The Underlying Psychology of Star Wars: 6 Hidden Lessons That Keep Us Coming Back
The Star Wars films are widely regarded as some of greatest works in the history of cinema – they routinely rank high on ‘Best of All Time’ lists including those issued by The American Film Institute (#13) and American Movie Classics (#3). The films also tend to place high on the ‘Favorite Movies’ lists of individuals. The movies in this series, particularly the original three installments, have the extraordinary ability to delight audiences young and old. Moreover, these films have the rare power to provoke deep thought on the human psyche and the nature of the universe.
How is it possible that a couple of low-budget sci-fi flicks (A New Hope was produced for only $11 million) can resonate so deeply with people, even after all these years?
The answer can be found in the inspiration of the first film. George Lucas, the creator of the series, had actually written (and rejected) two drafts of the Star Wars before he started to write the version of the film we know today. The breakthrough came when Lucas recalled a book he had read in college entitled The Hero With A Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell. Relying heavily on Jungian archetypes, The Hero With A Thousand Faces describes in wonderful detail the underlying narrative that forms the basis of nearly every story known to man: the Monomyth. Indeed, Jung and Campbell even went so far as to say that this narrative forms the subconscious model of existence for everyone all over the world. These building blocks of the unconscious allow people to enjoy the same stories despite differences in language or culture.
Jung’s archetypes include the hero, the quest, the enemy, and the mentor. After studying these elements of psychology, Campbell posited that the Monomyth template exists in all of the world’s religions, mythologies, and folklore in order to instruct humans on how to overcome the Ego (as Freud would say) and lead happy and successful lives. Lucas used the teachings of Jung and Campbell as a road map to create the most epic Monomyth representation of all time.
For this reason, the films not only have wide international and generational appeal but are also able to teach people crucial lessons about what the purpose of life is and how you ought to go about fulfilling your destiny. Here are 6 of the deepest, most universally human lessons in Star Wars that keep us coming back.
1) You Will Have To Leave Home
Neither Luke nor Anakin Skywalker would have ever fulfilled their destinies had they remained with Uncle Owen and Shmi (respectively). The known world is safe and comfortable but it is no place for the kind of adventures that can bring about deep personal — and possible intergalactic! — change. Campbell dubbed this departure ‘Crossing the Threshold’ and it refers to leaving the everyday world of light and sunshine (think Tatooine) and entering the world of the dark and unknown (think outer space).
In real life, this momentous occasion often occurs when you go off to college. It is a tumultuous time and one where most people see profound changes in their worldviews and aspirations. After graduation, it can seem strange to return to your childhood abode. This is because people, at least according to Jung and Campbell, are not meant to return to their parent’s dwelling but are supposed to set out on their own and discover their own path in life.
It should be noted that crossing the threshold does not have to literally mean going someplace new. It’s about change and new experiences. The threshold could be learning a skill, taking a new job, going on a date, taking the plunge into parenthood, or anything else that leads you to grow and develop.
2) Refusing To Leave Home Can End In Disaster
It is a very difficult thing to leave everything and everyone you know. Increasingly, young people are opting not to be independent but rather to continue living under their parents’ protection. The global compendium of stories since the dawn of time tells us that this is not a good idea. Luke tries to deny the call to adventure only to find his Aunt and Uncle slain by some evil force masquerading as Sand People. If he were to stay, he’d surely meet the same fate. Fortunately, his wise mentor Obi Wan Kenobi is there to guide him across the threshold and into the greater world.
Alas, Kenobi had not yet learned the necessity of departure when he met another young boy who did not want to leave home: Anakin Skywalker. Whereas Luke successfully leaves his entire world (literally) behind without looking back, Anakin cannot let go. Yoda, who serves as the oracle archetype, recognizes this and tries to warn the boy of the dangers of clinging to the past. A common motif in stories is the perils of looking back (think the story of Lot’s wife or of Orpheus and Eurydice). Indeed, when Anakin returns to his home on Tatooine, he is overcome by rage at his mother’s death; he slaughters every Tusken raider in sight, including the women and children. In doing so, he takes the first step on the path toward becoming Darth Vader.
In the real world, the decision to leave home/ not leave home is not so dire. Most probably, nobody will die if you choose not to live your life. Nonetheless, you will still grow to be more of an Anakin than a Luke. Rather than overcoming the dark side (the Ego) and achieving your personal apotheosis as Luke did when he became a Jedi Knight, you will wallow in the mires of everyday life. Worse than an Anakin, you will be a nameless extra.
3) You Will Be Tested
Like Luke’s challenge in the Tree Cave on Dagobah, you will have to face many trials as you go through life. In some you will be victorious, in others you will not. This ‘road of trials’, as Campbell calls it, is necessary to equip you with the skills needed reach your ultimate purpose (though few of us ever know what that purpose may be). Sometimes, the failure will be great – like the time Darth Vader nearly killed Luke and cut off his hand. Notice how a low point can be seen in every character arc (Han Solo abandons the fight against the Death Star; Obi Wan is heartbroken to realize that Anakin is not the chosen one). Yet, it is in this very moment that it is essential for you, the hero, to stick to your resolve and complete your quest.
Consider what would happen if Han had not returned or if Luke had decided to give up. Or consider the previously mentioned example about Anakin Skywalker. Killing the Tusken raiders is arguably the tipping point in his character’s narrative. He was not beyond redemption after the massacre. If he had sincerely wished it, he could have atoned for his sins and, now free from his ties to home, gone on to be a champion for good. But he gave up.
4) You Will Be Tempted
Similarly, there will be many temptations on the road to glory. These can take the form of power, money, love, fame, etc. Luke was tempted to go over to the Dark Side by his father, but he managed to resist. Anakin was tempted to the Dark Side by Emperor Palpatine (aka Darth Sidious) and gave in. It is how you respond to difficulty that determines whether your character is of a heroic or villainous nature.
5) You Are Not Alone
The very nature of a quest will bring you to the absolute edge of your capabilities, maybe even further. But whether your quest is to defeat the Empire or to raise a family, you do not have to struggle alone. Luke had help facing nearly every obstacle from Obi Wan, Han Solo, Princess Leia, R2D2, C3PO, and (spoiler alert if you’ve been living in a cave for the last 30 years) even Darth Vader at the very end. Even Anakin had friends and loved ones who tried to help him get back on the righteous path (Obi Wan, the droids, Padme). Your friends and family will always be there to pick you up when you fall and to come to your rescue just when you think that all hope is lost.
This excellent word means ‘make a god of’ in ancient Greek. Its modern day definition is “the highest point in development; climax; culmination”. This is the happily ever after that comes once you have destroyed the metaphorical Death Star. For Luke, his apotheosis was defeating the Emperor; for Anakin, it was becoming Darth Vader (bad guys can have apotheoses too). For an ordinary person, the culmination of your life can be the unveiling of an artistic masterpiece or reaching the top of your chosen career. An apotheosis can also be found sitting quietly on your back porch, watching your grandchildren play in the yard.
The end of a hero’s quest results in a boon that can be given back to society. Obi Wan’s quest lasted a very long time but in the end, he managed to deliver to the universe a savior, Luke Skywalker. Luke, in turn, presented society with salvation once he had fulfilled his own purpose in life.
Jung described the psychological apotheosis as defeating the Ego so that you can adopt the characteristics that allow you to lead a life in line with the true Self. The Buddha called this reaching Nirvana; Saint Thomas Aquinas called this seeing the face of God. In modern parlance, Ego-death can be understood as becoming one with the Force.