Monday, July 21, 2008

Star Wars, Our 20th Century Myth

Over thirty years after the first Star Wars motion picture blasted its way through our movie screens May 25, 1977, the saga continues to live strongly in literature and cinema. To date, six films and three animated series for television were made, with a live-action series and a 3D CGI animated series in pre-production as well as a 3D CGI full-length theatrical movie, The Clone Wars, scheduled for U.S. release on August 15, 2008. The six films alone have generated over $4.3 billion in revenue to date, making them the third highest grossing film series.

Although the current Star Wars New Jedi Order series (its 27th and last installment released in spring of 2004) leaves much to be desired from a literary standpoint, loyal fans of the Star Wars phenomenon, including, alas, yours truly, have persisted with the series, helping it maintain a place in the New York Times Bestsellers list. How did this come to be? Why do we read on despite our better judgement about literature and art? To understand the enduring success of a shallow plot-driven adventure series is to understand the basis for its creation: the original Star Wars concept as realized by George Lucus. The answer lies in one word: myth.

In his original “Star Wars” trilogy, George Lucus fashioned for us a long awaited 20th Century myth. He captured the current North American zeitgeist and portrayed a deep and abiding truth about the deeper meanings of what lies beneath our daily lives. Lucus did this by “taking the symbols gathered from his own experience of the world and transforming them into a metaphor that revealed something about the mysteries of human existence” (Mary Henderson, author of “Star Wars: the Magic of Myth”). According to Henderson, Lucas dramatized the eternal struggle of good versus evil and, by suggesting a way to emerge victorious from that struggle, fashioned a tale with all the elements of myth. Lucas’s modern myth resonates with scores of earlier myths from around the world including the classic myths of Siegfried, King Arthur, Odysseus, Theseus and the Minotaur, Dante and Beatrice, David and Goliath, and a host of others. Lucus takes elements of all these ancient classics and stirs them up with technology into a retro-punk-rock cyber-version never before seen on screen.

If, as Joseph Campbell said, “The artist is the one who communicates myth for today,” then Lucas is a great artist. It starts with his intriguing and quirky ‘alternate reality’ of ancient archetypes within a highly advanced technological world that begins “A long time ago in a galaxy, far, far away . . .” Swords, sorcery and chivalry meld with robots and zooming rocket ships . . . a dark lord wearing flowing robes looks -- and sounds -- like an android . . . a damsel in distress, who packs a laser gun, sends a message through a cocky droid . . . a young “Siegfried” embarks on a quest armed with his father’s sword, a lightsaber that bites through metal, and whose ‘steed’ is an X-wing spaceship. Medieval legend meets space and technology. Says Henderson, “. . . it is in illo tempore, a timeless eternity, both now and forever.”

Lukas paints his myth with rich archetypical characters--princesses, knights, dragons, fools, and wizards who help or hinder the hero on his journey--and archetypal images that resonate with traditional mythical constants. To unfold his hero’s transformation as he discovers his deeper nature, Lucas sheds subtlely for bold strokes, which includes the use of allegorical names: Luke (Lucas’s alter-ego) Skywalker is destined for the stars; Han Solo is an independent, self-reliant cynic; and Leia Organa is leader of the living, organic Rebellion against a mechanized, lifeless system. In Leia, Lucas takes the passive damsel in distress and elevates her to a kind of “Joan of Arc”. She is Luke’s inspiration and by the end of the second movie (“The Empire Strikes Back”) she will rescue him, playing “Beatrice to his Dante”.

Lucas makes it very clear that the heart of the Star Wars story lies in the central conflict of paired and linked opposites such as good vs. evil, light vs. dark, love vs. hate, compassion vs. fear. Which brings us to one of the principal threads of this particular hero’s journey: the Force, itself made of opposite pairs: dark and light sides. The Force is something sacred, powerful and intangible. Ben, Luke’s mentor and a Jedi Knight tells Luke that to become a Jedi, Luke must know the Force: “The Force . . . surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together.” In order to use his father’s old lightsaber, Luke must quiet himself from his desires and fears and tap into the spiritual network that connects us to all things. The Jedi and their use of the Force incorporate concepts of major religions and much of Eastern philosophy, while remaining true to a classic Western value: the importance of the individual. Biblical elements also abound. Darth Vader’s slide into the dark side of the Force is a fall from grace, like a fallen angel, who must be redeemed through atonement and reconciliation; while Luke, his son, struggles with the shadow of the dark side of the force as it creeps into his mind. Like a captivating samba, the pairs of opposites step in rythmic syncrony between mind and heart.

