One of the most famous movie lines of all time was not spoken by actors, but uttered in hushed tones by parents in the audience to their young children.
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…
These words, never spoken onscreen, have become synonymous with the Star Wars movies and the imaginative universe they portray. And in the years since the movie’s release, this universe of imagination has had a profound affect on contemporary culture. Many, many things in American culture (indeed, in world culture) were in transition in the late 1970s, and the SW movies, reflecting many of these changes, frequently provide powerful symbols for the changes in thought and belief taking place in the culture.
It might surprise readers that we speak of the SW movies reflecting changes in thought and belief rather than computer, special effects and even movie technology. While George Lucas’ famous saga certainly made its mark in those ways, it also touched the heart of belief for many. Indeed, many followers seem to exude an almost religious dedication to the movies.
One of the early magazine interviews with George Lucas, just weeks after the release of A New Hope (the first movie produced, eventually to become Episode IV), noted the religious symbolism that Lucas had tried to write into the movie. He used a variety of images from different religions. Compare the notion of the Force to the Taoist concept of the Tao. While many equated the Force with God (not without good reason, as we shall see), the concept is actually more Eastern than Western religiously and theologically. The clothing exuded religious dedication, as in Obi-Wan’s monkish looking attire, or Yoda’s Taoist master sort of robes. There were a variety of Christian symbols used in A New Hope.
While some noted the religious imagery, the culture at large did not seem to take much notice. The really serious other–than –special–effects–consideration of the movie came with the attention of a mythological scholar named Joseph Campbell. Often called the scholar Bill Moyers made famous, Campbell’s work became more popoularly known after a PBS interview between Moyers and Campbell called The Power of Myth. Much of the series of interviews dealt with Campbell’s work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, which is about the classic hero in great myths and legends from all around the world. Basically, he wrote that the hero’s adventure tends to have a similar structure in the great mythic tales, regardless of time and place of origin.
Campbell said that the hero receives a call to adventure, must pass the threshold guardians, perhaps receive the help of a kind guide, descend to the underworld (or the story’s equivalent), overcome various obstacles and monster, and eventually achieve the goal of the adventure and return with some sort of blessing or benefit for the whole community. If you trace the adventures of Luke Skywalker, you will see that there are many similarities between Luke and the classic hero. In fact, the interview made several references to Star Wars.
The work of Campbell and the interview with Bill Moyers seemed to authenticate Star Wars as something more than just a fun series of films. Star Wars, for many, was given serious status as contemporary myth and a carrier of many of the great archetypal symbols – a concept familiar to many from the works of the psychoanalyst C.G. Jung. The progression of this understanding of Star Wars has come full circle in the publication of Star Wars The Magic of Myth by Mary Henderson, the companion volume to the Smithonian’s National Air and Space Museum’s Star Wars The Magic of Myth exhibition that has been touring the country. This volume looks at the entire original trilogy (Episodes IV, V, & VI) in the light of Campbell’s concepts as well as world mythology.
We will return many times to the ideas and concepts found in Campbell’s and Henderson’s works, as well as material from interviews with George Lucas that highlight these ideas as well. For the present discussion, let’s address the question you may have already raised in one form or another as you read this: “So what?! The movies are great fun – why encumber it with all of these notions of mythological importance?” Good question – I’m glad you asked.
Why search for deeper meaning in a fun series of films? The answer lies in the meaning of mythology in general and the mythological symbols in particular. In the PBS interview mentioned above, Bill Moyers asked Joseph Campbell if the significance and goal of mythology is to help us find meaning in life. This would seem to be a significant aim, but Campbell replied that no, this was not, in his view, the true function of mythology. To Campbell, the funtion of mythology is not to give us meaning in life, but to help us feel alive. As we hear these great mythic tales – including the contemporart myth of the Star Wars saga, we somehow participate in the story and feel deeply alive.
We have all had this experience exiting the movie theater after a particularly powerful film. As I write this, I can think of several films that would fit this category, and devoted fans of the Star Wars movies can surely relate to the experience as well. Great story of any kind, classical mythology, literature, film can all make us feel alive, in touch with something vital.
While the Star Wars movies are seemingly about outer space (“a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away”), it’s real significance is inner space. Campbell captured this idea in the title of series of lectures he gave, entitled The Inner Reaches of Outer Space. In those lectures he explored – as he did in all of his work – the psychological and spiritual significance of tales of cosmic signigicance. In a telling quote, Campbell, though not speaking directly of Star Wars, but rather particular religious ascension myths and beliefs, makes a statement that fits beautifully with the discussion of Star Wars as contemporary myth.
The imagery is necessarily physical and thus apparently of outer space. The inherent connotation is always, however, psychological and metaphysical, which is to say, of inner space.
The power of any great story – especially of great story that has mythic power and dimension – is based in its ability to take us, via the adventures of the hero or heroes, to places of significance within us. The significance of Luke’s adventures is that we are the adventurer in our own inner space, going where no one has gone before (to borrow from another space adventure). We enter a cave that contains only what we take with us as we struggle with obstacles and evil and monsters within ourselves.
