Arts: The man who was Yoda

How did an obscure scholar called Joseph Campbell inspire so much of our mass culture?

He has become my Yoda" said George Lucas of Joseph Campbell, circa 1985. Few of us will need footnotes for the first two names, but that last name may be curiously unfamiliar - certainly in Britain, though not the United States, where all but the most benighted bookshops stock at least one Campbell title, just down the aisle from the Garfield greetings cards and Far Side calendars. Why "curiously" unfamiliar? The reason is that it could plausibly argued that no other academic has had such a far- reaching effect on mass culture as Joseph Campbell (1904-1987), the Irish- American scholar of comparative mythology.

The American journalist and screenwriter Richard Beban was among the first to observe that no fewer than seven out of the ten top-grossing films of all time - most obviously the Star Wars trilogy - had been strongly influenced by Campbell's scholarly writings on the myth of the hero. And his remarks were made in the late 1980s, long before The Phantom Menace blasted its way into the upper reaches of the Variety charts.

Campbell has also been acknowledged as a signal influence by rock musicians (The Grateful Dead, David Byrne), children's writers (Richard Adams, author of Watership Down), poets (Robert Bly, poet and author of the feel-good bloke book, Iron John), sculptors (Isamu Noguchi), choreographers (Martha Graham), and plenty of successful film directors and producers besides George Lucas, including Steven Spielberg and the creator of the Mad Max series, George Miller.

A dozen Ph.Ds could be launched from that short list alone, but there can be no argument about the most inescapable manifestation of Campbell's theorising. For good or ill, the best-known fairy story of our times was directly inspired by a scholar who spent most of his long working life in obscurity. As Marx to Communism, as Hayek to Thatcherism, so Joseph Campbell to Star Wars.

Such, at any rate, is the approved party line chez George Lucas and company. Though no one seriously disputes Lucas's awareness of Campbell's work, a more sardonic reading of this is possible: for example, Lucas, craving intellectual dignity for his vastly profitable but rather silly space opera, grossly exaggerates his debt to Campbell's work; while Campbell, gratified by the tidalwave of popular adulation, graciously accepts the bouquets strewn at his brogues and politely agrees that Star Wars is not merely tip-top stuff, but a faithful embodiment of his ideas.

Unduly harsh? Maybe. The precise nuances will remain shrouded until someone undertakes a full biography of Campbell. Still, even a short account of his life must count as one of the most amusingly implausible subplots in the history of popular culture. One of Campbell's contentions was that mythology provides us with exemplary accounts of the stages through which a man (sic - he had other things to say about women) must pass in his lifetime; and it's amusing to note how clearly his own long life divides into his own five units of myth.

The Origins

Campbell begins, as heroes should, in humble circumstances, the son of a modestly prosperous New York salesman. There are intimations of the great Quest that lies ahead of him: at the age of six, he is taken to see Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show and develops a precocious interest in Native American mythology. Like the infant Hercules strangling snakes, he also reveals exceptional physical prowess. At Columbia University, he becomes a star athlete and sets the record for the half-mile. "I could run as fast a half-mile as anyone in the world at that time," he later recalls.

The Call

A conspicuously gifted student, he looks set for a glittering academic career. After writing an MA thesis on Arthurian literature, Campbell travels to Europe on scholarships, first to Paris, where he studies Old French and Provencal, and then to Munich, where he studies Sanskrit and philology. But he begins to hear siren voices, warning him that he is on too narrow a path. He discovers the novels of Joyce and Thomas Mann, who immediately become artistic touchstones for him; he also discovers Freud and Jung. Excited and discontented in equal measure, he returns to Columbia in 1929 and tells his supervisors "This whole thing" - meaning his Ph.D thesis - "has opened out." They order him to knuckle down. "Well, I just said, "To Hell with it."" Two weeks later, the Stock Market crashes and the Depression begins.

The Wilderness

Campbell liked to point out that founders of religions and other great culture heroes tend to undergo a period of solitary retreat: Buddha went off and sat beneath the banyan tree, Moses climbed the mountain and returned with the tables of the Law, Christ passed forty days in the desert. Campbell's own wilderness years were spent in the more attractive circumstances of Woodstock, where he rented a shack and read solidly for the next five years for nine to twelve hours a day. In the course of this meditation, Campbell develops his principal insight. Like Casaubon in Middlemarch, he is in search of the Key to All Mythologies. He believes that he has found it.

The Gift

The prophet returns from the wilderness with his revelation and begins to gather disciples. In more prosaic terms, in 1934 he is offered a job teaching at Sarah Lawrence, a women's college, and remains there for the next 38 years. He gradually makes his way into print. His first full-length book is a pioneering study of Joyce's Finnegans Wake; his second, is The Hero with a Thousand Faces, which demonstrates that every culture in the world has produced its own version of a heroic "vision quest."

The Triumph

His reputation starts to grow beyond Sarah Lawrence. He writes and edits many books, of which the most substantial are the four volumes of The Masks of God series between 1959 and 1968. He travels, he lectures, he retires full of academic honours in 1972, but continues to write and edit.

Then, one day in 1983, he is called by a very rich young man called George Lucas. Since he has barely seen a film since the talkies came in, he has no idea about all this Star Wars business, but he accepts an invitation to Lucas's Skywalker ranch and is given a screening of the first three films. "I tell you, I was really thrilled.... What I saw was things that had been in my books but rendered in terms of the modern problem, which is man and machine."

The Hero had come home. Lucas and Campbell joined in an embrace of mutual admiration. Lucas proclaimed that, without Campbell, he would not have been able to make sense of his messy first drafts for Star Wars; Campbell compared Star Wars and Goethe's Faust: " I admire what he has done immensely, immensely." Thanks to Lucas's patronage, the octogenarian Campbell basked in public admiration, a prophet finally honoured in his own country. In 1986, conversations between Campbell and the journalist Bill Moyers were filmed at the Skywalker ranch; an edited version was broadcast on television, and the tie-in book, The Power of Myth, became a best-seller.

It was a gloriously happy ending to a career which had begun in stubborn disregard for academic propriety and basic self-interest - which seemed to vindicate the advice Campbell always offered the young as a formula for success in life: "Follow your bliss" - that is to say. find the thing you really want to do and stick to it doggedly, no matter the hardship it costs you, because the Hero always prevails in the end. He died in 1987.

Death, he often said, held no terrors for him, since it was merely the passing of consciousness back to cosmic consciousness, and he may have had a point. If The Phantom Menace can be viewed as a posthumous flowering, then he is proving even more triumphant in death than he was at the end of his life.

Heart-warming stuff. And yet, and yet ... Even allowing that the universal appeal of Lucas's films is indeed rooted in its profound plagiarism of authentic myths, a large, not to say overwhelming objection remains: compared to Beowulf or Gilgamesh or the Odyssey or Faust, the Star Wars series is ... well, a polite word would be "tripe."

To say this is not to discredit Campbell's achievement, or deride his scholarship. One's doubt about the whole strange story concerns quality. If a culture gets the myths it deserves, it seems dismaying that ours has been effortlessly outshone by ancient Sumeria.

One book which early on had inspired Campbell was Oswald Spengler's apocalyptic and pessimistic screed, The Decline of the West; and though it would be hysterical to claim that Star Wars has played any great role in the cretinisation of our world, you'd need the blithely sunny optimism of old Prof. Campbell to believe that it has done very much to arrest the sorry process.

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