Star Wars(r)TM has captured the hearts and imaginations of millions and millions of people like no other story of our time. This official companion volume to the landmark exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum explores the mythological roots of the Star Wars saga, a story that will continue to unfold into the next millenium.
Written by the exhibit's curator and illustrated with hundreds of photographs, drawings and images, Star Wars(r): The Magic of Myth illuminates this modern tale of the ageless and mythic battle of good versus evil.
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As Joseph Campbell and other scholars have noted, there is a certain typical hero sequence of actions that can be found in most myths. First, the hero must separate from the ordinary world of his or her life up to the point at which the story begins; then, in the new world through which the journey takes place, the hero must undergo a series of trials and must overcome many obstacles in order to achieve an initiation into ways of being hitherto unknown; finally, the hero returns to share what he or she has learned with others.
This story pattern can be found throughout classical mythology. Campbell himself cites the examples of Jason--who left the cave in which he was brought up in order to search for the Golden Fleece and then returned with his prize to recapture his homeland--and Prometheus, who traveled to Mount Olympus, stole fire from the gods, and brought it back to earth. The knights of King Arthur's Round Table set off to seek the Holy Grail, and the great figures of every major religion have each gone on a "vision quest," from Moses' journey to the mountain, to Jesus' time in the desert, Muhammad's meditations in the mountain cave, and Buddha's search for enlightenment that ended under the bodhi tree.
As these last examples show, the journey is often not just a physical adventure that takes the hero from one place to another but it is also a spiritual one, as the hero moves from ignorance and innocence to experience and enlightenment. This is one reason why the middle leg of the journey is called "initiation"; as in the initiation rites of primitive cultures, the hero must give up the "childhood" that innocence and dependence represent and "come back as a responsible adult." In a psychological sense, then, this is a voyage of self-discovery, an expedition whose true destination is the realm within each of us, where we must find our own unique center with all its strengths and weaknesses. Joseph Campbell puts it this way:
"All the life-potentialities that we never managed to bring to adult realization, those other portions of ourself are there [in the internal world]; for such golden seeds do not die. If only a portion of that lost totality could be dredged up into the light of day, we should experience a marvelous expansion of our powers, a vivid renewal of life. We should tower in stature. Moreover, if we could dredge up something forgotten not only by ourselves hut by our whole generation or our entire civilization, we should become indeed the boon-bringer, the culture hero of the day- a personage of not only local but world historical moment.
If we look at Luke Skywalker's story in this light, its meaning begins to glow. Luke's journey through the three films transforms him from a rebellious and impatient teenager, itching for adventure, into a grown-up hero who has confronted his strengths and weaknesses and found the power to help save the world. Along the way, he encounters ogres and wizards, mazes and traps-the archetypal symbols of the hero's journey. In cracking his voyage, we will identify all the classical elements that help to make a myth of Star Wars."
But Luke's is not the only journey, the only transformation, that the Star Wars trilogy describes. Part of the joy and fascination of this particular myth is that it is full of heroes, sometimes found in the most unlikely places. Several of the main characters set off on a journey, encounter trials, and return profoundly changed. We will also see how Han Solo, the princess Leia Organa, and even Darth Vader and See-Threepio go through their own transformations and discover their deeper natures.
In myth, heroes are almost always drawn from the extremes of life; they are often either princes or paupers. Sometimes the hero is the child of distinguished parents--the father is, say, a king or a lord--but because of some difficulty surrounding the child's birth, such as a prophecy or a curse, he or she is sent far away into the wilderness or wasteland to be reared in humble circumstances. For example, the royal twins Romulus and Remus, the eventual founders of Rome, were suckled by a wolf and reared by a shepherd. Perseus, son of the great god Zeus and the princess DanaÙ, was brought up in a fisherman's hut until he was old enough to set out on his adventures, which included slaying the evil monster Medusa. Similarly, at the beginning of Star Wars: A New Hope, Luke Skywalker is a poor farm boy, living with his foster parents, Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru Lars, on the remote desert planet of Tatooine. It will be quite some time before he discovers his royal heritage.
As the trilogy opens, Luke is like the Fool, the first card in the Tarot deck, which is an ancient fortune-telling tool. This card shows an inexperienced youth setting out on a journey; the way ahead is unknown, and the youth is completely unaware of the dangers that await him. In some decks, the youth may even be shown unwittingly on the verge of stepping off a high cliff. Like this archetype, Luke's character as the story begins is unformed and untested, innocent of a wider experience of the world and unaware of what lies ahead. The hero's journey actually begins with the call to adventure, the first occurrence in a chain of events that will separate the hero from home and family. Sometimes that call comes from within the hero's own nature, and the hero will set out of his or her own accord, but usually fate brings the call, often sending a herald-a person or animal who literally carries a message that causes the journey to begin. In the Arthurian cycle, the herald appears as an old hermit, who visits the court of Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table and tells them that he who will succeed in the quest for the Holy Grail is yet unborn, but will be born before the year has passed. Lancelot, after hearing this, leaves the court to continue on his adventure. He comes upon an imprisoned princess, the fair Elaine, whom he frees and marries. They beget a son, Sir Galahad, who eventually embarks on the successful quest for the Holy Grail. And so unbeknownst to Lancelot at the time (and to the other knights at the Round Table), the old hermit had indeed set him on his inevitable life's course. Usually the hero does not initially recognize the hand of fate at work; the precipitating crisis appears accidental or even commonplace, even though it represents the opening of the hero's life into a world of unsuspected power and danger.
