In our look at prominent anniversaries in 2017, the 40th anniversary of Star Wars bears noting as a significant cultural moment. The series is the most commercially successful movie franchise ever. Later this year, four decades after the first film was released in May 1977, the ninth major motion picture will be released. It’s called Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi. In any case, it won’t be the last film, not by a long shot.
Why has it lasted so long, this series which for generations of children has provided the fantastical architecture of their imaginary play? Despite mediocre writing, it has hosted enduring stars – James Earl Jones, Sir Alec Guinness – and launched others, such as Harrison Ford.
From the beginning, many fans noted the religious imagery in Star Wars, far too abundant to be accidental. Sir Alec Guinness wore the garb of a monk in his turn as the elderly Obi-Wan Kenobi; Luke Skywalker, when he finally makes it as a Jedi, dresses like a young priest. Darth Vader’s helmet is a stylised mitre, all the better to evoke the corrupt bishop he has become. The wicked emperor carries a staff and is attended by a court that includes attendants decked head-to-toe in cardinalatial red. The Jedi “temple” is a mosque-and-minaret construction. The Force itself is pantheism made palatable for a secular generation that likes to pretend that it is spiritual but not religious. Now, as the saga nears its (supposed) end, the physical setting is actually Skellig Michael, the redoubt of the Irish monks who saved civilisation.
Star Wars endures because it is an ancient story about the deepest human dramas – a tale of love, sacrifice and fatherhood on the one hand, and the tragedy of hate, domination and tyranny on the other. It tests which account is a more authentic description of the path to human flourishing.
The central character is Anakin Skywalker, a young boy of preternatural abilities who has no father. The mystery of fatherhood, natural and spiritual, therefore marks the entire saga. The Jedi present the boy with the ideals of honour and duty and sacrifice in which those who have been given much are required to serve the good of all.
As a young man, Anakin rejects his Jedi masters, and the evil Emperor Palpatine offers a different vision to Anakin: those who have been given much have the power to seize more – even the ultimate power to create life and cheat death. It is the way of domination, not sacrifice.
Star Wars thus poses a Hegelian question: is the primordial reality the one of the master and the slave? Does man have to choose between being dominant or dominated, in which case the purpose of life and the engine of history is the struggle between those who would be masters and those who would be slaves?
That is the way of the Dark Side, in which the desire to avenge one’s own pain fuels the lust for power. Power is the only remedy for pain – to hurt others before they can hurt you. In Episode VI: Return of the Jedi, the Emperor attempts to seduce Luke Skywalker, Anakin’s secret son, to the Dark Side. Luke is invited to kill Vader and take his place at the side of the all-powerful Emperor. It is the Hegelian dynamic of master and slave again. The slave either remains a slave to be destroyed at the master’s command, or he kills the master and takes his place. It is the way of the gun or, if you will, the lightsaber.
“Show no mercy” is the first lesson the Emperor teaches Anakin-cum-Vader in Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. There is no room for mercy in the Hegelian master-slave telling of the human story. Kill or be killed it is: the new Lord Vader massacres the innocent “younglings” in a slaughter that echoes the biblical figures of the Pharaoh and King Herod. Eventually the Emperor makes the same offer to Luke: kill Vader and take his place or be killed. But Vader is Luke’s father, so the master-slave dynamic meets the father-son relationship.
It is striking that for a saga saturated with violence, Luke Skywalker survives into this third trilogy because of mercy and the witness of suffering. It is the suffering of the son that inspires the conversion of the father, and Vader turns against the Emperor and destroys him, at the cost of his own life. The “show no mercy” domination of the tyrant is finally defeated only by the medicine of mercy and the power of filial suffering to move the paternal heart.
St John Paul II observed in Crossing the Threshold of Hope that the only alternative in human relations to the Hegelian master-slave dynamic is the father-son relationship. Either the powerful oppress the weak, as tyrants oppress slaves, or the powerful one sacrifices himself for the weaker, as a father will give his life for his son. This clash of archetypes is at the heart of the Star Wars mythology.
The revelation of the Trinity teaches us that the father-son relationship is more powerful for it lies at the heart of reality. Thus the “radiation of fatherhood” in St John Paul’s words touches all creation, even a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.
Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of Convivium.ca
This article first appeared in the August 4 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here