This notion of inner space, I believe, is captured by the naturalist, John Muir, who wrote of the mountains, “The magnitudes of the mountains are so great that unless submitted to a good long time they are not seen or felt at all.” Because of their size, mountains cannot be fully appreciated without spending much time in them. One must spend time in them to truly see and feel them. With a moment of reflection, it starts to sound pretty mystical, doesn’t it? The mountains, while deservedly calling forth time and energy to understand their geology, ecology, weather, animal life, etc., also start to serve as a metaphor for exploring the mountains – and other geography – within ourselves. It is no accident that mountains have long been a powerful religious symbol through the world..
If this is so for the mountains, what about the cosmos? In this era when we have begun to understand something of the universe around us, perhaps it, too, may become a symbol of the vast inner space to be explored in each of us.
In the contemporary myth of Star Wars, the cosmos becomes just such a symbol of the unexplored vastness within ourselves. And in its emphasis on feelings – as in “trust your feelings, Luke” – we are encouraged to explore the terrain and energies of the inner realm in each of us. Star Wars serves as contemporary mythology to help guide us into our own inner space. Joseph Campbell called the Star Wars saga a “sound teaching.”
Metaphors Be With You
If all of this sounds a bit on the religious side, there is a good reason for that. What does mythology have to do with religion? The subtitle of the Campbell lectures we mentioned above, The Inner Reaches of Outer Space, makes this connection. The subtitle is: Metaphor as Myth and as Religion. Both Myth and Religion share a common structure, or common element and that element is metaphor. Both myth and religion are based on metaphor, as is much of human life and communication in general. How boring and mundane would be our conversation, our thinking, our writing without metaphor. And poetry and art would hardly be possible. Nor would myth or religion.
Metaphors Be With You
The title is a pun. If you don’t get it, try saying it out loud. If you still don’t get it, then say it to a Star Wars fan! I must admit, I heard this line years ago in a workshop and have no idea to whom it should be credited, but I offer my thanks for a great pun!
A metaphor is basically a figure of speech in which two things are compared by saying that one is the other, a figure of speech in which something is taken to be something else. In speech, metaphors can make for poetic thought and powerful communication. In religion, metaphors can become great symbols of faith and belief.
Think of the imagery applied to deity: God has been called a father, a mighty fortress, spirit, a help in difficult times, a friend, etc. These are metaphors. Is God a father, i.e., one who has actually fathered children through sexual intercourse? No. Is God a mighty fortress? A mighty fortress is a formidable castle or a stronghold that cannot easily be taken. God is not a castle or a physical stronghold; rather, God is like these in how people find help and encouragement in the belief of God’s presence. Thus, this, too, is a metaphor.
What about religious doctrines? In Christianity, Jesus, whom followers called Christ, is said to be God in the flesh. Elsewhere God is called spirit; how can God be “in the flesh”? That, too, is a metaphor. This is not to say that the doctrine or belief is not true, especially to the believer. But the underlying point is that in Christ, Christians saw, for them, a new understanding of God. We can say that “they saw God in a new way in Christ” or that “they saw God in Christ”. These statements are metaphorical, yet they are true. That is, indeed, how the early Christians saw Jesus.
Part of the problem in religious conflict between religions is that each religion takes their own truth as literarly true, and the truth of other religions as myth or metaphor. The truth is, all religions are metaphorical. But we tend to separate myth and religion. Campbell said that mythology can be defined as “other people’s religion”. We tend to relegate the great pre-Christian religion systems (Greek, Roman, Germanic, etc.) to “myth” while ignoring the mythic roots of our own religion. And any religious belief or system that differs from what we believe to be revealed truth is termed myth. In fact, “myth” is often a synonym for an untruth or a false belief. Thus, to Christians, the doctrine of the Virgin Birth or the bodily resurrection of Christ are “true” while Hindu doctrines regarding a particular deity are a “myth”. What this ignores is that metaphor is the common element of both myth and religion.
Why should we use metaphor at all? Why not just say things plainly? Wy not describe things scientifically or rationally or logically, etc.? While the rational is a powerful part of our make-up it is not the whole of human nature – whatever that is. We use things like myth and religion and faith and symbol and metaphor touch a deeper part of our being than we can reach with our rational minds.
Let’s try a little experiment dear to the mystical part of me. Many, many religions, and many people of no particular religious persuasion, hold that “God created the world.” On Babylon V, a certain alien race – the Centauri – often used the term: Great Maker”. Philosophically, we should ask what is meant by each of the key words in this statement. What do we mean by “God”? What do we mean by “created”? What do we mean by “world”? While each of these terms may seem self-explanatory, their meanings have been variable and subject to change.
In ancient times, “world” meant the known world. Then, as understanding increased, “world” came to mean the planet on which we live. As human understanding increased, “world” came to mean “universe”. Then, the meaning world was expanded again as the science of astronomy has given us a little inkling as to the size of what we call “universe” or “world”.
We now know that light travels at 186,000 miles per second, or 669,600,000 miles per hour, or miles 5,865,696,000,000 per year. This distance is called a light year, and is, itself, the measure for distance to stars and galaxies in our universe. At this speed, light from the nearest star to our own sun takes over four years to arrive. A space ship travelling at 25,000 miles per hour would take over 3,000 years to travel this distance to our nearest stellar neighbor. Light from the center of our own galaxy takes over 100,000 years to arrive here. And light from some distant galaxies has been travelling for billions of years.
