An American Mythology: Why Star Wars Still Matters
By Steven D. Greydanus
The circle is complete.
The saga that began in midstream over a quarter century ago with Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi — also known to aficionados as Episodes IV, V, and VI, respectively — has at last come to a close with the May release of Episode III — Revenge of the Sith, the third and final installment in the new trilogy of "prequels" detailing the back story to the original trilogy.
Though the new prequels have been widely contrasted unfavorably with the original trilogy, the Star Wars universe remains a cultural institution of immense proportions. Its impact on Hollywood alone has been incalculable. It’s impossible to imagine Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T., The Matrix, or The Lord of the Rings without Star Wars. In fact, Lucas’s bitterest critics charge Star Wars with nothing less than "ruining" Hollywood by turning it from the gritty, "relevant" sophistication of films like The Godfather, Taxi Driver, and Annie Hall toward juvenile fantasy, spectacle, and romanticism.
Here’s a typical complaint from Peter Biskind’s gossipy manifesto Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock’n’Roll Generation Saved Hollywood: "When all was said and done, Lucas and Spielberg returned the 1970s audience, grown sophisticated on a diet of European and New Hollywood films, to the simplicities of the pre-1960s Golden Age of movies… They marched backward through the looking-glass."
Those with different values, obviously, might care to see it the other way round: It was Lucas and Spielberg who "saved Hollywood" from the decadence of the "sex-drugs-and-rock’n’roll generation" and brought old-fashioned good-versus-evil storytelling back to theaters.
That’s not to say that Lucas’s critics don’t have a point. Artistically, the flaws and limitations of the Star Wars films — and of its many less distinguished heirs, from Independence Day to Tomb Raider — are inescapable. They are silly, indifferently acted, poorly thought out in some respects, and not infrequently inconsistent verging on self-contradiction.
As Lucas’s saga progressed, moreover, the flaws have become more pronounced. When Lucas cannily gave the original Star Wars film the puzzling subtitle Episode IV — A New Hope, it wasn’t because he had a clear vision for a series of six (or nine) films. Rather, he was paying homage to the serial matinee adventures of his childhood, and wanted to evoke the sense of a larger canvas where in fact he had only hazy ideas for possible sequels and even hazier ideas for what was then a wholly hypothetical back story.
As a result, the more Lucas has tried to extrapolate what happened before and after the first Star Wars film (A New Hope), the more problems have emerged. The Empire Strikes Back is widely regarded as the most complex and interesting film of the lot, but by Return of the Jedi the seams were definitely showing. The prequels brought a host of new problems, adding more fuel to the fire.
Yet, despite these pitfalls, Lucas’s universe has had an impact on generations of moviegoers utterly out of all proportion to its formidable qualities as spectacle or excitement. The Force, the Jedi knights, Darth Vader, Obi-Wan, Princess Leia, Yoda, lightsabers, and the Death Star hold a place in the collective imagination of countless Americans that can only be described as mythic.
In my review of A New Hope I called Star Wars "the quintessential American mythology," an American take on King Arthur, Tolkien, and the samurai / wuxia epics of the East, dressed in the space-opera trappings of Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon and festooned with a variety of nostalgic Hollywood influences — serial-adventure swashbuckling, WWII movie dogfights, movie-Nazi villains, saloon shootouts.
The saloon shootouts, of course, come from that other great American mythology, the Western. (So does Han Solo’s general cowboy look and demeanor.) By the 1970s, though, the Western no longer enjoyed the hold on the popular imagination it once had (though its influence has continued to be felt in films from Star Wars to Die Hard to Armageddon).
The Americana of cowboys and Indians, in any case, was always tied to real history and geography — not to mention a level of real-world verisimilitude — in a way that seems more the stuff of legend than of myth, an art form generally set "long ago" and "far, far away," near or beyond the borders of fairyland. (Some Westerns do introduce paranormal elements, but in a way that usually has less to do with the properly mythic than with, say, the ghost-story genre.)
