Joseph Campbell, a scholar whose work was made famous by the movies

September 17, 2019 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: books, fiction, journalism, writers, writing.

Joseph Campbell, a scholar of comparative literature, had been studying the history, development, and functions of “myth” since his young adulthood in the 1920s, but outside of academic and intellectual circles, he remained relatively unknown. That all changed in 1977.

Campbell noted how stories — myths — developed in ancient and modern societies, as well as how societies used these stories to define themselves, their personality, their history, and their purpose. In looking across cultures, Campbell saw not just the differences in myths but also the similarities.

His seminal work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, was published in 1949. It was originally designed as a textbook for his introductory course in mythology at Sarah Lawrence College, but it gained a larger audience when it was adopted as a text on other campuses. In it, Campbell outlined the concept of the hero’s journey, a common element in all stories in which the central character must take on some task or meet some challenge.

In the book, Campbell wrote:

Wherever the poetry of myth is interpreted as biography, history, or science, it is killed. The living images become only remote facts of a distant time or sky. Furthermore, it is never difficult to demonstrate that as science and history, mythology is absurd. When a civilization begins to reinterpret its mythology in this way, the life goes out of it, temples become museums, and the link between the two perspectives becomes dissolved.

So what happened in 1977 to make Joseph Campbell famous? Star Wars.

George Lucas, creator of the Star Wars series, publicly credited Campbell’s work with helping him create many of the concepts of the movie. Lucas later discussed his process with the authors of Campbell’s biography:

. . .when I started doing more strenuous research on fairy tales, folklore, and mythology, and I started reading Joe’s books. Before that I hadn’t read any of Joe’s books…It was very eerie because in reading The Hero with a Thousand Faces I began to realize that my first draft of Star Wars was following classic motifs . . .

After the first Star Wars movie, editions of A Hero with a Thousand Faces were published with a Luke Skywalker motif on the cover, and that cemented the relationship between the book and the movie in the minds of the public.

When Star Wars appeared, Campbell had been retired from Sarah Lawrence for five years. He lived for another 10 years and saw his fame grow. A highlight of all that can be found in a series of interviews he did with Bill Moyers for the Public Broadcasting System. That series can be viewed today on Netflix.

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