Joseph Campbell is Holding You Back

The way in which we, as a community, judge and analyze Star Wars films seems to be stuck at a certain level of maturation that has dissuaded new voices entering the conversation and has actively shut out entire efforts of interpretation, application, and critical analysis.  For too long now, Star Wars has been synonymous with Joseph Campbell’s monomyth and Hero’s Journey; perhaps it is time to break the analytical log jam.  By allowing for more than this one strict interpretation of a film’s text, we allow new ideas and understanding to flourish while still being able to recognize the contributions that Campbell’s methods have afforded.  If we fail to let in new ideas, new methods, new understandings, we will never outgrow the toxic poison in the fan community.   

So what can we do about it?  First, we must admit we have an addiction; then we will be able to start unlearning what we have learned.  From there, submitting as students to teachers, we must find new voices and methods to explore. Then, you might say with no small dose of irony, we can become Masters of Two Worlds.  

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There is no denying the influence of Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces on George Lucas’ creative works.  Lucas studied storytelling and mythology while a film student; Campbell’s seminal work was celebrated as a method of understanding storytelling throughout history, a method of bridging all traditions of storytelling together into one homogeneous understanding of the human condition. did a retelling of Lucas and Campbell’s first meeting, as well as an alignment of Campbell’s review of Star Wars to his own theses on storytelling.  You can find a countless array of YouTube videos, articles, and podcasts that analyze to excruciating detail the way in with the Skywalker saga lines up with the Hero’s Journey.  Lucas, as noted in its second part, even financed the television short-series that brought Campbell’s teachings (which will be referred to as the “monomyth” for ease of reading going forward) to the public at large.  Star Wars has become inseparable from the idea of the Hero’s Journey. But instead of that being the wind beneath Star Wars’ wings, it may have become the anchor around its neck.  

So much of modern cinema comes from the monomyth, and so much of historical storytelling can be understood through that same lens.  We cannot deny how well tales line up against the three-part structure that the monomyth prescribes, as well as the different sub-steps included.  We all love a good “kill your gods” moment, or a hero “refuses the call” sequence. The impact of the monomyth has become so pervasive that now it has become standard to apply all storytelling efforts against it to see how they stack up.  Now, allegiance and adherence to the Hero’s Journey has become the rubric by which a film, particularly new Star Wars movies, is graded.  The idea of the monomyth has exceeded its original mandate of “attempting to understand storytelling” and has now replaced critical analysis and review of new storytelling efforts.  Constant application of the monomyth has made it more crutch than tool, more plate than fork and knife.  

There are three common criticisms against the monomyth which point out its oddly restrictive nature of the monomyth:

  1. Because the monomyth seeks to understand the common elements and themes in storytelling, it is overwhelmingly male-centric.  Historically, when the monomyth analysis is applied to myths and legends, it would have identified the heroes as male.  However, when the monomyth is used prescriptively, it dictates that the hero is male, relegating half of the entire species’ population to support staff, temptresses, or victims.  When authors and creators (and analysts like ourselves) begin with the monomyth framework in mind, it inherently denies the opportunity for female heroes to have their respective turn on the marquee banner.
  2. Classical myths rely on the intervention of the divine to either push protagonists or to confirm their positions; that is, either a hero’s quest begins when the gods go crazy or a hero wins when divine favor falls on them.  However, modern cultures do not understand the divine to behave the same way anymore.  We are too aware that good things can happen to bad people regardless of how the spiritual side of existence behaves, that bad people can absolutely achieve their goals without spiritual forces piercing the veil in order to aid the poor and downtrodden left in the wake of the villain, and, unfortunately, a burgeoning population disputes the very existence of any sort of life-after-life anyway.  The monomyth requires storytelling to operate within a societal construct that simply does not exist today which leads to an audience’s collective eye-rolling when the hero wins by virtue of “being the good guy.”
  3. The lone wolf, the Chosen One, the Savior of All; the monomyth celebrates and idolizes the lone hero who alone can save the world.  Perhaps it is more a modern evolution in terms of storytelling (especially considering the length of historical and classical mythologies), but we now have room for the team, the group, the squad by which to overcome evil.  Not dissimilar from the classical storytelling reliance on divine intervention, society has seen that the lone figure cannot save us, that heroic endeavors require collaboration, team-building, and fellowship.  If no man is truly an island unto himself and is instead part of the continent, then why do we expect our heroes to be any different?  Again, from an historical perspective, our stories tell of us of the lone figure facing down the monsters, but perhaps as far back as the life of Christ has mankind understood that none of our actions occur in a vacuum; we all require reliance on others, even those responsible for saving galaxies.