Now, given the size of the universe as we understand it at present, what does this say of the belief that “God created the world.” For some, it would challenge their belief in God. But for others, it would challenge their concept of God. That is, it would challenge them to try to better understand God. That is, they would seek to use better metaphors, better concepts to describe God.
Then, what do we mean by “create”? Did God literally “speak” the universe into existence? What do we mean by “speak” with respect to spirit that has no corporeal existence? Did God create the world through a spike in the zero field (the best guess scientifically as to where our world came from)? Did God create humans literally from soil and a rib, or did God use something like what we understand to be the evolutionary process?
Now, let’s take another angle on this. If God is such a “being” or “entity” or “deity” (all metaphorical language) as to be able to create, the universe as we know it – whatever we mean by universe and create – what likelyhood is there that human beings could possibly understand such a being as that? Is it likely that the human mind is even capable of comprehending such an “entity” or “deity”? And if it is not credible that we can truly commprehend God “as God really is”, then just how likely is it that we can describe God accurately?
The great mystics (long before modern astronomy) tell us that we cannot hope to adequately describe the divine. They held that we can experience the divine, but then cannot adequately describe the experience. So humans use metaphorical language to communicate our best ideas of what “God” or “Creator” is like, and to describe our experiences with that which we call “God”. We use metaphors such as “love” and “justice” and countless others to describe God, metaphors that we hold to be true as much as we can understand, even while we know that great words such as “love” are probably hopelessly inadequate.
Unfortunately, humans also go to war, or hold wars of words, defending the particular words that they use metaphorically to describe God. Traditional religions pass down their particular faiths in the form of metaphors describing God and God’s nature and God’s actions, along with detailed reasoning and rationale as to why these particular words, these particular metaphors, are the “true” words for understanding and describing God.
At the time that A New Hope was released, many people were growing frustrated with what they saw as the problem of institutional religion being unable to break out of the box, to ask new questions, to use new metaphors. These traditional metaphors, beliefs, and doctrines are based on scriptures and community experiences centuries or millenia old. These metaphors reflect antiquated world views, and were shaped by the life experiences of people who lived in a far different time from ours using metaphors that were shaped to their knowledge and experiences.
In modern times, these metaphors have often been strained in relating them to the experience of people today. That is not to say that relating traditional metaphors to today cannot or should not be done. We should seek to understand the religious experiences and beliefs – the metaphors – of times past. But what about contemporary metaphors? All too often, traditional religious institutions have wanted to define past metaphorical expression, i.e., traditional doctrine, as the only appropriate way of thinking about God.
In the 1960s a rebellion began against traditional authorities and institutions. While authorities and institutions did not fall by the droves, a new attitude of questioning and critical thinking had been introduced. By the 1970s, many people had began to actively express their frustration with this situation in institutional religion.
At the same time, the beliefs of other religions around the world became more accessible. This came about in many ways: information about other faiths became more readily available, travel to distant places was more common, and immigrants to the United States brought their faith with them, bringing new religions into the American experience.
People of many faiths became more conversant with one another. Contemporary spiritual thought is now fed by images and concepts from Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, and from many different Indigenous peoples. Scriptures of many different faiths are now familiar to millions of people outside those faiths. Symbols and images abound as well, from dream catchers to the Yin and Yang. Practices from karate to yoga are taught to thousands of people. And now, all of this information is being disseminated at an even faster pace through the Internet.
All of this has created a rich diversity of images and concepts from which persons may draw in seeking to understand the mysteries that surround us. Through the diversity of religious images and hints at a bit of religious message here and there, Star Wars reflects the growing diversity of religious life in the United States over the last half of the Twentieth Century and into the beginnings of our current centrury. And more importantly, the Star Wars, as contemporary myth, “gives us not simply the idea, but a sense of actual particpation in … a realization of transcendence, infinity, and abundance…” (Campbell, Inner Reaches of Outer Space, p. 18)
Along with doctrines and beliefs, a specific set, a particular constellation of metaphors is often caught up in the written scriptures of a religion. All of the great world religions have some sort of scriptures or sacred writings. This holds true especially for the Judeo-Christian-Muslim religions which share some of their sacred writings in commmon. These three religions rely on their scriptures as an enduring, unchanging revelation. Interpretations, held by members of the same faith, may be almost diametrically opposite each other, such as American Protestant liberalism and funamentalism, yet both – from the perspective of many – seem to dwell on the past revelation. This is true even when the form of argument or communication is quite modern, whether the use of critical literary scholarship methods by Protestant liberalism or the use of satellite television broadcasts by Christian fundamentalism. Neither of these aproaches to Christian faith seems to be significantly influenced by what we have learned in the last 100 years, let alone recent decades, about the universe around us. Certainly, there are no claims to new revelations.
But why no new revelations? Now that humanity has begun to realize the vastness of its “world,” now that we have a glimpse of the awesome forces involved in the birth of our universe, our mode of reality, should we not expect that someone somewhere on our globe represents a new level of human readiness for a new revelation? While I cannot speak for Jews and Muslims, I know that most Christians would say that the Christian scriptures are “sufficient for salvation.” That is, they are everything we need to experience the rebirth and renewal that Christianity proclaims, and further revelation is unnecessary.
