Star Wars & the Value of a Western Education

This blog originally appeared on the CiRCE Institute, available here: https://www.circeinstitute.org/blog/star-wars-and-mimicry

It is a widely known fact that, before conceiving of the multibillion-dollar franchise known as Stars Wars, George Lucas read Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces. Campbell, a scholar of comparative mythology whose work focuses on the symbolic interrelationships between mythological traditions, focused on the hero myth and the various struggles that the hero went through as part of his or her journey. Regardless of the culture producing these myths, the stages were always the same: the hero is born in obscurity, encounters a wise mentor, is called out on a great quest, and then goes off on a quest far greater than themselves. The hero could be a Greek warrior like Perseus, adolescent wizards like Harry Potter, or the heroines of a dystopian future like Kadniss Everdeen, but the quests are always the same. All that changes is the hero’s name, background, and identity.

Lucas, in reading this book, then transposed the myths of ancient Greece and Rome into outer space. Luke Skywalker was born in obscurity in Tatooine, encountered a wise old Jedi named Obi-Wan who trained him in the Force, and then left on a great quest to rescue a princess and destroy a tyrannical super-state known as the Galactic Empire. Even more so, Star Wars featured other archetypal characters and recurring plot elements that made this galaxy far, far away far easier to buy into than any other movie of its kind. As in Greek mythology, Luke had a wild and unruly best friend, Han Solo, and a struggle against his own father, Darth Vader, that every teenage boy in America could easily identify with. However, despite the overwhelming success of the original trilogy, I wonder how much this formula was ever really used again when Lucas devised the other Star Wars films. If one motif from the Classical tradition could be transplanted successfully in space, surely there must be others that could have survived the jump to lightspeed?   

While the new Star Wars film, The Force Awakens, is by no means a disappointment, it does seem to copy off of the formulas established by the original trilogy rather than reinvent the motifs of the Classical tradition against the backdrop of epic space battles. Hence, the trailer’s most iconic images are those of a crashed star destroyer and the decayed helmet of Darth Vader, both of which derive their cinematic power from the original films. Moreover, the film’s two interweaving plot lines are basically the plots of the original trilogy, focusing on the beginning of the quest of a young Jedi, Rey, from her obscure upbringing on the junk planet Jakku, and the father-son rivalry between the film’s most prominent characters—which I won’t spoil, in case you haven’t seen it. As if the writers of The Force Awakens could think of no other source from which to copy, they mined the treasure trove of the original trilogy in hopes of delivering a film that could reinvigorate the entire franchise. But, these elements merely copy from the wildly successful formula of the original trilogy, rather than incorporating symbols, storylines, and archetypes from across the Western canon—and it is these elements that made the original Star Wars movies so unique.

To illustrate this phenomenon further, let’s focus on the villains of Star Wars universe. Darth Vader works so well as a villain because Lucas, again, transplanted archetypal conflicts, like that of a rivalry between a son and his father, and set them against the backdrop of a galaxy far, far away. The callousness with which Vader can chop off his own son’s hand and let him fall to his death echoes Greek myths like that of Chronos eating his own children, while Vader’s willingness to execute his subordinates, should they fail him, carries with it the overtones of Sicilian tyrants torturing their employees for the sheer fun of it. These are new, imaginative ways of taking an old story and putting a new spin on it, and works so well in Star Wars for the same reason Greek myths have remained one key pillar of a Classical education: these stories provide powerful symbols for the conflict of the human condition, and allows that conflict to work itself out in the context of a narrative framework. 

This is a far cry from the villains of the prequels, each of which introduced a new villain who was supposed to overwhelm the audience with their appearance, attributes, or abilities. Despite their gruesome makeup and double-edged lightsaber (Darth Maul in The Phantom Menace), British accent and intimidating stage presence (Count Dooku in Attack of the Clones), or the sheer fact they could handle half a dozen lightsabers at one time (General Grievous in Revenge of the Sith), all of these villains were all killed off almost as soon as they were introduced. These villains were not given enough screen time to allow the audience to revile or fear them like Darth Vader, but looked cool enough that no one would complain. They were shallow caricatures of stereotypes from the Star Wars universe and were designed with the intention of selling toys rather than stirring hearts. So, does The Force Awakens repeat these mistakes, or does the film reinvigorate motifs from the Western tradition in the same manner the original Star Wars trilogy did?   

The central figure of The Force Awakens and the Star Wars universe’s newest villain is Kylo Ren, who wields a red lightsaber and promises in the film to “finish” what Darth Vader started. Sadly, Kylo Ren illustrates just how much the movie copies off of itself, right down to Kylo’s Vader-like mask, rather than rework the motifs and symbols of the Western canon. While I will not spoil the film’s most powerful scene, the father-son rivalry in The Force Awakens mimics the same rivalry between Luke and Vader, without adding much else. Surely, there must be a villain with a thousand faces that the writers could have used, in order to drive the conflict of the new Star Wars films? Why not imbue a Star Wars villain with the eloquence or martial prowess of a Macbeth? Where is the altar of eternal hostility upon which Kylo Ren could swear his allegiance to Darth Vader’s legacy, like Hannibal promised to destroy Rome? Why not fashion scenes of megalomaniacal terror, taken straight from the lives of a Herod or a Nero, rather than scenes where Kylo Ren legitimately tears up once he removes his helmet? Couldn’t they have taken a plot from any other myth, story, or play rather than allowing a surly teenager to drive the conflict of this highly-anticipated new Star Wars film?

In considering what made the original Star Wars films so memorable, I would ask that we, as Classical thinkers and educators, think of new ways of reinventing the shared cultural experience of the Western tradition for a new generation. George Lucas stumbled upon a goldmine that still contains countless treasures for the Classical mind to present to our students, all of whom are desperate for engaging storylines, life-and-death struggles, and the all-consuming battle between good and evil. So, while the plays, poems, and dialogues we teach may not be set in a galaxy far, far away, the stories of the Western tradition certainly made the Star Wars galaxy and, indeed, our own galaxy, far more interesting.

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