The Once And Future Jedi
by Karen Winter
In this article I would like to explore some of the parallels between Star Wars and various works of the Arthurian cycle. Obviously, this is not to say that Star Wars "is" Arthurian romance retold. Its symbolism is much too rich and complex to be limited, to any one source, and a number of its major motifs, such as the cave and the magic tree, are not central to the Arthurian cycle. Elements like the sword, the quest, the wizard, and so on, are basic archetypes of folklore which could well have been adopted independently by both. In addition, the Star Wars series is still incomplete. Episode V both enriched and confused the meaning of Episode IV, and undoubtedly each following film will continue this development. However, it may prove interesting to note some similarities which have suggested themselves so far.
The main Arthurian parallels in Star Wars center around the quest pattern related to Luke and his relationship to Vader, Yoda, Kenobi, and, to a much lesser extent, Leia. "Empire" also follows the medieval technique known as "interlace" which is so common in, for example, Malory, where the story follows one set of characters for a while, then drops their portion of the narrative to follow another set, without resolving any of the stories completely.
Arthurian scholars such as Roger Loomis have tied several of the major heroes, especially Percival, Lancelot, and Galahad, to Celtic originals in mythology, primarily sun gods. It is hardly surprising that Star Wars also shows a strong dualism between "active - Solar" and "passive - Lunar" symbols. This dualism cuts across the surface dualism of "good" and "evil" supposedly represented respectively by Luke and the rebels and Vader and the imperials, for Vader, Luke, and Kenobi share a- cluster of symbolic attributes contrasted to Yoda. Each of the three also has a unique symbology to establish his folkloric role.
Yoda has a perfectly consistent "set" of lunar symbols, associated with the passive, unconscious, intuitive, "feminine" half of the yin-yang duality. He is associated, with the colors green and brown, water, mist, vegetation, trees, earth, and a cave. His world resembles a Celtic fairy-hill. It does not register on Luke's sensors, it is shrouded in mist so that no sky is visible, and. it is connected by Luke with a "dream" which is somehow familiar, an obvious identification with the unconscious. It seems to be outside of time, as such fairylands usually are, for Yoda and Luke can there see the past and future. Yoda is a dwarf-like creature. Dwarves are earth-figures, generally in conflict with the heroic in such folktales as the Niebelungenlied. Unlike elves and fairies, which have ties to pre-Christian gods and hence to solar symbols such as stars, dwarves are always linked with earth and the underground. Jung saw the dwarf as the "guardian of the unconscious" and a protector.
Yoda is linked, especially with snakes. The snake is probably the most universal lunar symbol, found in cultures as diverse as the Minoan, the Amerindian, and the Hebraic. It represents fertility, the primordial life-force, guardian of secret knowledge and messenger between man and the underground world in both literal and figurative senses. In Indian rituals, for example, snakes are released to carry petitions to the ancestor-spirits and gods who live in the earth. In patriarchial cultures the serpent has come to represent the dangerous, destructive, and corrupt element which such cultures identify with the feminine principle, and thus the serpent is a type of evil in the Bible. Luke's rejection of the lunar, his link with his father, is reflected in the way he removes the snake from his bowl and from his X-wing before taking off. It is also very strongly asserted when he insists on taking his weapons into the cave. Yoda has no weapons and rejects war, saying the Force should be used only for knowledge and defense, never for attack. Both Luke's blaster, symbol of practical protection, and his lightsaber, which represents "the spiritual, are masculine, aggressive attributes, while the cave is an archetypical female symbol. It represents not only the limited and inadequate Freudian analogy, but also the world-center, the mystery at the heart of the unconscious. Like many other folkloric caves, it is guarded by a large reptile analogous to a dragon. This is why Yoda tells Luke to "clear his mind of questions" and become passive before entering the cave, the reason he says "there is no 'try'". Questioning reflects a rational, exclusive pattern, of thought, the Thomistic approach to knowledge which is opposed to the intuitive, inclusive concept of understanding, the type of comprehension Yoda represents. Thus, because Luke takes his weapons with him into the cave, he there meets and is identified with his father, Vader.
