Joseph Campbell, Star Wars, and the Hero’s Journey

Who was Joseph Campbell?

Joseph Campbell was a leading 20th Century world religion and mythology scholar. He revolutionised the way that stories and myths are understood, and has had a great impact on movies, novels, the Arts and storytelling of all kinds since his classic works were published.

Campbell was born in 1904 and died in 1987. He was raised by a family of traditional practicing Irish Catholics, and the young Campbell adopted their faith, practicing well up until his late 20’s. After this, Campbell never really lost his faith, it just changed form.

The most significant event of his youth was perhaps the fire that wrecked the family home in 1919 and killed his grandmother.

After graduating High School he attended Dartmouth College, where he initially read Biology and Maths. After a while, he decided that he preferred the humanities. It was to be a seismic shift.

After gaining an MA in Medieval Literature, he proceeded to study at various universities around the world.

In 1934 Campbell accepted a job as a professor at Sarah Lawrence College, where he taught for the next 38 years until retirement in 1972.


What was his Magnum Opus (Great Work)?

Over his career, Campbell wrote extensively on myth, legend, and religion with many works attributed to his name. What he is most famous for, though, is the great work of comparative mythology, “The Hero with a Thousand Faces”.

This book, considered one of the great works of the 20th Century by many reviewers, was written by Campbell in 1949.

Influenced by the great depth psychologist Carl Jung, Campbell’s main thesis was that despite having a multitude of different locations, characters and stories, many of the world’s myths contain a central thread.

Campbell called it the “monomyth” (after Irish writer James Joyce’s coining of the term).

The “monomyth” is also known as the Hero’s journey.

What is the Hero’s Journey?

Campbell put it best:

“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: The hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”

With this marvellous passage Campbell explains how the Hero is the building block for all myth, the narrative template for mythic consciousness.

In all myths and religions, you see this one story, this one narrative arc, shining out from behind the masks of the individual religions.

The arc of the Hero’s journey is laid out by Campbell in his book; he divided it into three parts:

  • Separation (The Hero leaves the world of common day)
  • Initiation (The Hero goes under intense trials)
  • Return (The Hero returns to the common day world with boons to bestow on his fellow man)

The Hero’s journey actually has many parts to it and can get quite detailed; however this pattern above is always the same.


A fascinating fact about Joseph Campbell

During the Great Depression (1929) Campbell decided that job opportunities were not going to be plentiful, so for the next five years, till !934, he took to living in a shack in the woods in New York State.

There, he basically lived the life of a hermit, surviving on meagre rations, and reading 8 hours a day.

He later said that he “would divide the day into four four-hour periods, of which I would be reading in three of the four-hour periods, and free one of them … I would get nine hours of sheer reading done a day. And this went on for five years straight.”

He also commented that this period was one of the most intellectually most productive of his life.

What was Campbell’s relationship with George Lucas and Star Wars?

George Lucas, the director of and creative genius behind Star Wars, was one of the first Hollywood directors to credit Campbell’s work as a direct influence.

In fact you could say that the original Star Wars film is a direct take on A Hero With a Thousand Faces, with Luke Skywalker as the archetypal hero. You can see other archetypes in the film such as Yoda as the Wise Old Man, plus Darth Vader as representing the Jungian Shadow, the dark side.

Now obviously stories of good fighting evil have been around for millennia. It is just these characters in this formation, with this plot, that gives a big nod to Campbell’s seminal work.

What is Campbell’s legacy?

Since his death in 1987, Joseph Campbell’ star has grown even brighter. In the 20th and 21st Century, many figures have claimed to have been influenced by him:

  • Novelist Dan Brown said Campbell’s work had inspired him to create the Robert Langdon character.
  • As mentioned above, George Lucas and Star Wars, bringing “The Hero…” to a new audience.
  • Many modern filmmakers’ work – Indiana Jones, The Matrix, Batman, The Lion King – all these have Campbellian themes.
  • Many novelists, songwriters, video game creators and writers of all kinds have taken inspiration from Campbell’s work.
  • Novelist Richard Adams said that novel Watership Down was heavily influenced by “The Hero With A Thousand Faces”.