There is one way, though, in which the Western more than Star Wars resembles a traditional mythology: It is the creation of a culture rather than an individual. Like the stories of Arthurian Logres, or of the classical Greco-Roman gods and heroes, the lore of the Old West is the accumulation of innumerable stories told and retold innumerable times and in innumerable ways by innumerable voices.
In this respect, Star Wars is more like a pulp counterpart to Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings than to Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur — an essentially original work of epic mythopoeia, one with many sources and inspirations to be sure, but shaped by one storyteller.
Of course it goes without saying that as mythopoeia Star Wars doesn’t hold a candle to The Lord of the Rings. This is true for several reasons; but the main reason, indisputably, is the sheer disparity between the artistic, imaginative, spiritual, and intellectual resources of the two creators, as well as their respective ambitions. (It’s also fair to note that Lucas had a movie to make, while Tolkien had a series of texts to work on. Tolkien also had the luxury of redacting and refining his story to a greater degree than Lucas has managed to contrive, despite his best efforts in the theatrical "special editions" and the latest DVD versions.)
Tolkien was an Oxford scholar of languages and literature, a man intimately familiar with Norse and Anglo-Saxon mythological texts in the original languages, who wanted to create a mythology for England and the English (Tolkien discounted Arthuriana as real mythology, on the grounds of its historical and especially religious entanglements with the real world). He was also a devout Roman Catholic.
Lucas, by contrast, is a filmmaker of decidedly uneven talent and some passing familiarity with mythic archetypes absorbed from Joseph Campbell; a religious indifferentist who has always viewed the Star Wars films as popcorn movies for children. And so they are, though like The Wizard of Oz they make an indelible impression on young viewers that endures into adulthood; and, for many adults, they still have the power, despite their flaws, to reach the child within us.
Ironically, critical disdain for the Star Wars films is often rooted not only in their undeniable flaws but also in the same mythopoeic qualities that commend them to others, by critics with an ideological axe to grind against mythopoeic storytelling per se. In fact, some of the criticisms leveled against Star Wars are precisely the same as the ones leveled against The Lord of the Rings — and could be leveled against other mythic works, from The Odyssey to Le Morte D’Arthur.
What are these much-derided mythic qualities? Critics charge Star Wars (and Tolkien) with such artistic liabilities as stereotypical characters and situations, lack of psychological depth, and an unnuanced, morality-play vision of good versus evil. (Star Wars is also disparaged for its pulp inspirations, e.g., B-movie dialogue.)
What such critics seem not to understand is how the conventions of mythology work. Its characters and situations aren’t so much stereotypical as archetypical — consciously so in the case of Star Wars, thanks to the mythic and archetypal patterns and structures Lucas absorbed from Campbell’s influential treatise The Hero With a Thousand Faces.
Stereotypes and archetypes are superficially similar, and characters of both types strike a popular chord — but the chords they strike are very different. Stereotypes work by exploiting popular cultural prejudices and assumptions. For example, James Cameron’s Titanic, the all-time U.S. box-office champ, struck a popular chord with audiences in part by exploiting stereotyped notions of the rich as snobbish, repressed twits, of the poor as life-loving free spirits, of passionate love as transcending moral or social rules, etc.
Archetypes, by contrast, work by connecting with primal or basic categories. Archetypal figures and situations in the Star Wars movies include the hero (Luke Skywalker), the wise old man (Ben Kenobi), the call to adventure and initial refusal of the call (Luke resists Ben’s invitation to come with him and learn to be a Jedi knight), the belly-of-the-whale crisis (the heroes are "swallowed" by the fearsome Death Star space station), and so on.
In these familiar patterns the struggle of good and evil stands out in sharper relief than is the case, at least without distortion, in realistic drama, which must reflect in some way the grey areas and honest disagreements, the mixed motives and awkward contradictions that are part and parcel of real life, but not of the black-and-white conflicts of fairy tales and myths.
