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.


My Passion, the Creation of Truth

Mea culpa, my friends, for missing my posting a couple weeks back. Last time you read from me was before a joyous Christmas break. On my birthday I did drop my phone four stories down an elevator shaft, but that’s a story for another time. Today, I would like to talk about a few thoughts on a great passion of mine.

Like many students at Benedictine last week, I was not on campus. But unlike most, I was not on the annual 27 (22 in record time, I hear this year) hour bus ride to Capitol Hill for the March for Life. Instead, I spent my week in the Twin Cities for the 47th Annual Region V Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival.

KCACTF is a remarkable gathering of wonderfully dedicated collegiate thespians and stage artists. Some of the most well respected academics and very talented active professionals come to impart advice and experience to students and exchange ideas with their peers. The festival features a scholarship acting competition with nominees from works performed around the region throughout the previous year. Regional winners move on to nationals to compete for a nice sum of money. Various other events such as invited scenes, productions, showcases, exhibitions, competitions, and workshops fill the daily schedule.

“Cool beans, Stanton. But why were you even there?”

An excellent question. Since I can remember I’ve always enjoyed performing. When I finally learned to speak properly I never really stopped talking. I enjoyed being filmed for a class project, giving a speech for FBLA, performing as John Paul II in a biographical study, and leading the marching band as the drum major. I love the stage. It may be why I’m so greatly attracted to politics. The grand purpose of statecraft is service to the people and betterment of society, which is why I find a vocation in politics. But within politics is a narrative, a constructed story used to convince people of a certain idea. I love this part of politics more than I do in-depth policy talk. I’ve got a thing for the campaign trail, the strategizing, and the fashioning of the story. None of this, though, is quite like the stage. And before college I had never actually acted in the theatre setting.

So, freshman year I auditioned for the first production that semester, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. I’ve never liked this play, but I thought, “I’m in college - might as well try something new.” I was cast as Balthasar and Capulet’s cousin: fairly minor roles. I didn’t particularly enjoy the experience, so I put theatre aside and decided it wasn’t for me. I still went to every play throughout the year, and I always found a good time in the Mabee Theatre.

In the early part of the second semester, a senior who was directing the final show of the season - Metamorphoses by Mary Zimmerman - approached me about participating in the production. What was cool about this show is that the majority of the play occurs in a pool: a man-made construction built on stage and filled with water. The actors performed in the pool. I reluctantly agreed, but this time I enjoyed myself immensely, even if I was sopping wet.

The bug had returned. Sophomore year I was determined to be more involved in the department. I auditioned in the early fall for the play Come Back, Little Sheba by William Inge. I was hoping for more than a minor role, but expecting no more than a supporting role. When the cast list was posted my name was listed as the male lead.

I was stunned. I am not a theatre major, nor a minor—I was a very green enthusiast. But, thanks to a phenomenal director, cast, and the overbearing fear to not disappoint in my first role, it became one of the most exciting experiences of my life. It was an opening to explore the theatre in a deeper way. I’ve since participated in student directed scenes, one-act plays, a debut of an original piece, and two theatre festivals. I’m actually currently working on my fourth main stage.

This is my passion. The theatrical process that I have discovered is my passion. But why? That’s the overbearing question you’ve been asking, isn’t it? What facet of this art is so compelling that it consumes my limited time and grips my interest? Here it is: through the theatre, more than in politics, I can create and reveal truth.

The best political narratives require some basis of truth in order to be believable enough and drive home the vote-winning message. The theatre, too, has truth. The difference is this: while politics is better with truth, the theatre is nothing without truth. The beauty and art of the stage can only exist as truth. It does not simply require truth to exist; the theatre is married to the truth.

Political narrators may sometimes find the truth as a roadblock to their objective. (It’s not that they dislike the truth or would rather go without it; to their credit, most love truth and justice, and would much rather live in a world with it and it alone.) The theatre, however, cannot go without the truth unless it seeks to lose the very core of its existence.  A theatre divorced from truth is at best a venue of cheap entertainment, and at worst a lie on a barren stage, no matter how many lights and musical numbers you try to attach.

Politics is like my vehicle to a vocational destination. I like the drive, the feel of the seats, the way the car handles. But theatre is my coffee—if I didn’t have it I couldn’t keep driving. It allows me the privilege of an intimate and very real creation. What makes the theatre such a remarkable and almost spiritual experience is that no show is the same as the one before or after it. Every single showing of the same play by the same exact cast in the same exact venue is still different and completely unique. Actors are human, and they can be susceptible to a missed line, a different emotion for a scene, or have a different level of energy depending on how receptive the audience is to the play.

This is not the making of an elaborate fabrication for an ulterior purpose. When I’m on stage, and you’re in the audience, we are sharing the same moment, right now, in this present time, which is unique to us and to no one else. No matter how many hands I may get to shake on a campaign trail, or heart-warming or heart-wrenching stories I get to hear or tell, or the promise that, “Yes, ma’am, I’m gonna do everything I can to get your husband’s job back,” I will never have the chance to peel back the layers of reality and show you the essence of life in politics. Not like on stage. Not like in the theatre.

I don’t seek the applause at the end, or the affirmation of others. I do theatre because I love the community among actors and stage crews, because I love the intimacy of participating in my own creation, because I love the truth I can help reveal. The theatre is alive and vibrant and human in an oft-time mundane world. We go about our daily lives, enduring the grind of work and the stress of the current times. Sometimes this seemingly boring existence is too much, and we put ourselves on autopilot, turning off our purposes, dreams, and desires so that we can live with the (false) assumption that we amount to nothing more than onlookers on this rotating rock we call Earth. I partake in the theatre because it is here to tell you that you and the world are more than that. That you were made for something beyond “just getting by.” You were made for love, beauty, and truth.

“We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery we need humanity. More than cleverness we need kindness and gentleness…You are not machines! You are not cattle! You are men! You have the love of humanity in your hearts!”  ~Charlie Chaplin, The Dictator