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Star Wars as Imaginative Mythology Star Wars as Imaginative Mythology
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2015-12-26 12:13:19
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“The poet, however, uses these two crude, primitive, archaic forms of thought (simile and metaphor) in the most uninhibited way, because his job is not to describe nature, but to show you a world completely absorbed and possessed by the human mind.” 
                                     ― Northrop Frye, The Educated Imagination        

Star Wars is back just before Christmas 2015. In its opening weekend it has already surpassed at the box office, every other Hollywood production in history. The first of a series of movies came out some forty years ago in the mid-seventies. Undoubtedly, this is a movie of galactic proportions. Its attraction consists in its spiritual dimensions presented as mythology. Let us explore some of those dimensions.

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I remember that when the original movie came out I was in graduate school at Yale University pursuing a Ph.D. in Italian Humanism. At the time, in preparation for an initial outline of my dissertation on Vico’s philosophy of the imagination I was reading attentively Northrop’s Frye’s The Educated Imagination, Giambattista Vico’s New Science, and Joseph’s Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces. I took my five and three year old daughters to see the movie and immediately I understood that those three books were the key to understanding the popularity of the movie. That the movie will mean different things to different generations, to my daughters and my grandchildren, for it was nothing short than an excursus in the human imagination, a probing in the poetical and the mythological, paradigmatic of Star Wars’ very narrative.

But there was another book whose inferences the movie borrows heavily; it is the most widely read book in the world. This fact was pointed out by the same director of the movie, George Lucas when he referred to the Bible as inspiration, as a book which contains many historical events, but they would be uninteresting unless read mythologically as a metaphor or a simile that applies to each reader, functioning on many human levels and pointing to man’s ultimate destiny. That explains the appeal of those Biblical stories across many eons of time. Which is to say, there is a poetical and imaginative mixture of truth and fiction aiming at the discovery of the mysteries of life, as most mythology does, and at the understanding of the unknown.

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Let us consider now how the epic saga begins, with these words: “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…,” in which there is an ongoing battle between the forces of good (the Jedi knights) and those of evil (the Sith warriors). This war is nothing short than the war of good versus evil which imbues the whole Bible. For example, in the very beginning, God first created angels, then, some time later, He creates the universe. This was such an awesome sight that the angels shouted for joy (Job 38:4-7). But eventually something went wrong among the angels. One of the angels, Lucifer, who thought that he was as great as God, rebelled and his name was changed to Satan, meaning the adversary.

Early in the film, we notice an imposing spacecraft speeding through the darkness between planets. There is a crisis, and two Jedi Knights are on their way to help. As Joseph Campbell explains it, the call to adventure is similar in all these movies as it is in mythological stories, because it matches experiences that are known to the audience. The events that cause us to develop strengths often begin as bad news. Something calls us to solve a problem, or survive an ordeal, and through this difficult process, we find that we are capable of much more than we thought. As Nietzsche put it: “whatever does not kill us makes us stronger.”

Initiatory adventures often include a great confrontation between good and evil. The task that is larger than we are, the fears greater than we have ever experienced. We each discover that we can survive ordeals we did not think we could endure. If we remember the lessons up to this point, we have discovered how to work with our allies. We have learned how to master the many conflicting elements within ourselves. Most important, we know we must trust the force. We have found how to stay in the flow of some wisdom larger than ourselves.

Campbell goes on, the heroic man or woman in an initiatory adventure is a regular person. The story begins as a mundane situation. A boy is trying to win a race. Starting in familiar circumstances lets the audience know that extraordinary things can happen in ordinary lives. Tragedy often sets the larger story in motion. This is the summons, the call to the quest. In The Phantom Menace, it is a threat to the Queen's planet. The event that sets a fictional quest in motion is similar to what might happen to us. It is something that draws us into the engagement. In our life stories it might be the death of a parent, a divorce, a devastating illness, or a financial disaster. From there we can either collapse and give up on life, or we can rise to the occasion.

The adventure is always collective effort, contrary to some immature fantasies of personal glory. Part of the lesson is to remember we are not alone; that no man is an island. It isn't an individual's skill or strength by itself that will resolve the situation. It is guides, allies, and animals that provide help at every turn. The seeker discovers that no single person can do the quest. There is much in these stories that humbles our arrogance. The mentors can take many forms; an old teacher, a wise enchantress, a mysterious old magician, such as the strange creature Yoda. The wise one gives the hero something that is necessary for the quest. In The Phantom Menace we meet the council of the Jedi Masters. The high lodge of keepers of the wisdom is an ancient mythological motif. They may play some role in the possibility of initiation in the mysteries.

