On May 25th, 1977, a few unknowing moviegoers at Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Los Angeles went to see a space movie. As the lights went out, they were transported to a galaxy far, far away. A vast Imperial star destroyer appeared on screen, stretching endlessly. What ensued was, of course, the epic tale of good versus evil, as the story followed the unlikely farmer boy Luke Skywalker on his journey to becoming a famed Jedi Knight. This was a story very different from the general mindset at the time. Moviegoers had the chance to escape their daily lives and dream of a world out there, where heroism was still present. It captured and eventually fueled people’s imagination. It even changed the face of Hollywood with its groundbreaking special effects.
The Star Wars saga is a simple tale of good and evil, but at its core it is also a modern myth. As the Skywalker story unfolds before our eyes, we see in it also familiar themes as old as age. Already in the Greek myths these themes of coming-of-age, heroism, love, and good versus evil have been thoroughly investigated.
What is Mythology?
The famed professor and mythological historian Joseph Campbell wrote the bestselling book The Hero with a Thousand Faces. In it, he wrote that myths are a metaphor for the experiences of life. “Myths and dreams come from the same place. They come from realizations of some kind, and that have to then find expression in symbolic form,” Campbell said in a 1987 interview, conducted at Skywalker Ranch. His beliefs stem from the theories of psychology by Carl Jung, who maintained that we process experience with a visual flow very much like a movie. George Lucas studied the work of Joseph Campbell to the point that he invited him to act as an advisor during the writing process of Star Wars.
Luke Skywalker’s story is considered to be the hero’s journey. It is the initiatory pattern that represents a transition, moving from one identity — young adult — into another identity — full adulthood. His father, Anakin Skywalker, starts on a different path that ultimately leads to his own demise. He is drawn away from the hero’s journey to become the very thing he swore to defeat. Luke’s journey becomes a quest for redemption, to return his lost father back into the light.
King Arthur, Moses, and Odysseus have something in common with Luke Skywalker. Initially, all of them rejected the call to adventure, until a tragic event pushes away from home to a new place. In the case of Luke, it was the brutal murder of his aunt and uncle that finally compels him to leave his home planet of Tatooine. At this point, he still does not know that he is about to journey into the unknown and encounter strange creatures and unpleasant adversaries. He finds strength, though, within his strong belief that there is still good in his father’s heart.
Father and Son
In Greek mythology, the struggle between father and son is most prominent. For example, the Olympian Zeus comes to power after he overthrows and defeats his father, the Titan Cronus. This is really the centerpoint of Greek myths: the war between the Titans and the gods. Other figures also illustrate that Star Wars is very heavily influenced by these tales of olden days. The Titan Prometheus, who is known for his act of passing on fire to the humans, was of course punished for eternity, until another hero, Herakles, freed him from his perpetual agony. Since Titans are immortal, he was chained to a rock where, each day, a giant eagle would rip out his liver. It would grow back each time, but he still felt the pain.
Anakin Skywalker was a boy of many talents, but born into the life of a slave. For reasons beyond what is tangible, Anakin is freed and allowed to fulfill his destiny. This one example of the hero’s journey. In the end, the hero is following a calling. Anakin’s adventure began with a prophecy that made him the hero. He did not look for it or ask for a greater purpose, though when he had power, he surely took advantage of it until he could no longer control his feelings. Like Odysseus, Anakin is the trigger of a war over love. He becomes evil because he sees it as the only way to preserve what he fears to lose the most: his beloved Padmé.
It is also a biblical theme, because the sins of father are passed on for generations. In Episode II: Attack of the Clones, Anakin is scarred when the sinister Count Doku cuts off his arm in a duel. The father passes this scar onto his son, Luke, in Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back. Eventually, Luke has a choice to end this generational inheritance of guilt and sins by letting his father fulfill his destiny of bringing balance to the Force. In a way, Luke and Anakin have embarked on the same quest, and ultimately both of them triumph. It is only a tragedy that Anakin’s destiny was to sacrifice himself.
Both father and son are wounded on their two separate paths. These wounds shape the actions of each hero. The real injuries of life add up as each hero continues on his journey. That is the making of characters.
The Role of the Mentor
Qui-Gon Jinn, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and Yoda share the mythic role of the mentor, the wise surrogate father figure who sets a hero on his journey. In Star Wars, this is a very important role to play, since a hero always needs guidance on his adventure. Without Obi-Wan, Luke would have had no clue about his origins. His uncle made sure that he would never inquire about his true identity. This was a security mechanism for which uncle and aunt gave their lives. In myth, these mentor figures often have magical powers, just like the Jedi Knights. They represent the moral compass that keeps the hero on track. Unfortunately, to Obi-Wan’s disappointment, his original protegee turned into the dark Darth Vader.
A mentor traditionally gives the hero a gift. In Star Wars, this gift is, of course, Anakin’s lightsaber, which Obi-Wan passes onto Luke. In myth, this is usually an item that is going to prove useful in the struggles to come. In Luke’s case, it is the lightsaber, a Jedi Knight’s weapon, which will certainly be a valuable ally on his ensuing quest. The gift of an elegant weapon notwithstanding, however, a mentor also gives the gift of wisdom and discernment. This is what both Anakin and Luke need before they can become Jedi Knights. It is strict physical discipline and morality that Luke requires before he can fulfill his destiny, which is to help his father fulfill his.
Anakin’s story reflects that of the archangel Lucifer, as told in Milton’s poem Paradise Lost. In his lust for power, to cheat death, he wages a war against the Jedi. Yet his own former master defeats him, and as Darth Vader, Anakin goes on to create his own empire alongside the insidious Emperor Palpatine.
He wants to save Padmé, his great love, mother of Luke and Leia, from certain death. To do this, he gives in to the Dark Side of the Force, and practically sells his soul to the Emperor. Instead of saving her, Anakin kills her himself. This is the very essence of a Greek tragedy. The hero fails to complete his quest, and on the path to his own demise, he drags down loved ones. In this sense, Anakin was foolish and naive by thinking that he could control his lust for power before it made him nothing more than an instrument of evil until his own son, whom he believed to be dead, shows him that there is still good lingering in his wounded heart.
A Galaxy Far, Far Away…
Star Wars is, strictly speaking, a science-fantasy story. It does not speculate what future of mankind could look like. Instead, it reshapes old myths for the modern age. Tales thousands of years old about morality and the defeat of evil were the inspiration. Star Wars simply presents them in a new, more exciting fashion. In fact, the original film borrows its storyline from the Japanese samurai classic The Hidden Fortress. This proves that George Lucas drew from a number of sources, but effectively crafted a beautiful morality tale.
On a more humorous side, characters like Jar Jar Binks play no important role whatsoever. They are simplistic filler material to entertain the young crowd. Especially seeing him in the 3D conversion was a tortuous experience. As an avid Star Wars fan, I cry out every time I hear his voice. This still does not diminish my fascination with the world in a galaxy far, far away. I will always remember when, as a small boy, I dreamed of being a righteous Jedi Knight who saves the galaxy. Reality looks a little different, though.
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