Every era tells itself a story: a cautionary tale written to guide a mass audience. These can be religious texts that explain the origin, nature and destiny of the world. Or they can be chronicles of great deeds that exemplify rare virtues and enviable values. In the end, whether they are essential tomes of a formal faith or narrative poems espousing the incentives of heroism and courage, they ultimately serve us in the same way: by revealing an existential trajectory worth emulating.
At least, that is what thinkers like Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell believed. Campbell’s 1949 book, The Hero of a Thousand Faces,sought to prove the fundamental similarities between seemingly distinct mythologies. Its keenest reader was a young George Lucas, and he applied Campbells’ distilled formula for penning a compelling moral plot to his ambitious sci-fi project, Star Wars.
In a time when almost every corner of the map has been explored, when many of the terrestrial mysteries have been dispelled, Lucas realised his myth needed to be particular: set in a realm separated from our daily experiences but familiar in its atmosphere and adornments. The Space Race of the Cold War era turned humanity’s attention to the heavens. But unlike previous epochs, it wasn’t warring gods and titans that were given imagined sanctuary among the stars: it was the journeying of our species through the vast community of planets and moons that inspired awe. Lucas spotted an opportunity to condense the salient themes, characterisations, and outcomes of earlier myths and scatter those scenarios across the opaque distances that hang over our heads. This was his chance to promulgate the Jungian idea of ‘universal myth’: stories that have an eternal application to the plight of human existence.
A brief look at the core symbols and personas that constitute and populate the Star Wars saga shows a myriad of references to diegeses as disparate as the Bible, the Arthurian cycle, and Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. Luke’s lightsaber in A New Hope serves his character in the same way Excalibur assists Arthur in his travails. Luke and Leia’s twinship alludes to the tradition of divine twins in Proto-Indo-European mythology. And the conception of teachers like Obi Wan Kenobi and Master Yoda proffers the mentor-student dynamic ubiquitous throughout global folklore.
Lucas’s chance to refresh the treatment of mythological characters also allowed him to breed hybrid archetypes. Anakin Skywalker, for example, is a combination of several fictional personalities. Like Jesus, he is an immaculate virgin insemination, born to redeem the sins of his people. Like the swift-footed Achilles, he is near-invulnerable to attack and is presented as a perfect warrior. The Achilles-Christ portrayal of Lucas’s primary protagonist gives modern viewers the thematic resolution that Homer, consciously or otherwise, impresses on hearers of his epic.
The importance of Star Wars as a modern masterpiece should not be undervalued. The religiosity of the Star Wars story has a rare social utility: secular observers can gain the same life lessons from watching this sci-fi masterpiece as, say, students who study the Abrahamic faiths.
There are of course considerable differences between indoctrination into established religions and the causal watching of a film, but the central tenets that ensure the appeal of parables and fables are to be found in Lucas’s magnum opus. In this respect, Lucas has supplied a generation of secular people with the arresting moral assertions and messages found in the scriptures of many major religions.
During his conquest of Persia, Alexander the Great reportedly slept with a scroll of Homer under his pillow and surmised that his route from Greece to India was the same his hero, Hercules, had taken. The fireside stories that made the mind of that Macedonian prince changed the fate of man forever. We now live under the rule of women and men who watched Star Wars as children. The current British prime minister confessed he has a lightsaber on his mantlepiece in his parliamentary office and his chancellor of the exchequer has admitted he currently occupies his second most desired role, his first being made a Jedi knight. When next you watch Lucas’s modern epic, be aware that you are looking at the moral compass of our times.