I wrote a post about Star Wars. This is not my typical content. I’ll post a few more. I may need some catharsis.
Here is one on the question of the mythic dimensions in Star Wars — or the question of whether, and to what degree, there are mythic strands in it.
As I mentioned in the first post, were I to be responsible, I’d buy and read the recent biography of George Lucas before writing this (more likely, I’d listen to it on Audible). I’d look at the concept art books or the Ralph McQuarrie art boxed set or the storyboards for the original trilogy. I’d read the books that dealt with how the movies were made — volumes on A New Hope, or The Empire Strikes Back, or Return of the Jedi. I’d find and finally read my copy of How Star Wars Conquered the Universe, or any number of other texts that would give me access to the history of George Lucas, Lucasfilm, and the production dramas and decisions that resulted in so many of these films. (Buy those books! I’ll get a few pennies to spend on the coffee needed to keep writing blog posts.)
If there was mythic content to Star Wars before, that has largely passed. It would be easy to blame Disney, and say that “Disney does not seem to understand what the Force was supposed to be”, but that would be unfair (as we’ll see, there are incoherences in the mythology early on). Nonetheless, there is something to the Force that incited wonder and spiritual searchings for many. As Chaim Saiman writes in The Atlantic,
For at least two generations, the Star Wars saga has served as a kind of secularized American religion. Throughout the series, the Force is a stand-in for a divine power that draws on a number of mystical traditions, representing the balance of good and evil, the promise of an ultimate unity, and the notion that those learned in its ways can tap into the infinite.
George Lucas sees the Force’s dark vs. light side as a cipher for selfish vs. compassionate ways of life. Elsewhere Lucas has said that the symbolism of the Force is universal — mythology is about the archaeology of human behavior, about the good and evil in us, and in our institutions; some people are selfish, and will rob us of our freedom — people who do not play by the rules. Lucas invented the Force because he wanted people to enter the mystery, to ask big questions, but clearly did not want to provide answers to some of them. As one CNN article cites him as saying,
“I see ‘Star Wars’ as taking all the issues that religion represents and trying to distill them down into a more modern and accessible construct,” Lucas has said. “I wanted to make it so that young people would begin to ask questions about the mystery.”
–but that was George Lucas and friends, at the very beginning of the 1980s.
The Buddhist mysticism of The Empire Strikes Back does seem to be quite a bit different from the standardized video-game powers of the prequels, and The Clone Wars TV show.
I mean, the 1999 film The Phantom Menace literally lifted a Jedi “Force speed” ability straight from an ability in a preceding 1997 Star Wars video game, Dark Forces II: Jedi Knight. Now, while that “force speed” moment from The Phantom Menace was included clumsily, for sloppy writing purposes, The Disney trilogy simply extends this demystification of the Force for what seem to be reasons of plot convenience. Chris Terrio, who co-wrote The Rise of Skywalker, seems to share this video game mentality as he admits that one of the two driving questions behind the story in The Rise of Skywalker is:
‘How strong is the Force?’ It sounds a little simple, but actually when you get down to it, that is a sort of Zen Koan that we would really meditate on – not literally in yoga poses or anything, but like we would discuss, ‘What is the Force and how strong is the Force?’ Those two things were really important.
The movie only “discusses” how powerful the force is as a video game discusses cartoon power levels in the Japanese comic series Dragon Ball Z. Even elements of the excellent show The Mandalorian do seem to have been set up in order to introduce novelties that are brought into The Rise of Skywalker to satisfy this video-game urge. I don’t begrudge them any interest in including novelties (there is nothing wrong with novelties as such), but it reinforces one problem and introduces a second. It reinforces the video-game-ing of the Force; most of the fans who were able to “go along with” it were able to because they had seen “Force heal” in…the video games.
This all shows how the myth has drained from Star Wars to render it just another comic book series. New “force powers” along these video game lines, new “abilities” that did not exist before and cannot be accounted for along earlier, comprehensive principles, introduce a problem: they undo major plot points from the prequels, The Clone Wars, the original trilogy, and so on (e.g., why didn’t Luke infuse life into his father after his father threw the Emperor into that energy pit? –why don’t Jedi travel around in groups with several people who know “Force heal” in The Clone Wars? –why didn’t Anakin look to the Jedi to address how to heal Padme, instead of falling into the arms of Sidious/Palpatine? —&c.). The solutions to this problem are not found in more basic symbols, such as within a myth, but in retroactive continuity (“retcon“) devices, such as are found within comic books.
In the battle between the mythic elements (Bushido, Christian knighthood, Buddhist ethics, Taoist cosmology, &c.) and the comic book elements (Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, &c.), the comic book elements win. Star Wars has generated a fungal undergrowth of merchandising on other platforms (e.g., video games, card games, tabletop RPGs, &c.), which have retroactively infected the primary forum for advancing stories — the movies. This retroactive infection was not planned, and no one seems to be supervising either the growth or the spread of the growth. On his Twitter feed, Rian Johnson showed that he looked for inspiration for Luke’s “Force projection” ability not in traditional myth and legend, or even in narrative necessity, but in Star Wars fan material, leading to the question about whether Star Wars is now Harry Potter in space. Attempting to give an onto-theological grounding for this by differentiating “The Cosmic Force” & “The Living Force” in the novelizations of the movies does not address this glaring inconsistency, or give grounds for making allowances from video games into a myth; it only makes transparent that there is no plan, that novelties are invented clumsily, that additions are not made on the basis of spiritual or mythic development and deepening, but on a law that is similar to power creep in trading card games and long-term MMOs.
