If you haven’t actually seen them at the multiplex, you saw them on your local Eyewitness News, presented with a wink and a guffaw: the fans dressed as Boba Fett and Darth Vader and Jedi Knights, waiting on line for hours or days in order to be the first to catch the final installment of George Lucas’ Star Wars odyssey, The Revenge of the Sith.
It’s easy to make fun of these people, but it’s not so easy to dismiss them. For while plenty of movies rake in mountains of dough and produce devoted followers who can quote entire scenes—if not the entire script—from memory, very few inspire followings for which the word “religious” is not too strong a description.
Nor is it necessarily an unsuitable one. Lucas, with his first Star Wars film, tapped into what scholar of comparative mythology Joseph Campbell called the “monomyth”,(1) the archetypal story of challenging the gods and discovering the divine in oneself that is the framework for all human religion, and indeed for many of the stories we find most satisfying. Theseus and Aneus, Jesus and Buddha, Hamlet and Frodo Baggins, Neo and Luke Skywalker—they all traveled the monomyth’s “hero’s journey,” which, in its broadest sense, involves an expulsion from the ordinary world; an odyssey through realms of danger and magic, of physical and spiritual challenges; and a return to the world with newfound wisdom that has the potential to make the world a better place.
Lucas may have appropriated the monomyth unconsciously with the first film of his saga—as Campbell says in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, his extraordinary and eye-opening book about the monomyth, “the symbols of mythology are not manufactured”; they are elements of deep-seated psychological longings that transcend culture. And it may be true that, after Campbell himself pointed out the literary and mythological importance of Lucas’s tale, the filmmaker—as some critics have complained—let that get in the way of good, simple storytelling. But none of that negates the truth of the connection. It’s why the awkward scripts and bad direction, particularly in the new prequel trilogy, cannot lessen the dramatic psychological impact of the Skywalkers’ story any more than an elementary-school Christmas pageant can lessen the beauty of the story of Jesus. It’s why the story of Star Wars feels less like an invention than it does a discovery unearthed from antiquity. Because fans instinctively recognize the greater story that Lucas sometimes only hints at, it’s not only easy to fill in the blanks he left but almost impossible for us not to.
The story of Luke Skywalker has been famously dissected and held up as a hero’s journey, and inevitably that of his father, Anakin Skywalker, will be analyzed from the perspective of legend, too. Certainly, there are mythological characters it’s too delicious not to liken Anakin to—Lucifer, for instance, who preferred to rule in hell rather than serve in heaven; Anakin’s rancor at what he perceives as an insult from the Jedi leadership, in Revenge of the Sith, when he is granted only junior membership on the ruling council, is particularly Luciferian. And on first glance, it looks as if Anakin’s hero’s journey can only be called a failed one—imagine if Prometheus had snuck into the realm of the gods to snatch fire from them and never returned.
Except Lucifer never returned from hell, and Anakin’s journey, after all, is not over until his son redeems him (and perhaps not even then). Even a quick glance at other mythologies shows Anakin to be more mythologically potent than Luke is—both men experience what Campbell calls the larger story of “the son against the father for the mastery of the universe”; Luke squares off against Vader, Campbell’s archetypal “ogre father,” and Anakin squares off against his spiritual father, Palpatine. But Anakin is also the product of a virgin birth (as are other heroes: Jesus, Phaethon), for instance, and is resurrected after death (like Adonis, Mithra, and Osiris). It may be that Anakin’s journey through the Dark Side is more akin to a crucifixion, an archetypal suffering that is a necessary part of the path to enlightenment; Campbell describes the Norse god Odin thus: he “gave an eye to split the veil of light into the knowledge of [an] infinite dark, and then underwent for it the passion of a crucifixion.” That sounds an awful lot like Anakin!
The point isn’t, of course, that if X number of elements from other mythological systems match Anakin’s story it’s more valid, but that the pattern is there, and more importantly, that Anakin’s story isn’t over at the end of Revenge of the Sith or even at the end of The Return of the Jedi. When Anakin reemerges out of Darth Vader at the end of Jedi, rescued by his son, that’s just the beginning of the end of his odyssey—he still needs to share the wisdom he’s gathered on his cruel pilgrimage with the rest of the world. Perhaps he’ll finally bring the balance to the Force he was prophesied to bring, by reintegrating the Light Side and the Dark in a way that recognizes that both are a part of human nature. That’s a philosophy Lucas has been hinting at with the prequel trilogy, that perhaps the Jedi have become too dogmatic, are indeed too self-sacrificing and too ascetic. As the only true wielder of an integrated Force, it’s Anakin’s mythological duty to spread the word of it.
If Lucas is as enamored of his story as his fans are, I don’t think he’ll be able to resist completing it. Three more Star Wars movies, anyone?