Author: Frank Clarke (e-mail at:  FrankClarke@aol.com )
Date: 12/02/1999

            One of the consistent components of heroic literature has always been the inclusion of a single, usually well-developed protagonist.  Whether examining William Shakespeare's Hamlet, J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy or Arthur's search for the Holy Grail, the hero is always clearly defined and well-developed.  His character attributes often exist in a state of flux, changing situationally.  The hero is traditionally a male, reflecting the male-dominated world of his creator and audience.  While represented by this lone character, the hero is usually much more than that.  The single male protagonist often represents the concept of "good", fighting and eventually vanquishing "evil".  In his book, The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell calls this, "the commonality of themes in world myths, pointing to a constant requirement in the human psyche for a centering in terms of deep principles." (XVI).  The idea that a single man can perpetuate this change is appealing.  The hero is usually on a quest, seeking either an object (Jason and the Golden Fleece, Arthur and the Holy Grail, Bilbo and the One Ring) or the completion of an extremely difficult task (Hamlet avenging his father's death, Jesus Christ taking on the sins of the world, Edgar Rice Burroughs' John Carter rescuing beautiful women on Barsoom in A Princess of Mars, 1917).

            In the case of Hamlet, the protagonist is not only well-developed, but exceedingly multi-dimensional, to the point of absurdity.  Hamlet is at once a man of action and one of reluctance.  Hamlet is a betrayed, depressed, spoiled rich brat.  Hamlet has lost his mind.  Hamlet is bi-polar.  Hamlet is a clever, learned man who does not act rashly, and uses his wiles to discover the truth.  Hamlet hallucinates.  Hamlet has supernatural help, as do all true heroes.  In Hero With a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell writes, "For those who have not refused the call, the first encounter of the hero-journey is with a protective figure (often a little old crone or old man) (69).  Hamlet is cultured and noble, yet crass and rude.  Hamlet is a lover; in fact a heartbreaker.  Hamlet is a skilled fighter.  Like the Christ-Hero himself, Hamlet seeks atonement with his father, another of the hero-requirements set forth by Campbell in Hero With a Thousand Faces.  All of these assessments can be convincingly argued, yet many are contradictory.  The same things could be said of many archetypal heroes, from Christ to King Arthur.  The classic literary hero, then, is a creation of convenience.  He is not a man, but an all-encompassing composition of human traits, superimposed upon the protagonist by his creator with situational diplomacy.

            In the latter half of the 20th century, the hero archetype has changed.  While still fulfilling the requirements set forth by Jung and, more concretely, Joseph Campbell, in many cases this new-age hero is no longer a solitary figure.  The hero has always had allies, compatriots, friends, and assistants.  These allies assist the hero, but their character is one-dimensional at best, and often serves as either a foil to or mirror of the protagonist.

J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy was published in 1954-55, about five years after the release of Joseph Campbell's Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949).  The story followed the Heroic Paradigm so closely as to be obviously calculated, and had a large cultural impact, especially in America.  The genre commonly referred to as "Heroic Fantasy" grew quickly, and subsequently became less predictable as the archetypal hero was re-invented from new perspectives.  Michael Moorcock, introduced one of the first anti-heroes in 1961 with "Elric of Melnibone".   Marion Zimmer Bradley drew from Arthurian legend for The Mists of Avalon (1983), and re-invented the world of Camelot from the female perspective.  While these new perspectives provided variation, they still clung to Campbell's formula, and relied on a single hero/protagonist.

At the same time a subtle but important change had taken place.  Alongside the classic hero had begun to emerge a new hero; one who did not have to be absurdly complex.  In the wake of World Wars that saw the formation of an alliance of many nations to defeat a single (or much less varied) enemy that many saw as evil personified, and perhaps as a backlash to Tolkien, writers began to create stories that used a group of characters as "hero". 

C. S. Lewis, Tolkien's contemporary and friend, was one of the first to implement the use of what I shall call the "amalgam-protagonist".  In The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe (1950), Lewis uses as his protagonist a group of children (Lucy, Peter, Edmund, and Susan).  Each child has a clearly defined set of attributes… both strengths and weaknesses.  Peter is the fighter, Lucy the discoverer.  Edmund is bewitched, but strong of spirit.  Susan is sometimes impetuous.  Other attributes can be easily assigned, but none are overly contradictory.  By using the amalgam-protagonist, Lewis awards the heroic adventure a more believable status.