There is certainly no way that I am going to convince Christian fundamentalists here, so I will not continue to address the arguments that I would anticipate from quarter. However, my reasoning follows thus. For nearly 2,000 years we have heard the Christian message that the love of God can redeem and restore and make whole. This message of redemption and restoration is rooted deeply in the Hebrew scriptures (the Christian Old Testament). Contemporary Judaism is evidence of this restoration out of unimaginable circumstances, i.e., the Holocaust of Nazi Germany during World War II. Countless individuals evidence this healing, restoration and wholeness.
We have heard this message for two millenia. So why no new revelations, why no new syntheses of faith? Why no new religious movements that are founded on our new understanding of the cosmos and our earthly environment? Certainly we are still learning new lessons based on the old truths. This is not to say that we are done with those understandings of faith. But why has there been no new message in the particular nuances of today’s world, so different from the world in which the old revelations were given?
As said above, to followers of the traditional expressions of the great religions, the revelation has been given. There is nothing more to be said. But for those of us who have been touched deeply by our faith of origin and yet wonder why there is no new word “from on high”, who wonder why there is no new message, this answer is not satisfying. We do not discount the old truths – they have affected us deeply. So deeply that we want to believe that the Great Spirit is alive and well and should be saying something. So why no word?
The answer is so simple, yet it will be surprising to many. The truth is that the revelation has not stopped, the message is there to be heard. Its just that at some point a decision was made that the whole revelation had been received and there would be no additions to the scriptures. (Again, while I am speaking from the standpoint of American Christian Protestantism, I believe this is applicable to the other great religions as well.) But the message did not stop. The message continues to this day for anyone who wishes to hear it.
So Where in the World is the Word?
Before we address where the word can be found, we should talk briefly about the significance of the word, or even more basically, words. In ancient times, words were believed to have great power. In Genesis, the world is said to be created by the very words that God spoke: “And God said …” The Hebrew Bible/Christian Old Testament repeatedly speaks of the “Word of the Lord” and the Torah/Pentateuch (the first five books) speak of obeying every word that comes from the mouth of God. The prophetic literature repeatedly has the various prophets referring to “the word of the Lord.” In the Christian New Testament, the Gospel of John begins with a reference to the “Word”, using the Greek word, “Logos”, which meant word as well as reason.
The reverence for words can be seen in the enduring belief in magical words, that certain words have a magical power. But even before magical words, even before the words, or Word, of God, words had power. Human words have power. Words are symbols that represent other things. Words are not those things in themselves. “Tree” is not the object growing in the front yard’ “tree” is a group of symbols that together represent that object. But if you think that words are “just symbols” and you can use them indiscrimately, beware. You can lose a job or a marriage or get yourself shot based on the words you use. You are judged by the words you use.
Words are symbols. But words are treated as the thing they represent because symbols participate in the reality they represent. That is, we must make a distinction between the word “pig” and the creature it represents, but the connection is so powerful that to hear the word causes us to see the creature clearly. We automatically assume certain habits and characteristics and stereotypical meanings that the word has come to include. Are words “just” symbols? Then try calling your spouse or the police officer who stops you for speeding this word “pig” that is “just” a symbol. Words can also comfort and reassure if the appropriate symbols are used. This is the sort of power that words have that the ancients thought powerful, magical. Words can, indeed, enchant or curse, give help or make miserable.
Words have always held wonder for people for millenia. This wonder was only heightened by the written word. The Hebrew letters are significant in the school of Jewish mystical thought, the Kabballa, as well as in the Christian version of that mystical school of thought. In Europe runes were accorded powerful significance.
The concept of the “word”, whether written or spoken, formed the basis for revelation: “the Word of God.” The words that conveyed the spiritual and religious experience of people were were eventually written down, and as scripture became known as “the Word of God.” But is it possible to get behind the written words to what the initial concept meant?
Throughout Christian history, there has been a debate about what consitutes revelation. Is it just the “special revelation” of the written word, i.e,. the words of revelation written down in scripture? Or is there something more generally available? This second possibility is know as natural revelation. That is, everything that exists is a word, a message, a form of communication to us. Many objected to this because it was too flexible and too open to individual judgement about just what was being communicated.
In the 1960s and 1970s, as people were “getting back to nature”, becoming more in tune with nature, their environment, and the universe, Star Wars introduced the concept of the Force. Obi Wan Kenobi says that the Force “surrounds us and penetrates us. It holds the galaxy [i.e., universe, reality] together.” This is generally what is believed that God does. Since God is spirit, we can say, for the moment, that Spirit – the spirit of God – holds reality together, penetrates the very fabric of reality.
Now, if this seems reasonable, then why is revelation restricted to a book? Why is there not revelation occuring every moment of every day? That is, in fact, what many of us would argue is happening. Revelation is not subject to anything except our being open to the message that is constantly available, oozing out of the very pores of the fabric of existance. In short, the Word is not just words in a book. The Word includes the words of sacred scriptures, but it is not limited to that. The Word is, quite literally, the world.
