Cue the John Williams music!
Star Wars! Is there anything else I really need to say? The original movies have become a pop culture landmark. They essentially turned the movie industry into the one we know today. And there are few movies in the world that are quite so sacred to what’s become known as “geek culture”. Now, I’ve heard Star Wars referred to as many things. Star Wars has been called a western, a samurai film, a war movie, a space opera, a myth, a fairy tale and even an homage to Casablanca. However, it is as a fairy tale that we’re most interested in. The phrase has been bandied about in regards to the franchise for ages. Alec Guinness, who played Obi-Wan Kenobi, once referred to the movie as “fairy tale rubbish” (he also negotiated to get a cut of the merchandising. He understood the appeal of the movie even if he didn’t have any respect for it). Also, when Disney bought Lucasfilm, one of the common jokes was that it was the first time Disney actually had to pay money to get the rights to a fairy tale.
I’m going to break down the fairy tale tropes in Star Wars as I see them. This is more or less an echo to my “Fairy tale tropes in Doctor Who” post I made shortly after I started the blog.
So, Star Wars is a fairy tale. Not only that, I would even say that Star Wars is quite possibly a Jack tale.
Here we go:
Luke Skywalker- Luke is our Jack. He’s the everyman, the simple country boy and even the fool to an extent. He desires to go off and seek his fortune. This is his means to progress and come into his own. He wants to do this, but there are forces that hold him back. In many tales of this type, the Jack character is the third son who must watch his two older brothers (in Appalachian tales, usually named Will and Tom) go off into the world first and fail before he can convince his parents that he should be allowed to go too. In Luke’s case, it’s his Uncle and Aunt holding him back until they’re forcibly removed from the situation. Also, like in some variants of “Jack and the Beanstalk”, there’s some mystery surrounding his father. His Uncle tells him he was the navigator on a cargo vessel, but he finds out that his father was actually a Jedi Knight. It’s like in some of the variants of “Jack and the Beanstalk” where the fairy who shows up tells Jack that his father was a rich man and the giant killed him and took all his worldly goods. Of course, the story changes a little in Episode V ("The Empire Strikes Back"), but we’re mainly going to focus on Episode IV ("A New Hope") here.
Obi-Wan Kenobi- Obi-Wan is, for lack of a better word, the crone. He’s the mysterious and knowledgeable older figure who knows more than the protagonist and offers up advice and means of progressing. He’s the fairy that Jack meets at the top of the beanstalk, but also the man who trades Jack the beans. He’s also analogous to a someone like the old woman who gives the soldier the invisibility cloak in “The Shoes that were Danced to Pieces”. He does have a meatier role than these characters usually do, but that’s because Star Wars draws from other types of stories too. Obi-Wan can also be seen as being similar to Merlin in Arthurian legend or the sensei in a martial arts film.
Han Solo- I want to say that if Luke is Jack as the everyman, then Han is the other side of Jack. That he’s Jack as the lucky rogue and trickster hero. However, that just doesn’t seem right. Han is certainly a rogue and he’s pretty clever, so he could be considered a trickster. There are plenty of old folk tales about rogues and tricksters. There are Coyote and Anansi from tribal cultures. There’s Grimm’s “The Master Thief” and the Spanish story of “The Ingenious Student”. And of course, the most familiar version of Jack does steal from a giant. There’s just something about Han’s character arc that doesn’t let this work. The thing is that Han actually learns something as his adventure progresses. He becomes less selfish and devotes himself to a bigger cause. In most trickster hero Jack tales, Jack doesn’t really seem to learn anything. Jack usually comes through them without a scratch. If anything, those stories tell that being deceitful and selfish is worthwhile. This isn’t just where this metaphor breaks down, it’s also where the theory that fairy tales are for teaching lessons to children breaks down, but I digress. However, we must consider that a folk tale and a motion picture are different media for different eras. The cinematic Han Solo with his character arc may be an evolution of the trickster hero for a modern age. Speaking of updated character roles . . .
Princess Leia Organa- In “A New Hope” (aka Episode IV), Princess Leia is an update of the traditional Princess-in-Distress trope. We’ve seen it a million times in fairy tales and video games. I wrote a whole post once about gender relations in fairy tales where I commented on how this trope usually uses the princess as more of a reward than a character (it’s kind of okay, though. Princes get used as rewards too. It’s equal opportunity objectification). However, Princess Leia changes that. Leia debuted after the women’s movement. Rather than just being a goal to achieve, there’s a whole lot more to it. Leia doesn’t get captured or need to be rescued for her own sake. As a member of the Rebel Alliance, she stole plans to the Death Star and was captured for that reason. Also, once she is rescued, it becomes clear that she’s no slouch. She only needs rescuing because she’s in so far over her head. Leia is in many ways the precursor to the more liberated fairy tale princess we see so often in media today. Interestingly, when I was thinking of the different types of tales out there, I only thought of one where the person in need of rescuing is so useful. It’s the story type where the male protagonist is trying to take away a female character from their overbearing father who is a king/ogre/sorcerer and is given impossible tasks. The fact that the person holding Leia prisoner in “A New Hope” is revealed to be her father in “Return of the Jedi” is not lost on me.