Joseph Campbell described what happens if you followed your bliss, accepted your calling. Doors will open where you did not know there were doors. Help would come when you did not even know you needed help. Things are possible that would not have been possible for anyone else or would have been impossible for you in the past. Because the Star Wars stories are set in another time, on fictional planets, we are able to get beyond the naturalism of most movies. Joseph Campbell felt that naturalism was the death of art. If the stories and characters are too realistic, it is more difficult to see the metaphors that carry the deeper messages of the story. When a story takes place in outer space, the audience knows that they are watching a work of the imagination. That is a key reason that the Star Wars series has been taken as conveying wisdom to a degree that is unusual for an ordinary Hollywood movie.

Campbell felt that Lucas had clearly understood his books and had rendered the key metaphors in contemporary terms. The central modern issue is whether we are going to let the machine control us. Campbell's notion of the machine includes the corporate state. Once can gain a measure of power by becoming machine-like. This is the great temptation that is so hard to resist. To be fully human, we must not spend all of our energies becoming part of the larger machine. The alternative is to listen to the still small voice within. Our core choices and values have to come from inside as Socrates well understood and taught. Then, ultimately, it all turns around, and one must find a place in the world. A mythic story shows how we must find our own footing as individuals, and also how we can return from separation to make a contribution. If the story only showed how to rebel against conventionality, it would leave us as hermits or lost souls. The greater challenge is to rejoin the community, but on our own terms.

The rashness of youth must be tempered. At some point in our quests, we all reach bottom. This is the dark night of the soul when all seems lost. It may last years. It is the crisis of faith in the seeker's life. This is like a baptism from hell. If we survive this ultimate ordeal, we will likely be able to face anything else fate throws in our faces. We can gain a depth of character by having seen the worst. It may involve personal failure or painful losses. It is tempting to wish the horrible things had not happened. That would miss the lesson. This is the most valuable part of the journey.

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Regarding the Biblical themes, in the movie series, we are led to believe that good is in control. But the reality is that the “bad guys” are in control. In a similar sense, most people assume that this is God’s world, yet it is not. After the initial battle described above, Satan was cast back down to earth, where he continues to be the “god of this world” (II Cor. 4:4). When he tempted Christ, Satan stated that he had the authority to give the world to Him; due to Christ’s response, we can glean that He and the devil understood that this is Satan’s world.

Both the Jedi and the Sith derive supernatural power from “the force.” The Sith lords are on the “dark side” of this force. This “force” is a resemblance of God’s Holy Spirit. Consider some similarities of the force to the Holy Spirit. When asking how to differentiate between the good side and the bad, Luke Skywalker was told by his master, Yoda, “You will know when you are at peace.” In the same sense, there are fruits of the Spirit. And notice that one of these fruits is peace: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance: against such there is no law.”

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Throughout the series, the Jedi knights are always fighting for good. New Jedis are always being trained by their masters. Another element of the Jedi, is that they live a selfless life. Their purpose is to protect and care for all other life. They dedicate their entire lives to fighting evil in order to keep the universe at peace. While Jedi fight on a physical plane using physical weapons, true Christians fight on a spiritual level with spiritual weapons (Eph. 6:11-18). Also, God’s way of life can be described as the way of outflowing and outgoing care and concern for others. A Christian lives a life of selflessness, as a living sacrifice! On the other hand, the Sith lead a selfish life, similar to Satan’s waygrasping for oneself at the expense of others.

The Jedi believe that death is not to be feared. They believe that when one dies he becomes a part of the force. When a certain Jedi, Obi-Wan Kenobi, was in a battle with Darth Vader, he said, “If my blade finds its mark, you will cease to exist. But if you can cut me down, I will become more powerful.” The Jedi describe the force as an energy field that sustains all living things. An individual may sense the force as intuition, or something spiritual. It is something beyond individual skill or wisdom. Whether I say I trust my inner voice or use more traditional language, like trusting the Holy Spirit, somehow I am listening for something beyond my own calculations. I'm trying to tune into a larger field of energy and knowledge. When a Jedi advises the hero to trust the force, he is saying that we must not put all our trust in what we can know clearly. There are mysteries and powers that are larger than our knowing and seeing. The Jedi are the high priests of the force as well as the noble knights of the time. The Jedi began in still earlier times as a theological and philosophical study group. Only after long consideration of the force did they take up the idea of fighting for high principles and causes.

