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Star Wars and Medieval Literary Legacy: Myth Extension

To present George Lucas's famous cinematographic saga, Star Wars would be quite redundant. Its aura, its influences in almost every form of symbolic productions since it was released in 1977 rapidly elevated it as a symbol of what would come to be labelled as "pop-culture" by the mainstream public. However, as is often the case, this iconic saga finds some of its deepest roots in much more classical cultures, ranging from Antiquity to the World War II period. This article focuses on the medieval literary inheritances present in Star Wars, especially in its parallelism with Chrétien de Troyes' works, and intends to establish the cinematographic saga as a full-fledged extension of this literary tradition, rather than a simple transposition of it into a different spatio-temporal background.

Figure 1: Star Wars, 1977.

To start with, the very beginning of Lucas' work is most certainly a tribute to the tales genre. Indeed, the very famous beginning of the cinematographic saga uses an introductory formula which is emblematic of the tales genre:

"A long time ago, in a far far away galaxy..." (Star Wars, 1977)

The parallelism is quite obvious, and the formula itself is explicit enough to understand the narrative process inherited from tales present in Star Wars. Rather, it seems relevant to notice the antinomic characteristic of this formula in the context of George Lucas's work. To use a traditional introduction into a futuristic setting, notably thanks to the term galaxy, indicates that Star Wars is not a simple transposition of the occidental literary tradition, but an expansion of this tradition into another very specific genre, namely science-fiction.

The relationship between Star Wars and medieval literary tradition goes beyond the notion of filiation; the way George Lucas treated his characters indicates a will to adapt this literary tradition to his own cinematographic narratives, and not the contrary.

A very common topos of occidental medieval literary tradition is the treatment of love, both the feeling itself and what it involves as far as the relationships between the different characters of the narrative are concerned. The most famous and common structure used to represent it, the love triangle, is notably represented by the Arthur/ Guinevere/ Lancelot figure. Indeed, the relational dynamics of this tripartite structure allows for enough creative space for the writers to display a vast range of emotions created and influenced by the relationship between the characters and the feelings they share for each other. Passion, jealousy and guilt found in the love triangle provides a perfect narrative space to fully be developed and still to this time, this scheme influences many plots of occidental narratives, in many different symbolic productions. Star Wars is no exception. Jane Weisl, English Professor at Seton Hall University, verbalized it accurately in her handbook The Persistence of Medievalism, as she explains that the Arthurian myth visibly influenced the Luke / Leia/ Han Solo triangle, even if it remains relevant to also mention that she nuances this parallelism, to the extent that Luke and Leia are siblings adds yet another layer to the already complex relationship scheme. It substitutes a classic tragic tension present in the arthurian triangle with one related to the notions of brotherhood, friendship, and more broadly speaking, the family sphere. Again, the cinematographic saga uses narrative codes established in the medieval literary tradition, but extends it to a different dimension, thanks to the spatio-temporal background, but also thanks to the relational scheme built between the main protagonists of the narration.

Figure 2: Mark Hamill, Carrie Fischer and Harrison Ford as Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia & Han Solo.

Yet, many elements of Lucas' work remain settled within the medieval tradition. An admitted source of inspiration for Georges Lucas, Joseph Campbell, in his comparative mythology essay Hero with a Thousand Faces (1968) even emphasized this cultural inheritance with his "theory of the monomyth":

"Joseph Campbell's Monomyth [...] describes the common heroic narrative in which a heroic protagonist sets out, has transformative adventures, and returns home." (U.C Berkeley, Monomyth: Hero's Journey Project online.)

