Feature Articles Star Wars: Beyond the Force
Apart from one of the biggest theatre successes of all time, the six Star Wars movie also are one of the biggest on-screen renditions of archetypal mythology, set against a deep space background and a war between good and evil.
by Philip Coppens
Few films have become the subject of such intense interest as Star Wars has. When the first instalment was released in 1977, no-one would have imagined that it would take until 2005 – almost thirty years – until “the saga” was concluded. That it concluded with episode three out of a total of six merely underlined the strange appeal and success of the movie. Star Wars is the brainchild of George Lucas. It is the story of Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader – even though the original three episodes (4-6), produced between 1977 and 1983, are mainly about the adventures of Luke Skywalker – his son. Here, we find that “Lucas” has transformed himself into “Luke”, for Star Wars would become a path of discovery for the director himself – from a personal commitment to a hundred of millions of dollars production. Star Wars blends mythology and technology, in a precursor to The Matrix trilogy, where light sabres were replaced with bullet-dodging people that had been “plugged in”. In both cases, it is about the manipulation of a Force – a matrix – in which Rebels are dead set to win against an oppressive regime. One of the key ingredients of the movie’s success is “the Force”, with its “White” and “Dark Side”. In a British census of 2001, many entered “Jedi” as the form of their religion, showing how persuasive – and mythical – the components of the movie are. The family name of Skywalker is highly religious – shamanic: a walker of the sky. It links perfectly with the Jedi – an order of warrior knights, apparently based on the Knights Templar, in which both father Anakin and son Luke are being trained.
The Jedi Order follows the “White Side” of the Force. Like the Knights Templar, they are largely independent of worldly powers, yet always close to the rulers. Like the Knights Templar, the Jedi eventually fall foul of the Emperor (whereas the Templars were destroyed by the French king). They are also like the Grail Brotherhood, whereby their final goal is inspired by the highest principles – if not divine kingship. Their mastery of the Force is to nurture it for good – for a higher purpose, not just for material – worldly – gains. Their techniques are the use of the Force for knowledge and defence, their final goal is the ascent of the soul, to “the Otherworld”.
Another parallel with the Grail Brotherhood and Luke’s identification with Perceval is that like Perceval, Luke is unaware of his origins… as well as the royal lineage in which he grew up. Like Perceval, he is unable to harness the special powers and abilities, which are subsequently brought out by a series of teachers.
Like Perceval, he reluctantly leaves the homeland (the planet Tatooine) on a quest that takes him over a supernatural threshold into a strange land. On the opposite side is the “Dark Side”, whose followers are known as Sith. This is an ancient order of Force-practitioners devoted to the dark side and determined to destroy the Jedi. Lucas gives their history like this: the Sith were a menace long thought extinct. The current incarnation of the Sith is the result of a rogue Jedi dissident from the order. 2000 ago, this Jedi had come to the understanding that the true power of the Force lay not through contemplation and passivity. Only by tapping its dark side could its true potential be gained. The Jedi Council rejected this interpretation, with the knight becoming an outcast. He was, of course, able to gain followers to his new order. But – as could be expected – the order self-destructed, with only one Sith able to survive. Darth Bane then restructured the cult, so that there could only be two – no more, no less: a master and an apprentice. When Star Wars begins, the master Darth Sidious and his apprentice is Darth Maul. By that time, the galaxy believed that the Sith were extinct, but Qui-Gon Jinn’s report of a Sith attack on Tatooine changes that opinion. The unwillingness to trust of the Jedi Council is here already revealed, as Qui-Gon’s report is met with hesitation and skepticism. Surely if the Sith had returned, the Jedi would have detected it, they reason.
With the death of Darth Maul at Naboo, the Jedi Council realise that the Sith menace is indeed true. But what they do not know is whether Maul was the master, or the apprentice. When they finally learn how the pieces fit in the puzzle – and who the new apprentice to Darth Sidious/Emperor Palpatine is, the power of the Dark Force has been able to control the entire galaxy.
In Episode three, Palpatine gives key insights into what he has been taught from his master. It is mastery of the material world, for largely material and personal gains. Physical longevity, if not immortality, is a key ingredient, as well as superhuman strength. Its emphasis is on the here and now, rather than the Hereafter. With the completion of all six episodes, it is clear that the journey marks the birth, growth, fall, realisation and ascension of Darth Vader/Anakin Skywalker. The shift away from Luke to Anakin as the master of the series occurred in the late 80s/early 90s, the so-called “hiatus period”, between episode 4-6 and 1-3.
