabre is the perfect embodiment of this blending of the ancient and future modern technology that's the thread that runs throughout the Star Wars universe.

Star Wars IV(1977)


Actually, you can also trace where Lucas got his idea of setting sci-fi in an ancient backdrop. During the time when Lucas developed Star Wars, another writer, Erich von Däniken, published Chariots of the Gods (1968). This book launched a whole new of pseudo-scientific theory called Ancient Astronaut or Ancient Alien Theory. This theory states that alien has not only visited earth, but had done so for thousands if not million of years. And this is backed up by archaeological discoveries around the world.

book cover, Chariots of the Gods
I have owned and read the Chinese edition
of this book

While Däniken and his supporters believed wholeheartedly about scientific validity of Ancient Alien Theory, and encountered ridicule in the mainstream scientific community, but as an idea for a sci-fi, it would be perfectly valid. And supporters of Ancient Alien Theory would find strong resonance in Star Wars.

You could say that Star Wars was born out of these 2 books: The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949) gave Star Wars a narrative structure, and Chariots of the Gods (1968) gave Star Wars a narrative backdrop. Brilliant!


 The Trend Continues 
While there might be Hollywood movies that had the monomyth embedded in it before Star Wars IV (1977), but none had been so successful and more importantly, set a precedence and allow Hollywood to follow the footstep of Luke Skywalker's Hero's Journey narrative. Examples include BatmanLord of the Ring, Matrix, and Harry Potter (to name just a few). It appears that Hollywood has found a successful and universal formula for story telling of epic journey. The successful blockbusters are stories fall into this category.

Matrix movie poster

lord of the ring movie poster

Harry Potter movie poster


The monmyth structure plays no small part in the success of Harry Potter story, in addition to this, Harry Potter, like Star Wars is combining the ancient and the modern dimensions. Of course, J.K Rowling didn't not take matter as far as Lucas, who combine past with future, while Rowling blends past with present. Still, it's that deft and artful mixing of old and new that seems to bewitch the audience.

As Hollywood films are increasingly globalised where its international market shares becoming far more important than its domestic one, making film by applying a universally appealing story telling technique make sense, and its box office gives it a ringing endorsement.



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