It is, indeed, hard not to see in Luke Skywalker's quest the influence of the stages composing Campbell's heroic journey: birth, call to adventure, helpers/ amulets, crossing the threshold, tests helpers, climax/ final battle, flight, return, elixir. Luke, born from modest origins, has a great destiny, an heroic fatum. As well as Perceval in Chrétien de Troyes's works, he is called for adventure and joins a fellowship (the fellowship of the Jedi, in parallel to the Knights of The Round Table) in order to fulfill his destiny, to become a hero, or rather a Jedi/ Knight, and accomplish an epic quest. While the Graal represented this initiatory quest, and this accomplishment of a great fatum for Perceval, it is the Republic being restored and peace reigning over the galaxy for Luke. Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda both represent initiatory figures similar to Merlin in the main protagonist's development, as well as the lightsabers and their different colors use the symbolism of swords. In the Star Wars's cinematographic saga, one can definitely observe a system of imaginary elements inherited from the twelfth century, as the love matters are omnipresent (with the the Luke/ Leia/ Han solo love triangle, previously mentioned), as the main protagonist goes for a quest, and by doing so fulfills his heroic destiny, and as the world in which this quest takes place is clearly divided between Good and Evil (materialized in the opposition drawn between the Jedis and the Sith).

Figure 3: Rogelio de Egusquiza, "Parsifal", hero of the Arthurian myth, 1910.

Yet, it is in this common Manichean division of the narrative background that lies another nuance between Troyes' and Lucas' works. While the medieval version of this binary structure proposes a less radical division, such as with the neutral figure of the Fisher King, for instance, the science-fictive cleft drawn between good and evil clearly establishes a deep moral divide between the Jedis, and the Siths, both carrying highly moral notions, such as peace on one side, and wrath on the other side. Good and Evil are already set in the Star Wars' narrative background, and so the moral problematic encountered in the medieval tradition is not present anymore. By operating an hyperbolic narration of the medieval archetypes, Lucas nuanced the moralistic approach of the narrative in his work. A good illustration of this phaenomenon is the figure of the Emperor, main antagonist of the first trilogy. Everything in his conception, from his motivations, to his aspect, is made to evoke corruption and moraly negative notions, explicitly called the "Dark Side". On the other hand, his counter part, Yoda, is conceptualized to evoke peace and wisdom, from his friendly aspect, to his supernatural powers.

Nevertheless, it is important to mention that although the hyperbolic archetypes are strongly established in the first trilogy, shades of nuance are then brought to this black and white representation of the world as the saga unfolds. Another iconic character of the later trilogy, Anakin Skywalker, and his alter ego, Darth Vader, illustrates quite well the subtle nuances brought to the narrative, mainly through the redemption topos. Yet, the character itself in his totality is a representation of this binary and Manichean perspective of morality, as Anakin Skywalker represents Good, and his metamorphosis into the Sith lord Darth Vader represents his passage to the "Dark Side", with is to say Evil as conceived with the hyperbolic codes of the saga's narrative background.

Figure 4: Mark Hamill and David Prowse as Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader.

By spreading archetypes through space and time, as Alain Corbellari verbalized it in its essay "Star Wars et la littérature médiévale" (translated as "Star Wars and Medieval Literature"), Georges Lucas did not only transposed an already existing literary tradition into a different narrative background. He extended it by reworking and adapting some of its main structural elements in order to fit a different genre, but also a different narrative. If the medieval inspiration are undeniable, especially from the Twelfth century, it would be reductive to only consider Star Wars as an adaptation of these inspirations in a futuristic context. The plurality of both the inspirations and the receptions of this cinematographic saga testify of a vast structural and narrative extension of many literary traditions, and to narrow it to a single inheritance would simply be too reductive.

Bibliographical References

Berkeley U.C, Monomyth: Hero's Journey Project, University of Berkeley.'s%20Journey&text=Joseph%20Campbell's%20Monomyth%2C%20developed%20in,traditions%20across%20time%20and%20culture.

Bornet J., (13/12/2019), "Ulysse, les Chevaliers de la table ronde, Merlin... Comment la mythologie a inspiré "Star Wars", FranceInfo Culture.

Campbell J., (1968), The Hero With A Thousand Faces, Pantheon Book.

Corbellari A., (08/09/2006) «Star Wars et la littérature médiévale», Décadrages.

Konieczny P. (2014), "Star Wars and the Middle Ages", Medievalists.

Weisl, A. J. (2003), The Persistence of Medievalism: Narrative Adventures in Public Discourse, Palgrave Macmillan Ed.

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Martin Chef

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