The Twelve Stages of “The Hero’s Journey” in Star Wars: A New Hope – Dr W. Steven Saunders
“The usual hero adventure begins with someone from whom something has been taken, or who feels there is something lacking in the normal experience available or permitted to the members of society. The person then takes off on a series of adventures beyond the ordinary, either to recover what has been lost or to discover some life-giving elixir. It’s usually a cycle, a coming and a returning.”
― Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces
One of reasons Star Wars has a fond place in my heart and in the heart of multiple generations is that it speaks to the archetypal “Hero’s Journey”. The Hero’s Journey is the journey of all of us. It’s why it feels so familiar and immediately identifiable. We recognize the struggles of Luke, Leia, and Hon. We identify with that yearning to be part of something bigger than ourselves. We have heard that call to adventure ourselves. The hero’s journey as a phrase was first coined by Professor of Mythology Joseph Campbell who based much of his work on the renowned psychologist Carl G. Jung. The Hero’s Journey is outlined as a series of steps in Campbell’s book, “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” and the original Star Wars (Episode IV: A New Hope) follows this arch very well. In some sense the entire original trilogy does but for the sake of this discussion, I’m going to focus on Episode IV: A New Hope.
Realm of the Known
The Hero’s Journey always begins in the realm of the known: Home, parents/caregivers, the familiar. There is a call to adventure that is pulling at the, often reluctant, hero. Luke has responsibilities at home to the only caregivers he has ever known; although, he yearns for something far more. The scene in New Hope after Luke has an argument with his aunt and uncle about joining the alliance progresses to him standing on the dune looking over the desert. The suns are setting and this long, lonely mournful music is playing. He seems to be longing for something yet can’t quite grasp it. I remember as a young boy myself, walking across the road from my house into the pasture and climbing up this hill to watch the sunset and feeling lonely and misunderstood. When I saw that scene, it felt like such vindication. I wasn’t alone. Luke and I were connected.
Later in the story, we know that after his newly acquired droid wanders off, Luke encounters “Old Ben Kenobi”. In the Hero’s Journey this is the meeting of a wise-old-man or the helper. This includes the aid of the supernatural realm that assists the hero on their journey. Obi One Kenobi is there to assist Luke in both learning the ways of the “Force” and to begin his initiation from the realm of the known to the realm of the unknown. In most hero’s journey stories, the Hero first must have a threshold moment or experience prior to leaving the realm of the known. They go to a place that is the threshold or boundary between the two worlds (known and unknown). Joseph Campbell, in the “Power of Myth” book and PBS television series, says that the threshold experience for Luke is the Cantina, the spaceport bar. It’s very much reminiscent of the tavern in the book “Treasure Island” where old seadogs and sailors who have been “out-there” (in the unknown) have come to tell their tales, Campbell opines. In a New Hope, Luke is immediately identified at the bar as a new comer and possibly “easy pickings” for unscrupulous pirates and rogues. Thanks to the protection of Ben and later future friend Hon Solo and Chewbacca, Luke survives his threshold moment.
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Mystery and the Unknown
In the Hero’s Journey the next step is to move into the realm of mystery and the unknown. Here the Hero must face a series of challenges ultimately coming to an experience of Death. This is quite literally the case with Luke. On the “Death Star” Luke must face both the existential threat of a weapon of mass destruction unlike any ever encountered as well as the menace of Darth Vader. Vader really represents the man who has given himself over to the State or the System and has become corrupted by it. Changed to the point where his former self is nearly truly dead. Ben goes to face Vader and in the last moments of his battle, surrenders to the inevitable and Luke watches him die. This is the middle of the Hero’s Journey. This is Death and then Rebirth. It is the death of the old ways, represented by Ben and the beginning of the new represented by Luke. Luke “rescues” Princess Leia and in doing so infuses and balances his own psyche with elements of the feminine. We see Princess Leia though, not as a passive damsel in distress, but as an active participant in her own rescue and in the defense of the greater cause of the alliance. She becomes another helper and agent of change for Luke the Hero. As Luke returns to the alliance headquarters, he is about to undergo a transformation.
The transformation is a hard one. It is demanding and usually entails an acceptance for change that is very difficult for most people. Joseph Campbell put it well, “The agony of breaking through personal limitations is the agony of spiritual growth. Art, literature, myth and cult, philosophy, and ascetic disciplines are instruments to help the individual past his limiting horizons into spheres of ever-expanding realization. As he crosses threshold after threshold, conquering dragon after dragon, the stature of the divinity that he summons to his highest wish increases, until it subsumes the cosmos. Finally, the mind breaks the bounding sphere of the cosmos to a realization transcending all experiences of form – all symbolizations, all divinities: a realization of the ineluctable void.” ― Joseph Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces.
We know that Ben prepared Luke to face the abyss and stare into the void. Prior to his Death, Ben introduces Luke to the “ways of the force.” Helping him to let go of familiar senses and rely upon his feeling and his intuition. This began Luke’s “Journey into a Larger world” as Ben eloquently puts it earlier. During the run on the Death Star, Luke hears Ben’s voice and turns off his targeting computer. Instead of relying on technology, Luke relies on his feelings and his intuition to guide him. The spiritual guidance of something far bigger than himself helps to save the day, destroying the Death Star and giving the alliance a decisive victory against the evil empire.
That pivotal moment not only is the turning point for the alliance, but it is also the turning point for Luke. What if he had ignored the still-small voice speaking to him? What if he had instead relied upon the known, the familiar, the technology and science that had not yet failed him? The Death Star would have remained intact, and the alliance would have been crushed in its infancy.
A single choice by an individual to follow the call to something larger than himself made all the difference.
Dr W. Steven Saunders
Dr. Saunders is a licensed psychologist practicing in Clermont, FL. He is a Associate Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Central Florida. Steven is huge fan of all things Star Wars since 1977 and a great SciFi fan generally. He lives with his beautiful wife Cindy and has two grown sons, Donovan (Aka Revan) and Dylan. He can be reached for comment or questions at firstname.lastname@example.org