On May 25, 2015, the phenomenon that is Star Wars celebrates its 40th birthday. The world was exposed to A New Hope, and our culture was changed. Swords could be made of light, man-made creations could be larger than moons, and the paragon of goodness was given a new name: Jedi.
But at the core of that galaxy far, far away is something timeless. We’ve told stories of good triumphing evil as long as we’ve been speaking. Four decades may seem like a long time, but compared to the centuries of stories before it, what makes it special? Important?
1977 was a good decade or so before I was born, so I was raised with the entirety of the first trilogy available to me. I’ve been a fan for a good, long time now, and have had the privilege of seeing the world of Star Wars grow through new books, films, and television shows. More of the world I love revealed to me.
At its core, Star Wars follows a concept called the Hero’s Journey, as described by mythologist Joseph Campbell. The story follows a pattern of archetypes found throughout time and culture. There’s the Call to Adventure (Princess Leia’s message to Obi-Wan), Prophecy (Luke will bring balance to the Force), and Atonement of the Father (Luke reconciling with Anakin/Vader), just to name a few. Even characters like C-3P0 and R2D2 follow in the footsteps of comedic duos written by Tolkien, Shakespeare, and the ancient Greeks.
Now, 40 years after its creation, Star Wars is going strong. New films are in the works. People wear everything from simple T-shirts to intricate cosplays bearing the name with pride. Even very young children seem to know how to hold a lightsaber by instinct.
I think that it has had such staying power not only because it is a hero’s journey, but because it is our hero’s journey. Our most recent generations have these stories as a touch point; something to reference when things are difficult.
I would argue that the purpose of the hero’s journey is hope. No matter how fantastical, we can root ourselves in the truth of the characters and plot. We can be brave like Luke. We can be strong like Leia. We can be redeemed like Vader. That’s what’s important; that we have our own face for our hope.
I’ve certainly needed it. I dressed as an x-wing pilot for Halloween when I was very young, and the memory of the pride I had in that moment sticks with
me even several years later. I may not have known the sailors on the Odyssey, or the warriors of the Poetic Edda, but I knew what that orange jumpsuit meant.
So, I have a feeling 40 years is only the beginning. It’s calling our society’s shot a bit, but I really believe that Star Wars will go down as our era’s example of our hero’s journey. I picture it being taught in some future historical literature class, alongside the Bard and the Greeks.
Whether it does or not, in this moment, it is needed, loved, and important. Congratulations to Star Wars on 40 years.
And may the Force be with us all.