What causes Anakin’s fall is a problem of trust, coupled with his particular weakness: the love for a woman, Padme. Anakin sees that his obedience to the Jedi order is not met by their display of trust; the Jedi Council feels Anakin’s unrestfullness, his “Dark Side”, but rather than guide him through his weakness – by giving recognition and trust – they withhold parental ratification, which brings him ever further from his Jedi destiny. As an orphan, Anakin feels quite naturally attracted to a father figure like Senator Palpatine, the future Emperor, and master of the Dark Side. In episode 3, it is quite clear that Anakin’s “Fall” is less to do with any shenanigans by Senator Palpatine, then with the Jedi Order’s continued blindness towards Anakin’s needs; Palpatine, in fact, is just the safety net, which is there to catch him once Anakin has fallen of the Jedi tightrope. The last three episodes are about the ascent of Darth Vader. In episode 4, there is the confrontation between Darth Vader and Obi-Wan Kenobi, the “rematch” of a similar fight between Anakin and the Jedi knight; In the first fight (episode 3), Anakin is left half-dead, the direct result of which will be his transformation in what is close to a robot: a mechanical body, operated by a Jedi knight’s mind – turned to the Dark Side of the Force. In the rematch, Darth Vader is able to win the fight – though Obi-Wan performs a self-sacrifice, which guarantees his ascent. Obi-Wan tells Vader that “if you strike me down, I will become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.” At first, Darth Vader does not seem to understand, but it seems that this sacrifice and the slow realisation that his two children are alive and actively fighting the cause for the Rebellion are key ingredients in which Vader slowly begins the path of redemption, with the notion that at his death, he may ascend – provided sacrifice can be shown before his death. Though the latter is not made clear in the movie, it is a key mythological component, which Lucas has written into the plot of episode 6 – the finale. Luke is taught by the same mentors of his father: Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda, who are tried and tested not to make the same mistake with the son as they have made with the father.
In episode 4, the role of faith – trust – is once again underlined. Luke has not yet developed the ability to see “the ascended masters”, move objects, or know the future, and so what he sees of the Force’s power is more limited. He observes Obi-Wan’s Jedi “mind-trick” when confronted by a storm trooper, and begins his warrior training when he learns to fight a combat training droid without seeing it.
His mastery of the Force becomes visible when he blows up the Death Star, without computer assistance. It underlined a theme that in the early 1980s was only in its infancy: mankind’s reliance on more and more technology, in which the “old ways” are slowly being forgotten. It is visualised in a confrontation between an Imperial officer and Darth Vader, in which the latter’s ancient religion is ridiculed by one of the Imperial officers as inadequate next to the technological power of the Death Star – the ultimate technology, which nevertheless is only able to destroy.
Throughout episode 4, Vader appears to be an anachronism in the Empire, as no one else seems to believe in the mystical dimension he does; his faith is a peculiarity in the otherwise secularized and technology-driven Empire. As Governor Tarkin puts it: “The Jedi are extinct; their fire has gone out in the universe. You, my friend, are all that is left of their religion.” It is indeed an anachronism that virtually the sole incorporation of the Force – and evidence of its power – are originally Darth Vader –with Emperor Palpatine gaining a primary role only later in the saga. By episode 5, we see that not Luke’s power has grown, but that Darth Vader’s prominence in the Emperical line of Command has equally increased. From a private project by the Emperor, he has now been given “line management” of some of the Imperial Troops, on his ascent to becoming the successor of Darth Sidious – and the future Emperor. For a long time, Luke, like his father, lacks the total belief required to be a Jedi; when he says it is impossible to lift his ship out of the Dagobah swamp and Yoda does it for him, he can only say “I don’t believe it!” to which master Yoda replies: “That is why you fail.”