This, again, is precisely what some critics object to in the aesthetic of mythopoeia: Is this the view of conflict we want to raise our children with? Don’t we want them to have a more nuanced, critical view of the world? How many wars in the real world are as black-and-white as Lucas’s heroic Rebel Alliance versus the evil Empire?
At least one: the war of heaven and hell. And the war of heaven and hell does break out from time to time, with reasonable clarity, in earthly conflicts of one sort or another. Certainly we want our children to learn to recognize nuances, shades of grey, and the legitimacy of honest disagreement. Of course we want them to be critical thinkers, to question their own leaders, to consider sympathetically the other side in conflicts, and so forth.
On the other hand, we also want them to recognize that there is in this world sheer good and sheer evil, and for bringing this reality alive to the mind and imagination, there’s no substitute for mythopoeia. And, in today’s world, for bringing mythopoeia alive to children, there are few films like Star Wars. (Without question, Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings is superior mythopoeia — but it’s also less kid-friendly.)
Star Wars’s credentials as mythopoeia aren’t undisputed. In a scathing essay for Salon.com, Steven Hart argued that the real inspirations for Star Wars are pulp sci-fi, plain and simple, and claims of mythic connections are merely pretentious self-promotion on Lucas’s part, aided and abetted by gullible journalists like Bill Moyers.
Once again, Hart has a point. Lucas is a gasbag whose utterances need to be taken with a whole salt lick; and certainly the pulp sci-fi influence on Star Wars can’t be overstated — indeed, let’s just come right out and acknowledge that Lucas’s saga is pulp sci-fi, straight up, and call it a day. But Hart’s argument becomes glib when he tries to debunk the mythic patterns that really do shape the story.
Hart’s example of an overblown claim of mythic patterns is the "belly of the beast" motif, which overeager commentators have found everywhere from the Millennium Falcon’s detour into the gullet of the space slug in The Empire Strikes Back to the flight into the trash compactor in A New Hope.
Hart rightly points out that neither of these really counts, since the significance of the "belly of the beast" motif depends on some kind of important transition or transformation, a death-and-rebirth experience, like Jonah in the belly of the whale, or Christ in the sepulchre. After all, it’s not as if the escape from the trash compactor were marked by some leap in Luke’s abilities in the Force, or as if the journey into the space slug changed Han and Leia’s relationship somehow.
However, if the "beast" is seen not as the trash compactor but as the Death Star itself, the pattern applies. A strikingly similar example of the same pattern, in fact, can be found in The Fellowship of the Ring, in the journey of the fellowship through the Mines of Moria. Both here and in the Death Star, the heroes are obliged to descend with great trepidation into the bowels of an enemy-occupied stronghold and ultimately battle their way out, fleeing enemies who pursue them to their final destination.
Most crucially, in both cases the heroes escape only after, and immediately after, the wizard-mentor archetype sacrifices himself in battle with an icon of evil, giving the others the opportunity to escape. (There’s even a pit in the Death Star near where Obi-Wan falls, echoing the chasm where Gandalf falls — a strong suggestion that Lucas was influenced here consciously or unconsciously by The Lord of the Rings, which had a huge cult following in the 1960s.)
The loss of the mentor is a key turning point in the hero’s journey (King Arthur is similarly deprived of Merlin at some point in various versions of his story), changing the hero by leaving him to rely on his own resources in a new way. In Star Wars this transition is both enhanced and softened by the fact that Luke is immediately aware of Obi-Wan’s disembodied presence ("Run, Luke, run!"), elevating Luke to a new level of awareness in the ways of the Force.
Ironically, while Lucas’s wizard prophesies just before being struck down that he will "become more powerful than you can possibly imagine," it’s Tolkien’s wizard who really does become more powerful as a result of his fall, while Lucas was never able to invest the spectral Kenobi with greater power or wisdom than he had in life — a disparity that seems to be rooted directly in the two men’s religious views. Tolkien’s story draws on his belief in the resurrection of the dead and especially the resurrection of Christ, while Lucas’s ultimately reflects only a vague spirituality of the survival of the soul.