Vader can be equated with simple evil only from the point of view of a passive-good, active-evil dichotomy such as Yoda's. He bears the attributes of the sky-father - active, conscious, autonomous, outwardly-directed energy - even though many of there are "reversed" or negative. Although Vader addresses the emperor as "my master," he is himself called "lord" and is the only character in Star Wars who is defined as nobility other than Princess Leia. He can therefore be identified as equivalent to the king in folklore. The father, and more intensely the king, represents dominion, the force of legitimacy, structure, and Law as opposed to irrationality and chaos. The king is also associated in mythic thought with magic, and Vader, from the time Taggi accuses him of "sorcerer's ways" in Episode IV, bears the emblems of magic: the helmet and mask, the power of the Force, the lightsaber, the external life-source of his respirator. If any further proof were necessary that Vader's power is primarily non-material, the episode in which he deflects Solo's blaster fire with the Force would be conclusive. He is clothed in metal armor, suggesting links with war and. with the power of "cold iron" (attribute of the god Mars) over earth-magic and the influence of Faerie, to which Yoda may be symbolically related. He wears a full-length mantle, medieval emblem of noble rank. Above all, he is associated with heaven and the stars. Vader is shown silhouetted against the stars at the view-screen in Episode IV and at both the beginning and end of Episode V, his entry and exit in that film. He is never shown living on a planet. He lives in space and descends to Hoth from the sky; he is not shown leaving again from the planet. In Episode IV he flies among the stars in his TIE, and when the Death Star is destroyed, he alone is hurled away into the void alive. The negative element is that Vader is not associated with the sun. Space, which is always dark, is equivalent to the night sky. Vader does not land on Tatooine, which is associated with sunlight and desert. This is a common figure in myth, where the father is often identified with the heavens and the son with the sun per se.
Vader's colors are black and red. Black is commonly identified with evil and the negative, and this is the obvious intent in Star Wars. However, black, like the night sky, is also the color of "prime matter" in alchemy and represents potential, the generative force from which all comes. Vader's lightsaber, symbol of his spiritual power, is red. Red is perhaps the most ambiguous of all colors, standing for blood, anger, and injury, but also for exaltation, sublimation, and love. It stands for passionate energy for both good and bad cause. In medieval color-symbolism, as in mystical thought and alchemy, red is a superior color to white. It represents the supernatural and ecstatic, linking Vader in this one aspect with the non-material, non-rational nature of the Force. Vader thus represents the masculine principle controlling the Force and channeling it to his own ends by the power of his rational will: the supreme Appollonian ideal. This is seen as evil in the Dionysian world-view of Yoda, since it attempts to master the universe rather than comprehend it. It is the sin of pride in Christian terms, the Faustian urge completely expressed by Vader in Episode IV when he tells Kenobi, "Now I am the Master."
Luke also is strong with the Force, but cannot control it either by Veda's passive or Vader's active method, leaving him balanced precariously between the two. Luke is clearly the young prince, the son and hero, and hence associated with the active. Luke (from the Latin "lux" = light) Skywalker is about as obvious a name as you could possibly find to identify him with the sun. He has none of Vader's ambiguity. He is identified with the desert, sunlight, and blue-white fire. His hair is blond (gold), the sun color, and his clothing is white. He is chaste, pure, idealistic, a creature of glory in his mythic relationship to the Force. How-ever, he is also connected with the material world of the Alliance. The blaster he carries represents this connection; unlike Yoda, Vader and Kenobi, he is "not a Jedi yet." While in this mode he wears an orange flight suit, for orange, although it represents fire, is known as the "color of desperation" and is strongly associated with tragedy, falseness, and the material. On Dagobah, where he is attempting to integrate his active nature into Yoda's passive world-view, Luke wears a muddy greyish-green outfit of no particular color, signifying the conflict of these two principles rather than their synthesis. His usual white garments represent purification, illumination, and goodness, but also sterility (the negative of chastity) and incompleteness.
Kenobi's symbolism is very close to Luke's, although as an old man and a full Jedi he also represents wisdom and completion. He, too, wears white, but veiled with a "brown surcote, presumably standing for Yoda's teaching. Kenobi is associated with war, with the lightsaber, and with the desert, solar symbol of ascetic spirituality and opposite of Yoda's swamp. His saber is blue, the color of intellect, an active quality. In the conversation in Yoda's house, Kenobi repeatedly stresses his similarity to Luke at the beginning of his training. Whatever sophistical definition of "defense" is used, it is impossible to describe General Kenobi, weapons-master, who recruits Luke, deactivates the Death Star tractor beam and seeks out Vader with saber lit, as a passive figure.
