In the weeks leading up to Christmas break, students longed not just for the cessation of classes but for the next chapter in a favorite story. Star Wars pervaded the halls. Internet memes abounded and death threats towards anyone posting The Force Awakens spoilers began to crowd my Facebook feed.
This intense buildup left me asking three questions: Why do people love Star Wars? Why did the original trilogy succeed but the prequels failed? And will The Force Awakens merit the hype or be another box office disappointment?
I think people love Star Wars because the structure of the film follows the form of epic poetry. Star Wars appealed to so many people because it invited them into an epic universe which expressed the cultural values of Western Civilization: freedom, limited local government, good triumphing over evil. This story cut across ethnic, temporal, religious, social, and economic divisions to create a common cultural vocabulary through which dialogue takes place.
This is one of the most significant results of an epic poem – it becomes the voice of a civilization, articulating the beliefs and ordo amoris of a people in the form of a story.
Jeremy Downs of Auburn University lists several characteristics of the epic poetry genre, most clearly seen in the classic epic poets (Homer and Vergil), but also evident in more modern incarnations of this literary form (Mallory, Milton, Chesterton).
Ten of these eleven characteristics can be applied directly to a reading of the Star Wars saga:
- Long narrative about a worthy traditional subject
- Diction is elevated in style, using a formal, objective tone and many figures of speech.
- Narrative focuses on the exploits of a hero who represents the cultural values.
- The hero’s success or failure determines the fate of the nation.
- The setting is vast, covering a wide geographic space set in the distant past.
- The action contains superhuman feats of strength or military prowess.
- Gods frequently take part in the action to affect the outcome
- The poem begins with an invocation to the Muses or a specific muse to inspire the poet.
- The narrative starts in media res (in the middle of the action) and utilizes flashbacks and dialogues to provide backstory.
- The epic contains long catalogues of heroes or important characters focusing on highborn kings and warriors, not peasants.
The original trilogy meets these criteria.
The three films meet the standard of a “long narrative,” and in an American context the struggle between freedom fighters and an oppressive regime functions as a “worthy traditional subject.”
The actors speak with a high style that various depending upon his or her role (Obi-Wan and Leia tend to have more elevated vocabulary, while Han and Chewbacca exemplify a lower type of speech, indicative of their status in the galaxy).
Luke exemplifies the virtues of the Republic. He’s hard working, sacrificial, supportive of local farming, able to see the galactic vision while practicing representative government. And by Return of the Jedi, we learn (through Yoda) that the ultimate success of the rebellion turns upon Luke’s defeat of Vader and Palpatine. Only he can undo the sin of Anakin.
What’s more, the plot moves across the whole galaxy, the Jedi regularly perform “feats of superhuman strength” through the Force, and when Jedi masters die they become spirit-beings able to influence events (rather similar to the Greek and Roman gods).
Each film begins with the same formulaic text scroll which serves to hold the movies together as episodes in a grand narrative, as well as informing the viewer where in media res the film begins.
Finally, the plot also focuses on the lords of the galaxy, not minor figures like the thousands of faceless storm troopers.
Homer tapped into something universal in his epic poem, and George Lucas reached for the same structure to “sing the tale again in our time.” While he adapted the epic structure to his needs, this somewhat formulaic approach functioned as a loom upon which he wove his tale.
The prequel trilogy was met with excitement because people longed for more of the story. By beginning in media res, lots of questions remained unanswered: why did Anakin become evil? How exactly does the Force work? The movies answered these questions, and others, but at the cost of mystery and wonder.
By shrinking the narrative universe of Star Wars to the teenage angst of Anakin and Padme, the mystery of the Force to a scientifically measurable midichlorian count, and the potential for life after death to a matter of “training you must complete,” the prequel trilogy robbed viewers of a sense of wonder.
Beyond the many flaws in dialogue, acting, and emotional directing, the prequel trilogy failed to treat the narrative on an epic scale. Rather than the vast panoramas of space, we spent extensive time on Naboo. The fractured storyline focused in on minor details and plot points, missing the grand narrative. Good and evil became confused; the good side lacked wisdom to understand the crafty nature of evil. Where the original trilogy was woven on a vast loom by an artisan versed in an ancient craft, the prequel trilogy felt like a factory produced blanket lacking all the uniqueness of a handwoven tapestry.
Here then is the strength of The Force Awakens. That sense of wonder, of curiosity, is back.
We are back in the grand galactic theatre, with clear protagonists and antagonists. The story promises to be the beginning of an epic tale of galactic conquest and human struggle.
Reception of The Force Awakens remains mixed. In a recent post on this same website, Winston Brady derided the choice of framing Kylo Ren as an imitation of Darth Vader. What Brady sees as a single type of villain, however, actually upholds the narrative universe of Star Wars.
Vader was the most powerful Sith lord in millennia; why would his grandson not aspire to a similar level of influence? The comparison highlights the family connectivity, and highlights the prophetic nature of the Skywalker bloodline (reminiscent of the cursed Atrides family in Greek mythology). Perhaps the prophecy that Anakin would “bring balance to the Force” refers to a generational struggle between Skywalkers that will never be resolved.
[Editor’s note: Spoilers from here on]
Unlike Vader, Kylo Ren feels a pull to the light side of the Force. The story must then convince the audience that Ren is truly evil and what better way to accomplish this than patricide? Ren asks Han Solo (his father) to take his lightsaber; as they grapple over it, Ren ignites the saber killing Solo who topples to his doom, reminiscent of Palpatine in The Return of the Jedi.
Abrams had to establish a new villain which could transcend the others already introduced. The Sith and the Empire have been exhausted as symbols of organized evil dedicated to extinguishing life. The First Order is set up as a totalitarian regime dedicated to brain washing, total warfare, and planetary genocide. While bloggers decry the First Order as derivative, it is instead the next logical step in portraying an evil organization.
The original trilogy established clear structural parameters for the Star Wars universe. The prequel trilogy failed to meet several of these criteria.
The Force Awakens, however, is not a derivative copy of A New Hope, but instead demonstrates an awareness of why the Star Wars universe reaches such a wide audience. By tapping into a literary genre used by the greatest poets of the western world, Star Wars reaches beyond itself for the transcendental categories of good and evil, reminding us that we live in a world in flux, in which we are called to courage, hope, and a love of mystery.