Darth Vader- Vader is an interesting one, because he grows in importance as the movies progress. In keeping with the “Jack and the Beanstalk” comparison, Vader is like the giant in some versions of that story. In the variants of “Jack and the Beanstalk” that try to give more back story, Jack is told that his father befriended a giant who then betrayed him and stole all his worldly goods. This is similar to the story Obi-Wan tells Luke about how his father was befriended and betrayed by a young Jedi named Darth Vader. This story, of course, changes in huge ways with “The Empire Strikes Back”. The thing about fairy tale villains is that most of them are really more obstacles at best. The giant in “Jack and the Beanstalk” isn’t the real villain in most versions. The real villain is poverty. Such is the case with Vader in “A New Hope”. He’s actually a sub-villain. He’s subordinate to Grand Moff Tarkin (Peter Cushing) in that movie. His departure from the film is kind of lackluster. Vader’s TIE Fighter just goes tumbling off into space after Han shoots it in the Millenium Falcon. Can you imagine if there had been no sequels and that were the last we saw of Darth Vader?
R2-D2, C3PO and Chewbacca- Every fairy tale has “magical helpers”. However, Star Wars is different from traditional fairy tales in that the helpers have a huge role. A good chunk of the first film’s story is told from the perspective of the helpers. R2 and 3PO are the main focus of the first part of “A New Hope”. In a way, Luke is more the “magical helper” at that part of the film because it’s R2 who is on a quest until they find Obi-Wan and it becomes Luke’s story. Chewbacca actually plays more into the traditional “helper” role because he’s actually repaying a debt to Han Solo (note: I had to look this up because I don’t think it’s mentioned in the movies). Han freed Chewie from enslavement and Chewie swore a life debt to him. In most fairy tales, helping a bird or mouse or fish will result in a one-time favor. When you rescue a Wookie, apparently you get a companion for life.
Most fairy tales require a change in location of some sort. A move from one small place to a bigger world. To get to their ultimate destination, fairy tale characters have to pass through the woods first. The woods are the dark and forbidding place. They are the crucible. They are the place where heroes are tested. Now, Jack doesn’t go through the woods so much as he goes up a beanstalk. Luke goes up as well in that he leaves his home planet of Tatooine. The Death Star serves as the crucible in this story. It’s on the Death Star that Luke faces great odds and also faces tragedy as Obi-Wan is killed. It’s interesting to note the difference in color palette. Normally, the woods are dark and foreboding. The Death Star’s interior is dark, but it seems even more so compared to Tattooine which is so bright because there’s no shade and two suns. Also, there’s a spatial difference. The Death Star is all enclosed spaces while Tattooine is wide open desert in almost every direction.
One of the notable things about fairy tales is that when magical things happen, people usually don’t bat an eye at it. It’s treated as if it’s all normal. Star Wars takes this to a whole other level. There are things that would be considered fantastic to you and me all around them. There are aliens, sentient robots, faster-than-light spaceships and exotic interplanetary locales. None of these seem at all strange to the people who inhabit this universe. However, on top of that they also have The Force. The Force, which can more or less be summed up as “space magic combined with the Asian idea of chi”, is something that is questioned and doubted. Han Solo dismisses it as a “hokey ancient religion”. One of the officers on the Death Star mocks Vader’s “sorcerer’s ways” before getting Force-choked from across the room. So, in the world of Star Wars there is magic on top of magic.
These are just my observations and there’s probably a lot more to it. According to George Lucas, a lot of Star Wars stems from Joseph Campbell’s theory of the monomyth (to Joseph Campbell, almost every old story classified as “myth”). However, with Star Wars: The Force Awakens opening this week, I thought it would be good to remind people that the whole thing really started with a boy who wanted to go off and seek his fortune.
I’ll give you a few links to articles I read in preparation for this post:
“Recognizing the Modern Fairy Tale” – Analyzing Star Wars using Bruno Bettelheim’s theories.
“Star Wars: The Fairy Tale America Needs” by John E. Price
“Star Wars: A Myth for Our Time” by Andrew Gordon
Anyway, until next time, may the force be with you!