Not to take away from the benefits of understanding and applying the Hero’s Journey to our stories in order to better understand their structure and applicability, these issues demonstrate the problems of both exclusive reliance of the monomyth to analysis as well as crafting stories from the monomyth itself as if it were intended to be a blueprint.  

But, we’re here to talk about Star Wars!

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If we can put aside for the moment Star Wars’ obsession with the monomyth, is it possible and beneficial to analyze and consider the sequel trilogy under a new light?  If we can understand a different style of structure and apply its basic tenets to the most recently completed trilogy, we can indeed cultivate a new understanding. If most of the issues with the monomyth arise out of more modern evolutions and societal changes, then it makes sense that the most recently released films would benefit the most from switching out our analytical lenses. 

Consider then Impact Theory, which focuses efforts to identify the Main Character and the Impact Character in a story.  According to this theory, a story revolves around how the Main Character responds to the impact that the Impact Character has where the Main Character can choose to either adopt or reject the Impact Character’s ideology; the conclusion to the story and the end of the Main Character’s arc will confirm whether the Main Character chose wisely or poorly in either their adoption or rejection of the proffered ideology.  Considering characters and stories this way requires consideration of which characters are offered change, who accepts change, and who achieves their goals in the end.  It demonstrates relationships and connections between characters and helps provide understanding of why what happens to the Main Character happens indeed.  

Considering the sequel trilogy, there are clearly two focal characters: Rey and Kylo Ren.  The audience spends more time with them than any other character or even set of characters.  They are the two characters where the audience is privy to their internal processing and personal dilemmas.  We see Rey pilfering the dead and preparing her one quarter portion for dinner; we also see Kylo Ren asking his grandfather’s spirit for forgiveness for his lack of total devotion.  These sequences are different from Finn’s exasperation because of how much development the characters are allowed (Finn gets juuuuust enough whereas the Rey and Kylo’s scenes provide quite a bit to chew on) and Poe never gets a moment to himself for such introspection (at least in The Force Awakens).  Han and Leia come preloaded with character already so the film does not need to spend time with them to provide anything new for them outside of plot. That leaves us Rey and Kylo.

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The method then of measuring which character, Rey or Kylo, is the Impact Character versus the Main Character comes down to simply consider the story of the sequel trilogy from each character’s perspective and ask, “Which character challenges the fundamental ideologies of the other, which character is given the opportunity to adopt or reject, and how does that go for them?”  

Since rehashing the entire saga in a side-by-side chart sounds unbelievably fascinating a tad tedious, perhaps we can boil things down to the strongest moments that demonstrate which character is impacting the other and the result thereof.

The Interrogation Scene

Rewatch this sequence.  Kylo Ren sits crouched, watching an unconscious Rey, waiting for her to wake up.  Once she does, he threatens to take whatever he wants from her and then begins to psychically probe her mind.  He is attempting to recover the map that BB-8 has shown her but he encounters strong resistance.  Rey is able to rebuff Kylo’s Force assault and actually turns it against him.  

We have seen Rey fight back against those who would try and take advantage of her, specifically on Jakku when Finn first observes her fending off Unkar Plutt’s thugs.  Finn takes a beat to marvel at her ability to take care of herself even against unfriendly odds. Rey is doing the same thing with Kylo albeit with a different set of tools, tools she was previously unaware she had access to.  Rey is remaining true to herself: not willing to let a schoolyard bully simply take her lunch money without a fight.  

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However, Kylo Ren comes out of this encounter drastically.  Gone is the bravado of watching his sleeping captive, the arrogance of threatening that he can take whatever he wants.  Now, he is in retreat, scared of her powers responding to his and how that changes the dynamic between them. This is the audience’s first opportunity to see a change in Kylo Ren and it revolves around making his personal panic now very public; where we knew, from his conversation with Vader’s mask, that he already struggled to live up to the image he desired, now that same insecurity is on full display for Rey, Snoke, and the entirety of the First Order to see.  Kylo goes on to place his failure to secure the map from Rey on Snoke’s lack of complete training, which undermines the confidence he had in front of Hux earlier on in the film. In this sequence, we can see the impact that an encounter with Rey has clearly had on Kylo, even when Rey is not the primary acting agent in the scene.  

The Force Bond

Oh, the Force Bond, you source of so much hanging of hopes and subsequent consternation, you.  What you lack in clarity you make up for in intrigue and applicability.  But if we set aside the concept of the Force Bond momentarily, we can focus on the characters that are affected by it.  

