George Lucas’s epic Star Wars franchise has undoubtedly shaped filmmaking, entertainment, and perhaps even the very cultural fabric of our modern society. However, many younger fans, and maybe even older Star Wars aficionados are unaware of some of the rich cultural, historical, mythological, and even spiritual influences that Lucas drew from to create his masterpiece. This blog is not just going to talk about Star Wars; it’s going to wonder about how myth has impacted culture across the ages, and about how we keep retelling the same stories. Once we had myths that were created a long time ago, in faraway lands, now we have myths from a long time ago, and far, far away.
We recently watched a fascinating documentary (though it was not new), called The Power of Myth. Filmed in 1988, at George Lucas’s Skywalker Ranch, Bill Moyers of PBS sat down with Joseph Campbell, a highly respected author, and mythology professor at Sarah Lawrence College, to discuss many of the themes found throughout human history that Star Wars has now come to embody in the modern age.
What is a hero? Who were the first storytellers? What is love (baby don’t hurt me)? Where does life originate from? And why does Darth Vader slightly resemble a samurai warrior? These and many other philosophical questions are explored in the special PBS mini-series, the transcript of which was also later released as a book of the same name, The Power of Myth. Tracing the extensive history of ancient myths, stories, and religions that have impacted human experience throughout the ages, the interview series is broken down into six, one-hour segments.
George Lucas himself gives the initial introduction to the series, where he alludes to the influence that Campbell and other mythological stories, figures, and scholars, had on him and the development of one of the largest entertainment franchises in history. After Lucas’s introduction, the interview, more like a grandfatherly conversation between two zen-masters, quickly dives into what defines a heroic adventure. Star Wars, Campbell asserts, is a continuation of the ancient mythological themes and tradition, simply recrafted and translated into the modern age. So, according to Campbell’s thinking, whether you’re a fan of Star Wars or not, liked the prequels or hated them, it’s impossible to deny that Star Wars has had a profound impact on modern society and perhaps even the evolution of human storytelling.
Campbell’s ultimate philosophical advice to Moyers is quite simple: follow your bliss. Of course, that’s not necessarily an invitation to go out and binge on pizza, beer, and Netflix (or splurge on your favorite Star Wars collectibles, for that matter, although we certainly won’t judge). However, Campbell argues that to attain what’s often called “nirvana,” one must find the things in life that bring them bliss and seek to incorporate those surrounding elements into your everyday life.
Perhaps it sounds overly simplistic: finding something in life that makes you happy, or blissful, and following that passion to the point of shaping your life work around it. However, we here at Gemr certainly don’t have to tell you that life can often seem overly complicated and confusing, so, perhaps a more distilled approach to understanding the big, overarching questions of life (the universe, and everything) is one to consider. And, Campbell, argues, the real struggle, and often suffering, comes through that quest to attain what he defines as bliss.
So, realistically, of course, things aren’t as simple as just “following your bliss,” as it’s often what we experience on the journey to bliss, or reward, that ultimately defines us. That willingness to struggle in pursuit of something pure is, of course, what defines heroes and is certainly not limited to Luke Skywalker, the Marvel or DC universe, or even the people and celebrities who we tend to think of as heroes. Most heroic acts, Campbell insists, are much smaller and can occur on a personal level, nearly every day.
Amongst the many mythological stories that Campbell dissects from a modern standpoint, which also revolve around the search for bliss or contentment, is one story that, as collectors, we can’t help but touch on: The Quest for the Holy Grail. Along with many other scholars, Campbell suggests that the Grail is something less physical, and is more a representation of humanities quest, in general. However, as collectors here at Gemr, we can’t help but like the more traditional idea of searching for that ultimate collectible of all time: The Holy Grail! Touching on other Arthurian legends, such as Sir Gwain and the Green Knight, and Tristan and Isolde, Campbell also explores the temptation inherent in heroic struggles: the need to forgo or sacrifice one’s love, in order to pursue the heroic struggle towards power, as well as the corruption and temptation that very power often brings.
Overall, throughout the history of storytelling, Campbell sees the quest of the swordsman as being one of the most defining myths of human history. Whether in the form of medieval Grail stories, or Japanese samurai legends, or light-saber wielding space rebels, he highlights the similarities throughout the history of human storytelling, while drawing comparisons to our modern age with Star Wars as the new mythological standard.
Naturally, dragons are also featured prominently, as many cultures and myths have used them for different representations of good and evil. However, we don’t want to give away all of the fascinating ideas and historical tidbits that this series encompasses, and we hardly could in a blog post, so check out the series yourself and those Star Wars collectibles may hold some newfound significance!
There’s a good chance you can find the series or the book at your local library, or of course, online. And if a six-hour series isn’t enough to satiate your fascination for anything even remotely related to Star Wars (or, of course, human and mythological nature), George Lucas has also referred to the work of filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, as having a profound impact on him. Most famous for his film, The Seven Samurai (Magnificent Seven, anyone?), it was his work, The Hidden Fortress, that Lucas said influenced the creation of Star Wars the most.
He said Kurosawa’s fortress inspired the Death Star. So, that could be why Darth Vader slightly resembles a menacing samurai overlord, whom the heroic swordsman, Luke, must then overcome. That is, after undergoing his transformation and being mentored by a master swordsman, rather… Jedi. We may not know all the answers to those questions about the meaning of life, but we couldn’t leave you hanging on that one!