The Mythology of Star Wars
Part of the greatness of the first Star Wars film lies in its sense of scope. Through a variety of storytelling devices, the film creates the constant sense that you’re seeing only one story in a galaxy of lives and adventures.
Like the Iliad, the movie dives into the story in medias res, in the middle of the action. The very first lines of the crawl text announce that the Rebels have just “won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire,” telling us in a single line who the good guys are, who the bad guys are, and that the fight is already underway. It’s geniusy.
The shadow of the past looms over the action. When her ship is seized in the first scenes, Princess Leia offhandedly tells Darth Vader that the Imperial Senate will never stand for this assault, suggesting that the audience already knows about the governance of the galaxy. And, she tells us in sideways fashion, of course we already know the notorious Lord Vader – only he could be so bold.
Most of the history that we need to know is conveyed through indirect exposition of this kind. We learn along with Luke Skywalker about his father’s heroic career, and his tragic death at the hands of Lord Vader. The legendary sense of lineage informs Luke’s destiny, even as it implies the dangers that lie on the heroic path.
In The Empire Strikes Back, we learn the truth about Luke’s father, and that whole sense of past is upended. Luke has modeled his life on what he knows of his father. When he learns the truth, he also learns that greatest danger he faces is not physical death, but death of the soul – that he, like his father, will be swallowed by the machine.
This revelation carries all the more emotional power because over the last hour, we have watched him struggle with his training, tested by impatience and anger, failing one test after another in the swamps of Dagobah.
The original Star Wars trilogy – especially the first two truly great films – created a rich sense of world by holding back enough of the details to suggest that a lot more was happening just past the edge of the screen. What we don’t see invites the audience to fill in the blanks with our own imaginations, and we actively participate in the storytelling.
I saw the first Star Wars when I was only five or six, but even at that age I formed a clear image in my mind of what Luke’s father was like, back when he was the best pilot in the galaxy, and how it went down with Darth Vader. Those impressions are as vivid for me now as my recollection of the films themselves. And, I daresay, considerably more impactful than the way that past was depicted in the prequel trilogy.
The tension that drives the story of the original Star Wars trilogy is that mixture of what we know and what we don’t know. Like a yin yang, the light is complemented by the dark, and the pervasive mystery enriches the story with the sense that hidden dimensions are at work. This tension comes to climax in the first film when Obi Wan Kenobi’s voice comes to Luke at a crucial moment, telling him to trust himself to the unknown, and turn off his targeting computer.
When I was a boy watching this film for the first time, my heart surged with ecstasy at that moment. I didn’t understand it, but somehow I knew old Ben was right – that was exactly what he should do. Then we get the big fireworks kerblooey, and the menacing death machine explodes, like the tight little circle of the ego erupting in a shower of light, and that terrifying threat evaporates.
One aspect of the story that fuels the imagination is the Jedi and the Force that they serve. We learn very little about the Jedi in the first trilogy, except that they are the guardians of justice and goodness. They utilize the Force, a mystical energy field that is somehow related to life itself, and they fight against the forces of destruction and domination in the universe.
The Jedi mythology Lucas suggests is conveyed through a handful of lines reflecting influences ranging from the Tao Te Ching to the Bhagavad Gita to Arthurian legend. Lucas was famously influenced by Joseph Campbell’s book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, and it’s worth noting that Campbell was not interested in theology, but mythology – that is, the stories that reflect and activate the spirit.
We learn nothing but fragments of the Force as a philosophy. It comes to life because it operates in a story that we recognize, the struggle of idealistic young underdogs against what Hunter Thompson called “the forces of Old and Evil.” It’s a story we can get excited about.
We know that the struggle between the Rebel forces and the Empire, for example, is a struggle between two visions of the world. We can either honor life and its mysteries, or we can try to control life with technology.
The battle of Star Wars is a choice between these visions. Although it’s set in the realm of the stars, it’s a battle of the soul, and it is ultimately decided in the field of the soul. The great victory of Return of the Jedi is not a military victory, but Luke’s decision not to fight, and what that decision means to his father, who had given up on himself long ago.
The Force, like the history of the galaxy, is given in fragments, and we’re invited to fill in the blanks with our own beliefs and commitments. It should therefore come as no surprise that some people have taken up the invitation, and attempted to formulate an active spiritual tradition based on the Star Wars mythology.
In the 2001 census, 0.8% of respondents of England and Wales reported their religious affiliation to be Jedi – more than Sikhism, Judaism, or Buddhism. While many of these reports were doubtlessly intended to be tongue-in-cheek, there are clearly some people who take “Jediism” very seriously.
Take, for example, the Church of Jediism, co-founded by Daniel Morgan Jones, a Welsh Star Wars fan born in 1986, after Return of the Jedi left the theaters. He has helped put together what appears to be a serious attempt to formulate a spiritual discipline based on the Star Wars model.
Browsing through Jones’s website, one comes upon the training manual for Jedi. For the most part, it comes across like a hybrid between personal spiritual musings and fan fiction. Its stylistic debt to role playing game manuals is reflected in suggestions like “For a person to operate coherently, an equal balance of the three should be 20% Good Energy (MC), 20% Bad Energy, and 60% Neutral Energy.”
I admit to a certain cynicism that keeps me at arm’s-length from the manual. My opinion is that the Star Wars films, powerful as they are, lack a coherent vision of the Jedi and their ways.
Beyond the general insights that the world is interconnected and alive, Lucas struggled to formulate a coherent vision for his Jedi. His failure to do so became distressingly evident in the prequel trilogy. In addition to its severe deficits on the story level, the morality tale depicting the rise and fall of Anakin Skywalker becomes increasingly incoherent and bizarre. Anakin’s terrible transgression was that he fell in love? His desire to save his wife drove him to murder very young children at the drop of a hat? The Force is caused by microscopic organisms?
The incoherence of Lucas’s vision suggests that the Force works best as a vaguely-defined device in a well-told story. There is not enough there to support a philosophy of any depth on its own. And what could Jedi training mean, assuming that we discount the possibility of telekinesis, levitation, or light saber training?
To answer that question I read further in Jones’s manual, and I was pleased to discover that the initial stages of Jedi training, at least, have a disarming good-heartedness. Whatever may or may not be found in the Force and its mythology, who can argue with practices such as these?
Day 1 – Make it your goal to learn something new today.
Day 3 – Today try a New food.
Day 4 – Make it your goal to shake some ones hand today.
Day 14 – Make it your goal not to have any conflict today think of something that makes you smile and keep out of any conflict or argument.
Day 16 – Do something that makes you laugh and do it more than once.
Day 21 – Make it your goal to help some one today.