The Jedi With a Thousand Faces, Part 1

I mentioned a little ways back that I was looking into the way Joseph Campbell had influenced George Lucas as a mythmaker. This is hardly news; Lucas has openly admitted his debt to Campbell. In fact, he’s rather loud about it. And this interests me.

During that long, 17-year wait between Return of the Jedi and The Phantom Menace, I saw various specials limning the relationship of Star Wars to mythology. I walked through museums with exhibits connecting the Death Star and the Asteroid Monster from Empire Strikes Back to the Belly of the Beast. Lucas can’t flip over without injecting his movie serial with archaic cultural elements.

So, having read most of Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces, I am unsurprised to see Luke Skywalker hitting every step of the Hero’s Journey. The Call. The Refusal. The Road of Trials. The Atonement With the Father. It’s all there, and no one who’s loved Star Wars will be shocked at it.

But if you tried to draw the same line with say, the character of Anakin Skywalker in the prequels, you will not find them, because they aren’t there. By a Campbellite reading, Anakin is not a hero; he is a monster. He is not even a tragic hero. Tragic heroes understand, as Oedipus does, his complicity in his own fall:

Come close to me. I am a man of sorrow, but take courage and touch me. Do not be afraid; do what I ask. The evil is mine; no one but me can bear its wight. (Oedipus the King)

Anakin/Vader never issues this lament of his deeds: we have only the childish, hysterical “NOOOOOO!” at the end of Revenge of the Sith, and the incomplete, near cryptic “You were right about me, Luke.” in Return of the Jedi. He then dies, understanding very little. His motivation to slay the emperor – the desire to protect a loved one – is exactly the same as what prompted him to serve the emperor. Lucas may think this poetic, but it’s hardly heroic.

So there seems to me to be a great chasm between the heroic characters of the Original Trilogy, and the flat, staid chorus of the Prequels. We care about Luke and Leia, Han and Chewbacca, Threepio and Artoo, in a way that we do not care about Qui-Gon, Anakin, Padme, or Jar-Jar. I suspect, and will argue, that this is because Lucas threw the rulebook away. Having made the myth, he did not tend it, but let the weeds of commerce choke the roots.

More to follow.


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