All changes to the Star Wars universe, thus, must meet with endless (and endlessly jarring) revisions, in a way that is not like what myth aims to do or to be in their relative stability. I don’t follow comics, but this reminds me of what I understand about some comic book universe events (e.g., crisis on infinite earths) that aimed at streamlining and editing the unmanageable mess of an inherited universe that they had thus far made and received. Star Wars itself is now a jungle of weeds, both with little sense of self beyond the jumble of positive images, and, paradoxically, with too much awareness of itself, as my friend Adam said, in its desire to incorporate the fungal overgrowth uncritically. Aware of itself as a self-referential thing, but not as the outgrowth of digesting perennially salient source material (i.e., Bushido, Christian knighthood, Taoist cosmology, &c.).
This may be unfair, as it seems that the so-called “Expanded Universe” canon was apparently as well-managed as one might expect, but seemingly only grudgingly respected by Lucas. The problem predates Disney.
Still, the Eastern heritage that went into making Star Wars does not seem to be receiving much attention in Disney Star Wars. There are (admittedly, very flawed) articles with titles like “Is Star Wars Trending Away from the Ideals it Created?” that get the Western religious traditions very wrong, but do highlight some important Eastern elements that were discarded by Disney Star Wars. The ways in which The Last Jedi‘s principles get extended into our culture do not seem very interesting, even though they seem like one possible fair reading of that movie’s message. It is not clear how that message is terribly mythological (in a conference panel, former Lucasfilm exec. Howard Roffman suggests that some of the people that have been gathered around Kathleen Kennedy may not understand the mythology behind Star Wars), or how it is much other than a spiritual reification of the more banal ethical and political messages that could come out of The New Yorker (which I ignore, as it is merely break-room talking points), or, at its best, The Economist (to which I subscribe, as it is respectable market analysis and informed sociological opinion). Disney Star Wars’ ethos may, in fact, be taken to support a kind of “balance” that could easily be spun to justify some pretty atrocious ethical exhortations.
Now, there is a good argument that there is something mythical in The Last Jedi, following a trend in culture today: there is a post-hero trend in our culture. Did I mention before that Colin Trevorrow argued that Star Wars is more than just a film franchise?
Aside from the comic-booking of the mythological themes of Star Wars, there is the matter of what spirituality is being pressed into service in Disney Star Wars. The picture here is strange. The spiritual paths that were laid out in The Empire Strikes Back seem to be somewhat inverted in The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi. There seems to be mastery with no effort. Before, the Force was something one had access to only with intense training; the way of life of the Jedi required discipline. In keeping with consumer preferences, access to the Force in Disney Star Wars is the spontaneity of a Romantic philosopher’s dreams. The dark side is now a legitimate source of answers (or was, before those answers were revised in The Rise of Skywalker). (In Colin Trevorrow’s version of Episode IX, titled Duel of the Fates, Rey is seen as transcending the Jedi by embracing both the light and the dark sides of the Force. This makes the dark side more like the Jungian notion of the shadow than the selfishness that Lucas mentions in the presentation above. All well and good, if this is the case, but is this what we see on screen? How does one embrace and reconcile with one’s shadow? The movie doesn’t present this, and so can’t be seen to express this myth. Further, the kind of balance that all media seem to be showing is just a banal form of risk-aversion and commitment-aversion. Stay level, man.
The Zeffo (a race in the first new canonical game) seem to be championing the new ideal of balance as against control (and the light side seems to be equated with pride) — this is in keeping with The Last Jedi‘s understanding of the Force, but not the earlier understanding.
The original spirituality is out: non-attachment and/or dispassion is/are no longer encouraged, as it was even in The Clone Wars TV series. The Buddhist notion of non-attachment and the subtly-but-significantly different Christian notion of dispassion both aim at fostering compassion and charity, respectively. They do not (I would argue, at least for charity) discourage skin-in-the-game; they discourage bondage.
This confusion about the dark side as a legit source of answers in The Last Jedi, mentioned above, is only somewhat remedied by the study Rey undergoes in The Rise of Skywalker. In The Empire Strikes Back, the dark side is “easier, quicker, more seductive”, while the light side takes training. In the sequel trilogy, this inversion between the dark side’s expediency and the light side’s training-heavy path is exactly reversed in Kylo Ren (Ben Solo’s) training and Rey’s instant Force sensitivity, with no training, in the first two movies. It is not clear how her training has any effect on her character arc or her spiritual development (if there is any of either), because she seems to know everything she needs from the start, without training. This inverts the older order. (The books apparently say that Rey could tap into Ben Solo/Kylo Ren’s ability to use the force because they were a force dyad; the movies, however, do not explain any of this, and it is another retcon, according to the pattern I mentioned above. This only saves the comic book elements, and not the mythological or spiritual elements.)
