June 3, 2009

The Star Wars SagaIn 1977, George Lucas created a phenomenon. Star Wars was not just a box office smash on a scale rarely achieved, but also a cultural touchstone of its time. People from all walks of life were swept up in this grand space epic that featured heroes and villains, knights and princesses, smugglers and stormtroopers — this was a film for everyone.

With two sequels, three prequels and a successful animated TV show in its wake (as well as an entire industry dedicated to ancillary books, comics and other merchandise), Star Wars continues to entertain some 32 years later.

But what is it about this galaxy far, far away that continues to delight, drawing in a new generation of fans even today? The cynic might say it’s the simplistic depiction of good and evil, the fast-paced action, the cute critters…

A more charitable (and, in my opinion, fairer) assessment would be that Star Wars taps into truths deeper than most other “popcorn” entertainment on offer today. There are now plenty of films and TV shows that try to “wow” audiences with dazzling special effects, distracting them with MTV-style hyper-kinetic editing while perhaps offering trite philosophical morsels in between action scenes, yet people return to Star Wars time and time again. It’s the spiritual core that separates Star Wars from other action-adventure franchises, and that’s the secret to its success.

That spiritual core rests on a foundation of mythic archetypes and motifs, each with a legacy reaching back well beyond that of recorded history. In writing Star Wars, Lucas was influenced primarily by Joseph Campbell (and especially his book The Hero With a Thousand Faces), a man who recognised the import that ancient storytelling traditions held within the human psyche.

For Campbell, mythology has four primary functions:

  1. Mystical: the mythology should reflect upon and illuminate the biological function of life, using symbolism and metaphor to indirectly reveal the metaphysical ground of being;
  2. Cosmological: the Universe itself should be explained by the mythology, referring back to the mystical elements so as to ground the cosmological in the metaphysical;
  3. Sociological: the mythology should supply the society with a set of laws so as to ensure a social order, with the authority of the laws also referring back to the mystical function; and
  4. Pedagogical: the mythology should allow an individual to move from one phase of life to the next, turning the act of living itself into a ritual that evokes the mystical.

The myths of old are now stagnant, undone by these second and third functions. Our heritage is a mythology trapped in a cosmology with little relevance to science and a social order meant for another place and time. The result is that the first and fourth functions have become inaccessible — people instead turn to New Age fads and quick-fix solutions in their attempts to find answers to life.

Star Wars embodies those mystical and pedagogical functions beautifully. It may not be perfect — it is, after all, ultimately the work of one man — but, of all the modern pop-culture franchises, I believe it comes closest to supplying incredibly powerful myths to live by.


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