Star Wars and the Dialectics of Myth

This essay contrasts two approaches to the interpretation of wildly popular narratives such as Star Wars. The first is the mythological analysis popularized by Joseph Campbell. Campbell argued that the myths of almost every society are fundamentally similar retellings of a few archetypal stories – in the case of Star Wars, “The Hero’s Journey.” Campbell’s work been appropriated by many filmmakers, including the director of Star Wars, George Lucas, to explain the powerful appeal of the most successful Hollywood films. In the wake of Lucas’s endorsement of Cambell’s ideas, influential screenwriting how-to books such as Chrisopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey: Using Mythic Structures for Writers have shaped how many screenwriters conceive of their craft. The second approach is the ideological analysis pioneered in Roland Barthes’ Mythologies. This perspective calls into question Cambell’s and Vogler’s universalizing framework. Instead, for Barthes myths are always about mystifying and naturalizing contingent arrangments of power. The essay will conclude by suggesting ways cultural critics might productively combine the insights of Campbell and Barthes.


I: Myth as Spiritual Journey
        George Lucas has often credited Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces as the inspiration for Star Wars. Lucas read the book in the early 1970s as he was developing the screenplay, and consciously patterned the film’s narrative and characters around the “monomyth” which Campbell describes as a universal story told by societies around the world. After the success of Star Wars, Lucas and Campbell became friends – fans often describe Campbell as “George’s Yoda.” Campbell helped Lucas craft the arcs of the second and third Star Wars films. Lucas returned the favor in 1987, when he furnished his home and production studio, Skywalker Ranch, for the filming of Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth, a series of interviews with Bill Moyers....