The idea of the force is what makes the Star Wars films more than well-done science fiction. This mysterious energy is the key to the transcendent magic of the stories. The apostle Paul writes about a “change” that will come to all true Christians: “Behold, I show you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump…the dead shall be raised…and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, death is swallowed up in victory” (I Cor. 15:51-52, 54),

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In reality, a galactic battle of good versus evil is not being waged out in space. There is no “battle” for the earth going on between God and Satan. If such were the case, then it would seem that God is losing—badly—when taking into account all the troubles and evils in this world. The truth is that God is much more powerful than Satan is, and He is in complete control of the universe. He is allowing Satan to continue for a short time longer so that man can learn that Satan’s ways lead to death. The time will come when God will bind Satan (Rev. 20:2).

The key insights into the meaning of human experience are clearly present in this story, for the mythic imagination is essentially a template that can be endlessly re-worked. If we look at the films through a symbolic lens, the life-lessons are abundant.

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When we become attuned to values and energies beyond our immediate practical concerns, the effect on our lives is enormous. Indeed, listening to the voices from deep within can change everything. Quiet pursuits like poetry and meditation can lead to daring action once you find a calling, or become aware of the needs of others. You might not think teaching is much of a life, until you see the face of a child excited about learning something marvelous. Allowing ourselves to be led by emotion and our deepest values can take us into surprising directions.

 

The story shows how to accomplish a working integration of an inner life. The tasks of learning to relate well with others and developing a well-balanced inner world are two sides of the same coin. At some point, the individual's actions must become synchronized with universal forces. This shift eases life's basic loneliness. You are enmeshed in a larger purpose. You are meant to be in a certain place and fill a particular role. You are being yourself, truly and entirely for the first time. You have energies that you never knew about before.

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In Phantom Menace, we are aware that the boy, Anakin Skywalker, will someday become the evil Darth Vader. This explores another universal theme. The seeker will have to face the dark side within. Some part of the hero is in the villain. The initiate is fighting some aspect of family heritage within himself or herself. This shows us the limits of dualistic thinking. We learn to get past imagining the hero is good and the other is evil. Resolution will require warring factions within the individual to pull together.

Some have noticed that the Star Wars episodes are similar to each other. Yet, George Lucas is not making the same movie over and over again. He is aware that one must go through many initiatory cycles to claim the many lessons. Each time out, the initiate is able to accomplish something new that seemed impossible. Each effort is successful because it is in the service of a calling. When one is motivated by higher causes, you can sometimes do amazing things.

After each lesson, the seeker then returns with significant new psychological integration. To accomplish the many stages of claiming our gifts, several elements are required -- we must gain access to the attributes of both genders, find a way to be aligned with the forces of nature, and develop connections with the best of allies. The companions are seekers themselves, in later cycles of the life-long quest. In a grand story such as this one, we see several generations in their various stages of enlightenment. This is a far cry from some, so called, confessional writing that one notices nowadays; the kind of writing that puts the individual and his selfish personal concerns at the center of the universe.

The releases of this series of films also now spans generations. Many who saw the first Star Wars movie as a teenager will now be bringing their own children to see Episode One as the two daughters that I brought to the original movie are indeed doing. Each member of the audience faces challenges and lessons appropriate to his or her age group. There is a character on the screen at the right stage in the long unfolding story for each person to follow.

At the end of each initiatory adventure, there is a big celebration. The many different characters present symbolize different stages of life. At the same time they can represent the various aspects of an individual who is growing more fully aware of the many energies within. Part of what Lucas does so well is to tell a story that operates on many levels simultaneously.

The traveler comes back home with something to show for all the effort. This prize is sometimes called the boon, elixir, or blessing. It can be new wisdom, or a skill. Often it is an insight of great value to the historical moment. The challenge then is to pass it around. The boon does not belong to the adventurer alone. It is for everyone. The seeker returns to an honored place in the community. Ultimately, being true to oneself includes being useful to others. The sense of fulfillment is extraordinary at that point. There is a clear sense of identity and role. Such a life moves with amazing energy. The force is then truly with us.

 


    
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