The world around us speaks volumes to us. This word comes through scriptures and stories of the experiences of others, yes. But the word also comes through nature, through our experience of the world and the cosmos around us. It comes through our relationships with other people, and through the spiritual and religious experiences of others. Consequently, the word also comes through art, literature and film.
We can have profound experiences of the mystery of existence standing on a river bank watching the water flow by. We can have deep, rich experiences contemplating the life around us in nature – the herons and geese that fly over and swim in that river. We can experience depth and meaning and richness as we relate to other people. And we can grow as we contemplate the experiences of others, whether communicated orally, one on one, or through literature and art. We can experience the most basic message of all, the mystery of existence, every moment if we allow ourselves to be open to wonder and mystery and awe.
We could fill an entire book exploring the word as the world. We could fill entire volumes about how we can experience the divine in nature, or how we can experience mystery and awe through art and literature. Since our focus is on how contemporary spirituality and religion is expressed in the Star Wars saga, we will focus on one narrow piece of the puzzle, the genre of literature from which Star Wars springs: science fiction. But suffice it to say that what follows from here is based on the belief that the divine can be experienced in any moment, whether in nature, alone, in relationship (not even cordial), reading, listening to or making music, etc., etc. We can receive the word through our experience of sacred scriptures, and we can receive it through our own experiences.
Science Fiction as Contemporary Mythology
Those who read the great works of history – both literary and philosophical – probably already understand how inspiration, nurture and even revelation can come from reading literature. But many people cannot imagine how science fiction could provide the same benefits. Part of the reason for this is that science fiction is often seen as not being serious literature. This is not helped by the fact that a related genre that will come into play is called “fantasy” literature. The science fiction and fantasy genres are frequently viewed as escapist reading.
Science fiction has been an exciting genre of literature now for many decades. For those who do enjoy science fiction and fantasy, it stretches the mind, enlarges one’s world, feeds the soul and enriches one’s spirit. Isaac Asimov, in an introduction to a science fiction anthology, Where Do We Go From Here?, wrote, “I have long maintained that science fiction has potential as an inspiring and useful teaching device.” Science fiction does what Joseph Campbell said mythology does – it helps us explore our inner space and, by drawing us into participation, makes us feel alive. That science fiction and fantasy does draw people into participation can be seen from the fact that a very high proportion of readers have thought about or actually tried their hand at writing.
Sience fiction and fantasy are, by their very natures, in a position to be contemporary mythology. Mythology, as we said above, is metaphor. Why is a particular symbol significant? What gives a metaphor its power? A metaphor’s power is its particular significance, its setting. The powerful metaphors and symbols of mythology that feed the human spirit flow out of the story, the saga. And at the heart of such story, in the midst of a dangerous and often unknown setting, human ingenuity and courage and faithfulness are put to the test.
Mythic story often involves an ordinary sort of person with whom we can relate, or perhaps an ideal person whom we can admire, and sees that individual through a variety of tests and trials, often through great suffering. It calls forth the best of that individual, including the ability to face challenges, change and grow. In some mythic tales, the hero may be particularly courageous. In other, he or she may be bright, clever, resourceful, etc. Or the person may be pretty common and ordinary who is drawn in beyond their apparent abilities to cope.
The hero is someone we can either admire or relate to because mythic story is about not only the hero in the tale but also about the inner territory of adventure of the readers – our inner space. It offers hope and assurance to us that we, too, may be able to rise to the occasion, do heroic deeds, overcome great challenges, and be transformed and remade into something better and greater.
Mythic story is spatial – it often involves unknown, perhaps terrifying terrain. What better setting for contemporary myth than outer space? At this stage of human growth and progress, we know very little about outer space. Our relative scientific ignorance makes space something of a clean slate. If we were able to travel to distant stars – or close ones, for that matter – every visit, every mission would be an adventure. What better setting to pose the basic premise of all fictional literature: “What if?” What if this or that were to happen, or if some particular situation were to occur?
What if a former space engineer – now blind – were to find himself a passenger aboard a spacecraft whose nuclear engine was about to explode? ( ) What if a great war occurred between space faring cultures, inspiring a great space station to be built as a neurtral place where diplomacy and commerce could occur (Babylon V)?
These scenarios are possible to varying degrees, or perhaps we should say improbable to varying degrees. In the case of the Babylon V example, by our current scientific understanding, it is not even possible. So why should we be drawn to stories that are improbable if not scientifically impossible (as far as we know?) Because they are good story, and they touch a chord, they make a connection within us.
While space is an excellent place for science fiction, the story itself does not have to occur in space. What if a genetically engineered virus were to escape and kill 99% of the world’s population (Stephen King’s The Stand)? Might we discover parts of our human nature that get covered over in the press of so many people around us? And what if technology made it possible for us to wear a device that made it possible for another person to share their thoughts and feelings with us, for us to really know how they feel? (Brainstorm) How would such a device affect individuals? Or what if a device were developed that could let us see around corners or even back in time? What affect would this have on individuals and the world?
These examples illustrate that science fiction does not just speculate on futuristic techonological development. Science fiction may use futuristic technology to set up a story, but good science fiction will still be primarily interested in how such technology would impact human beings. It wants to know how human nature might be further illuminated and explored through interesting juxtapositions of technology. What if an android could be created to be, sexually speaking, fully operational (Data, Star Trek The Next Generation)? What about the possibility of the development of androids? Could androids be made with certain rules so as to never cause harm to humans (Isaac Asimov and his various Robot novels)? Could androids overcome such programming, no to cause harm, but to make a difficult decision that might be for the greater good of the human race?
