Contains spoilers for the original Star Wars trilogy.
“A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away...” begins the opening crawl of each of the Star Wars films, epic tales of the battle between good and evil, of valiant robots and strange alien races all set to an unforgettable John Williams score that is deeply resonant of the Golden Age of Hollywood. The most successful space opera of all time, the Star Wars films have grossed $4.3 billion at the box office – only the James Bond and Harry Potter movies have enjoyed greater success. Yet if there had been no Joseph Campbell, there might never have been a Star Wars.
In 1949, Joseph Campbell published The Hero with a Thousand Faces, which remains his most influential work. In this book, Campbell introduces the idea of the Hero's Journey – termed the monomyth in Campbell's work (a reference to James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake). This idea is oft misunderstood, and refers to a recurring narrative cycle that is expressed in all mythology and classical tales. However, the full cycle rarely if ever appears in one myth – instead, each tale picks up aspects of the sequence of departure, initiation and return. Furthermore, the cycle repeats indefinitely, thus a legend may begin with the return, and then trigger a new departure, and each of the steps of the cycle contain variations – thus as well as returning, the hero may choose not to return (as in the legend of the sleeping giant Muchukunda in Hindu legend).
Campbell attributes these recurring themes in the world's mythology to common psychological roots, often citing Carl Jung's idea of “archetypes of the collective unconsciousness” as expressing the general idea behind his approach of comparative mythology. He credited the nineteenth century polymath Adolf Bastian with the root of both his own work, and Jung's similar concept. Bastian had described the recurring features in world mythology as ‘elementary ideas’, while the individual expressions of these ideas in local cultural forms he designated ‘ethnic’ or ‘folk ideas’. Campbell noted: “Such a recognition of two aspects, a universal and a local, in the constitution of religions everywhere clarifies at a stroke those controversies touching eternal and temporal values, truth and falsehood, which forever engage theologians...”
One of the first writers to begin to apply Campbell's ideas in fiction was George Lucas. Speaking of The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Lucas said:
It came to me that there really was no modern use of mythology...so that's when I started doing more strenuous research on fairy tales, folklore and mythology, and I started reading Joe's books... It was very eerie because in reading The Hero with A Thousand Faces I began to realize that my first draft of Star Wars was following classical motifs.
It was the first time that I really began to focus. Once I read that book I said to myself, this is what I've been doing... It was all right there and had been there for thousands and thousands of years, as Dr. Campbell pointed out... It's possible that if I had not run across him I would still be writing Star Wars today.
The original Star Wars movie follows the cycle of Campbell's monomyth nearly perfectly. Luke receives the “call to adventure” when he finds the droids R2D2 and C3PO and sees a holographic plea for aid from Princess Leia asking for Obi-Wan Kenobi. He takes the droids to the hermit Ben Kenobi, but refuses the call, turning down Kenobi's invitation to join him and learn to be a Jedi. However, having done so, tragedy is brought down upon him as his aunt and uncle are slain by Imperial stormtroopers searching for the droids. He crosses the threshold into another world at Mos Eisley spaceport, where he is joined by Han Solo and Chewbacca upon the ‘road of trials’. They become trapped in the Death Star (the ‘belly of the whale’) where they rescue Princess Leia, and escape to rendezvous with the Rebel Alliance. Using the plans of the Death Star carried by R2D2, a desperate attack is launched upon the deadly space station thus destroying it, and Luke and Han are honoured as heroes. (The only variation from the basic structure of the monomyth is that the Death Star plans – the ‘elixir’ which is stolen from the other world – is already with R2D2 at the start of the story).
Lucas drew upon many different sources in the creation of the original Star Wars. The most notable science fiction influence was E.E. Doc Smith's Lensman series, which first appeared in Amazing Stories between 1934 and 1948. These stories are classic space opera, and share considerable similarities with Star Wars – including a farmboy hero who is dragged into an interstellar conflict of unimaginable scale and who develops amazing powers which he uses to defeat evil. An early draft of Star Wars referred to the light side of the force as Arisian – the Arisians being the good guys in the Lensman series. Not coincidentally, Triplanetary (the first Lensman story) is also set billions of years before the present time (“A long time ago...”).