However, despite “The Hero…”’s phenomenal success, many people will have heard of Campbell for a different reason, for the saying, “Follow your bliss”. Rather than being a hedonistic call to arms, the phrase was often used by Campbell to mean something higher, more spiritual.

Indeed, During his later years, when some students took him to be encouraging hedonism, Campbell is reported to have grumbled, “I should have said, ‘Follow your blisters’!

Typical of Campbell’s wit and humanity, even when being taken out of context!

Anyone who has seen a modern film or read a modern novel is dipping into Campbell’s legacy.

He lives on today, and for is all times and places.



Saint Kim Kardashian? The Fascinating Story of How the Saints Were the Celebs of the Middle Ages

St George slaying the dragon – Photo Credit 

St Christopher was one of the most popular Saints of the Middle Ages. He was the Patron Saint of travelers, so many Catholics would pray to him before embarking on a journey; a pilgrimage, for example.

His protection was seen as being powerful, and could protect a traveler against bandits, illness or accident en route. Many pilgrims would wear a pendant with St Christopher on it as a good luck charm.

Who Are the Saints?

Saints are people venerated in the Catholic Church as having led holy lives.  If someone is seen as having lived a life of “heroic virtue” then they can be put forward to the Vatican to be “canonized” (made a Saint). Such as process of canonization can take just a few years (in the case of Pope John Paul II) or even centuries, in the case of some medieval Saints.

There are only two qualifiers for Sainthood – living a holy life, and being dead.

Yes, Sainthood is only awarded posthumously. So if you are canonized, you don’t get to bask in the glory in this life!

In medieval times there was a great emphasis on praying to the Saints – the church taught that since they were holy people, Saints went straight to heaven after death. It was assumed that therefore Saints had the ear of God, and could “put in a good word” for the faithful on earth. This is called intercession.

There are literally thousands of such Saints in the Catholic faith. All seen as being exemplars of virtue, having led holy lives worthy of imitation. These Saints have a social function too – serving as the glue that held medieval society together, all helping the medieval person through the journey of life with their intercession.

Who are the Saints today?

But what about the modern world?

Who are today’s Saints?

Well, in the skeptical West, Catholic Saints have lost much of their lustre. So who has replaced them in our hearts?

Well, the answer seems to be celebrities.

From celeb royalty – The Royal Family – through to film stars, pop stars, TV stars and sports stars, the adulation, reverence and esteem that these stars are held in today very closely mirrors  the glory that the Saints were held in the Middle Ages.

Lives of the Saints – Just like Hello Magazine?

For example, a v popular devotional text from the Middle Ages was “The Lives of the Saints”. These came in various forms, but basically told stories of great virtue and heroism from those great figures of history

Whether it was a Saint killing a dragon, or one refusing to recant his beliefs to the point of death in Roman Times, all the stories were today what we would call hagiography – a mixture of myth and history.

Today, in the same vein, magazines like “Hello” and “OK” parade celebrities on their front cover, offering their readers a glimpse into a rich, glamorous life that the reader can aspire to.

In the same way, these modern lives are “touched up” to produce an almost unreal effect, similar to that of The Lives of the Saints.

Relics and Shrines

A similar theme can be struck between the tombs of dead Saints and the tombs of dead celebrities. I’m not the first to find a correspondence between a medieval pilgrimage to Rome or Santiago de Compostela on one hand, and someone holidaying to Graceland today to see where their favourite popstar, Elvis, is buried.

In the Middle Ages, relics and pilgrimage was a massive industry. If a church or Cathedral was able to obtain what was thought of as a Saint’s relics – say, a lock of hair, or a bit of bone – then a whole industry of tourism would be built up around them.