Many dislike the multitudes of aliens that crop up in science fiction. While space travel is not likely to ever bring us in touch with so many alien specied, if any, aliens are another way to explore our own humanity. What if a particular race of humanoids (human-like aliens) served as a host for another being that would be implanted in successive individuals over many generations, retaining and making available to the new host numerous lifetimes of memories (Star Trek The Next Generation and Star Trek Deep Space Nine). What would it be like to host such a being and to have several lifetimes of memories? What would it be like to have known a previous host and then meet with the current host? What if there were a humanoid species that could be either male or female, depending on the relationship (The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula LeGuinn)? Would human beings seem to be perverted to them? Would humans be able to relate to such a species? Would there ever be any mutual attraction between a human and an individual from such a species?
These are just a few of the possible questions that can be raised and but a fraction of the avenues that can be explored to use science fiction to illuminate human character, human nature, and see ourselves in a different light. The genius of science fiction is that we can get caught up in a really great story, be in the middle of the action in the midst of really strange aliens a long, long way from earth and from our own time. The entire situation and context can be alien beyond belief, and with the turn of a phrase or a twist of perspective, suddenly we are looking at ourselves.
And that is what good myth does as well. Science fiction as myth can be a window into our own souls, a way of sounding the depths of the human psyche. And science fiction is a popular way of spinning a contemporary, entertaining story even while exploring serious ideas. A story that just may touch the deeper recesses of the human psyche, giving expression to feelings and dreams and beliefs in ways that traditional religions fail to do so.
Hopefully, after the above exploration of science fiction as myth, it should not be too difficult to see how, over the 23 years since Star Wars A New Hope was released, it has become accepted by millions as contemporary myth. However, we need to throw in a bit of a cautionary, “…not so fast…” George Lucas has said this about his writing of Star Wars.
This famous line that appears on the screen just before the Star Wars roll-up (the words roll that upward across the screen into infinity) – sets the tone that George Lucas was trying to achieve. In an interview for the book, Star Wars: The Annotated Screenplays, George Lucas said,
I knew from the beginning that I was not doing science fiction. I was doing a space opera, a fantasy film, a mythological piece, a fairy tale. I really thought I needed to establish from the start that this was a completely made up world so that I could do anything I wanted. (p. 6)
This would be an utter surprise to many viewers. How could this not be science fiction? Space travel, space ships, alien beings, futuristic technology – not science fiction? While the point may be lost on those who detest the science fiction genre anyway, the point is significant. Originally the movies were to be set in the 35th century – a long time from now, but nevertheless historically connected to our time. Of course, if Lucas had set the movie in that way, he would have been bound by our history, our laws of physics, etc. But by starting this way, he created a basic “disconnect” that gave him a freedom he otherwise would not have had.
A major problem for many who watched the Star Wars for the first time illustrates this point. Although there is no sound in the vacuum of space, Star Wars is filled with sounds of ships screaming by. Scientifically speaking (an important consideration in science fiction), this is ludicrous. However, the audience has not come for a science demonstration – they have come to hear a story. And the sound emphasizes many things – speed, danger, power, etc. That is, there is something else providing the operational logic for the movies.
This”disconnect” from what one might expect of science fiction can also be seen in the way many of us experienced a certain scene in Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back. Han, Leia, Chebacca and C3P0 are hiding in the Millenium Falcon in what they think is a tunnel through an asteroid. It turns out to be the insides of a great space creature. The question is, of course, how can a large creature (with moisture and atmospheric pressure inside) live in space? Answer, as far as we know, it absolutely cannot. Ludicrous! But then I realized that this is an example of the SW movies not being science fiction, but mythic saga. And in every great mythic saga, the heroes have to undergo trials, tests, and challenges, often in the form of great monsters and beasts.
The opening line, “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away”, is akin to the well known “once upon a time” of folklore and fairy tales. The opening line sets the tone: this is a world with its own rules, its own laws. What controls the action is the hero’s journey: the call to adventure, the crossing of certain thresholds, growth, and finally achieving the goal for the good of all. The plot is set to a mythic structure and logic.
Okay. George Lucas says that he knew he was not writing science fiction. So are we to totally disregard all the science fiction trappings: the alien life forms in profuse abundance, futuristic weapons, space ships and hyperspace travel, and futuristic technology in general, such as droids that are virtually human? After all, Star Wars novels are counted in science fiction sections at virtually all bookstores. Essays on the year’s happennings in science fiction ususally include mention of Star Wars related novels and topics. Are we to disregard all of this just because George Lucas says he wasn’t writing science fiction?
Well, er, no. What we have here is a bit of confusion over language. Lucas was probably (may have been) talking about “hard” science fiction whose purpose is to speculate about future technology, scientific development that is plausible from what we currently know about the universe. Such science fiction does not at all rule out human interaction in light of the given technological and scientific assumptions, but the science and technology must, as much as possible, conform to what we know about the universe. An excellent example of such science fiction can be seen in the work of Arthur C. Clarke, best known for the book and corresponding Stanley Kubric film 2001 A Space Odyssey. Such science fiction is based on our history and what we know of science. While some leaps must generally be taken to make an interesting space story, it will adhere to, or speculat from, known science as nearly as possible.
