George Lucas brought us Yoda … without him, Yoda wouldn’t exist – he’s the closest thing we have to Yoda’s dad. But Yoda’s lineage can be traced back even farther, and is quite impressive – but, let’s start at the beginning.
On the heels of his success directing the low budget film American Graffiti (which went on to earn over $50 million at the box-office), It was 1973, and Lucas was emboldened to pursue an idea that he had been pondering for some time – it was a space opera of sorts conceived several years before. 20th Century Fox, tempted by the success of “Graffiti,” was anxious to capitalize on Lucas’ good fortune, but the drafts and revisions were rejected by most people who read them as unusable. Luke Skywalker was an old man and the story lines would have been unrecognizable to fans of what would become Star Wars, A New Hope.
At some point along the way, Lucas began exploring a book called The Hero With a Thousand Faces by a man named Joseph Campbell, and the story-arc of Star Wars came into focus. Lucas followed the framework outlined by Campbell, and in 1977, the fourth and final edit of the first Star Wars: A New Hope emerged as the epic story that it is today – one that has already been enshrined with the likes the Odyssey, Beowulf and Les Miserables as one of the greatest epic stories of all time?
The emergence of Obi-wan, and Yoda after him, was no accident. They are literary elements employed by all of the major epic story-tellers throughout history, and these “guides along the way” are an essential element to connecting with your audience, whatever the medium (while abbreviated, the most successful 30 second “Super Bowl Spots” have the core elements of Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces).
Lucas was not shy about attributing the success of A New Hope (and subsequent films in the Trilogy) to Campbell’s insights and wisdom. In Joseph Campbell’s biography, A Fire in the Mind, Lucas shares how Campbell impacted the screenplay, “In reading The Hero with a Thousand Faces I began to realize that my first draft of Star Wars was following classic motifs,” said Lucas. “I modified my next draft according to what I’d been learning about classical motifs and made it a little bit more consistent.”
We now look for “Yoda Figures” as a literary element in all types of story. It is important to keep in mind that Yoda was not a new literary element, but was a carefully crafted take on Campbell’s “supernatural aid.”
Stories speak directly to the soul (Jung knew this, Campbell knew this and Lucas did as well).
Campbell didn’t invent his “supernatural aid” whole cloth. Just as Lucas’ Yoda wouldn’t exist without Campbell, Campbell’s entire framework of “myth” was inspired largely by the famous psychologist, Carl Jung, whose “dream interpretation” method relied on a system of archetypes (which act as the foundation of Campbell’s work). If Lucas gave birth to Yoda, we have to give the grandfather title to Campbell – Yoda simply wouldn’t exist without him! What’s more important is that Jung’s influence on Campbell’s system speaks volumes about “why” stories are important in communication – they bypass all of the neurons between normal words and the psyche. Stories speak directly to the soul (Jung knew this, Campbell knew this and Lucas did as well).
Lucas spent the better part of 6 years trouble-shooting his plot line before he discovered Campbell’s magic formula.
There is no denying that Lucas’ Star Wars is a masterpiece of story-telling – it is among the greatest stories of our modern era. The story is built on a foundation that was laid not by Grandpa Campbell, or Great Grandpa Jung, but by the venerable tradition of myth and archetypes that have attempted to make sense of our natural world by telling a rather supernatural story. These are the elements of story that pierce to the soul, and they are critical to the stories we tell.
There’s an important lesson in this for all of us who want to connect with our audience. We should examine the stories that we are telling, and see if they are missing any of the key elements in Campbell’s system. If we can’t find the “supernatural aid,” a series of trials or a triumphant “return,” then there’s likely some editing required. Lucas spent the better part of 6 years trouble-shooting his plot line before he discovered Campbell’s magic formula. We’d be wise to use it religiously in our efforts to communicate a message … whatever the medium.