There would be hostels to house the pilgrims, donations to the church, trinkets to sell them, and taverns to feed them. Whole towns sprang up to service this entire pilgrimage industry.

Something very similar greets people in Graceland, USA, when they visit. They pay the entry fee, revere the relics, and stay in the hotels.

There’s money to be made!

And In case you thought the pilgrimage was dead – last year almost 200,000 people walked the Camino in Spain – The Way of St James to Santiago de Compostela.

Not dead yet!

Change in Saints

Avid Kleinberg notes how the type of celebrity in the Middle Ages was not linear – it actually changed around the 12th Century. Before then, Saints tended to be spiritual athletes – hermits, ascetics, bearers of torture and stigmata – closely tied to their communities.

With the 12th Century, you get people like St Bernard of Clairvaux, St Francis of Assisi and St Anthony of Padua, all figures who go beyond the normal mould. The fact that this new breed of Saint was recognized across a broad territory meant there had emerged the beginnings of a network of communication, and the emergence of new ideas.

Indeed there has often been a viable thesis put forward of a 12th Century Renaissance, which would work well here.

Who were some of the most famous medieval Saints?

  • St George – (d.303 AD) – One of the most famous medieval Saints, according to legend George was a Roman soldier who was martyred for his faith for refusing to recant his faith in the face of Roman persecution. George was also famous in legend for slaying a dragon. St George is the Patron Saint of England, Malta and Georgia.
  • Andrew the Apostle – (d.1st Century AD) One of the 12 disciples, Andrew is featured in the Gospels as a loyal follower of Jesus. He is one of the fishermen to whom Jesus says, “come, I will make you fishers of men.” Understandably, Andrew is known as the Patron Saint of fishermen and fishmongers. Many a fishermen has prayed to him for his intercession on stormy seas, I’m sure.
  • St Bede – (d.735 AD) – The Patron Saint of Historians. Bede was an Anglo-Saxon monk who lived in northern England during the Dark Ages. He wrote the classic “Ecclesiastical History of the English People”, one of the first histories of England. Historians pray to him for his blessing during writing of their works.


Who Might Their Modern Counterparts Be?

  • Russell Brand – Patron Saint of addicts? Brand, the world famous UK born comedian, actor and You Tuber, suffered from addictions to various substances in his youth. These include heroin, crack cocaine, and sex. Brand recovered fully by taking the 12 step program in his youth. He has stayed clean and sober for years now. He could serve as a good role model for people struggling with addiction.
  • Jennifer Aniston – Patron Saint of unlucky in loves? Aniston is most famous for her role in 90’s sitcom friends, but also her roles in many rom-com’s subsequently. She famously has had a string of broken relationships behind her, and is seen as being “unlucky in love”. Many who were in the same position as her could certainly identify with her.
  • Justin Bieber – Could be the Patron Saint of Christians? A devout Christian, Bieber is known for his association with Australian megachurch Hillsong. He has been vocal about his faith, and speaks up for Christians undergoing persecution or strife.


It can be fun to make comparisons between the fame of medieval Saints and modern celebrities. But you could say that, despite the similarities, there are differences too.

Saints are known for their devout holiness, which seems far out of reach for us mortals most of the time. Celebs, on the other hand, are known for very much ordinary-ness, with their car crash lives, broken marriages and drug busts.

But while the Saints may be better role models (as writer Alain De Botton has pointed out) they are part myth, part legend, part history. Many of the Saints’ lives have been obviously made up. Even Catholic historians would agree with that.

So is it realistic to set up the Saints as models of holiness when so many are not realistic?

Well, as these stories have evolved over the centuries, they have taken on a colour that is attractive to many of us today.  We must ask ourselves the question: will today’s celeb stories be known by many in 1000 year’s time?

Perhaps the Saints stories have a longevity that will outlast modern celebs.

Perhaps the Saints are the real heroes, for that fact at least.