Rey and Kylo connect through the Force in this way several times both in The Last Jedi and Rise of Skywalker.  But it seems to affect them in slightly different ways: Kylo Ren experiences more of Rey’s surroundings than she of his.  Consider that Kylo feels the raindrops while aboard Snoke’s command ship, Vader’s helmet falls from Ren’s personal room to right in front of him while standing on Kijimi, and the lightsaber is passed from Rey to Kylo (Ben) to fend off the Knights of Ren.  Rey only experiences something from Kylo’s side of the conversation coming through to her own while on Ahch-To when Kylo himself is visible (even to Luke) and also when the beads Kylo Ren knocks over on Kijimi spill over into his personal space on the Star Destroyer.  

Why is this?  Why is it that Kylo has more visceral experiences this way than Rey does?  It may be due to the certainty with which Rey accepts what is happening between them, whereas Kylo has to ask aloud, “Why is the Force connecting us?”  Rey continues to move through life, even her elementary Jedi training, with the child-like acceptance and earnestness that got her through life on Jakku.  She does not spend much time asking why things have happened the way that they have; rather, she accepts their happening and asks how to move forward.  She wants to know her place in “all of this,” rather than why the Force awakened in her.  She wants to know if Luke will come back and rescue the foundling Resistance instead of why he abandoned them in the first place.  She asks, “Is it true you tried to kill Ben Solo” rather than, “Why did you try to kill him?”  Kylo is stuck on the why questions. Why can he not devote himself entirely to the Dark Side? Why does Snoke continue to delay his continued training in the Force? Why is the Force connecting him with Rey?  

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Rey’s acceptance of events is having a literal impact on Kylo as he continues to receive touches from her side.  The rain drops tell us of the intimacy of their burgeoning relationship, but she receives no such physical connection in the same way.  Kylo can tell Rey’s location during Rise of Skywalker based on the manifestations that pass through their connection, but Rey does not need that type of information (since she knows where he is already).  Lastly, Rey sends the lightsaber through the Force bond in order to give him a fighting chance.  Without Rey’s moral and literal intervention, Kylo does not make it out of any of this alive.* The impact on Kylo is both physical and emotional; he experiences Rey’s world in both those same conditions as well.  

Kylo’s last experience with the Force Bond in The Last Jedi demonstrates the impact it has had on him as a character.  Rey, who was once willing to reach out and take his hand, to work together to restore his standing in the Light Side of the Force, now slams shut the doorway between them without allowing him a single word.  This comes on the heels of Kylo confronting Luke and making the grand genocidal threat that he is ready to take up the full mantle of the First Order’s Supreme Leader. He is out to destroy the galaxy now.  Where once Kylo could have been interested in simply ruling and guiding the galaxy, establishing his own brand of justice and peace, he has instead settled on domination and holocaust.  Rey’s attempts at saving Ben Solo actually pushed Kylo Ren further away, further down the downward spiral.  She wanted to reach out and pull him back in, to actually save him from himself.  However, Kylo rejected her approach of acceptance and clung only harder to his own ideas.  He dug in his heels in these moments as a result of the connection created between them.  

The Death Star II Wreckage

When our two characters are locked in saber combat, there is more going on than simply trying to out-athlete the other.  Kylo is on his mission to bring Rey before the Emperor or kill her in the attempts to do so,  while Rey had been trying to find her own way to Exogol.  Through the course of the battle, Leia reaches out with the last of her life’s energy to contact Kylo.**  During the ensuing moment where Kylo reacts to her mother’s psychic caress, Rey takes the attack of opportunity and strikes Kylo with his own saber.  However, instantly regretting having defeated him in such a way, and without resolving their inter-character tensions, she stops to heal him by sharing her own life force with him, as she had done with the sandworm on Pasanna.  Rey has already clarified that doing so requires giving up some of the healer’s life in exchange for the healing bestowed on the victim.

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This one is much more on the nose than other examples: Rey’s selfless action of sacrificing her life for that of her foe is a clear action step taken in order to affect the other.  Kylo cannot continue the story if he is struck down here.  

Rey’s healing does more for Kylo than simply prevent his passing.  The combined efforts of Han (during The Force Awakens), Luke (in The Last Jedi), Leia, and now Rey have finally been able to penetrate the armor that Kylo had built around himself.  He is able to turn away from his obsession with the Dark Side and embrace the forgiveness offered him by friends and family.  He has now seen the depth of Rey’s capacity for selflessness, he is compelled to renounce the First Order, Snoke, Palpatine, and everything associated with his mistakes and misdeeds.  His position within the Force has been restored to its former standing but this time he gets to experience it without the interference of the galaxy’s most powerful Dark Side agents assaulting him at every turn.  He, for the first time,  has a fighting chance.  

