Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers Break Down Star Wars as an Epic, Universal Myth

Some of Star Wars’ detrac­tors call the series schlocky, blunt, pre­dictable, and implau­si­ble even by fan­ta­sy’s stan­dards. A defend­er might respond that they’re look­ing at it all wrong: to appre­ci­ate Star Wars, you need to watch it as an epic myth. George Lucas him­self, who has more or less mount­ed this argu­ment in response to charges of unsub­tle­ty, rarely seems far from drop­ping the phrase “the pow­er of myth.” That, sure­ly not coin­ci­den­tal­ly, is also the title of a 1988 Bill Moy­ers tele­vi­sion series on mythol­o­gist Joseph Camp­bell and his ideas about myth through time and across human cul­tures. Moy­ers and Camp­bell actu­al­ly con­duct­ed their first five episodes’ worth of con­ver­sa­tions at Lucas’ Sky­walk­er Ranch. Just as Lucas did his read­ing of Camp­bell, Camp­bell did his read­ing of Star Wars: in the brief clip from The Pow­er of Myth above, the schol­ar express­es his enthu­si­asm for the films’ use of mytho­log­i­cal ele­ments drawn from across the world. (Find the com­plete Pow­er of Myth series on DVD here.)

If you want to know about myth, Camp­bell remains the go-to guy. You can hear more from him on the Joseph Camp­bell Foun­da­tion’s YouTube chan­nel, which fea­tures clips of Camp­bell on the mythol­o­gy of the trick­ster, on myth as mir­ror for the ego, and, of course, on cir­cum­ci­sion. Though obvi­ous­ly not as exten­sive as the afore­men­tioned in-depth six-hour sit-down between Camp­bell and Moy­ers, they’ll still give you a sense of why Camp­bel­l’s obser­va­tions about the eter­nal rel­e­vance of the strongest myths have them­selves stayed so rel­e­vant a quar­ter-cen­tu­ry after his pass­ing. Applic­a­ble essay ques­tion: to what extent can we put the rel­a­tive lack of enthu­si­asm for the new­er Star Wars pre­quels down to George Lucas not hav­ing cracked his copy of The Hero With a Thou­sand Faces in a while?

Relat­ed con­tent:

Star Wars as Silent Film

The Exis­ten­tial Star Wars: Sartre Meets Darth Vad­er

Star Wars is a Remix

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall.

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