Star Wars: The Magic of Myth
- Dates: April 5, 2002 through July 7, 2002
- Collections: Decorative Arts
The Call to Adventure
In mythology, the hero's journey begins with the "call to adventure." Destiny's herald is usually someone or something fairly ordinary—a frog, a deer in the forest, or in this case a humble droid—that carries an important message for the one who is prepared to receive it.
As the Star Wars story begins, a battle in space rages between the evil powers of darkness (the Galactic Empire) and the forces of good (the Rebel Alliance). Princess Leia sends a plea for help to Jedi Knight Obi-Wan (Ben) Kenobi on the planet of Tatooine. The hand of Fate, in the form of Jawa traders, brings her message to Luke Skywalker, a young farmboy. When Luke sees the message hologram, he is drawn into a quest to rescue the Princess and ultimately to save the galaxy.
The Wise and Helpful Guide
A hero first must encounter "threshold guardians," beings who block the way to the adventure. Luke faces threshold guardians when he is attacked by the Tusken Raiders. He is rescued by Ben.
Often the inexperienced hero finds that he cannot proceed without supernatural aid, in the form of a "wise and helpful guide" who provides advice and amulets to further the quest. Ben serves as such a guide and gives Luke a special token—a lightsaber that once belonged to Luke's father.
Ben also interprets the Princess's message and tells Luke about the spiritual power known as the Force. Luke resists the call to adventure, but when he finds his home burned and his family killed, he joins Ben on the journey to Mos Eisley spaceport to obtain transportation to the planet Alderaan, the home of Princess Leia.
Into the Labyrinth
A labyrinth has always symbolized a difficult journey into the unknown, and in one way or another it is often incorporated into tales of the hero's journey. When the heroes arrive in the vicinity of Alderaan, they find that the planet has been destroyed by the Death Star, a gigantic Imperial space station. The Death Star is a technological labyrinth—a maze of hallways, passages, dead ends, and bottomless trenches. Like traditional knights, Han and Luke don armor to accomplish their first hero deed—the "princess rescue."
The Dark Road of Trials
Midway through the hero's journey comes a long and perilous path of trials, tests, and ordeals that bring important moments of illumination and understanding. Again and again along the way, monsters must be slain and barriers must be passed. Ultimately the hero must undertake the fearful journey of the descent into darkness.
Although the Death Star has been destroyed, the powers of darkness have not been conquered. The Empire has pursued the Rebels to the ice planet of Hoth, where the heroes face new dangers from predatory creatures and the harsh climate and are forced to flee during an Imperial attack.
The next step in the hero quest is a challenge to mortal combat. The heroes experienced an initial rite of passage in the Death Star and accomplished the "princess rescue." Now Leia leads Han and Luke to the Rebel base to plan an attack on the Death Star. Luke joins the fighter pilots of the Rebellion. As he puts on his uniform, he puts aside his youthful identity and assumes a new role—that of a heroic pilot, ready to sacrifice his life for his cause.
In the end good triumphs over evil, and the heroes are recognized for their deeds of valor. This moment is the end of one adventure, but it also represents the start of the next stage—further initiation on the "road of trials."
The Sacred Grove
The "sacred grove" is another mythic motif; it represents an enclosure where the hero is changed. Ancient peoples widely believed the tree to be infused with creative energy. Forests came to symbolize mystery and transformation, and they were home to sorcerers and enchanters.
When Luke leaves Hoth, he travels to the planet Dagobah to undergo training with the Jedi Master, Yoda. The hallmark of Dagobah is its large, oddly shaped trees.
Forests can also symbolize the unconscious mind, where there are secrets to be discovered and perhaps dark emotions or memories to be faced. In this forest Luke battles an image of Vader, prefiguring his combat with the Dark Lord later in the story.
The opening of the mind and heart to spiritual knowledge requires a sacrifice from the hero. At this difficult and dangerous place on the hero path, Han and Luke both reaffirm the meaning and importance of their lives by their willingness to sacrifice themselves.
