The Jedi with a Thousand Faces

A few weeks ago in From the Bookshelf, this blog’s regular guessing competition, some were surprised to discover that George Lucas wrote the novelisation of his film Star Wars; none were surprised to find that it was written badly. Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last 30+ years, I’m pretty sure you’re aware of Star Wars. You might have even seen it.

But did you know that in the Australian national census in 2001, over 70,000 Australians listed their religion as either Jedi, Jedi Knight or Jedi related. That’s 60,000 more than is necessary to be a fully-recognised religion. I’m proud to say that I was a member of this flock.

You’d think there must be something in it then, wouldn’t you? I mean, not every science-fiction film with cutting edge special effects (for its time) and crappy dialogue has spawned such a huge following. I know that George Lucas the marketing machine has something to do with this, but there’s also something fundamental at the core of Star Wars (Episode IV: A New Hope for those who came in late), something acknowledged by Lucas himself.

It’s the same thing that’s at the core of all myths, religions and other great stories. I like to see it as something of a genetic cultural blueprint that everyone has. It’s probably most famously recognised today as the monomyth, as described by Joseph Campbell in The Hero With a Thousand Faces. A condensed version goes something like this:

The hero heads out from their normal, everyday life, and journeys into the unfamiliar. After overcoming a number of challenges (sometimes with the help of friends), the hero faces the supreme ordeal and then claims their reward. The hero then returns to the world, which is changed by what has been achieved.

This is a quite simplified version of the whole, admittedly, but if you think about it you can see that all stories have something of their genesis in this very simple construction, at some molecular level. Besides the obvious of ‘hero movies’, like Star Wars and The Matrix, which follow the complete monomyth like a lemming follows the one in front of it, other popular stories also follow the structure quite literally.

For example, Jesus’s journey into the unfamiliar results in his death (the guardian at the gate to adventure, e.g. Neo taking the red pill and being freed from the matrix). He then returns to the world, via resurrection in Jesus’s case, in order to save us. Plato’s wonderful allegory, The Cave, can also be superimposed over the monomyth.

But I think it’s a mistake to stop by just assuming that this is just a fixed narrative structure, or something by which we can ‘read’ adventure stories. Campbell didn’t invent it, nor did the writers of the Gospels; they either collected, adapted or used it.

I like to see the monomyth as an allegory of our lives. Take even the smallest example of a guy asking a girl out on a date: single guy, meets a nice girl and thinks he might like to be with her. But he doubts himself, or fears she might say no, but then a friend helps him find the courage. He asks, and whether he succeeds or not is irrelevant, because the supreme ordeal was conquering his own fear.

And doesn’t everyone who travels anywhere, particularly overseas, go through this same journey? I remember that when I returned to Australia after so many years abroad it felt like I was returning to a different world. I felt so different, so changed, while everything around me seemed exactly the same. And when people looked at me, I felt like they were looking at and expecting the old me to be there, the one who hadn’t been through everything I had.

To be honest, for a while I thought I’d regressed back to that person. I started smoking again, I put on weight; I became lazy, unmotivated and started drinking too much again. It was pretty easy to do. But after a while (re-entry shock I call it) I started ticking those things off, one by one. It’s taking time, but I’m getting there. Unfortunately, it’s not like in the movies.

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2 thoughts on “The Jedi with a Thousand Faces”

  1. Campbell forgot to add that the eternal story usually also contains a training montage.

    You gotta have a montage.

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