In human history there are a handful of stories that have been passed down to us through time. Some are so old that we can never be certain whether they were written by a single human, like Homer and Aesop. Some have laid the groundwork for religions that have lasted the fall of recorded history, and then built new worlds from its pieces. In the early 20th century, a man named Joseph Campbell sought to find a common root throughout all of them. What was it about certain stories (for they are undoubtedly stories) that resonates so deeply with so many people? How can the imaginations of ordinary people outlast the recorded activity of Kings and Princes, of whole empires risen and destroyed by whordes of nations. How can such human scarring become forgotten when such nonsense exists?
Joseph Campbell stood on the shoulders of the Golden Bough. The Golden Bough, written by James George Frazier, was a modernist attempt at fusing psychology anthropology and sociology into a map of myth and religion. It tried to give rational explanations for why certain people believed certain things, and how the stories had came to fruition. Smart people had begun to assume that most any story has it’s roots in something that actually happened. An archaeologist found the ruins of a city, and the academic community are convinced that he actually found Troy. It began to seem that if you looked hard enough you could find almost anything from the world of Myth. People still look for evidence of King David and Solomon’s mines, Noah’s Ark, the site of Atlantis. Joseph Campbell disagreed. He posited that there were plenty of stories that could never be substantiated through any kind of archaeology, but he did have an answer; the Monomyth.
The Monomyth is a theoretical framework for all of human story telling. Campbell believed that there were various stages of a three act myth that every story owed at least something to.
He broke down the famous myths of every culture, and applied his thinking to them, and proved that there was a direct link between early religious worship, fiction and the conscious awakening of humans as Adults. The way we tell stories is a hangover from the earliest days of humanity, a journey dreamed by the ghosts of early examples of men becoming boys and girls becoming women. It is a metaphor for life itself, and the setting and rising of the sun. The Monomyth is powerful and scientific, drawing upon the works of the psychologist Carl Jung. Campbell took Jung’s idea of the collective subconscious and presented that as the canvas for which the reoccurring tropes and figures of storytelling emerge. He achieved mild notoriety, and would sire future generations of story tellers. His work would be taken up by Disney and used as a tutorial for how to make a good story. As such Campbell’s shadow looms large over us all; he is the architect and root cause of adoration for a great deal of our childhood movies.
George Lucas was a student when he first came across the work of Campbell. He began his days in college studying literature, sociology, anthropology and history. He understood something primal about story, and the history of man. After he graduated, he found the vessel through which he would follow in the footsteps of his mythological forbearers. Lucas was trying to become the best film maker that history had ever known. He was talented, daring and very modern. His alumni included Stephen Spielberg, and he became good friends with Francis Copolla. He wanted to exploit advances in technology to return film to spectacle. Like Stephen King, he grew up on dirty B Movies and and the animatronic terrors of Harry Harryhausen. He was an alumni of the school of Buck Rogers. The film that brought him to attention, THX-1138 was not a commercial or critical success. It was an interesting take on an ancient film trope, a throwback to Metropolis. His next film, American Graffiti, legitimised him. It made more money than people had thought it might, and Lucas was given the chance to make the film that he really wanted to make.
Lucas was a Sci-Fi nut. He wanted to make Flash Gordon but couldn’t get the rights to the characters. He became a scholar of Science Fiction, tracing a path back to the earliest piece of writing that he felt was truly SciFi. He wrote a treatment and tried to sell it. After being famously passed on by a great deal of executives, 20th Century Fox eventually gave him a deal and set him to turning the dream into reality. Lucas recognised the poison that corrupted so many Sci Fi efforts, and decided that the premise of Science Fiction being of the future was fundamentally wrong. The SciFi stories that turned Lucas on were those that were truly alien, and not a prophecy of mankind in the millenia to come. They were fantasies with technology, Tolkien in space. He was enamoured with another film from Japan, the Hidden Fortress, which gave him the basic three act structure of rebels destroying the base.
Lucas struggled to write something that made sense to those around him. He began by creating a pantheon of characters and scenarios, then tried to thread it all together, discarding some and locking up others to be used decades later. Through trial and error he was telling a myth. The writing wasn’t coming easy, and the inundation of so many brand new peoples and races and worlds and factions caused problems. Lucas looked for solutions, and after a time returned to Campbell. This time, Campbell took root in George Lucas’ soul.
Lucas applied the Monomyth and it all began to fall into place. He reached into the vault of characters and nouns and sprinkled them over the Monomyth, turning Hidden Fortress in space into a timeless, universal framework. To this day the degree of empathy that people feel for the characters of Star Wars is unparalleled outside of religion. Star Wars is something that lives on inside an unthinkable number of people, it’s tropes and archetypes imbued upon the human consciousness. George Lucas wasn’t a great writer. His dialogue is famously strange and riddled with poor technical understanding. He was instead a vessel for the Monomyth, a C3P0 programmed with the shared emotions and memories of all humans alive and dead.
Star Wars centres around religion and mysticism. The Force is the glue that hold’s the monomyth of Star Wars together. The Force was Lucas’ application of the eastern lessons of the monomyth. It is now a religion in the real world, with enough people seeing more resonance in it than in other religions that thousands answer a census with it as their religion. The Force is a metaphor for the shared experience of the monomyth, and it’s ability to chime with the souls of so many people.