The danger of illusion is symbolized by Cloud City above the planet Bespin. At first the city appears transcendent as it floats among the clouds, but it has a dark underside that becomes a crucible of pain and betrayal for the heroes. Vader follows the Falcon to Bespin and then lures Luke there to entrap him. Han is captured, put into hibernation in the carbon freeze chamber, and taken away by bounty hunter Boba Fett to be delivered to Han's former employer, Jabba the Hutt. Han's friend, Lando Calrissian, who betrayed Han to Vader, will undergo a life change and begin his own hero journey.
Into the Belly of the Beast
One particular mythic motif is the "swallowing up" of the hero by a large monster. This represents the entry into a mystical world where transformations occur, and the eventual escape represents a spiritual rebirth.
Han and Leia are pursued by Imperial Star Destroyers and TIE fighters as they leave Hoth. To escape, Han flies the Falcon into an asteroid "cave," which turns out to be the mouth of a huge space slug. Here Han and Leia at last open their hearts to love.
Vader also undergoes a change at this point, when he emerges from an egg-like meditation chamber. The Emperor appears to him through a holographic message, and Vader is revealed as a slave to the evil forces of the Empire, rather than as their master.
The Path to Atonement
The hero's journey sometimes includes a "father quest." After many trials and ordeals, the hero finds his father and becomes "at-one" with him. This process is called "atonement."
Luke has tried to follow in his father's footsteps as a heroic pilot and Jedi Knight. The dark, unknown side of his father—and of himself—is now unveiled as Luke confronts Vader in the dark byways of Cloud City. Vader reveals to Luke that he is his father. Luke realizes that he must sacrifice himself, rather than become a tool of evil like Vader.
Leia rescues Luke as he falls from the underside of Cloud City, and when Vader calls to Luke through the Force, Luke acknowledges him as "Father"—they have begun to move toward reconciliation. Luke has recognized the dark side of himself as part of his destiny, and Darth Vader has begun his own journey toward transformation.
The Hero's Return
The "hero's return" marks the end of the "road of trials." The hero must return from his adventures with the means to benefit his society. Luke comes home to Tatooine to rescue Han from Jabba the Hutt. This is not an easy transition for Luke; his new-found abilities as a Jedi Knight are doubted by friend and foe alike.
As the story continues, all the characters undergo changes: Han is resurrected from his carbonite tomb, Lando makes up for his betrayal of Han by helping to rescue him, and Leia assures the end of Jabba's reign of tyranny by destroying him herself.
The Shadow Rises
The heroes are not the only ones who can undergo change and rebirth. The forces of Evil can also recoup their power and grow with new strength. While the Rebels continue to struggle against Imperial tyranny, the Empire is constructing a new Death Star. A final confrontation must now take place. The forces of good, represented by Mon Mothma, leader of the Rebel Alliance, and those of evil, led by the Emperor, regroup to plan their strategies. Luke discovers that Leia, who has guided and supported him throughout his journey, is his twin sister. In many ways she represents his positive "anima," the personification of the feminine aspects of his psyche. He also finds that he must confront Vader again. Yet when they make mind-to-mind contact through the Force, Vader appears uncertain rather than aggressive—a sign that he is beginning a transformation.
The Enchanted Forest
The inhabitants of an "enchanted forest" can be both dangerous and helpful. The hero must know the right magic to evoke their protective powers. Luke wins the help of the Ewoks, the small furry inhabitants of the forest moon of Endor.
The Ewoks prove that heroes can come in any size or shape. They battle the high technology of the Empire with logs, stones, and vines. Their lush green environment and harmony with nature make a warm contrast to the cold, austere technology of the Empire. The Ewoks help the Rebels deactivate the Death Star's energy shield generator, so Lando can fly into the Death Star and bomb the reactor core.
Meanwhile, Luke realizes that he must set out on a different path from his friends to attempt to reach that part of Vader that is still his father and to turn him back from the dark side.
The Heart of Darkness
The heroes must at last enter the "heart of darkness," the fortress of Evil itself, to destroy its stronghold.
When Han and Leia finally destroy the energy shield generator, Lando and Wedge fly into the Death Star to fire on the reactor core at the center of the space station. While conflict rages around the Death Star, Luke struggles with the dark forces within the Death Star, where he is undergoing a spiritual conflict in his battle of wills with the Emperor.
