Star Wars: Our American Mythos

My childhood, like so many, was the combination of George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and of course, John Williams. I would often sit, perhaps unhealthily, for hours in front of a TV watching VHS tapes of dinosaurs eating people, a professor stealing holy artifacts, and lightsabers crashing. I absorbed it all, and my brothers and I practiced it. We would duel with our plastic (the old sturdy ones) lightsabers, hurting each other's’ fingers and feelings. Around high school, I had somewhat of a “nerd-retreat,” a time when being a fan of Star Wars was for some reason uncool. College reopened my love for the great saga, and now, I unashamedly utilize the galaxy far, far away in my classroom teaching economics and government.

Every fandom has its gloriously diverse and vast fan-fiction with theories that range from the plausible to conspiracy. Star Wars, through the former Expanded Universe (dubbed “Legends”) and the official Canon, is ripe with opportunity for fans to write, speculate, and imagine. My three younger brothers and I constantly engage in this activity, debating over the merits of Emperor Palpatine as the murderer of Padme Amidala, and the like. But while all of this is fun and engaging, it seems to lack a certain gravity of importance. I asked this question a few weeks ago: if it lacks importance, why do so many love to do it? What brings millions to engage in such an activity?

In order to understand this question, we need to understand the definition of a key word: mythos. A mythos is a common set of stories that can be used to explain the world, and more often provide a foundation for a cultural morality. A mythos is not the equivalent of religion. Religion tends to provide an explicit and prescriptive morality. A mythos provides more of a cornerstone worldview, a basic layer for other to build morality upon it.

Any discussion of mythos has to include renowned mythologist, Joseph Campbell, whose seminal work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, elaborated on what’s called the “hero’s journey.” Essentially, the hero’s journey is a basic story-structure, where a seemingly boring individual rises to become a hero, with the aid of mentors and friends, and must brave great adventures and villains. Campbell identified the hero’s journey across all of culture. The same basic myth-narrative is repeated across nearly all geographies and ethnicities. The hero’s journey is, at heart, the common human story repeated everywhere.

This monomyth, as its called, has been studied and examined ever since Campbell’s work. It’s changed here and there, with different scholars adding different things, but it remains more or less the same. The monomyth can be clearly seen through the Star Wars saga, but especially in Episode IV: A New Hope. Luke, a seemingly unbecoming farm boy, is called to the adventure of saving a captured princess from black-cloaked villain, and initially refuses. With the help of a wizardly mentor, and a band of unbecoming allies, he becomes entrapped in the belly of the beast in the Death Star, where they escape with the reward of the Death Star plans, but not before Luke endures the pain of watching old Ben Kenobi die. The final trial, destroying the beast, is Luke’s great transformation from the boy on Tatooine to the next generation of Jedi Knights.

This is fascinating stuff, and very exciting. Not only was the 1977 cinematic experience great, but the entire saga’s story is wonderful, however much it may be masked by poor dialogue and acting. Even then, film critics have never been a fan of the movies, even for their stories. They say it’s too easy, made for children, cartoonish, etc. I read that as, “This isn’t morally ambiguous, and therefore, not a good story.” Such nihilism is apparently cool, but I don’t buy it. No, the stories aren’t all that complex, but the thing is, that’s the point. Remember, a mythos is supposed to aid us in developing an understanding of the world from a certain point of view. Through stories, we lay a foundation to build an ethical code and of morality. The purpose is to get us to think about how we act, and why we act. If we get bogged down Inception-class complexity, we lose that powerful purpose.

The story in Star Wars is intentionally simple. The characters are stereotypical, but archetypical, and resonate a certain set of traits we can easily identify. It can sometimes feel like a children’s story. Again, that’s the point. The essence of a mythos should make us wonder in awe, tap into our imagination, bring out our inner child. When I watch these movies, I’m like a giddy boy, relishing in the narrative. When the movie is done, it’s almost as if my inner child, having finished the adventure, returns and consults with my adult on what just happened. That’s mythos; the dialogue between wonder and reason.

The master of this myth-creating process was J.R.R. Tolkien, author of Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. He saw that England lacked a true mythos, one separated from reality (thus eliminating anything relating to King Arthur and Beowulf). He set out to create an entire universe that he could populate with stories; thus born Middle Earth. His goal wasn’t necessarily to write great stories (which he did), but to provide an epic universe with histories, a genesis (see: The Silmarillion), and languages with dialects. LOTR has a distinctly English feeling to it, one his countrymen could understand. He wrote it so others may think about the world in a certain way. Some of these stories, like The Hobbit, are so relatable, they feel like a children’s story.

Now, George Lucas is no Tolkien. He is a controversial creator, one who nearly destroyed his saga. His storylines can be disjointed, almost contradictory, and he can seem self-serving. Nevertheless, his universe is nevertheless a fountain of myth, and one that resonates with millions of Americans. Why?

America, at its core, is part of Western Civilization, and relies heavily upon its philosophy and religions. As such, it is greatly influenced by morality that there exists objective good and evil. But we are also a multicultural nation, one that has accepted and welcomes many Eastern philosophies as well. As Americans, we are intrigued by the at-first exotic beliefs of the East, and we find a certain tranquility in them. We are drawn toward the idea of a Buddhist monk devoid of personal possession and at peace with everything. We see his balance, and we desire it.

Star Wars seeks to establish a clear dynamic between good and evil. The Rebel Alliance and the Galactic Empire; the Jedi and Sith; Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader. There is great conflict between these easily identified sides (I mean, for crying out loud, the lightsaber colors reveal it all). Yet, the theme of balance is always present. The Chosen One was to bring balance to the Force; a Force which is at once an inanimate energy field made up of microorganisms, and yet also a personal, willing thing. Is this a contradiction? No, it’s the basis of a mythos worldview.

You see, Americans love a good cops and robbers story, the cowboys and Indians conflict. But we also seek a peaceful tranquility of balance. Star Wars gives us that battle, but breathes of a peaceful spirituality. Destiny must be fulfilled in this universe, but personal choice never disappears. Americans, historically, believe they have a duty, a manifest destiny, in the world. But liberty is at our heart to, and we can choose to reject this duty. We are drawn to Star Wars because it mimics what we feel in the first place.

Why does this matter? I believe it is very important for great societies to have a basic cultural commonality. For America, we used to be fairly homogenous in our Protestant religion. That’s not the case anymore, and when it was, there was no unified denomination. Religion doesn’t make the cut, and politics certainly doesn’t. We need a myth, one with an acceptable starting point, a square one. Star Wars is arguably one of the only viable mythos for America. It has such a wide arrangement of characters and messages, that different people can gain different things from it. It embraces our Western-Eastern dichotomy, and quite frankly, it’s pure fun.

We need Star Wars not because it is a masterfully created cinematic experience, has great dialogue, or anything like that. We need it because the story, much like the Force itself, can surround and bind us together.