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The Influence of Classical Literary Archetypes on the Cultural Appeal of Star Wars

Nathan Quinn

Mary Ray

12/4/2009

Media and Society


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“A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” These words are easily recognizable by nearly

all people young and old, nerdy or not. They are the words that unlock the imagination to a brand

new experience full of mystery, romance, drama, and action. They, of course, are the opening lines

to the Star Wars saga, the science fiction saga that has captured the hearts of far more than just the

typical sci-fi nerds. When it first hit the silver screen in the 1974 it was a revolution in technology.

George Lucas, the director, invented more than a few cinematic techniques for the movies. He was

also no stranger to the art of writing for film, creating movies rich with symbolism, profound

characters, and intense plot.

Despite these overt merits, they are not the only reasons for the success of Star Wars. The

undying love for the movies seems enigmatic to most and many wonder if it deserves such devotion.

A movie titled Star Wars is expected to have only a cult following but it is truly a classic because it

follows the simple rules and precedents that also make for classic and brilliant literature. They both

use what some psychologists claim to be the common themes of the human psyche and are called

archetypes (MacLennon p1). They theorize that humans process cultural information in certain

predetermined ways. Skilled authors and filmmakers utilize these archetypes to influence human

culture and it is often the reason classic works of literature and movies like Star Wars are so

immensely popular and timeless. Through the course of this paper I will attempt to expose

archetypal characters and themes as they are found in George Lucas’ Star Wars and as they relate to

classic works of literature to explain the large cultural appeal of the Star Wars movies in modern

society.

The Star Wars saga is laid out over six movies (referred to as episodes I through VI) and a

plethora of “expanded universe” novels and comic books written by authors and approved by Lucas.
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For the purposes of this essay I will confine the discussion to film references, though I personally

recommend nearly all of the books as strongly as I do the movies.

Episode IV, A New Hope, released in 1977, begins with a battle in which the first archetypal

character to be analyzed is introduced, Darth Vader. Vader is clearly a villain from his dramatic

entrance. His attire screams evil lord; dressed in all black, he has a helmet reminiscent of ancient

Greek and Roman war helmets like those used by great warriors in mythology and history like

Achilles (“Achilles”) and a facemask that seems to show classically demonic features like large teeth

and large, pupil-less eyes. A floor length cape has also been sported by such literary villains as Bram

Stoker’s Count Dracula (Stoker), so Darth Vader’s very appearance is meant to instill dread in the

viewer and immediately posit him as a villain. His actions also show the viewer that he belongs to

the villain archetype. He uses cruel and unnecessary means to get what he wants, including choking

his own allies for simply stating the ugly truth of their shortcomings. This is wanton cruelty that is

often portrayed in representations of the devil and Grudzina says that a “villain’s malice is often

limitless” (p36).

This limitless malice continues later in the saga in episode V, The Empire Strikes Back,

when Vader attempts to “turn” Luke Skywalker to the dark side, an action that is analogous to the

actions of Satan in the bible and those of Mephistopheles from Goethe’s Faust (“Mephistopheles”).

Mephistopheles was conscripted by the devil to convince unwitting men to sell their souls in

exchange for their desires and Vader mirrors this classic evil action in attempting to corrupt Luke

with promises of the unlimited power of the dark side. Another characteristic of the villain is that in

defeat caused by the hero, he is sometimes reformed and this certainly applies to Vader (Grudzina,

p36). After the revelation that Vader is his father, Luke stops at nothing to try and redeem him,

believing that the good in him will conquer the evil, a theme portrayed in many classic works and
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especially many fairy-tales; good always overcomes evil in the end. In episode VI, Vader is finally

redeemed and, as a last act, helps Luke destroy the more evil Emporer Palpatine.

After a 16-year hiatus, Lucas gave viewers episode I, which portrays Vader as the child,

Anakin Skywalker, before his fall to evil. This shows that his evil is not inherent in him but rather

the cause of unique circumstances, just like story of the most famous villain, Lucifer ("Story of

Lucifer"). Lucifer was once God’s most favorite archangel, a beacon of good, but in that good

Lucifer found ambition and sought power and was struck down by God, punished to Hell for

eternity. Ambitions of greatness and power coming from a promising young person describes young

Anakin Skywalker, later called Darth Vader. Many have said of him, “the force is strong in this

one,” and from his promising abilities grew arrogance and ambition through episode II, the causes of

his ultimate downfall. With his arrogance already in place, all that was needed was one event to set

him down the path of evil, that being the cruel death of his mother by the hands of the savage

Tuskan Raiders, or Sand People of Tatooine in episode III. His desire for revenge was so great that it

consumed him and his life.