The Final Victory
The destruction of evil is not always accomplished by sheer physical force or cunning. There is always hope that those who have given themselves to the forces of darkness can be redeemed. In his confrontation with Vader and the Emperor, Luke wins not through his warrior skills, but through an appeal to his father's heart. It is Vader who slays the Emperor to save his son.
At the climax of the Star Wars trilogy, Vader asks Luke to unmask him. Masks are frequently part of mythic ritual. They can strike fear into the hearts of enemies, summon ancestors, or invoke supernatural beings. Vader's mask is part of his demonic persona. The dropping of the mask represents Vader's release from the imprisonment of his role, a release that comes for him only at the moment of death. Yet this gesture is also an affirmation of life, the final opening up of father to son.
As the Rebels and Ewoks celebrate the destruction of the Death Star and their victory over the Empire, Luke burns his father's armor on a funeral pyre. The spirit of Luke's father, Anakin Skywalker, joins the spirits of Ben and Yoda. Luke has achieved the final triumph of the mythic hero's journey—he has brought back from his adventures the means for the regeneration of his society.
In the end humanity has triumphed over a repressive, monolithic system, and Luke, through his hero's journey, has opened his heart to compassion and succeeded in following a spiritual path between light and dark, good and evil.
The hero must leave his familiar life behind to begin a journey from childhood to adulthood and to a life-transformation. The Mos Eisley spaceport is Luke's threshold to the adventure. Here he encounters danger, but he also finds a heropartner in the form of Han Solo, a pirate and smuggler. Han's faithful first mate is the enormous Wookiee Chewbacca. Helpful animals often appear in myths and fairy tales, symbolizing the power of the hero's instinctive nature.
As they travel from Tatooine to Alderaan in the Millennium Falcon, Ben begins to train Luke in the ways of the Force.
A Forbidden Bond
Padmé Amidala and Anakin Skywalker meet again on Corsucant. She has completed her term as Queen of Naboo and become a Senator of the Republic, where Anakin and his Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi are assigned to protect her. After two assassination attempts, Padmé must flee Corsucant with Anakin as her bodyguard. This journey is also a spiritual transition for the travelers as they learn to open their hearts to one another.
This spiritual, romantic love between two individuals was celebrated in medieval European myth as “Amour.” In the twelfth century, Amour was considered a revolutionary concept, as marriages were arranged for social or political reasons and spirituality was associated exclusively with religion. Individuality was subject to strict limitations within the concepts of moral obligation and adherence to an ethical code.
Just so, Anakin and Padmé have dedicated themselves to duty and honor at the expense of their personal lives. Part of Anakin’s Jedi training requires him to distance himself from relationships; Padmé is a leader of her people and resolutely focused on serving them. Yet Anakin’s passion and Padmé’s compassion break down these barriers and allow love to enter their hearts.
However, Amour also opens the heart to suffering, as illustrated in medieval myths such as those of Lancelot and Guinevere, Tristan and Isolde, and Romeo and Juliet. Like those lovers, Padmé and Anakin must pay a heavy price for choosing to value love over duty and social obligation.
The Ruler of Wisdom
Amidala is the young, elected ruler of Naboo. When her people are threatened by the Trade Federation, she leaves her home world to seek the assistance of the Galactic Senate. Her request is rejected, and Queen Amidala returns home to convince the native Gungan, who share the planet, to help her save her kingdom.
Nabu was the ancient Babylonian god of wisdom, so as Queen of Naboo, Amidala is the ruler of wisdom. Enthroned amidst her Councilors and handmaidens, she is a politician and statesman, using her clear perception to govern wisely.
However, Amidala’s elaborate gowns, mask-like makeup, and serene dignity also give her a remote quality and conceal the other aspects of her character. When she pleads with the Gungan leaders, Amidala reveals that she sometimes disguises herself as Padmé, while one of her handmaidens pretends to be the Queen. As Padmé, Amidala is touchingly young and sometimes naïve, while at the same time she can be a young woman of decisive action, as shown when she creates and executes the plan to retake Naboo.
In these abilities to hide in plain sight, project an illusion of herself, and yet reveal her true nature as well, Amidala embodies the mystical force of maya. This is the power both to conceal and reveal truth at the same time and is particularly associated with mythic goddesses.