In Star Wars the story begins with a damsel in distress and a message gone astray: Artoo-Detoo and See-Threepio set out to carry Leia's plea for help to Jedi Knight Obi-Wan (Ben) Kenobi on the planet of Tatooine, but they are waylaid by Jawa scavengers who roam the planet searching for junk to sell. The Jawas take the droids to the Lars homestead, unintentionally becoming the hand of fate that brings the princess's message-and the call to adventure-to young Luke.
Traditionally a herald was the messenger of a royal personage; now we use the word to mean not only someone who brings news but also someone "who precedes or foreshadows," a presage or harbinger. Artoo-Detoo satisfies both these definitions, for he will not only make known to Luke the existence of the princess but is also an omen of events to come. While he is humble and unremarkable, the little droid carries within his "rusty innards" the plans for the Galactic Empire's battle station, the Death Star. In the myth of Perseus and Medusa, the hero receives a magic shield, a cap of invisibility, Hermes' sword, and a pair of winged shoes with which to conquer the Gorgon. Here Luke acquires the plans of the Death Star as the first step toward demolishing the forces of darkness.
As archetypes, the droids can be compared to aspects of the psyche. See-Threepio seems to be all ego and no insight. He is fluent in over six million forms of communication, but while he hears everything, he seems to understand nothing.
Artoo-Detoo is more like the subconscious mind--all his power resides deep within. He can take in massive amounts of data and process them instantly, but he can only communicate with humans through signs and symbols and often relies on See-Threepio's translations. Artoo seems made to keep secrets, yet he is the one who draws Luke into the quest.
See-Threepio, too, acts as an unwitting herald; his first conversation with Luke is fraught with prophecy. When Luke laments that he will never get off the farm, See-Threepio asks if he can help. Luke responds, "Not unless you can alter time, speed up the harvest, or teleport me off this rock!" It will indeed be the appearance of the droids that precipitates Luke's journey, catapulting him into a starship on his way to other planets. In this conversation, See-Threepio calls Luke "Sir Luke," and although Luke, still the innocent, laughs, by the end of the trilogy he will have matured and symbolically earned this title. Finally, See-Threepio says that he can tell Luke nothing of the Rebellion against the Empire because "I'm not much more than an interpreter and not very good at telling stories." This too will change, as we wi!l see, near the end of Return of the Jedi. Luke's very name, Skywalker, reveals his destiny. While Luke's uncle wants to keep him on the farm, the young hero's name indicates that he is fated to travel in space.
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away...."The fairy-tale opening of George Lucas's 1977 movie Star Wars set the stage for a blockbuster trilogy that has become the stuff of cinematic legend. And through October 1998 the eclectic enchantment of Star Wars is re-created at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. In Star Wars: The Magic of Myth, the museum plays host to a cosmic menagerie of Jawas, Tusken raiders and Imperial storm troopers, not to mention the ludicrous droids R2-D2 and C-3PO. The exhibit and the companion volume by its curator offer insightful commentary on the luxuriant symbolism of Lucas's "alternative universe." The costumes and production models on display illustrate Lucas's cleverness in creating not just a futuristic world of gleaming metal and overfriendly machines but one that is also ancient and battered, filled with characters drawn more from the imagery of medieval romance than from science fiction. The strategy works. We recognize the wizened guards and the virginal princesses from stories we have heard. Leather bindings, wooden accoutrements and frayed sackcloth are more prominent than Lycra and precision robotics, and Lucas ensured that the spaceships in his tale were well rubbed with dirt before he let the cameras roll. Only Princess Leia remained unsullied. In the forms of the strange creatures that lurk behind every pillar, too, Lucas borrowed shapes and textures familiar from a trip to the zoo. Greedo's face is a cross between that of a tarsier and a hatchet fish; Chewbacca is a friendly orangutan. And surely Jabba the Hutt's amphibian squint and bulging belly are made all the more abhorrent by his taste for live toads. Naturalistic touches such as these remind us that what we are seeing is really not so implausible. Mythological interpretations of the elements in the hero's journey of Luke Skywalker are outlined at appropriate points in the exhibit and explored at greater length in the book. This decoding of the story, expanded (with due credit) from the late Joseph Campbell's The Power of Myth, shows that the fairy-tale quality of the saga is far from coincidental. Indeed, Lucas, in a taped interview that visitors can watch, explains how he spent two years studying mythology when he was writing the Star Wars scripts. No wonder we feel the hand of fate at work when a plea for help serves as Luke's call to adventure. It was ever thus with damsels in distress, as Perseus learned with Andromeda. And it should be no surprise when a fatherly magician gives Lucas's hero an Excaliburesque light saber. High technology, of course, appears in the Star Wars movies in the horrific, labyrinthine Death Star, a space battle station capable of exploding entire planets. In the exhibit, a few malevolent minions serve as tokens of the dehumanizing dark empire and the wheezing prince of evil incarnate, Darth Vader, whom Luke battles as a rebel fighter pilot. The fascist symbolism in the empire's force is blatant, as is the significance of our gunslinging rescuers' leather holsters. The mystical, invisible Force is not on display, but its message is nonetheless clear: we want technology on our human terms, not its own impersonal ones. Whatever is lacking in subtlety in Lucas's cinematic creations is more than compensated for by their exuberant inventiveness. Nostalgia is worth a visit.
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