As Jonathan Pageau notes, it could be that the light & dark sides might not have been executed with a very high degree of coherence in the first place (Pageau revises and reflects on the discussions that followed in the comments section of that first video), even in the original trilogy; this is really about the appropriateness of light & dark as symbols for order vs. rebellion. The Last Jedi, quite possibly, fails to address how to deal properly with the Jungian notion of “the shadow” as the original trilogy did, instead suggesting that balance is promoted/provided by the Force, rather than requiring our own activity to promote balance. Or maybe the dark side doesn’t make sense at all. Read the older extended universe Jedi or Sith codes to dive deeper, if you’d like.
There are lines from Rian Johnson that suggest that his motives and goals were actually quite mythical in aspiration. The broken old hero is something that doesn’t sell action figures, he says. Hamill agrees with the rightness of this turn in Luke’s character.
Now, insofar as the symbolism of Disney Star Wars is concerned, the arguments surrounding Rey as a “Mary Sue”, as instantly good at everything, are relevant. Apparently the person who started this argument has a reputation that has been trashed pretty badly. That’s not a counter-argument, of course. Film Crit Hulk argues that she’s not so much a Mary Sue as she is a list of positive attributes with no personality driving her choices or what she does. What does she want? We don’t really know, beyond waiting for her parents.
I should probably end on a note about the shift in symbolism. Jonathan Pageau’s video on The Last Jedi I haven’t watched for years, but remember some key points from. He argues that the ideals of the Jedi and the ideals of Rebellion were never congruent from the start. The ideal of the Rebellion and the Jedi was freedom, but because this hierarchical monastic Jedi order and the light side of the Force were on the side of Rebellion and the Republic, finding this Republic being defended by a highly hierarchical order of monks wasn’t so clearly appropriate for the notion of freedom on offer.
So the Jedi order needs to end. A chain connecting us to the past is portrayed as silly; Yoda burns the temple. All notion of aristocracy, tradition, competence through effort and discipline, all of this is eliminated in order to make way for the Force as accidental and somewhat democratic, connecting with a political vision where the purpose is to be saved from external tyranny, without much thought given to the tyranny of what was called “the passions”. That’s what was positive about the original trilogy, and gone here.
Similarly, in a December 2017 article of The Atlantic titled “Why The Last Jedi Is more ‘Spiritual’ than ‘Religious'”, Chaim Saiman notes that
the theology of this secular belief system shifts [in The Last Jedi]. From A New Hope through The Force Awakens, learning to master the Force required faith, ritual, and ancient wisdom—all of which are hallmarks of institutionalized religion. But in The Last Jedi, a grizzled Luke Skywalker dismisses the Jedi mythos, and presents a more modern take on theology that accords with the “spiritual but not religious” trend that finds younger Americans to be less interested in organized faith but more open to spiritual experiences. Rather than being brought into the tradition, Rey, Luke’s would-be trainee, must find the Force within herself.
[…] to control the Force in the first place, the movies have long suggested that one must join a community of practitioners and undergo patient tutelage in the context of an institutionalized quasi-religious order. Led by trained masters, the Jedi saw themselves as inheritors of ancient texts and traditions and were conscious of their own continuity. This sensibility flows from the original trilogy, and is reinforced in the descriptions of Jedi temples and padawan training in the prequel trilogy.
[…] The Last Jedi breaks with its predecessors […]. When [Luke] begins to train Rey, he suggests to her that the Force is a free-flowing spirituality that an individual can simply feel. Though the earlier films had already established that the Jedi do not control the Force, Star Wars had until this point implied the Jedi at least possess an ancient tradition of how to tap into it.
[…] Consider also the stark difference between Yoda’s training of Luke on the swamp planet of Dagobah in The Empire Strikes Back and Luke’s instruction of Rey in The Last Jedi. Whereas Yoda inducts Luke into Jedi ritual and lore, Luke focuses on mythbusting, telling Rey why the Jedi failed, and why they are not necessary for her to locate the Force.
[…] Perhaps the most dramatic example of the move from structured religion to an unbounded spirituality is found in The Last Jedi’s final scene. The parting shot, which shows a lowly stable boy casually accessing the Force, has received considerable attention from reviewers celebrating the Force’s new democratic ethos.
[…] The Last Jedi reminds viewers that even a fictional secular religion will likely reflect the spiritual economy of its time.
On that note, it is probably worthwhile to note the similarities between Gary Paulsen’s book The Island and the spirituality of original trilogy, comparing it with something more contemporary — perhaps, today, the myth of the upwardly mobile middle class; maybe the myths (“myth” in a very different sense than we have been dealing with thus far) entertained by Maya Millennial.
In the end, though there was something mythical about Star Wars at first, it has devolved into comic book and video game tropes and power fantasies, and gone the way of all power fantasies, telling us not timeless truths, but something about ourselves — and likely not anything terribly interesting.
–and yet I still love the franchise.
Header image: from Entertainment Weekly, but found here