Additionally, Lucas was a keen film student and drew upon some of the imaginative ideas in the work of cinematic genius Akira Kurasawa to make Star Wars more unique, particularly from the film The Hidden Fortress. In the original film, two luckless peasants are dragged around a dangerous land by a General (Toshirō Mifune) who is trying to escort the Princess of a defeated royal family to safety. The idea of a pair of protagonists who are not so much heroes but rather bystanders swept up in epic events became the inspiration for the droids R2D2 and C3PO (although it must be said that R2D2 is far more heroic than the peasants in The Hidden Fortress!) The space battles were heavily influenced by World War II dogfighting movies, and indeed before Lucas gained the money to shoot the special effects sequences he used stock footage of fighter plane battles to fill in the gaps in the movie.
At first glance, Lucas' drawing upon Campbell's work may seem a tangential connection to religion, and it is tempting to credit E.E. Doc Smith as owning more influence over the development of the franchise. However, in interviews with Bill Moyers (who also famously interviewed Joseph Campbell at Lucas' Skywalker Ranch) Lucas reveals more of his motivations, and it becomes apparent that Star Wars is deeply connected to religious themes. In the Time magazine article “Of Myth and Men” which is a transcript of the interview, Lucas stated:
I don't see Star Wars as profoundly religious. I see Star Wars as taking all the issues that religion represents and trying to distil them down into a more modem and easily accessible construct – that there is a greater mystery out there. When I was ten years old I asked my mother, I said, Well, if there is only one God, why are there so many religions? And over the years I have been pondering that question ever since. And it would seem to me that the conclusion I have come to is that all of the religions are true; they just see a different part of the elephant...
Lucas had been raised in a devout Methodist family, but after drawing upon religious mythological themes in Star Wars he began to identify strongly with Eastern religious philosophies, eventually identifying himself as a “Buddhist Methodist”. Taoism is often cited in connection with the Force, the Jedi's source of power, and indeed a central idea in this religion is that the Tao “flows through everything” (just like the Force). However, in Taoism the light and dark sides are not representative of good and evil – this idea, which is Zoroastrian in origin, makes its way into Star Wars via Christianity. It is generally accepted that all three of the Abrahamic faiths inherited this idea of good and evil from the prophet Zarathustra as a consequence of Israel's captivity in Babylon in the 6th century B.C. Thus the cosmology of Star Wars incorporates elements of both Abrahamic and Dharmic religions, the two major forms of faith on our planet.
Even with this multi-religious influence, Lucas never lost his faith in God. In the Moyers interview he states:
I think that there is a God. No question. What that God is or what we know about God, I'm not sure. The one thing I know about life and about the human race is that we've always tried to construct some kind of context for the unknown. Even the cavemen thought they had it figured out. I would say that cavemen understood on a scale of about 1. Now we've made it up to about 5. The only thing that most people don't realize is the scale goes to 1 million.
Indeed, Lucas has stated that the Force is not intended to be God, per se, but rather a general spiritual idea intended to spur thought about the idea of God:
I put the Force into the movie in order to try to awaken a certain kind of spirituality in young people – more a belief in God than a belief in any particular religious system. I wanted to make it so that young people would begin to ask questions about the mystery. Not having enough interest in the mysteries of life to ask the question, “Is there a God or is there not a God?” – that is for me the worst thing that can happen. I think you should have an opinion about that... I think it is important to have a belief system and to have faith.
