Today saw the much anticipated release of the seventh Star Wars film – The Force Awakens. Since its debut in 1977 few stories have become quite as iconic and well known as the adventures of Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Princess Leia and more in the modern era. Grown men and women could be seen in their thousands in front of cinema around the globe dressed as Jedi, Stormtroopers and other recognized characters from the films. Few franchises have inspired quite the same interest for so long.
In many ways, Star Wars is a mythology for our time. Like the Iliad, Beowulf, the stories of King Arthur and more it has entered the collective consciousness of our civilization far beyond what could have been imagined back in the 70’s when it first came out. Even people who have never seen it can tell you that Darth Vader is Luke Skywalkers father and will understand many of the well known quotes the movies have spawned.
One Myth to Rule Them All: The Monomyth.
Star Wars in literary terms is often regarded as an example of the monomyth. Also known as the Heroes Journey it is a common narrative template for stories that involve a hero going off on an adventure, winning a victory and then coming home changed. It was first proposed by Joseph Campbell in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces who described the basic pattern as being:
“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man”
As his book was published in 1949 Campbell was obviously not writing with a galaxy far, far away in mind. Indeed he wrote with a view more about legendary figures such as Jesus and Buddha in describing the narrative that surrounded them. But subsequent generations of writers have found his ideas to be a useful template when constructing their own stories.
The Heroes Journey Through the Star Wars Mythos
Throughout the Star Wars saga we can see elements of the traditional monomyth over and over again. Luke Skywalker, farm boy from a boring mundane planet receives the call to adventure when the Droid R2D2 arrives, bearing an urgent message from a Princess for the ears of the wise old Obi Wan Kenobi.
Forced to join Obi-Wan after his relatives are killed by the evil empire, the old man becomes a wise mentor and helper to the hero, teaching him the ways of the mystic Force. Leaving his home they travel into space on their quest where they are thrust into the terrifying and fantastic world of the Death Star. All throughout the original trilogy and the prequels examples of the heroes journey are in abundance.
For writers, understanding the monomyth is another helpful tool when telling stories. It both provides a framework to help build narratives around. Yet by building certain “rules” around how a story should be told, it provides an opportunity for story tellers to break them and create more interesting narrative by turning aspects of the expected story on their head. Perhaps as a result of what they’ve seen and done the hero can never go home. Or the mentor instead of being a wise source of knowledge and counsel instead is abusive and plans to betray the hero all along.
As always, whether writing for the screen, stage or novel it’s always a good idea to learn new tricks for your toolbox whether you find them in a book or in a galaxy far, far away.