The amalgam-protagonist is present in many American works published in the latter-half of the 20th century.  It is most prevalent in the Science Fiction genre.  Published in the same year as The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, Ray Bradbury's The Chronicles of Mars features a group of space explorers as the protagonist.  Again, each member of the exploration party has his own character attributes.  In the Star Trek television series (1966), creator Gene Roddenberry employs the amalgam-protagonist to great effectiveness.  Like Peter in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, Captain James T. Kirk is the character of focus, but he is not a solitary protagonist.  He is the fighter and the commander, but the other omnipresent members of the crew (McCoy, Spock, Scotty, Uhura) are not allies in the same vein as the compatriots of, for example, Bilbo Baggins.  For Baggins, the other characters are one-dimensional and supportive to the extent that they can be synopsized with simple name tags, i.e. "Gandalf the Wizard".  The same is not true within the framework of the amalgam-protagonist.  Returning to the example of the crew of Star Trek's U.S.S. Enterprise, Kirk is surrounded by an African-American woman, an emotionless alien, a feisty engineer of Scottish origin, and a sometimes-crotchety doctor.  Throughout their journey the characters that make up the amalgam-protagonist alternately share the spotlight, quest and confrontation.  The same is true of many Science-Fiction works that use the "quest" as their vehicle.  In director Ridley Scott's 1986 release "Aliens", each member of the amalgam protagonist has a purpose, from the over-anxious Private W. Hudson acting as a foil for Ripley (the character of focus) to L. Bishop, who is an android.

Perhaps the most successful author to apply the amalgam-protagonist to Campbell's hero-paradigm is George Lucas. 

As critic Thomas Snyder writes:

          In terms of scope, the three Star Wars films are a modern equivalent to The

          Iliad or The Odyssey. Not only do they depict a mythic history in the form

          of an epic narrative, they also tell a personal tale of courage and cowardice,

          adventure and romance... (449-50)

In his film Star Wars: A New Hope (1977), Luke Skywalker is the character of focus, and it is he who most closely embodies the hero archetype, but unlike the traditional hero, he is not a complex character.  Lucas understands the realm of mythological/heroic fantasy, as exemplified by this excerpt from an interview printed in Star Wars: The Annotated Screenplays:

I had a long-time interest in fairy tales, mythology, that sort of thing. I had decided that there was no modern mythology. The western was the last American mythological genre, and there had not been anything since then, I wanted to take all the old myths and put them into a new format that young people could relate to. Mythology always exists in unusual, unknown environ­ments, so I chose space. I liked Flash Gordon as a kid, the Republic serials. It was the only sort of action‑adventure thing I came across as a kid that I could remember. So I got interested in that. I went and actually talked to the people that owned the rights to it. They said they weren't interested. And I thought, I really don't need Flash Gordon to do what I want to do. I can create my own situation. So I just started from scratch. I went around a lot of different ways before I wound my way to where I finally ended up (27)

Lucas did create his "own situation", but he relied on a relatively new tactic do it.  Star Wars: A New Hope has as its character of focus Luke Skywalker.  Skywalker, like the afore-mentioned Captain Kirk does not stand alone, but is surrounded by characters that are as important to the story as he is.  In fact, Lucas creates an even more compelling amalgam-protagonist.  In Lucas' universe, none of the five characters who make up the amalgam-protagonist are "in charge".  They are brought together by seemingly random incidents (tied together by the implication of a supernatural, unseen "force" for good in the universe), united by a desire to vanquish the "evil empire". 

In his book Return of the Heroes, Hal Colebatch writes of Star Wars:

…the characters are not motivated by egotism. They are not 'bound for glory' as if 'glory' were the purpose of it all. The motives of the good people are, or, significantly, become) not to be 'rich and famous' or to 'win'.  Fame, glory and honours are shown to be rewards (by-products, as it were) of great achievements, not ends in themselves. This is an old-fashioned concept, hearkening back to the days when the term 'hero' was reserved for someone dead.

In the same interview cited earlier, Lucas says: 

I read a lot of books about mythology and theories behind mythology; one of the books was The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell, but there were many others, maybe as many as fifty books. I basically worked out a general theory for the Force, and then I played with it. The more detail I went into, the more it detracted from the concept I was trying to put forward. I wanted to take all religions, major religions and primitive religions, and come up with something they might have in common.  It worked better as I got less specific… So the real essence was to try to deal with the force but not to be too specific about it (35).

This allusion to Campbell's work provides not only proof that The Hero with a Thousand Faces influenced George Lucas as he wrote the screenplay for Star Wars: A New Hope, but an admission that he read "as many as fifty" other works as he honed the formula that would create a film that would become a cultural movement.  If a significant portion of these books were Science Fiction novels, Lucas surely came across the amalgam-protagonist time and time again.

            The five members of the amalgam-protagonist in Star Wars: A New Hope are as carefully constructed as the tragic hero in Shakespeare's Hamlet.  In fact, together, they make up all the characteristics of that unbelievably complicated construct we know as Hamlet. 

Princess Leia provides the nobility that is nearly always present in the archetypal hero.  Hamlet, of course is the Prince of Denmark.  She has been betrayed by the evil Darth Vader, who has killed her family and friends. (Vader destroys the entire planet of Alderaan in Leia's presence) Like Hamlet, she seeks to avenge the deaths of her loved ones. 