The Death Star experience also changes Luke by giving him the opportunity to take an important first step on his journey to hero status, i.e., the rescue of the maiden. At the same time, here as elsewhere Star Wars plays with its archetypal patterns; the dynamics of the rescue of the maiden motif are obviously affected by the fact that the maiden here is no helpless damsel in distress, but a pistol-packing, take-charge Rebel leader.
Other examples in Star Wars of this pattern of descent into and embattled escape from hostile territory accompanied by a significant character transition include the following:
- the Wampa ice creature’s cave in Empire Strikes Back, where Luke’s escape does involve a leap of his abilities in the Force
- the evil tree on Yoda’s swamp planet in Empire Strikes Back, where Luke is confronted by his own failure and the specter of some dark mystery involving Darth Vader
- Luke’s rescue mission into the bowels of Jabba’s palace in Return of the Jedi, and in particular his descent into the Rancor dungeon and last-minute escape from the Sarlacc, throughout which Luke is transformed from apprentice upstart to proven warrior-hero
- Luke’s journey into the second Death Star in Return of the Jedi, where he faces and overcomes his greatest challenge and finally achieves the rank of Jedi knight
- the entrance into the coliseum on Geonosis in Attack of the Clones, where threat of imminent death leads Amidala to confess her love for Anakin
- the opening sequence in Revenge of the Sith, in which Anakin fights his way into an enemy ship and winds up taking an important step in his journey to the dark side
The mythology of Star Wars has many elements: the Jedi knights, with their preternatural powers in the tradition of the high-flying wuxia warriors of Chinese fiction and cinema; their evil counterparts, the Sith lords or "Darths," who always come in twos; recurring motifs such as the climactic duel over a bottomless pit into which the vanquished combatant usually falls. Of these, none is more pervasive and well-known than "the Force," locus of mystery and meaning in the Jedi universe.
Here, too, it is possible to discern the Campbell influence. Campbell himself seems to have been a sort of pantheist or monist, who believed that the "ultimate mystery" was impersonal energy rather than a personal God.
As appropriated by Lucas, "the Force" seems to be more ambiguous than Campbell’s idea of impersonal energy as the ultimate mystery. In A New Hope the Force is described as an "energy field" generated by living things and binding the galaxy together, which partially "controls your actions" but also "obeys your commands." In Episode I — The Phantom Menace, on the other hand, the Force seems to have a more personal quality: Jedi knight Qui-Gon speaks repeatedly of "the living Force" and even of "the will of the Force," which resonates more with theism.
That the Force has a "good side" and a "dark side" is well known; and while we’re told in The Empire Strikes Back that the dark side isn’t stronger, it’s not clear that the good side is stronger either, allowing for the possibility of a yin-yang balance of good and evil.
Yet a number of factors suggest that good and evil aren’t really on an equal footing after all. For example, there is the overall series’ moral outlook, including the climactic triumph of good over evil, especially in the daring redemptive twist at the end of Return of the Jedi.
There’s also the way the characters use the language of "the Force" without qualification to refer specifically to the good side, whereas if you mean the dark side you have to specify. No one says "Use the good side of the Force" or "May the good side of the Force be with you"; it’s taken for granted. In fact, the very phrase "the good side" is hardly ever used, and "the good side of the Force" not at all that I can think of; whereas "the dark side" and "the dark side of the Force" are used all the time. "The good side" isn’t needed, because "the Force" without qualification means the good side.
