I fell sound asleep for about 10 minutes during the most recent instalment of the Star Wars franchise, The Last Jedi. This was not only because the narrative had wandered down a very tedious alleyway, but because Star Wars in general has lost its way. What began as a thrilling exploration of the philosophia perennis (the perennial philosophy) has devolved into a vehicle for the latest trendy ideology – and that is a shame.
Like so many others of my generation (I was 17 when the series’s first film came out), I was captivated by George Lucas’s vision. We all loved the explosions, the spaceships and the special effects (corny now, but groundbreaking at the time), but we also sensed that there was something else going on in these films, something that excited the soul as much as it dazzled the eyes.
Lucas was a devotee of Joseph Campbell, a scholar of comparative religion and mythology at Sarah Lawrence College, New York, who had spent his career exploring what he called “the monomyth”. This is the great story which, despite all sorts of different accents and emphases from culture to culture, remains fundamentally the same and which conveys some pretty basic truths about nature, the psyche, human development, and God.
It customarily unfolds as a “hero’s quest”. A young man (typically) is summoned out of the comfort of his domestic life and compelled to go on a dangerous adventure, either to secure a prize or protect the innocent, or subdue the forces of nature. In the process, he comes to realise and conquer his weaknesses, to face down enemies, and finally to commune with the deep spiritual powers that are at play in the cosmos. Usually, as a preparation for his mission, he is trained by a spiritual master who will put him quite vigorously through his paces.
Campbell was particularly intrigued by the manner in which this story is concretely acted out in the initiation rituals among primal peoples. Lucas’s mentor was Campbell, and Campbell’s teacher was the great Swiss psychologist, Carl Jung, who had spent his career exploring the archetypes of the collective unconscious that play themselves out in our dreams and our myths.
Now one would have to be blind not to see these motifs in the original Star Wars films. Luke Skywalker is compelled to leave his mundane home life (remember Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru?), and under the tutelage of Obi-Wan and Yoda, he overcomes his fears, discovers his inner strength, faces down the darkness, and learns to act in communion with the Force.
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