Star Wars: The Hero’s Journey of C-3PO

In honor of the release of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, I’d like to share an observation I made recently about the original Star Wars trilogy. While working for the Escapist, I wrote a number of articles about Star Wars. My favorite was a fan theory I had about Order 66 being the equivalent of Adolf Hitler’s Night of the Long Knives. But the last time I watched A New Hope I noticed something about C-3PO that reminded me of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. This storytelling device was used by George Lucas quite openly in telling the story of Luke Skywalker. I have come to believe that C-3PO went through the exact same steps as Luke in the original trilogy, and that is why Lucas wrote in Anakin Skywalker as “The Maker” of C-3PO in The Phantom Menace: to point out that both Luke and C-3PO were his “sons” and had more in common than fans may have noticed. I mean, Darth Vader was half-man and half-machine for what it’s worth, but I’m getting ahead of myself. If you came looking for zombie coverage, don’t worry. I’ll get a post on that up soon. But I’ve been a Star Wars fan for much longer than I’ve been a zombie writer, and I feel the need to get my geek on. So buckle up!

First of all, if you want a refresher on what the steps of the Hero’s Journey are, take a minute to check out this diagram.

The scene that got me thinking about this is when R2-D2 and C-3PO first land on Tatooine. 3PO says to R2, “No more adventures!” and they split up. In the early stages of the Hero’s Journey there is a call to adventure, followed by a refusal of that call. In Luke’s story, he was invited to go to Alderaan with Obi Wan and refused to go. He had to, you know, farm moisture or whatever. It was only after the stormtroopers (or Boba Fett, depending on where you are in the rabbit hole) brutally murdered his aunt and uncle that Luke decided to go. And if you think about it, it’s really fortunate that Luke did refuse to go at first, because if the timeline was shifted a few hours earlier, the Millennium Falcon would have been on Alderaan with the plans to the Death Star when it was blown up, and the sequels to that scenario would have been a lot more depressing. Just saying.

Getting back to 3PO, once I noticed that oddly fitting step in the Hero’s Journey, I paid much more attention to his character arc. In the first film he, like Han Solo, learns the value of wanting to sacrifice his own well-being for the sake of his friends. At the start of the film he wants to save his own skin at all costs, and by the end he is offering up his own parts if it will help save R2.

But there is an even greater arc for 3PO that spans the entire trilogy. Rather than point out each one of the twelve steps one by one, I’ll focus on the three stages of the journey. The first stage is a departure, where the hero has a goal or ambition, but no skills to attain it. The second stage is an initiation, where failure and success both take place, friends and enemies are met, and skills to attain the eventual goal are acquired. The third stage is a return, where the character attains that which they wanted in the first place and uses their knowledge to save the day.

For Luke, his main goal is to learn the ways of the force and become a Jedi like his father. He starts to tap into the force by the end of Episode IV, goes through an initiation in Episode V, and becomes a Jedi in Episode VI.

C-3PO’s goal is to become a storyteller. He doesn’t exactly state that he wants to be one, because his character is riddled with self-doubt. But when he first meets Luke he does say, “I’m afraid I’m not much more than an interpreter, and not very good at telling stories.”

Two movies later, it is C-3PO who tells the Ewoks the story of the Rebellion. Thanks to his storytelling ability, the Ewoks decide to help the rebels. This proves to be exactly the advantage needed to win the ground battle on Endor and therefore win the fight against the Empire. 

Going further, C-3PO demonstrates real courage during the battle itself, by drawing dangerous attention to himself. Considering how neurotic and perpetually self-preserving he was throughout the series, that move is quite significant.

It should also be noted that C-3PO and R2-D2 save the lives of others by their actions a number of times throughout the trilogy. In A New Hope they deactivate the garbage mashers at the last second. In Empire Strikes Back 3PO tells Han Solo that Luke is missing on Hoth. Then R2 reactivates the hyperdrive at the very end. For a couple of comic relief side characters, the droid companions seem to be pretty crucial members of the gang. Maybe if Jar Jar Binks had saved a few more lives in The Phantom Menace he wouldn’t have been deemed so useless by many fans. There is no way to know.

One other observation I had in reconsidering C-3PO is why he was programmed to be fluent in six million forms of communication in the first place. He was built by Anakin Skywalker before he joined the Jedi. Anakin’s original life plan was to buy his freedom and be the first person to visit every habitable system in the galaxy. A protocol droid who is fluent in six million forms of communication would be a very valuable companion to have by your side when exploring all the nooks and crannies of the galaxy. C-3PO prides himself in the number of languages he can speak, which suggests that it is something to be proud of. I have a hunch that any other protocol droid would not have known the language of the Ewok people, for example.

Finally, the fact that C-3PO demonstrates an evolution in character begs the question of just how self-directed he really is. Are the droids really just machines, to be ignored and taken for granted, or is there some kind of evolution of consciousness taking place in these films? I don’t have an answer for that question. Just felt like asking.

If you want more droid fan theories, allow me to redirect you to my favorite: A New Sith, or Revenge of Hope. The argument is made here that R2-D2 and Chewbacca were undercover Rebel agents from the very beginning. I love everything about that theory. May the force be with you.