According to Henderson, 20th Century myths are obliged to incorporate the machine. Lucas’s dystopian vision in Star Wars marries the technological zeitgeist with a totalitarian dialectic, portraying the state as a fascist machine striving for ultimate order. Technology is itself an archetype, providing an extension of humanity’s power to control and manipulate itself and its world and in so doing, lose a critical part of what it means to be human. In Star Wars, the Empire uses technology as a malevolent instrument, with Vader, himself largely made of machine prosthetics, additionally subverting the life-supporting qualities of the Force to ensure Imperial domination. Vader’s human spirit has been consumed by the Imperial machine. Luke must resist the lure of “the system”, and the lure of his father’s invocation to join him, and revolt against the status quo.

Lucas’s visionary myth is ultimately appealing because it can be interpreted at so many levels from personal to societal. In striving for utopian order, the Empire’s totalitarian oppression of freedom of expression (and to be human) is played out through the relationship of Luke, Darth Vader and Leia. Inspired by his beloved country and people (Leia) our warrior poet (Luke) confronts and rebels against the system that helped “make” him (Darth Vader, his father). Only, in this galaxy, the damsel-in-distress is quite capable of taking care of herself.

Ellen Goodman, in her review of Star Wars in 1977, summed it up very neatly: “It’s not just about bad guys and good guys, but about bad technology and good technology. The good guys are on the side of truth, beauty and the cosmic force, but they aren’t opposed to machines. Nor do they fight missiles with stones. The real battle is between one technological society that supports a Lone Rider and praises his instinct, and a technological society that overrules individuals and suppresses instinct.”

Scoffed by literary snobs as space-opera fluff, Star Wars is no less visionary and relevant than any “real life” drama you could care to mention. This allegorical 20th Century myth explores good vs. evil in its truest sense, indeed, in a biblical sense. Says Luke Skywalker in the first page of “Refugee” (NJO): “There will always be people who are strong for evil. The stronger you become, the more you’re tempted.” This saga explores faith and the power in believing in something you can’t see. Says Yoda, Luke’s wise mentor (and himself someone who is not what he first appears to be): “There is no try; only do and do not.” This saga is about temptation (the dark side is always easier and looks more appealing to those lacking patience and vision) and overcoming fear and its cousin, impatience, toward wisdom. Star Wars is a classic “hero’s journey of enlightenment” and portrays in a rich tapestry of images and metaphor the hero’s classic struggle of paired opposites: love vs. hate; compassion vs. fear; forgiveness vs. retalliation; grace and humility vs. vain-glorious hubris.

Since the release of the Star Wars trilogy over thirty years ago, George Lucas made three prequels. The very well received Episode 1: The Phantom Menace (released May 19, 1999), was followed by a second Star Wars movie, “Star Wars 2: Return of the Clones”, which chronicles the adolescent years of Luke’s father, Anakin. Released in May, 2002 to an audience agog with Star Wars fever, it would seem that ironically, the movie’s shortcoming and its strength were one in the same: special effects. In a stunning comment to me shortly after viewing the film, my then-eleven year old son told me that he found the movie too dazzling, so much so that it spoiled the story for him and he pined for something more simple (for the eye as well as the mind). I found this incredibly insightful coming from a member of the generation that tends to be “bored” with lengthy stories that lack non-stop action. Although the effects accomplished that of providing us with incredibly vivid and stunning settings, such as Coruscant as seen from several spaceships entering its atmosphere, I had to agree with my son: there is no surrogate for a well told tale. No amount of razzle-dazzle can replace this. What my son pointed out to me is that even a well told story can be lessened by distracting elements, such as special effects. The third episode was released summer, 2005, and explained how the dark Jedi, Darth Vader, came to be.

A decade since the trilogy a fast-growing Expanded SW series by Bantam/Spectra made its way to fans, eager to read about some of the most memorable characters in fiction and has swollen to over 100+ books by various authors (not including the 25+ books of the New Jedi Order series by Lucas Books (Del Rey) and a host of books set before “A New Hope”). Written by as many writers as there are books, this series provides rich detail of the Star Wars universe. But, the original myth of the hero’s journey slides beneath the details of adventure, conflict and war. Most books focus on plot-driven space conflict, hard-boiled humor and clich├ęd prose, their success relying on fan’s love of established characters and scenarios. The role of the Force in shaping humanity and the universe is all but invisible. Only the occasional author elevates one or more characters into a marriage of personal theme with the greater arena of myth.
So why do we keep reading? Perhaps it is simply to linger with characters who have previously resonated with us so deeply. And it is still worthwhile to peruse the mineral for a glance at the occasional jewel.

References:Campbell, Joseph. 1973. “The Hero with a Thousand Faces”. 2nd edition. Nollingen Series no. 17. Princeton, N.J. Princeton University Press.
Henderson, Mary. 1997. “Star Wars: the Magic of Myth”. Bantam Books, New York, N.Y. 214pp.
Goodman, Ellen. 1977. “A ‘Star Wars’ Fantasy Fullfillment”. Washington Post, July 30.





Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of novels, short stories and essays. She coaches writers and teaches writing at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. For more about Nina’s coaching & workshops visit www.ninamunteanu.me. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for more about her writing.

19 comments:

Jean-Luc Picard said...

A beautifully written 'Sr Wars' piece, Nina. It will make good reading for any addict involved with SW.

Master Jedi-Robe said...

Impressive, Most Impressive....

Cheers, Master Jedi-Robe.
http://www.Jedi-Robe.com

sfgirl said...

...ah, but I'm not a Jedi yet?... Sorry, couldn't help myself. It's a good line and I think I know most of them by heart (having watched episodes IV, V, and VI with my son at least a hundred times!) I'll have to look you up, Master Jedi-Robe. May the Force be with you...

sfgirl said...

Thanks, Jean-luc. Now, I'll just have to write a piece on ST-new generation... to stir things up...

Speedcat Hollydale said...

The Yoda picture is great!!!

sfgirl said...

Yeah, isn't he something? Quite different from the version we were introduced to in Episode IV, eh? ...

p.s., checked your site, Master Jedi-Robe... COOL! Get 'em while they're hot: really cool authentic Jedi Robes!

Cheryl said...

The study of the subculture is nearly as interesting or maybe more so than being part of the subculture itself.

blackburn1 said...

Great post! I know I keep saying that.

Star Wars has definitely become something larger than the sum of it's parts. The universe that Lucas created with those three movies was something I think a lot of people bought entirely, and as a teen, I was certainly one of them.

I was very disappointed with the second trilogy. I don't think it was for lack of story, but as you mentioned, perhaps for the abundance of effects. There could have been so much more of the human element that would have elevated it to the status of the first.

I haven't followed all the related books... I imagine some are better than others. Thanks for the revisiting. =]

p.s. Yes, squirrels. A whim that took on a life of it's own. *L*

sfgirl said...

Cheryl, good comment. Yes, the SW subculture makes for a very interesting study...
Blackburn, I so agree with what you said about the prequel trilogy...I too wished for more human elements, despite enjoying the "glitz"... those flying cars and urban chases were SO NEAT! The series is BEGGING to move forward, though. I would particularly love to see Timothy Zahn's trilogy made into a series of movies... COOL!

sfgirl said...

p.s. I'll be posting a review of the "New Jedi Order" series soon... You might be interested in it...

suwedenjin said...

Interesting stuff, SF-girl!

I have a very special relationship to Star Wars. First: I like it :-) Second: I happened to see the very first part released in a "SF-like" cinema in Mumbay (x-Bombay), India. It was quite a shock to get away from the hot and crowded streets into this AC-cool and futuristic movie palace and watch Star Wars! Amazing!

I've been rather busy lately. Since we communicated the last time I've set up my own Galactic Empire ;-) at XANGA.com. Despite some quirks I found this environment vastly superior to blogger with the possibility to add sound, video, photo album and you name it, to your blog(s). So now I am the happy owner of two blogs in English, one in Japanese, and one in Chinese. As well as the three originals at blogger! Guiness, anybody?? :-)

I took the liberty to add The Alien Next Door as the very first link in my "Outer Space" category. First I thought about using "Spirit" vs. "Matter" as the labels, but ended up with "Inner Space" vs. "Outer Space" instead of using traditional stuff like "Religion", "Spirituality" and "Science".

A Brief History of God

A little OT here?

Did I provide you a link to the (not yet publically released) conversation between Ken Wilber and Rupert Sheldrake?

The Inner Life of Atoms and Molecules

Take care wherever you are today

sfgirl said...

That's wild, Suwedenjin! I can just imagine it...what an experience you had in Bombay!

I like your decision to use inner and outer space for your blog. Now, I have to go check!

Oh, and many thanks for the link to the Rupert Sheldrake interview!

p.s. I'm in Iowa today... :) I expect to be in South Dakota tomorrow...

Jean-Luc Picard said...

I look forward to that piece, Nina!

sfgirl said...

LOL! JEan-luc! I may have to interview you again for it! :)

media boy said...

so Lucas finally got to make (or a least approve of) a whole Star Wars movie after his love for CGI... looks fun though

sfgirl said...

Well, it's supposed to be pretty good. With great CGI. But I'm really hoping to see some new stuff on the later series like Timothy Zahn's trilogy... did I already say that? LOL! Probably... Of course, they'd have to recast the entire bunch. Harrison Ford just isn't thirty anymore... And what's Mark Hamil doing these days?

fotokalender said...

Just found this article ... and it's still up to date. :) I love everything about Star Wars, just because *it's Star Wars* ... even if some of the newer things like Clone Wars leave me rather disappointed. About these things I'm sad, but I still can't stop watching and reading everything thats new.
Stupid.
There seems to be no solution for this.

SF Girl said...

I know what you mean, fotokalender! I'll watch/read pretty well anything they bring out... LOL! Sometimes stupid is good... ;)

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