Intriguingly, the prequels have added a new wrinkle to the notion of "balance" in the Force by establishing Luke’s father Anakin Skywalker as a messianic "chosen one" of prophecy destined to "bring balance to the Force" — not, as Revenge of the Sith now makes unambiguously clear, by establishing an equality of good and evil, but by destroying the evil of the Sith, which occurs in Return of the Jedi. So "balance" in the Force is defined not as a yin-yang coexistence and interpenetration of good and evil, but as the triumph of good over evil. This suggests the primacy of good over evil, in keeping with Judeo-Christian teaching.
In a 1999 interview with Bill Moyers, Lucas suggested that the Force is not meant to resonate particularly with any specific religious outlook, but to awaken the sense of the transcendent. "It’s designed primarily to make young people think about the mystery. Not to say, ‘Here’s the answer.’ It’s to say, ‘Think about this for a second. Is there a God…? What does God feel like? How do we relate to God?’ Just getting young people to think at that level is what I’ve been trying to do in the films. What eventual manifestation that takes place in terms of how they describe their God, what form their faith takes, is not the point of the movie." In a nutshell, Lucas says, "Ultimately the Force is the larger mystery of the universe," and to "use the Force" is to take a "leap of faith."
Like the subsequent Matrix trilogy, the Star Wars films include both Eastern and Western influences, and have been expounded and explored from a wide variety of perspectives, including Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, New Age, and many more. The Matrix films, though, fused Zen and Christian themes into a postmodern narrative lacking any real sense of transcendence or moral vision. Star Wars, by contrast, offers a more traditional moral universe with real transcendence and good versus evil.
Unfortunately, the new prequels, especially Episodes I and II, have in general failed to live up to the standards of the original trilogy. Despite some staggering achievements in world-building and bravura action sequences, the heart of the original films has been lacking. The humor and charm that made Luke, Leia, and Han such fun has been basically missing among Qui-Gon, young Obi-Wan, Anakin Skywalker, and Amidala. And of course the more Lucas elaborates Anakin Skywalker’s history, the less the bits and pieces we already know seem to fit.
Most seriously, the mythological and archetypal inspirations that had made the original trilogy so resonant are missing in Episodes I and II. The original trilogy was about good and evil, heroism and villainy, discipline and passion, temptation and redemption. By contrast, Episodes I and II are largely about political intrigue and debates, adolescent rebellion and tepid puppy love. The straightforward adventure plotting of the original trilogy was replaced by abstruse political machinations over trade route taxation and Republic separatism.
Where the original trilogy revolved around Jungian archetypes, the prequels are distinctly Freudian, even Oedipal; Anakin is a tragic figure destined to kill his (surrogate) father, Obi-Wan, and marry his (surrogate) mother, Amidala.
Freudian symbols and patterns were not entirely absent from
the original trilogy. One can easily see what Freud would make
(in fact, what Mel Brooks did make in his spoof Space
Balls) of laser swords that turn on and off, as well as tiny
Yet the original trilogy subverted Freudian theory too. Return of the Jedi is fundamentally the story of a son who refuses to fight and destroy his father — in fact, who sacrifices himself and suffers in order to save his father. Also, the hero Luke has no mother-figure and no marriage (despite a low-level flirtation with the maiden Leia before she is revealed to be his sister).
In the prequels, by contrast, the Freudian and Oedipal patterns are clear and overt. There are obvious psychoanalytic overtones in the way people are always bringing up Anakin’s mother. "Your feelings dwell on your mother," says a Jedi Council member in The Phantom Menace who actually looks like an alien Freud, with a white beard and a curiously wrought head that seems at once philosophical and phallic. Certainly the meaningful inflection on "mother," with an upward lilt on the first syllable, is no accident.
Nor is it inadvertent that Amidala is markedly older than Anakin, or that he loses his mother as a child shortly after meeting her. Nor that he repeatedly says in Episode II — Attack of the Clones that Obi-Wan is "like a father to me" or "the closest thing I have to a father" — a father that he resents with all the violence of adolescence.