Vader’s son, Luke Skywalker, also had great promise and aptitude, however his life did not

progress as his father’s did. His life instead took the path of the archetypal hero. Luke takes on the

form of the archetypal “orphaned prince” (Grudzina, p35) because he was taken away and raised in

secret by his uncle on the secluded desert planet, Tatooine, not far from where his grandmother was

murdered. He is “raised ignorant of his heritage” (Grudzina p35) just like Theseus of Greek

mythology (“Theseus”) and King Arthur of more recent Anglo-Saxon mythology (Ford). Arthur was

harbored by Merlin in times of political turmoil just as Luke was harbored by Obi-Wan Kenobi (both

Merlin and Obi-Wan could be considered archetypal sages). Luke can also be described as an

underdog archetype as well. Few in the universe expected him to become much besides a moisture
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farmer, but in the end he rose to greatness and victory from being “smaller, weaker, less-worldly-

wise” (Grudzina p35) than other characters.

Both Luke and Arthur were at the cusp of adulthood when their protectors took them on a

quest of initiation, a common archetypal theme, to prove the hero’s powerful heritage. For Luke, this

quest was to save a princess, Princess Leia, from the evil clutches of Darth Vader, a theme that has

surpassed archetype territory and has become cliché in modern times. Ironically none involved

except Obi-Wan realized that it was a son’s quest to save his sister from their father, an irony that

has put a grin on a nerds face every time he watches A New Hope. Once liberating her, Luke had

completed his initiation quest but was thrown into another quest with the Rebel Alliance to

overthrow Vader and the emperor he served. In terms of archetypes this quest can be described as a

destiny quest to champion all that is good in the universe against the dark side (Grudzina p35).

Along his quest, Luke met many archetypal characters such as the loner and the sage, archetypal

symbols like colors, and situations like the renewal of life, the taboo, and the decent into the

underworld.

Luke’s first mentor, Obi-Wan “Ben” Kenobi, can be considered a sage character. Male sages

generally have great spiritual knowledge like Merlin from the Arthur legend (Ford). Obi-Wan

certainly has much spiritual knowledge from the adventures of his youth with his mentor, Qui-Gon

Jin, as well as from years of meditation on the ways of “the force” as a hermit on Tatooine. He

teaches Luke about “the force,” the spiritual force that supposedly binds and connects all beings in

the universe, and leads him through his life even from beyond the grave.

Later, near death on the ice planet Hoth, Luke is visited by the spirit of Obi-Wan, guiding

him to his next mentor and another sage, Yoda. Yoda holds even more knowledge of the force than

Obi-Wan and has lived for over nine hundred years, therefore he is the perfect person to train Luke
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and set him off on his destiny quest to confront his evil father, Darth Vader. Yoda trains Luke in the

ways of the force and teaches him everything he can that will help Luke survive as the last Jedi and

defeat the dark side.

After embarking with Obi-Wan Luke meets Han Solo, a smuggler, who is a clear

representation of the loner archetype: even his name, Solo, highlights this. He is inherently good, but

some choices have led Han astray and he has decided that he and his loyal companion, Chewbacca,

will keep to themselves while trying to discern his destiny. Many classic loners have left society to

contemplate their roles in the universe such as Jesus Christ on his forty-day sojourn in the desert

("Temptation of Jesus") and Buddha to create a new philosophy ("The Life of Buddha”). Upon

meeting Luke, Han’s life has been put back on track to fulfilling his destiny to aid the hero in his

quest for good. A greatly memorable scene from episode IV is Han’s return to help Luke in the

space battle to destroy the Death Star. It seemed that Han had left his new friends to continue his

self-serving behaviors, but in a change of heart appeared just in time to knock Darth Vader’s ship off

of Luke’s tail so he could destroy the Death Star.

Colors play an obvious role in Star Wars because any young child can articulate that Darth

Vader’s lightsaber is red because he is evil and Luke’s is blue (then later green) because he is good.

The lightsaber given to Luke by Obi-Wan in episode IV is blue, a color that Grudzina describes as

pure and holy, just as Luke is in the beginning. Vader’s lightsaber is red, the color of blood and

anger, but most importantly passion. Passion is an emotion that is said to lead Jedi to the dark side,

which is exactly what happened to Vader. In a lightsaber duel with Darth Vader, Luke’s hand is cut

off and he loses both his right hand and the blue lightsaber in it that belonged to Anakin Skywalker

before his decent to the dark side. After his hand is repaired and Luke goes back to Yoda’s deathbed

to learn his final lessons, he trains and meditates on his own and creates a new, green lightsaber.
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Green is the color of growth according to Grudzina, which is certainly one thing Luke experienced

much of after the battle with his father.

Luke witnesses the renewal of life in his quest through the power of the force. A higher

power capable through the force is a sort of immortality that allows the Jedi to return as a spirit or

even just a voice to guide others. In this way Luke was guided by Obi-wan and Yoda and it is a

classic symbol most easily recognized in the Bible. In Christianity, Jesus Christ returns from the

dead and guides his disciples on their destinies to create a religion and Lucas used this easily

recognizable theme in his movies.

