Get ready everyone. We gon’ get deep this week (at least, compared to previous depths). in 1949 Joseph Campbell published a book titled The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he described and diagrammed something he called the MONOMYTH. The book itself summarizes it as: “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”
Do the words make you think? Make you remember? They might, since, as Campbell points out, this sequence of events is so common the book might as well have been titled All Stories, Ever. Anybody interested in mythology, storytelling, or literature would be well-encouraged to read the book, but I will do my best to lay out a simple version of the information, at least compared to Star Wars.
The Monomyth (I would make a band name joke, but, well…) has twelve parts. Not every part is present in every representation of the Monomyth, as we will see soon:
The Ordinary World: Establishing shot. A quiet village in an RPG. The Shire. Superman’s ignoble Kansas upbringing. In Star Wars, this is Luke’s dreary Tatooine moisture-farming home.
The Call to Adventure: Inciting incident. The RPG village is destroyed, Frodo gets the ring, Superman discovers his powers. Luke finds the message to Obi-Wan Kenobi hidden in R2-D2, and resolves to try and find the man.
Refusal of the Call: A less-common part where the hero desires to remain at his or her current life, only to find they have no choice. This is present in Star Wars, as Luke resists Obi-Wan Kenobi’s offer, only to find his home destroyed by Stormtroopers.
Meeting the Mentor: Star Wars does it earlier than some, but at this point the hero will find an older figure able to guide him or her through the challenges the journey promises Case in point: Obi-Wan.
Crossing the Threshold: End of act one. The hero’s first steps are behind, and greater adventure awaits. Luke leaves the desert planet Tatooine.
Tests, Allies, and Enemies: Not as fixed as the other pieces, this is the general challenge of the hero’s journey. Let’s call this the “Death Star” portion of the myth.
Approach: The Hero and allies prepare for their major conflict. In Star Wars, this is perhaps best described as rescuing Princess Leia and attempting to get her back to the Rebel Alliance.
The Ordeal: At a middle point in the story, the hero enters a “central space” or confronts death or his/her greatest fear. In Star Wars, this is Obi-Wan’s death.
The Reward: The hero defeats death/the fear, gaining something. In Star Wars, this something is mostly Princess Leia, their entire reason for going to the Death Star in the first place. It certainly does not feel like a reward to Luke, having just watched his mentor fall.
The Road Back: The hero is driven to complete the adventure, often presented as a chase to drive urgency. Here, Luke and the other survivors go to the Rebel base to fight the Empire.
The Resurrection: The climax. The hero is tested a final time. Let’s go home, kid.
Return with the Elixir: The “elixir” refers to what the hero had set out to gain at the beginning, and usually has the hero returning to a basic life. In Star Wars, the basic life is redefined from Tatooine to the Rebel alliance.
Arguments could be made against Episode IV possessing some of the above, but most are present and easily identifiable. Some versions even have additional steps, up to seventeen; they have been condensed. The similarities don’t end there, either; some analysis shows the original trilogy as a whole matching up (each movie is an act): Luke is thrust into the new world in IV, gains allies and enemies in V (while visiting the dark underworld-esque cave as a psuedo-Ordeal) and has a road back and climax as VI, with the entire three-part battle at the end of The Return of the Jedi as The Resurrection.
None of this was a coincidence, and George Lucas even pointedly thanks Campbell for helping to inspire him.
Thanks for reading. We hope you enjoyed this short look at the prototypical hero and the monomyth, and encourage you to read further if you found it interesting. Come back next week for more Star Wars information, and don’t forget to enter our Halloween sweepstakes!