The Servant of Darkness
The treacherous Sith lord sends his apprentice Darth Maul to find Queen Amidala when she escapes the Trade Federation blockade surrounding Naboo. Darth Maul unsuccessfully attacks Jedi knight Qui-Gon as the Queen’s ship leaves Tatooine, and later the two meet in combat during the battle for Naboo. Qui-Gon is killed by Darth Maul, who in turn is destroyed by Obi-Won.
While the conflict appears to center around Queen Amidala, it is really part of the ongoing battle between two rival forces in the cosmos, the spirit of light and the spirit of darkness. The ritualized combat between these two powers is a tradition that dates back to the earliest mythic stories. In the best-known variant, reflected in the Star Wars saga, the powers of darkness rebel against the established order, and humanity must take sides in the struggle. Qui-Gon is the representative of goodness and compassion, while Darth Maul is symbolic of violent destruction and the dark forces of evil. Death and evil are closely related in mythology, and Mal is the death-demon, in the service of a dark tyrant who will conquer the galaxy and drain its life energy. With the mutual destruction of Qui-Gon and Darth Maul, the battle is inconclusive and will be engaged again. The Sith lord will find another apprentice; the heroes will find their greatest triumph in turning death from a defeat into a victory and reasserting the forces of light.
An Epic Saga
Star Wars follows the heroic journeys of several characters: Luke, Han, Leia, and even Darth Vader. At the end of Return of the Jedi, Vader shows that he too is a hero when he saves Luke and destroys the Emperor. The beginning of Vader’s hero’s journey is revealed in The Phantom Menace, when Queen Amidala arrives on the planet Tatooine, and a young Anakin Skywalker, the future Darth Vader, receives his own call to adventure. During the Podrace and his first efforts to save Amidala and her people, Anakin proves himself through his deeds. The early part of his journey begins full of hope and promise, but he has the potential to follow the dark side of the Force.
Star Wars is ultimately a story of a father, mother, son, and daughter, and thus follows the pattern of an epic saga, a mythic tale that spans the generations. The choices, actions, and misfortunes of the parents create a destiny that their children must later fulfill. Events in the lives of the parents are often echoed in those of the children, and so Anakin’s and Luke’s stories begin in the same way, with a damsel in distress and a call to action.
Myths and Heroes
Every culture has heroes and heroines who have been immortalized in myth and art. Myth can mean “fiction,” but some myths are based on real people and events. Actual heroic individuals can become both famous and mythical, sometimes because their deeds and personal qualities represent the ideals of their society.
Many of the works of art displayed in this gallery from the Brooklyn Museum of Art’s permanent collections present various cultures’ interpretations of the heroic journey. This mythic formula calls for an exceptional individual, mortal or divine, to set out on a great and difficult adventure. Some scholars believe that this story pattern expresses essential universal themes and symbols of human life, including the challenges that confront each of us in the journey from birth to death.
Exemplifying various heroic traditions, the objects in this gallery range in date from antiquity to the late twentieth century. Recently, newer media, such as motion pictures and television, have come to reflect the mythic pattern of the heroic journey, especially in westerns, science fiction, and fantasy. The Star Wars films are a modern interpretation of the myth of the hero that is known to a wide audience.
Star Wars and the Myth of the Hero
A major basis for the Star Wars films is the myth or journey of the hero, which involves the many themes and stages of a heroic quest. The works of art in this gallery, from the Brooklyn Museum of Art’s permanent collections, show how related traditions of the hero have been expressed in art throughout history and in many different cultures.
The Star Wars story begins with a hero-in-the-making, Luke Skywalker, responding to a call to adventure and setting out on a quest. During his journey, Luke, like many other heroes in world history, acquires allies and helpers, and even a special weapon—in Luke’s case, the Jedi lightsaber from his mentor Obi Wan Kenobi. As Luke continues his journey, he undergoes a series of tests and ordeals, learning and maturing all the while. As in many versions of the myth of the hero, during some of these tests he endures what may be considered a symbolic death, a descent into the Underworld, and a rebirth—transformations also experienced by some of the heroes and heroines depicted in this gallery.
Luke is only one of the heroes in the Star Wars films, which also recount the heroic exploits of Princess Leia and Han Solo. Even Darth Vader, who is finally returned from evil to good, is a type of hero, a redeemed villain with many historical precedents.