Crunch the Numbers

Looking at these examples, we can see how Rey plays the role of Impact Character and Kylo Ren is the Main Character.  Rey’s worldview is rooted in kindness and the greater good; Kylo’s worldview is focused on revenge and obsession. However, by the end of the trilogy, we can see which one rubbed off on the other.  Rey’s constant compassion has worn down the armor Ren spent years building around himself.  If Impact Theory contends that the author passes judgment on worldviews by the outcome of the Main Character, it becomes clear how the writers behind Kylo Ren considered him.  Perhaps it should not come as so great a shock to conclude that kindness, self-sacrifice, duty, and honor all come out ahead of self-interest, bitterness, vengeance, and isolation.  Rey continually offered Kylo Ren the opportunity to change his approach to match her own; she constantly showed him a new way of operating.  While he rejects it in The Last Jedi, he ultimately accepts her offerings in Rise of Skywalker, culminating in his absconding the Dark Side.  

The entire Star Wars saga has never been shy about its moralism nor its idolization of heroism, and the sequel trilogy is no different.  Ben Solo, then redeemed into his pure state as a Skywalker, becomes the force (ha) that enables Rey to overcome the entirety of darkness in the universe, the personification of all that is wrong internally and externally, the Devil himself.  Ben achieves this enlightened state by what has impacted him the most: the actions and character of Rey, the scavenger from Jakku who had no reason to care for him but respected him enough to try.  It is a beautiful picture of the life focused on serving and caring for others, and how it demonstrates the respect for their personhood, how such a life of service and kindness can overcome even the deepest darknesses.  It provides hope for those in darkness to know that they do not have to be alone and that there is a way out; it provides assurance for those in the light to know that they matter and they can overcome their own personal darkness when they focus on sharing what light they have with those around them.

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One last thing to address then is what effect this type of Impact Theory analysis has on Rey.  After all, if Kylo Ren, ostensibly the villain, is the “Main Character,” does that not denigrate Rey’s standing and Daisy Ridley’s billing?  Could not this approach suffer from the same male-centric problems that the Hero’s Journey is accused of above?  

Impact Theory is not interested in the gender of the characters in order to make its determinations.  While the Hero’s Journey tends to relegate women to those roles of sidekicks and temptresses, there is no such relegation here done by the theory of analysis itself.  Instead, what it may reveal is how often creatives put women in a subservient role.  This might reveal tendencies and trends if applied broadly and repetitively enough. For just this singular analysis, it is not enough to draw any real conclusions from yet.  It seems strange that somehow the villain becomes the Main Character under this method.  Perhaps we as audiences have become so cultivated into believing that the heroes are the main characters and that we would not want to associate ourselves with the villains. This proves uncomfortable to grapple with.  As a result, this analysis may reveal more about our own perceptions rather than anything inside the film as well.  

After all this, then, where does that leave us?  By no means do we suggest that the monomyth has no place in critical analysis.  Campbell’s work should remain one of the strongest tools of film analysis available; however, it should remain one of those tools, and not the only one.  We as consumers of media must be discerning of quality or else fall victim to (further) corporate negligence by accepting, promoting, and elevating nonsense in our content.  But, to do that fairly, we must be able to look at things from more than a single angle.  By opening up our critical faculties to more than simply Campbell’s work, we can first gain better appreciation for the things we have already love, and second address some of the poison in the community by rising above the discourse.  While there may be an overall monomyth, we should never settle for a monothought.

Drew Brett


(ah the footnotes, where we can really let our tangents live and breathe and move!)
*More on Ben making it out alive next time, hopefully.  Stay tuned.  
**After watching TROS more recently, it seems possible that Leia actually sensed Rey’s blossoming Dark Side affinity and spent her life force protecting Ben from Rey’s killing blow.  The way in which Leia calmly stands up from her terminal station, lays herself down, and then reaches out to Ben, seems to communicate passing her life force to him but we as the audience have no understanding of why.  That “why” is answered when Rey hits him with the mortal strike; Rey is subsequently dumbstruck when she feels Leia’s life slip away rather than Kylo Ren’s. Is it possible Rey kills Leia inadvertently, making Leia’s last action one of self-sacrifice to save both her son as well as her student?

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