In contrast, Star Wars is science fiction, but not hard science fiction. Science fiction has, demonstratably, become a large enough genre to include more than just hard science fiction. It often does, in fact, include what Lucas’ called Star Wars: space opera, myth, fantasy.
In this brief descriptive list of Lucas’, the term that relates to science fiction is space opera. While many science fiction fans would not count much space opera as science fiction, others certainly would. The choice is not hard and fast – there is a spectrum between. There is a good bit of science fiction that is based on what we know scientifically, even while making use of such – as far as we know currently – impossible notions such as warp speed, transporters, jump gates, gravity generators, etc. But fans of such literature – included are many scientists – would argue that even if such technology is never possible, these fictional devices allow for entertaining speculation on and exploration of the nature of the universe and human nature.
I believe that one could argue that in modern society, science has become the metaphysical foundation for understanding the world. That is, we use science as the basis for our notions about the nature of the world around us. And science fiction is a literary device for such speculation. Many a Star Trek or Babylon V or Twilight Zone episode has struck a chord with viewers regarding some twist of human possibility or insight into the workings within ourselves.
In short, many science fiction fans would claim “space opera” as within the acceptable range of science fiction. And an excellent example of space opera is the great science fiction work by Isaac Asimov, the Foundation novels. In this series – on which Asimov was working at the time of his death and others have carried on – there is a troubled galaxy wide government. The capitol world is one globe spanning city. Interstellar transportation is made possible through the science fiction notion of hyper space. And droids – robots in Asimov’s world – figure largely in the story.
We have said that Star Wars was written with a sense of what it was not – it was not a certain kind of science fiction: hard science fiction that explored future technologies and possible discoveries, that had to live by scientific rules and principles as we currently understand them. Thus, a break was made so that Star Wars could, instead, be space opera or, in another term Lucas used, mythic saga. That leads us to what seems to be another source of inspiration for the SW saga, a cousin genre to science fiction that has fed the imagery of Star Wars. That other genre is Fantasy literature. Perhaps the best known example of this genre is J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and especially his great Lord of the Rings saga.
Since science fiction is a better known genre to most people, and StarWars has notable science fiction characteristics, we have dealt with its significance to the saga first. But even more than science fiction, fantasy literature lends itself to the sorts of themes that Lucas wanted to explore. So Star Wars became a fantasy set in space, but “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away” so that, typical to fantasy literature, the author could set the rules.
Fantasy literature is characterized by at least two distinctive elements. The first is the quest. Most fantasy literature, at its heart, has a quest involved. The hero or heroes must travel to certain places, succeed in certain tasks, and return. In The Lord of the Rings, mentioned as the epitome of fantasy literature, Frodo must travel into the very heart of the enemy, Mordor, and destroy the dangerous Ring at the very volvanic opening where it was created.
To do so, Frodo must overcome dangers without and within. He must cope with a variety of harsh conditions traveling over and under mountains. He must deal with a variety of unfriendly creatures, ranging from the servants of the Dark Lord himself to mildly annoying creatures such as Gollum. As if that weren’t enough, he must deal with the affects of the Ring upon him – its seduction for him to take it, possess it and use it.
And the quest is such that, if Frodo should fail – for whatever reason – his failure will result in the direst consequences for the whole world: enslavement by the Dark Lord. A further characteristic of fantasy literature is that the quest is usually dire – setting forth the struggle between good and evil, freedom and enslavement.
It is not difficult to see how such literature lends itself to modern myth: in our own inner lives, we are the hero who must go questing within to seek to understand ourselves, our needs, what will ultimately give us power to prevail and become a whole, healthy individual at peace with him/herself and able to offer help to those around. But something within us knows that such an accomplishment does not come easily, and the quests in fantasy literature usually involve gruelling journeys, personal struggles and often great sacrifice. Most of us have struggled with ourselves enough to know that any symbol of breakthrough that appears too easily attained is no symbol of breakthrough at all.
These quests in fantasy literature recognize that our own personal journeys are also gruelling. Most people who read these words have what we think of as a reasonably easy life: they are not tortured or persecuted for religious or political beliefs, the majority have probably not experienced serious physical abuse. Yet even among those of us who have had relatively few traumas in our lives, we know that coming to a high level of personal integrity and self-honesty is not easy. There is no simple method to realizing a level of harmony and peace within ourselves and a sense of oneness with the creation around us. In short, that elusive goal of spiritual realization (however one defines it) is not easy. It is, in truth, a quest on which each of us must embark.
We have been trained throughout our lives to hide our feelings, even from ourselves. We are dishonest with ourselves without realizing it. We allow trivial things to dominate our lives easy, convenient things to numb us to what our inner being – not to mention our bodies – would tell us. We have been trained to see the world in just one way (even though we might like to think of ourselves as original thinkers) and it is difficult beyond belief to really, really think “outside the box”. To paraphrase Yoda, to make any real progress, we must find ways of unlearning huge chunks of what we have learned. In fact, any true education, and especially a deep, liberating education, is mostly unlearning what we think we know.