R2D2 provides the craftiness and presence-of-mind of Shakespeare's protagonist.  It is he who saves C3P0 and the message for Obi-Wan-Kenobi by entering the escape pod.  Like the Prince of Denmark, R2D2 has a tendency to become depressed.  He also shows signs of stubbornness, and definitely provides comic relief.

C3P0, like Hamlet, is highly educated, skilled in diplomacy, learned in the art of language and wise in the ways of the world (or in this case, universe).

While I have already stated that Luke Skywalker is the character of focus, a case could be made that he really shares that honor with Han Solo.  Han is the reluctant hero.  He uses excuses to escape his destiny and claims to be in the adventure only for the money.  As shown in the annotated screenplay, he shows signs of insanity and a disregard for his own life, saying with glee "here's where the fun begins" (56) as he and the others face death at the hands of an overwhelming number of Darth Vader's stormtroopers.  He is the purest fighter of the almalgam-protagonist, and he thinks of himself as a ladies man.   Han is also the embodiment of Hamlet's rash, unthinking side.  He often acts without forethought.

Luke, however, is the one who loses his guardians, has supernatural help (the force) and is guided by his spiritual father-figure in the guise of the slain Obi-Wan-Kenobi.  It is he who most closely resembles the archetypal hero.  He acts to confront evil without considering his own well-being, seeks revenge for the death of both his guardians and Obi-Wan,  and shows the naivete that is sometimes present in Hamlet.  Luke, like Hamlet has a ghostly advisor.  For Hamlet, it is the ghost of his slain father telling him to avenge his death (act I, scene V).  For Luke it is Obi-Wan-Kenobi telling him to "use the force" (115). 

All of the characters that make up the amalgam-protagonist in Star Wars: A New Hope exhibit signs of bravery at one time or another in the film.  Below I have created a table that makes it clear that: 1) Hamlet has such a wealth of attributes he can hardly be considered more than a construct, and 2) the five members of the amalgam-protagonist in Star Wars: A New Hope embody all of Hamlet's facets, but separated in such a way as to make them palatable.

HAMLET

HAMLET

LUKE

HANS

C3PO

R2D2

LEIA

Action hero

x

x

 

 

 

 

Reluctant hero

x

 

x

 

 

 

Nobility

x

 

 

 

 

x

Lover

x

 

x

 

 

 

Crafty

x

 

x

 

x

 

Insane

x

 

x

 

 

 

Avenger

x

x

 

 

 

 

Son

x

x

 

 

 

 

Brave

x

x

x

x

x

x

Rash

x

 

x

 

 

 

Depressed

x

 

 

 

x

 

Fighter

x

 

x

 

 

 

Outraged

x

 

 

 

 

 

Betrayed

x

 

 

 

 

x

Learned

x

 

 

x

 

 

Cultured

x

 

 

x

 

 

Father killed

x

x

 

 

 

 

Ghostly Advisor

x

x

 

 

 

 

Heartbreaker

x

 

 

 

 

x

Naive

x

x

 

 

 

 

Stubborn

x

 

 

 

x

 

Humorous

x

 

x

 

x

 

Diplomatic

x

 

 

x

 

 

Wise

x

 

 

x

 

 

 

In George Lucas' first draft of Star Wars: A New Hope, he created only a single protagonist, Annikin Starkiller.  Annakin "combined some of the qualities that would later define both Luke Skywalker and Han Solo" (ed.note-8)  As Lucas says, "His character is basically a cynical loner who realizes the importance of being part of a group and helping for the common good . . . compromising and sacrificing his own welfare for those of others."(8)  Eventually, these concepts helped Lucas decide to split the protagonist, more than once.

The amalgam-protagonist concept allows the audience to identify more closely with at least part of the hero.  By limiting the number of characteristics given any one member, each part becomes more human, yet the sum remains superhuman.  As Joseph Campell states in The Hero with a Thousand Faces:

For the mythological hero is the champion not of things become but of things becoming; the dragon to be slain by him is precisely the monster of the status quo: Holdfast, the keeper of the past.  From obscurity the hero emerges, but the enemy is great and conspicuous in the seat of power; he is enemy, dragon, tyrant, because he turns to his own advantage the authority of his position. He is Holdfast not because he keeps the past, but because he keeps.

 Perhaps the modern hero emerges from obscurity and is smart enough to realize that he alone cannot defeat the enemy. 


Works Cited

 

 

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton      

     University Press, 1949.

 

Campbell, Joseph, and Bill Moyers. The Power of Myth. New York: Doubleday,  

     1988.

 

Colebatch, Hal. Return of the Heroes: "The Lord of the Rings", "Star Wars", and   

     Contemporary Culture. Perth: Australian Institute for Public Policy, 1990.

 

Laurent/Bouzereau. Star Wars: The Annotated Screenplays. New York: Ballantine, 1997.

 

Snyder, Thomas. "Star Wars" in The International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers.      

     Volume 1: Films. ed. Christopher Lyon. London: Macmillan, 1987

 

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