Marking this day, AntiquityNOW is launching a Science Fiction section on antiquitynow.org to explore how ancient motifs have influenced this popular genre.
Today is International Star Wars Day. May the Force (that’s right, it’s a spin on May 4th) be with you. What is the enduring power of these movies? Is it the storytelling, the intergalactic characters or perhaps the dazzling visuals? Yes to all. But there is more at play. George Lucas, the creator of the Star Wars series, has spoken frequently of how his personal interest in the metaphysical has informed his movie-making. Having been a long-time friend of the late American mythologist Joseph Campbell, Lucas found a mystical purpose in the magic of film. “I’m telling an old myth in a new way,” he said in a 1999 interview about Star Wars with PBS TV’s Bill Moyers. He describes this telling as a “kind of immaculate realism in a totally unreal and fantasy world.” Many have suggested that his films are embedded with a religious undercurrent. But Lucas professes the most ecumenical embrace of spiritual ideals and dismisses any ties with a particular religion. For example, the Force was never intended to represent a specific religion, but rather a catalyzing idea that could awaken young people to the possibilities of a spiritual life. He wanted them to question and seek their own perspectives of the unseen world.Yet his dialog can seem profoundly religious and even vaguely familiar to those who are among the faithful. As the powerful Jedi master Yoda said:
For my ally is the Force – and a powerful ally it is. Life creates it, makes it grow. Its energy surrounds us and binds us. Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter. You must feel the Force around you: here. Between you, me, the tree, the rock, everywhere, yes. Even between the land and the ship.
It is precisely because Lucas took bits and pieces from various religions and philosophies that his Star Wars movies evoke a sense of spiritual apotheosis—familiar soundings to many while conclusive doctrine to none.
Jason Allen, PhD, has been captivated by the ancient themes in this iconic franchise since he saw his first Star Wars movie years ago. Allen, coordinator of social science at Blue Ridge Community and Technical College, has devised a curriculum exploring the motifs of the Star Wars series. He shows how systems of thought such as Confucianism, Buddhism, Taoism and Legalism are elegantly interwoven throughout. In the Q&A below Allen discusses his fascination for the Star Wars movies and why he believes their value go much deeper than entertainment. After reading our Q&A, review Allen’s curriculum on our new Science Fiction page. And as a bonus, see the Star Wars bookmark that can be downloaded and printed.
What is the appeal of Star Wars for you? Is it the storylines, the characters, the ancient symbolism? What is it that engages you about these movies? From a pop-culture aspect, the movies have appeal because they are just pure fun to watch. The characters and the action involved were something that captured my imagination as a youth. As I have grown, it is the struggles that Luke faces that really interest me. He is being directed in one direction by his Jedi mentors, Yoda and Obi-Wan, yet these teachings go directly against what may be best for him, his family and friends.
Why has the Star Wars franchise gained so much popularity over the decades? What is its staying power? The themes in Star Wars are universal. Looking at the films from Joseph Campbell’s heroic journey concept, Luke’s trials and tribulations reflect the human struggle in life. Whether these battles deal with family, death, learning or responsibility, all humans face these dilemmas at some point; therefore, I think that it is the empathy for Luke that creates the connection and attraction to Star Wars for many.
Why should we care about ancient lives? Wouldn’t Star Wars still be a great franchise without the ancient references? Sometimes it is easy to lose track of all of the ancient and historical cultures that came before us. It is the connections to such figures as Buddha, Lao-Tzu and Confucius that provide layers and identity to Star Wars. Though the movies would still be great without these connections, personally, I do not think they would be the same. One only has to look at the most famous quote from the series, “May the Force be with you,” to see the impact of ancient thinking. Without the connections to eastern philosophy, this line would lose much of its power because of the Force’s basis in ancient ideas.
Why did you do this curriculum? What do you think students can learn from studying Star Wars? Star Wars is fun! Star Wars is a series most students have either seen or are at least familiar with on some level. Therefore, by using the film to teach certain concepts, it provides both a visual connection to various ideas and also requires critical thinking skills in making and seeing the connections between the films and ancient ideas.
In your view, how important is creativity in bringing ancient times alive? Personally, passion and joy are in many ways just as important as creativity. Students feed off of the energy of their teachers and if you are passionate about something, the creativity will come along with it.