So when we read fantasy literature, a deep part of ourselves, I believe, recognizes a symbol for the struggle to grow, to become, to change, to be transformed. It is a struggle. It is a quest. Some of the really tough tasks that most of us have learned to handle day in and day out pale in comparison to the struggle to really come to terms with oneself, to go into that cave where there is nothing but what we take with us, where we come, ultimately, face to face with ourselves. Many of us cannot really bear to do that, and avoid the inner quest. But fantasy literature, for many, keeps the challenge alive by reminding a deep part of ourselves that the quest beckons, that we can rise to the challenge and be transformed.
And does our own personal quest represent the ultimate battle between good and evil? Within us, it feels that way, because our inner self knows just how easy it is to have the truth as we understand it to be co-opted. And we know, deep within, that any change must come from within us. Yet we often allow ourselves to be insulated from our deeper desires, perhaps by business, perhaps by convenience and comfort and being conventional. And that part of us that is aware knows that we only have one chance at life, and it is all too easy to allow the really important stuff – knowing ourselves, following our own inner quest – to be subverted. So our inner self is aware that the struggle to follow our inner quest, to be transformed, to become, is the battle between good and evil.
Now, of course it isn’t as simple as that. There is need for balance in the quest. There is need for humor. But the appeal of fantasy literature and the mythic quest is, at least partly, I believe, that our inner self recognizes a mythic expression of the inner struggle.
When we began discussing fantasy literature as a source of Star Wars, we noted that there are at least two distinctive elements in fantasy literature. The first is that a quest is usually involved. The other is that fantasy literature almost always includes the use of magic or sorcery. Often the fantasy work simply tells a great saga that involves a quest and magic, as in the case of The Lord of the Rings. Other fantasy works actually explore the nature of magic – and appeals to the magic we perceive within ourselves. Whatever the inner workings of the particular tale, magic is one of the common elements of most fantasy literature. Thus, it is apparently part of the attraction of the genre. Why is that so?
While not to minimize the attraction fantasy literature has in its own right by appealing to the child or the dreamer or the adventurer in all of us, I believe that part of the answer is to be found in traditional religion. Much of traditional religion as found in the Western world is dominated by an over emphasis upon the transcendence of God. Very briefly, the transcendence of God says that God is above and beyond us. I have argued this earlier – that we cannot adequately conceive, let alone describe what we mean by God. This view is balanced, though, by the idea that though we cannot adequately comprehend the Divine, we can experience the Divine.
In practice in much Western religion, the transcendence of God is not always balanced. This might be because many Western Christians are afraid of experience and thus don’t allow the Divine to come close (using metaphorical terminology, remember!). We believe in the greatness of God (the transcendence) – but that is sufficient. Hopefully, the individual eventually becomes more comfortable with the notion of the presence of the Divine and expresses this through prayer, devotion, meditation, etc. Many, however, have never become comfortable with or able to experience this part of traditional religion.
Nevertheless, there is still a hunger for an experience of immanence, for a hands-on experience with a power or powers greater than ourselves. Many find this experience in magic through mythical participation via fantasy literature. One might ask if the psychological appeal of magic in fantasy literature isn’t merely the feeling of powerlessness and the yearning to be in control. There certainly can be that element. But even so, at a deeper level is a healthy desire to experience power in a positive sense: to be able to control ourselves, to achieve a measure of control over our own personal world. In short, magic appeals to the desire for transformation, personal change and growth. Fantasy literature appeals to the magic within us – whether we think of that inner magic as love, creativity, or inner transformation.
The quest, often enough in fantasy novels, is for one who had no inkling of his/her latent powers to not only acknowledge them, but to learn to use them. And the task is not only to learn to use them, but put them to use to protect and benefit oneself and others. While this particular theme is not found in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, one can certainly see it in the quest of one Luke Skywalker.
For an increasing number of people, however, they seek this experience of immanence through the practice of magic. For the last 100 years, magic practice has been developing, changing and growing as a spiritual growth system, a transformational system. And magic is not occult – “secret “ any longer. Secrets of many magical lodges have been published, and magical groups today – such as Wicca – tend to promote their beliefs by writing about them and publishing books assisting people to follow their path. But at the core of this movement, I believe, rests the notion we discussed above: magic is a hands on way of experiencing the Divine that traditional religions cannot match. This is true through mythic participation via the fantasy genre. It is also true for many through direct participation meditation and ritual and trance. Many seek to literarlly experience “the Force” to use an inner power to affect their lives and their world.
This book is not so much intended to be a primer in magic as it is to propose that spirituality and religion has changed dramatically in ways few could even imagine three decades ago. And Star Wars, in many ways, is symbolic and representative of much of that change. Star Wars is a snap shot, so to speak, of the changes happening around us. In the midst of the fun entertainment of Lucas’ saga is a lot of serious stuff happening: serious questions are being raised, invitations are being issued. Certainly George Lucas did not write Star Wars as a religious tract, or even to teach religion. But by his own account he did write, at least partly, to raise certain questions. And to invite us to follow the path those questions raise. Star Wars invites us to follow our own quest.
So let us begin.
(C) Ron L. Clayton 2004, 2009