The quest myth is one of the fundamental mythic patterns discernable in a variety of cultures and times: the Arthurian quest for the Holy Grail, Moses’ quest for the promised land, the exploits of the Homeric Odyssey are obvious examples. The Star Wars films, The Lord of the Rings or The Matrix trilogy offer variations of this story in contemporary guise.
Joseph Campbell (1949) has popularised the idea of the hero’s quest and set out an influential typology of initiation/departure/return to describe the stages of the heroic quest journey. Although his thesis has been criticised by a number of mythologists as idiosyncratic and academically speculative at best, (Segal 1984) his views have become extraordinarily influential, taken up by literary critics (Smith, 1997), Hollywood (Vogler 1996) and the self help industry (Pearson 1991; 1998).
As Robert Elwood (1999:127) argues, perhaps Campbell’s greatest achievement – in spite of his many books, his career as an editor, scholar and popular teacher – is his influence on George Lukas’ Star War films. It is through this mass medium that Campbell’s romance of the hero quest has reached millions who have never heard his name.
Elwood claims that, together with the TV series Star Trek, the Star Wars films have “created out of science fiction what seems to be the dominant living imaginative mythology of our times.” In light of the recent success of fantasy genre films – Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings – Elwood’s claim seems slightly out of date but his general observations hold true for both science fiction and fantasy genres, which have often been linked in the critical literature.
For Campbell, Elwood argues, the quest – in both its traditional and contemporary forms – is all about identity.
The heroic notes in Star Wars are not really about conquest, no more than are those in the Arthurian and Wagnerian cycles of myths. All three epics showed the ultimate futility of grasping for power. Rather these stories make their way into the subjective consciousness because they are about deep-level psychic identities – above all one’s own. Of that deep-set individual identity the adventurous individual heroes of all great stories are the symbolic vehicles. (1999:129)
Elwood argues that although Campbell wove his theories together with an impressively diverse set of references to world mythologies, his theories are ultimately based more in the “gnostic Americanism of political individualism and individual salvation” (1999:30) and in literary romanticism. Brendan Gill (1989 a) in a famously controversial review goes even further, linking the tag line from Campbell’s 1987 PBS series on myth: “follow your bliss” to the reactionary selfishness of yuppies, bond traders, Reaganism and Ayn Rand.
However this concept of the heroic quest as a symbolic vehicle for identity is not without inherent problems. Hourihan is critical of the linearity of models like Campbell’s, which she argues implies “purposiveness as well as progress” and offers an image of life as unremitting struggle where “salvation is the prerequisite of those who arrive.” (1997:48)
Both Campbell’s romantic gnosticism, always hopeful of miracles, and Hourihan’s more disillusioning vision of the unremitting struggle of ambition can be seen to be played out in the Good Weekend’s mobilisation of the quest narrative.
The shape of the story is an image of his ambition (and in the traditional model the hero is almost always male). It implies that failure to achieve the goal would render his life itself a failure, and perhaps bring disaster on himself and his whole people…In this way the story of the hero’s journey also encodes the metanarrative of progress, the vision of the Enlightenment…postmodern thinkers tend to reject such metanarratives…if reality is fragmentary and plural then each moment in life is important in itself rather than as a stage on a journey to some distant goal and the story of hero’s quest may be seen as illusory and distracting. (Hourihan 1997, 47-8)