How mythologist Joseph Campbell made Luke Skywalker a hero

It inspired movies like Star Wars, The Lion King, and The Matrix. It was named by TIME magazine as one of the 100 most influential books of all time. Joseph Campbell's The Hero With A Thousand Faces was published in 1949 — a book that is simultaneously timeless, and very much of its time. IDEAS looks at the massive influence of Campbell's theory.

The 1949 book Hero With a Thousand Faces continues to influence films

Star Wars, The Lion King and The Matrix all have one thing in common: the movies are based on the mythic structure of Joseph Campbell's monomyth, the 'hero's journey.' (Disney/Associated Press)

* Originally published on September 3, 2019.

Hidden inside the plots of blockbuster movies like The Matrix and The Lion King is a storytelling structure called the "hero's journey." That structure found its biggest success in the 1977 megahit, Star Wars, which was directly inspired by it.

But now some observers want the hero to take a rest.

The concept of the hero's journey was introduced in a book called The Hero With A Thousand Faces, published in 1949 by American professor, Joseph Campbell. The book argued that all ancient mythology tells one core story: the human psyche's development from child to adult, and ultimately to fully realized individual.

Campbell went on to become a kind of rock-star intellectual, with public lectures, coffee table books and television specials. His work also found a home in Hollywood, especially after filmmaker George Lucas used the hero's journey theory as a model for Star Wars.

Luke Skywalker's quest in Star Wars is a textbook example of the hero's journey. (LucasFilm/Associated Press)

In the film, Luke Skywalker is young farm boy from Tatooine, whose journey begins with a call to adventure after he buys a pair of robots and discovers in them a hidden plea for help from Princess Leia. After he sets off on his quest, he undergoes a series of trials — featuring monsters, stormtroopers and a trash compactor — before rescuing the princess and destroying the Death Star. He eventually returns home to a hero's welcome. 

Sean Hood, who teaches screenwriting at the University of Southern California, says that after Star Wars the hero's journey became a template for a money-making blockbuster.

The basic path of the monomyth, or the 'hero's journey.' (Wikimedia)

"When Star Wars makes a bazillion dollars, people want to know: what is its secret? And that's the shimmer of Joseph Campbell's work," Hood said.

"It has this air of numinosity, it has this air of almost religious truth to it, and something vaguely special and sacred. And Hollywood eats that up. It's a great story." 

George Lucas' script for Star Wars was heavily inspired by the hero's journey template. (David Livingston/Getty Images for AFI)

But Hood also has his suspicions about the hero's journey as Campbell has characterized it.

Dangers of the hero's journey

Hood argues that there is something "very egotistical" about the hero structure. It places the protagonist at the centre of the universe.

"Everything depends on whether The One in The Matrix is going to be successful or not, the hero is going to save the world or not," he said.

Like Luke Skywalker, Neo, the main character in The Matrix, embarks on his own hero's journey. (Associated Press)

Hood explains that these kinds of stories give viewers a kind of "egotistical self-importance," and contrasts it with stories that have multiple points of views.

"That kind of sophistication is important because otherwise movies just go to reinforce the sense that we are the centre of the universe, and everything is about us," he said.

Joseph Campbell's The Hero With A Thousand Faces was published in 1949 — a book that is simultaneously timeless, and very much of its time. (Wikipedia)

"That's, I think, the political danger. If everyone is thinking that they're the hero, then there's no possibility of thinking with compassion from the point of view of other people who are experiencing completely different stories as you are."

The Hero With A Thousand Faces was named by TIME magazine as one of the 100 most influential books of all time. It's gone through countless reprintings and has been the subject of television specials, like the 1988 Bill Moyers series on PBS, "Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth."

Yet academic mythologists aren't quite so enamoured by Campbell as his readers are.

The myth about mythology

Keith Dickson, a professor of Classics at Purdue University, says Campbell's work gives people the wrong idea about the purpose of mythology.

"Despite the pretense that these are ancient stories conveying what Joseph Campbell would call 'boons from the transcendent deep,' these are basically stories that are told by those in power in order to convince others that they should have power."

Joseph Campbell gained recognition in Hollywood after George Lucas credited his work as influencing his Star Wars saga. (Wikipedia)

Dickson cites the story of Pandora's Box, the ancient Greek myth about the creation of woman, which depicts women as bottomless containers of nothing but evil and despair. 

"Ancient Greek society considered women a threat to the integrity of families, a subject of uncontrollable sexual desire," he said. "Urban Greeks tended to sequester their women, to lock them up."

He says that in some cases, a myth can be used to justify damaging social practices.

"I think my opinion of Campbell's pretty clear: I think he's a showman. I think my opinion about myth is pretty clear: I think myth does more damage than good. I think my proposal for the only effective response to myth being suspicion and critical analysis is also pretty clear."   

In the program:

Daniel Gorman Jr. is a Ph.D. student in Religious Studies at the University of Rochester

Laurel Bowman is an Associate Professor in the Department of Greek and Roman Studies at the University of Victoria. 

Sean Hood is a screenwriter and Professor at the University of Southern California's School of Cinematic Arts

Kim Hudson is the author of The Virgin's Promise: Writing Stories of Feminine Creative, Spiritual, and Sexual Awakening.

Robert Segal is a Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Aberdeen

Keith Dickson is a Professor of Classics at Purdue University

** This episode was produced by Matthew Lazin-Ryder.