The Hero Defeats the Beast
For centuries, in the folklore of many cultures, the dragon has represented the ultimate evil that the hero must overcome. In Greek mythology, Jason faces a dragon that is symbolic of dangerous power, while in Christian tradition, Saint George battles Lucifer in the form of the dragon.
The dragon’s physical characteristics vary from culture to culture, with features drawn from a variety of animals. The evil that it represents can take the form of an entirely different creature altogether, as in the fantastic beasts that threaten the heroes of Star Wars. An unarmed Luke Skywalker vanquishes the horrific, reptilian “rancor” in Jabba the Hutt’s dungeon (see above). The semidivine Greek mythological hero Hercules defeated a number of strange and powerful creatures in his twelve labors, or tasks.
Such bravery and strength in facing and ultimately defeating these beasts demonstrates the heroes’ triumph over the forces of darkness and exemplifies the supreme heroic feat.
Like their male counterparts, heroines embark on dangerous quests in an effort to triumph over evil. They may be warriors, leaders, goddesses, or humble mortals with an exceptional gift and calling, like the young French soldier Joan of Arc, or the American Harriet Tubman, who helped hundreds of slaves to escape north on the Underground Railroad before the Civil War.
In most societies there are traditionally more legends about male heroic warriors, but brave females, mortal and mythic—such as the Egyptian queen Cleopatra, the Greek beauty Psyche, the curious Dorothy of The Wizard of Oz, and the adventurous Alice of Alice in Wonderland—demonstrate that women have also succeeded in the heroic journey. As women’s roles in the world have expanded, heroines in more modern popular tales of fantasy and science fiction, such as Princess Leia and Queen Amidala of Star Wars, have become more common as leaders and warriors.
Mortal and Mythical Heroes
In most cultures throughout history, actual individuals have been raised to heroic status because of their deeds or positions. Political leaders or warriors, for example, have been venerated during times of battle. People have also elevated such heroes to mythical status by exaggerating their deeds or comparing them to other heroic individuals. Artistic representations have played a substantial role in enhancing a hero’s standing through costume and gesture, as well as through the awed expressions of other individuals depicted.
In some cultures and civilizations, great rulers like the famous ancient Egyptian queen Cleopatra have even been revered as divine. In others, where people have not customarily worshiped heads of state, exceptional leaders have sometimes become great, semimythical heroes, as is demonstrated by some of the nearby objects relating to George Washington.
Steeds, Helpers, and Weapons
Heroes are often closely linked to animals, machines, and other conveyances that carry them and aid them in their heroic quests—for example, Luke Skywalker’s X-wing Starfighter in Star Wars (see below). Sometimes the animals are fictional, such as the winged horse Pegasus, who helped the ancient Greeks fight the Amazons. But even a real steed could develop into a mythical creature. Alexander the Great’s war horse, Bucephalus, after whom the conqueror named a city, was seen as the legendary ancestor of stallions in various lands.
In many myths, heroes are aided in their quests by guides, companions, or protectors. Through these helpers or other means, the heroes often acquire important weapons that aid them in their ordeals. These are often swords, which, as in the legendary tales of King Arthur, can be symbols of legitimate leadership as well as weapons of magical power. In Star Wars, Luke’s lightsaber—which once belonged to his father—is both a symbol of this hero’s inheritance as a Jedi and a magically powerful weapon.
The Tragic Hero
Not all men and women who embark on the path to heroism succeed. And some who display heroic behavior nevertheless fail as heroes, eventually doing evil rather than good. Such tragic heroes may be corrupted by wicked influences around them, but the cause of their failure is more often their own weakness. A tragic figure may ultimately be saved from evil, as achieved by Darth Vader when he redeems himself by sacrifice at the end of his life in Star Wars.
One precedent for Darth Vader is the legendary Dr. Faust, a scholar and magician who sold his soul to the devil in exchange for absolute knowledge and power. Faust, who is the subject of an image displayed nearby, was a forerunner of the destructive scientist, a type known from novels such as Frankenstein. Dr. Frankenstein’s partly man-made creation, the “Frankenstein Monster,” can also be seen as a prototype for Darth Vader.