Luke also experiences the taboo, a theme found in such myths as that of Oedipus Rex, a king

who killed his father and married his mother (“Oedipus”). Luke’s experience is not so dramatic as

Oedipus’, but Luke and Leia seem to have feelings for each other and even share a passionate kiss

before it is revealed to Luke by the dying Yoda that Leia is actually his twin sister.

Near Yoda’s home on the planet Dagobah was a cave strong in the dark side and, as a

culmination to his training, Luke was told to enter and face his fears. The cave can be a

representation of the common archetypal theme of the decent into the underworld. This obstacle is

faced by many heroes like Hercules who, for his final challenge, had to venture into the underworld

across the river Styx and defeat Cerberus (“Hercules”) and Luke’s experience was just as harrowing.

In the cave he faced a very real vision of Darth Vader whom he fought and killed, but when his

helmet was removed the face was Luke’s. These visions are analogous to those faced by Dante in his

journey through hell in “Inferno,” the first part of Dante’s The Divine Comedy ("Dante Alighieri”).

Luke’s trial in the dark side cave was an essential obstacle in his quest to defeat the dark side.

Archetypes can be found in modern culture as well as classic. For instance, an archetypal

hero like Beowulf can be easily compared to comic book heroes like Wolverine, Ironman, and
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Batman. These heroes and their stories are just as persistent and successful as Star Wars, with

successful comic books being recently made into successful movies. This is because they are modern

examples of archetypes being used to capture public adoration. With proper use of archetypes a work

of literature, film, or any entertainment medium can become immortalized in popularity. The term

“instant classic” has been coined for such works that immediately demand attention and appreciation

because of the masterful manipulation of archetypes. The same themes and characters that have

flung Batman into the limelight today are the same reason Star Wars induced a public fervor in 1977,

1980, and 1983, and then again in 1999, 2002, and 2005. Classic archetypes like those mentioned

earlier keep entertainment interesting no matter how old they are.

People’s favorite entertainment media all have the same dramatic and character elements

despite the changing times, whether it is the epic poems of old, novels and stories of Elizabethan

times, the serials of Mark Twain, pulp novels of the early 1900s, radio programs in the Great

Depression, or films since the beginning of motion pictures. This is why Greek and Roman myths

are still read. They are some of the oldest examples of archetypes. Carl Jung, a Swiss Psychologist of

the 19th century was one of the first people to identify these archetypes and their relationship to the

human mind. Jung identified many archetypes in classic works and stories but he attributed them to a

collective unconscious. He claimed that all people shared a collection of unconscious and ancestral

experiences and that we draw from these in our daily lives and his proof was the presence of

archetypes throughout human history. He is quoted as calling archetypes the “preconscious psychic

disposition that enables a (man) to react in a human manner,” and this was the basis for many of his

theories. Though today Jung’s collective unconscious theory is not widely accepted, his research on

archetypes is very valuable. It is more commonly accepted today that something in the human

genome has evolved to have a structure of ideas about the world. If archetypes for heroes, villains
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and even colors appear so frequently in popular culture, it is plausible that they had some implication

for early man. For instance, perhaps it was necessary for their survival for them to fear the color red

or place emphasis on quests of initiation for heroes. This just gives possible reasons for common

themes in human culture and gives a possible explanation why archetypes make for such good

entertainment.

If archetypes had some sort of implication for early man, then perhaps the reason modern

man enjoys archetypes in his culture so much is because it makes stories much more real. If these

symbols instinctually triggered certain feelings in early man that meant something about real life,

then a modern man exposed to these symbols in a fictional work will be instinctually convinced the

experience is real on a subconscious level, though his conscious mind knows it is not. This also

explains why the most popular forms of entertainment are also the most immersive and convincing

ones. The utilization of archetypes to foster certain feelings in people was the reason that George

Orwell’s “War of the Worlds” radio special instilled so much fear and awe and it is the reason today

why our culture enjoys the immersive universes of Star Wars and other popular movies.

The use of archetypes in Star Wars is, in my opinion, one of the main reasons it has been so

popular. Star Wars, in its basest form, is a hero’s quest against evil, one found throughout great

literature. George Lucas took this preexisting theme that has been present throughout history and

simply put it in space with a new spin. Though it pains me to reduce such a deep work to its basest

form, it is basically true of any quality work. Most can be reduced to an archetypal character trying

to carry out an archetypal deed and human culture has always had a social need to identify with

others. By recognizing familiar themes in unfamiliar works people get a sense of belonging and

security and the bottom line for entertainers is that these feelings sell their product and make them

money. As long as people keep loving archetypes, other people will keep putting them in stories and
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these works will perpetually reinforce the simple fact that archetypal themes make for appealing

entertainment.
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