In this blog, I will take a close look at the hero’s journey and the archetypes that mold modern cinema. With that, it makes perfect sense to discuss Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, looking at the archetypes of the epic hero and the hero’s journey.
I first saw Star Wars back when it was simply a two word title and wasn’t part of any trilogy, hexology or ennealogy. It was a stand alone movie, inspired by the patterns of Greek mythology and molded into a futuristic hero’s journey.
It recreated the archetype. With J.J. Abrams The Force Awakens on the horizon, the seventh installment of the franchise, there is a lot of anticipation and excitement about the series, which makes this a great time to examine the original, which has now become an archetype for the archetype!
An archetype is a prototype, a model or a classic example. In 1949, Joseph Campbell published a non-fiction book entitled The Hero with a Thousand Faces. In short, Faces is a study of the mythology of humanity. What Campbell put forth was the notion that throughout recorded history and throughout cultures, there is a similar structure to the stories we, as human beings, tell. All cultures have have stories of a hero going on a journey, overcoming the odds and returning with a reward — a hero’s journey. In The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers (first published in 1992), by Christopher Vogler, the hero’s journey is broken into a three act structure common to modern cinema. It is Vogler’s take on this journey which we will examine over the course of this series.
So, let it begin …
ACT I: In the first act of the hero’s journey, we are typically introduced to the hero’s home base, learn what the adventure will be, discover the conflict within the hero, and begin the journey.
For Luke Skywalker, home base is Tatooine, a desert farm planet. Here we learn that Luke has dreams and aspirations of becoming a pilot but he is bound by the obligation to aid his aunt and uncle with the coming harvest.
All heroes have a “call to adventure” where they are summoned to a task which they initially refuse. Luke’s call comes upon seeing the message from Princess Leia hidden within the droid, R2-D2. This inspires the first steps into his journey where he seeks out his mentor, Ben Obi Wan Kenobi. However, Luke initially denies his calling. It is only when his family is killed and his home destroyed that he accepts the first stage of his journey — rescuing the princess.
ACT II: Over the course of the second Act, the hero will meet allies, enemies, enter the realm of the enemy, undergo a life and death conflict, and complete the main task of the journey.
Luke and Ben meet Han Solo and Chewbecca and they have their first confrontation with the empire while still on Tatooine. At this point, Luke truly begins his journey and the venture into space, heading toward Leia’s home planet, Alderaan. Luke receives the tutelage of his mentor becomes bonded to Han, has a variety of conflicts and is introduced to Leia over the course of this act.
Luke also portrays the same characteristics of the archetype of the epic hero. He is from humble beginnings and must complete a task that is meant only for him. He also displays many of the ideals embodied in an epic hero including morals, optimism, perseverance, strength, faith in in something greater than himself, intelligence and Bravery (MOPSFIB).*”
While all of the MOPSFIB characteristics are vital to the epic hero, faith in something greater is particularly important to Luke. He must find his faith in the Force before he can truly achieve his heroic status.
Luke and company enter the lair of the enemy when they are pulled into the Death Star. At this point, we don’t know if they will succeed — whether or not they will rescue the princess, let alone destroy the Death Star. Of course, Luke finds the princess, is nearly killed in the process of rescuing her and, ultimately, his goal is achieved. Luke Skywalker escapes the Death Star with Princess Leia intact — this was his goal — the task he set out to achieve is complete!
It is over the course of this second act that Luke truly develops and displays the qualities of an epic hero as well. All facets are on display. We see Luke as a moral and optimistic young man displaying intelligence, strength and bravery in a variety of ways. Of course, his faith in the Force continues to develop and he must preserver after the death of his mentor.
There is more, naturally.
Star Wars doesn’t just fulfill the archetype of the hero’s journey and the epic hero, but a variety of other archetypes as well. Darth Vader represents the classic villain, once good and now an evil parallel version of the hero. Through Han Solo, the character foil is displayed — one who represent contrasting characteristics from the hero, from which the hero can learn from during the journey.
ACT III: Before the journey can end, the hero must put on display what he/she has learned in a final life or death battle. Only then, can the hero return with the true reward — knowledge, power, treasure, whatever it may be.
Luke’s final task is to assist in destroying the Death Star. He can only return if this goal is achieved; otherwise, he will have been killed and his journey ended. Luke shows his growth as an epic hero, his belief in the Force, and the value of his friendship and allegiance with Han Solo. He further shows his epic status by completing a task truly meant for him, achieving a goal beyond any other character’s abilities — he uses his newfound knowledge of the Force to destroy the Death Star and save the Rebel Alliance from Darth Vader and the Empire.
At this point, Luke has concluded his journey and achieved complete status as an epic hero, as was the intent of creator George Lucas.
Star Wars made such good use of the archetypes, that it truly has become a model for the mold.
* Giving credit where credit is due, the MOPSFIB acronym was created by Betty Barsuglia (my mother) to define the seven key characteristics of the epic hero. She is a retired English teacher!
By Brian Barsuglia