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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, April 25, 2002

Star Wars: Shrouded in mythology

By Michael Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer

George Lucas drew on ancient mythology and may have named the city of Theed on Naboo after the Greek city Thebes.

20th Century Fox

Luke Skywalker. Perseus. Darth Vader. The Devil.

Expect to hear these names bandied about as the "Star Wars" juggernaut once again drops its muddy feet onto Pop Cultureville.

It's as much a sure bet as that every moving thing in "Star Wars Episode Two: Attack of the Clones" will have its very own action figure, and maybe two: Academics and other highbrows will be — are — looking into the mythical, literary and religious roots of the cinematic franchise.

Star Warsology has acquired considerable heft in the nearly quarter-century since the original movie first entranced American audiences. A search of the Modern Language Association's International Bibliography, a major academic database, finds more than 400 journal articles on topics relating to "Star Wars." And that's nothing compared to the thousands of long-winded "Star Wars" essays, tributes and independent fan sites on the Web.

Many analysts arrive at the same conclusion: the ongoing popularity of the series stems from its reimagination of classic epic themes. That's a line of thinking that creator George Lucas has endorsed in numerous discussions of his work.

Lucas has said he borrowed heavily from ideas raised in "The Hero With a Thousand Faces," Joseph Campbell's examination of mythical archetypes and patterns. Scholars have also noted that the original trilogy itself is similar to a Campbell "monomyth" — a collective expression of near-universal folk themes.

"It's good versus evil," said Robert Littman, a University of Hawai'i professor specializing in the classics. "Every myth system tries in some way to explain the present by depicting the past as more evil and by showing mythic figures in a struggle for a stable present."

Littman said the notion of good and evil linked in constant struggle likely found its way into the Western epic tradition via Zoroastrianism, a Persian religion established around 600 B.C. by Zarathushtra.

Representing good and evil: Luke Skywalker, left, and Darth Vader faced off in a classic good-vs.-evil showdown.
Other elements of the "Star Wars" epic can be traced to Greek mythology.

Luke Skywalker's evolution into a Jedi knight — made possible through the mentoring of Obi Wan Kenobi and Yoda, and by his own mastery of the Force — reflects a common pattern, Littman said.

"In general, it's very similar to the Western myth of a boy hero who gets help from the gods to defeat evil," Littman said. "It's the same as Perseus getting power from Hermes and Athena to kill Medusa."

Both "Star Wars" trilogies are structured around a quest and the rescue of a maiden from evil, Littman notes. He compares them to the legend of St. George, patron saint of England, who slew a dragon to rescue a princess, or the story of Perseus and Andromeda.

As for Luke's troublesome father, Darth Vader, Littman said the idea of the son usurping the father is very common in Western myth. In Greek mythology, for example, Uranus, husband of Gaea, was killed by his son Kronos, who in turn was killed by his own son, Zeus.

Of course, there are many ways to interpret the patchwork of images, themes and ideas Lucas drew together to make the films.

Steven Curry, an associate professor of English and fan of the first "Star Wars" films, called them "a revision, in a good sense, of a lot of ancient themes." He also saw the movie from a psychological angle: In the principal characters, Curry said he could recognize elements of a single, fragmented consciousness, with Luke as an idealized self, Han Solo as a product of Freudian ego, Chewbacca as the instinctual, animal aspect and Leia as a shadow figure.

Darth Vader, for Curry, represented the human capacity for darkness.

"They made a fairly straight statement that anger and hate lead to the dark side of the force, and that implied that the judgment was not external but internal," Curry said. "In the last film, they portrayed Anakin as wanting to have a good, ordered society. Knowing what we do about his future, you can see where that can become technological, militaristic, almost fascist, and you can see the naivete behind it."

Lucas has commented that "Star Wars" was, in some regards, a reaction to the lessons of the Vietnam War and to the moral issues of the Reagan presidency. Curry and many others argue that one of the themes of the original "Star Wars" trilogy was the triumph of intuition over technology, as demonstrated by Luke's using the Force to guide his bombing run on the Death Star.

Curry also found it interesting that rebels are portrayed as a force for good in the first series. "That's something unique in contemporary society where we now think of rebels almost as terrorists," he said. "It will be interesting to see how that works after what happened on Sept. 11."

Several scholars have attempted to define Lucas' "Force" in terms of Taoist or Judeo-Christian beliefs. For Littman, the relationship is clear.

"The Force is God," he said. "The dark side of the Force is the Devil."

In interviews, Lucas has been more vague, saying the Force is based on a belief in God rather than any particular belief system.

Given Lucas' broad knowledge of myth, legend, literature and cinema, identifying his influences can be daunting. It is generally believed, for example, that the idea for light sabers came from a scene in the "Lord of the Rings" in which the wizard Gandalf and the demon Balrog battle with flaming magic swords.

Names are also important in unpacking Lucas' hidden inferences. According to the Web site www

.jitterbug.com, "Anakin" is likely derived from "Anakim," a race of giants mentioned in the Old Testament. Unscrupulous politicians Newt Gunray and Lott Dod may get their names from real life political figures Newt Gingrich/Ronald Reagan and Trent Lott/Christopher Dodd. "Jedi" is likely derived from "Jidai Geki," a samurai-era soap opera that Lucas cited as an inspiration.

Still, the bottom line is that as a movie-going experience, fans still expect excitement.

"That's all kind of cool," said 15-year-old Elnardo Tabag of Kapahulu, a "serious" fan of the first trilogy. "But if ('Attack of the Clones') sucks like the last one, I ain't going to the next one."