Reporter Journal / Chris Davis

Wolves or Wookiees, take your pick, good stories are all the same

By Chris Davis (China Daily USA) Updated: 2016-01-27 11:23

Two movies making quite a stir - Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Wolf Totem - have surprisingly much in common. Aside from being hits that are beautiful to look at and take viewers to strange undiscovered places, the two tales also intersect in the world of the most powerful kind of myth.

Joseph Campbell (1904-1987) was the world's great scholar of mythology and his writings inspired George Lucas's rendering of Luke Skywalker's adventures in the original Star Wars movies.

Campbell basically collected all of the world's myths from the beginnings of recorded history and every culture and found the common plots and storylines that they all shared. And the similarities, he argued in his seminal work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949), were more than random coincidence.

Campbell was building on the previous work of two great thinkers - German anthropologist Adolphe Bastian, who suggested that myths from different cultures seemed to be made of the same "elementary ideas", and Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, who called those building blocks "archetypes" and believed they were hard-wired into every human being's subconscious, which is why everyone enjoys a good story.

Wolves or Wookiees, take your pick, good stories are all the same

Campbell called it the "mythic imagination" that all human beings share. And part of the "monomyth" cycle that every hero of a story goes through means going into regions that they know nothing about (which, of course, is a metaphor for the undiscovered inner self), passing the test (slaying the dragon) and coming out alive and better equipped to help society.

For scavenger Rey in Star Wars: The Force Awakens (and for Luke in the original) that unknown world begins with the cantina scene and leads into the world of The Force (which, with a great little ironic twist, Rey thought was a myth to begin with).

For the two young zhiqing from Beijing in Wolf Totem it is the wild, remote grasslands of Mongolia, and from there into the interlocking, interdependent and delicately balanced world of herdsman, sheep, gazelle and wolf.

Both heroes go through Campbell's three-part cycle of Departure (in Wolf Totem, the sea of thousands of identical busses thinning out as they spread out across the countryside, dwindling eventually to just one, is wonderfully done), Initiation to do battle with the bad guys (Chen Zhen getting surrounded by wolves is truly hair-raising) and Return, to heal society.

The bogies are always scary, the things that hide under beds and in closets. As Campbell put it: "All the ogres and secret helpers of our nursery are there, all the magic of childhood..." There the hero gives battle to "the nursery demons of his local culture" and "brings back from his adventure the means for the regeneration of the society as a whole."

Way back in 1977, after the success of the first Star Wars, George Lucas told a reporter that he had studied anthropology and mythology of dozens of different cultures. "It seemed to me that there was no longer a lot of mythology in our society, the kind of stories we tell ourselves and our children, which is the way our heritage is passed down," he said. "Westerns used to provide that, but there weren't any Westerns anymore." Outer space suited Lucas' imagination; wolf-inhabited Mogolia suited a Beijing student during the "cultural revolution" (1966-76).

The payoffs of the two sagas, of course, differ. In any Star Wars movie, Jedi knights and the Force usually win out over The Dark Side. With Wolf Totem, which is based on the best-selling semi-autobiographical novel by Lu Jiamin, the hero survives his "initiation" and after two years returns to life in the crowded city, but the world he got to know is coming apart.

Both of these great tales further prove the old saying that the ocean of stories bathes all shores and is fed by all rivers.

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