In principle, the Oedipus cycle is perhaps as valid a source for modern-day mythologizing as the battle of good and evil. At the same time, the greater emotional resonance for most viewers of the original trilogy may be at least partly due to the fact that Freud (to use a catchphrase from The Phantom Menace) "assumed too much."
Now, though, with Revenge of the Sith, Lucas has finally again tapped into the inspiration of the original trilogy, and created the mythic precursor that he first conceived decades ago. Where the original trilogy was about the rise of a hero, Revenge of the Sith is about the fall of a tragic figure, evil undermining good not only by direct attack but also by seductive subversion.
Revenge of the Sith opens with an extended action sequence climaxing with Anakin piloting a spaceship out of orbit for a crash-landing to the planet below, like Lucifer falling from the heavens. By the finale, Anakin’s descent into perdition is complete as — in a sequence rumored for decades — he falls in battle with his mentor Obi-Wan on a volcano planet amid raging rivers of lava, a veritable lake of fire casting a hellish glow over the combatants.
Anakin’s climactic near-destruction in the lake of fire is the last and one of the most striking examples of Lucas’s dependence on Christian imagery and categories. Other examples include The Phantom Menace’s overtly satanic Darth Maul, a horned, red-skinned destroyer in black; Anakin as a virgin-born "chosen one" of prophecy destined to destroy evil; Revenge of the Sith’s terrible "Directive 66," an echo of the number of the beast from the book of Revelation; and the redemptive suffering of the son, Luke Skywalker, at the climax of Return of the Jedi.
Needless to say, Star Wars is very far from Christian allegory; and, if it avoids overt yin-yang dualism or pantheism, elements of Eastern religion are still very much in evidence. In The Empire Strikes Back Yoda famously endorses gnostic contempt for physicality and the body ("Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter"), and in Revenge of the Sith Yoda articulates the Jedi ethic of detachment in a way that goes beyond Christian freedom from excessive attachment into Buddhist impassiveness: According to Yoda, our acceptance of death should be so complete that we shouldn’t even mourn the dead.
Yet these Eastern strains are leavened, even contradicted, by the series’ humanistic and Christian tendencies. Yoda may dismiss the body, yet the series embraces personal immortality, individual life after death rather than mere oneness with the Force. What’s more, it affirms that the eschatological fate of the good and the bad is not the same: Death for the evil Sith is simply destruction, but for the Jedi is the doorway to new life (even if Lucas wasn’t able to realize that new life in a truly transcendent way).
Because of this eschatological finality, the ubiquitous theme of temptation and moral choice has an urgency in Star Wars that it can never have in Eastern religion. Buddha might have had temptations, as Lucas commented to Campbell — but temptation for Buddha could only be a stepping-stone on the inevitable path to enlightenment. For Anakin and Luke, by contrast, temptation represents the treacherous appeal of the road to destruction. And, in the end, the series rejects Yoda’s Zen-like doctrine of total detachment by predicating the redemption of Darth Vader and the destruction of the Sith on Luke’s filial loyalty to his father and Vader’s paternal bond to his son.
Ultimately, what the Star Wars films offer is not a coherent philosophy of life, morality, or spirituality. Rather, they offer rousing storytelling suffused by themes of moral struggle and transcendence. They aren’t Christian, and not without their problems — any more than the classical Greco-Roman myths that generations of Christian children have grown up reading. Yet, like those classical myths, they give imaginative shape, albeit imperfectly, to basic human insights, and like the classical myths they have become a part of the cultural landscape.
If the adventures of Hercules and Odysseus can be enjoyed by Christians and shared with their children, those of Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi have a place as well. Star Wars is pop mythology — a "McMyth," as a recent critical article put it — but in our McCulture even a McMyth can be vastly preferable to no myth at all, and certainly to other, less wholesome mythologies (e.g., the Matrix trilogy). Even for those who generally prefer more traditional fare, there is still much to enjoy and appreciate in these half-baked, stunningly mounted fantasies of good and evil in a galaxy far, far away.