The possibility that they may feel in Luke’s education and that history will repeat itself is always there – and everyone is aware of it. Like Anakin has lost his hand in episode 2, so does Luke lose his in episode 5 – whereby Vader loses his mechanical hand once again in episode 6. At this moment, the Emperor exhorts Luke to kill Vader and “take your father’s place at my side.” It is now that Luke throws down his weapon. “I am a Jedi, like my father before me,” he says. He is able to come to this decision, as he sees himself about to suffer the same fate as his father; in particular, he looks at the stump of Vader’s electronic hand and then at his own machine hand which he was given. It is the recognition that “Time” has pencilled out the same course, and both father and son are at a junction. Whereas the Force has made sure that the path of father and son can be repeated, Luke, like Neo in the Matrix, realises that he needs to act differently – think outside of the box, so that history will not repeat itself.
Luke shows his mastery of the Force by throwing away his sword. Rather than a fighting hero, typified by the Archangel Michael slaying the dragon, Luke triumphs by letting the Force work through him. It is exactly the same component that is present in the final Neo-Smith fight in the Matrix, whereby both forces realise that their battle can continue indefinitely – unless some changes tactics and realises that letting the Dark Side take control so that it can be destroyed passively, may be the only way to succeed.
The Dark Force masters tend to speak of “destiny” in a way that suggests free will is non-existent; but the “White Side” always allows participants to choose their own destinies, granting that free choice can and does contribute to the direction of events. When Luke asks Yoda (in episode 5) if Han and Leia will die, the small green man replies, “Difficult to say. Always in motion is the future.” What will happen depends on the choices that individuals make, and this cannot be foretold with complete certainty. In the Skywalker family’s final battle with Emperor Palpatine, the “White Side” of the Force wins – though it takes the life of Anakin. Like Obi-Wan and Yoda before him, his ascent is guaranteed – and is confirmed in a final apparition to Luke. Luke’s transformation from a self-centred person into a crusader with a grand purpose is now successful; Obi-Wan and specifically Yoda have “evened out” their own karma….
But Luke has not been alone on his journey to self-realisation – and ego-negation. There is his twin sister, Leila, which reminds us of the many myths in which twin heroes form the centre of the story, specifically in efforts to balance out the Forces of the Universe. Though less visible, the same path to enlightenment is also taken by Han Solo, an unwilling “comrade in arms”, who ends up as Luke’s co-traveller. When he is turned to stone in a carbonite block, many have observed that the “reborn Solo” has become a new person, willing to meet the higher challenges that he is encountering on his path.
Solo at first negates the power of the Force: “Kid, I’ve flown from one end of this galaxy to the other; I’ve seen a lot of strange stuff, but I’ve never seen anything to make me believe there’s one all-powerful force controlling everything. There’s no mystical energy field controlling my destiny. It’s all a lot of simple tricks and nonsense.” He attributes to luck what Luke and Ben attribute to the Force, and he trusts in his own abilities rather than any transcendent power. Nevertheless, his unwillingness to use the Force – or even believe in it – is, as it is in life, no prerogative to walk the path towards ascension. Lucas has been described as the first mass media mythologist. His inspiration for these mythical themes originated from a personal friendship with the late Joseph Campbell, perhaps the best-known expert in the field. Campbell is best known for two books: Masks of God and The Hero with a Thousand Faces. These books inspired Lucas tremendously and Campbell himself was grateful that the director had presented the elements of Luke’s initiations so clearly. Campbell was equally impressed that Lucas had so diligently presented this large mystery in a way that was so accessible to large numbers of people.
Campbell defined the Hero Cycle, a course of events that occurs as a rite of initiation in every myth, pinpointing the need for mentors, villains, elixirs and jesters along the way. This Hero Cycle can be found in the story from ancient Egypt or Greece, via the medieval Grail legends… to Star Wars… and the Matrix.
Each ingredient is present in the life of Luke. Like Anakin, Luke is on the path to enlightenment – a Jedi, a shaman – but like his father, he has to fight his demons, symbolised in a battle scene in the forest, where he fights Darth Vader and when successful, is staring at his own face… it is a clear message that what needs to be conquered is the self – the ego – the fear – if one wants to be successful. Liberation comes from self-realisation. Anakin before him was never able to let go of his ego – which resulted in his weaknesses of trust and love.
If anything, Star Wars is different from ancient myths in the sense that it has two heroes, whereby both father and son are successful in their mission. Whereas the theme of the Evil Father searching the galaxy to destroy his own son is a known and tried theme in Greek mythology, Lucas successfully re-engineered the individual building blocks, which guaranteed a slightly different outcome than was the norm. If Star Wars will ever become a true legacy of 20th century mythology, it may be such details that will have enabled that recognition.