On the whole, Lucas is positive about organized religion, and has stated that “I would hate to find ourselves in a completely secular world where entertainment was passing for some kind of religious experience.” Moyers challenged Lucas on the subject of authentic religion, suggesting that it requires the “leap of faith” discussed by the philosopher Kierkegaard. Lucas agreed, and noted that the phrase “Use the Force” which is intimately connected with the Star Wars franchise, is precisely denoting a leap of faith. “There are mysteries and powers larger than we are”, Lucas states, “and you have to trust your feelings in order to access them.”
Practitioners of traditional religions have wildly different responses to the Star Wars films, but for the most part the series is viewed positively. As well as the inevitable cases of confused Christians who attack the movies because they draw upon other traditions and are thus alleged to be “satanic” (an overt racism wildly at odds with the teachings of Jesus), or who dismiss the stories because they do not teach “True Religion”, there are many Christian accounts which stress the opportunity for using Star Wars as a stepping stone for discussing Christian faith with young people, or who praise the representation of Biblical stories in the science fiction milieu. Matthew Bortolin has published a book entitled The Dharma of Star Wars that teaches Buddhist precepts using Lucas' characters and stories, while Muslims for the most part seem to be particularly positive about the parallels between the Jedi and Islam. Irfan Rydhan writes:
As a Muslim, I always thought of the ‘Jedi’ as what a true follower of Islam should be like. Never mind the fact Jedi masters with their North African style cloaks and scruffy beards look like Sufi Sheikhs, but the way they are taught to respect a greater power, fight for the defence of the innocent and honour a code of morals and ethics in order to bring about peace and justice to their society, is basically what Islam teaches all Muslims to strive for.
Perhaps the wildest connection between the Star Wars universe and religion in our world is the fact that in the 2001 censuses in Britain, Australia and New Zealand there was an internet movement persuading people to list their religion as ‘Jedi’ in the mistaken belief that if enough people did so it would be listed as an official religion. Some 390,000 Britains did so, causing it to rank fourth in the census, after Christianity, Islam and Hinduism. There are indeed a few people who practice their own form of ‘Jediism’ as a religious movement, although Lucas does not condone this literal interpretation of the mythology he created.
In his later writings, Joseph Campbell expresses his viewpoint that our modern cultures have lost touch with the “dictionary of the language of the soul”, and that new mythologies are required for the world we live in. It was his view that the great myths have to be regenerated for each new generation. This indeed is how Lucas describes what he was attempting to do with the Star Wars films:
I'm telling an old myth in a new way. Each society takes that myth and retells it in a different way, which relates to the particular environment they live in. The motif is the same. It's just that it gets localized. As it turns out, I'm localizing it for the planet. I guess I'm localizing it for the end of the millennium more than I am for any particular place.
Campbell was full of praise for Lucas' work, calling him “his best student”. He interpreted the thrust of the original trilogy as exploring the idea that mankind should not be in the service of society, but that society should be in the service of mankind. He viewed Star Wars as expressing the state (the Empire) as a machine (symbolised in Darth Vader who is “more machine than man now”), and asking the question: “Is the machine going to crush humanity or serve humanity?” Campbell likened Star Wars to the tale of Faust:
Mephistopheles, the machine man, can provide us with all the means, and is thus likely to determine the aims of life as well. But of course the characteristic of Faust, which makes him eligible to be saved, is that he seeks aims that are not those of the machine. Now, when Luke Skywalker unmasks his father, he is taking off the machine role that the father has played. The father was the uniform. That is power, the state role.
If one believes, as Campbell did, that humanity is in need of new mythologies to take us forward into a future where the many different cultures of the world, and the many different religions that belong to those cultures, co-exist peacefully, then Star Wars demonstrates that one powerful way those mythologies can be generated is through science fiction. By drawing against the mythic traditions and interpreting them in the milieu of fantasies that incorporate technological themes, new legends can be created that may be about a “galaxy far, far away” but, as with all great fiction and all great mythology, are truly about the here and now, and the choices we face in how we live our lives.
A new serial begins later this year.
Visit the Religion in Science Fiction page for links to all nine parts.