The lightsaber, which Yoda does not use, ties together Luke, Vader, and Kenobi. It is indeed an "elegant weapon", a powerful image combining the magic sword, light, fire, and energy. It is a laser; blocking another saber, it is light made solid, a remarkable concept. The sword, the active solar weapon of the hero-knight, has long been regarded as magical in itself, often having a name and a persona of its own in folklore and in such modern writers of traditionalist fiction as Tolkien, Bradley, and Moorcock. The multi-faceted meaning of the sword is far too complex to explore in detail here, but it is always a weapon of high rank and grandeur. A sword of fire represents the transcendent, and that Vader bears a lightsaber is proof that, while he may be evil (as Lucifer the "light-bearer" is evil), he is not base.
Having briefly explored some of the folkloric elements in Star Wars we can turn to some structural similarities between Episodes IV and V and Arthurian literature which reflect these elements. The plot of Star Wars suggests three parallel stories of Arthur, Percival, and Lancelot-Galahad (in their order of chronological development).
The traditional Arthur first appears in the writing of Geoffrey of Monmouth in the early twelfth century. Here Arthur was the son of Uther ("the terrible" in Welsh) Pendragon (battle leader). Through Merlin's enchantment, Uther lay with Ygrain, wife of Gorlois, in Gorlois's form. (This certainly suggests interesting possibilities for episode II and III of Star Wars!) The resulting child was raised in obscurity, ignorant of his parentage and watched over by Merlin the wizard. This theme goes back to many folkloric originals, including the story in the Mabinogion of Pwell lying with Arawn's wife in Arawn's shape. Arthur was given magic gifts of strength, long life, dominion, and generosity by the fays, according to Layamon; his armor at the battle of Bath was an elvish corselet and helmet. He is associated with the magic sword Excalibur, provided for him by Merlin, with which he regains his heritage of kingship and reestablishes order in the polity.
It is also interesting that Arthur had an illegitimate son, also conceived through magic, who led a rebellion against his rule and eventually wounded him in battle. Reversing the good-evil symbolism, this might refer to Vader, although the plot as a whole suggests identification with Luke. Assuming the former, however, the circular conference table on the Death Star might refer to the Arthurian Round Table, symbol of a political unity broken by Modred's rebellion and the quest for the Grail. This quest was a spiritual search (equivalent to the search for the power of the Force) in opposition to the medieval equivalent of Tarkin's “technological terror” - the military power of Arthur's order of knights. The parallel here, however, is vague and probably not significant.
A far more elaborate parallel is the story of Percival, most familiar from the writing of Chretien de Troyes, but found in many medieval versions. In Chretien, Percival is a fatherless boy, brought up by his mother in complete ignorance of the great world. He becomes an expert hunter (of womp rats perhaps?) as a youth. When he accidentally meets a group of knights, he questions them about their weapons and sets off to learn about knighthood. His mother dies as a result of his actions. He enters a tent on his journey and finds a damsel. He then goes to a castle where he fights a knight with red arms, an enemy of Arthur's, but he leaves before being knighted. He later dallies with the lady Blanchfleur, whose castle he has delivered from a besieging army. Loomis traces this tale hack to an Irish original in the boyhood of Finn, whose father was killed in a feud, and who was raised secretly in a far-off forest where he learned to be a skillful hunter. Finn took service, unrecognised, with the king and avenged his father's death. Although this motive does not appear in Chretien, the avenging of the father's death is found in the Percival stories in Sir Percyvell of Galles (where he kills a red knight), the Prose Tristan, Perlesvaus, and Peredur. The direct identification with Finn, while interesting, seems unnecessary, since the motif of the king's son raised in ignorance is found in folktales from Oedipus onward. The parallels with Luke are again clear.
Since Leia is our only available "damsel" in Star Wars, she tends to be identified with any of the numerous ladies the Arthurian heroes meet in their adventures. However, there is a parallel of sorts to Gueneviere, who was abducted by Melwas to a castle surrounded by a deep moat which could only be reached by crossing a dangerous knife-bridge. This, like the Castle of Darkness inhabited by the Black Knight, may refer to the Death Star, Leia's capture, and Obi-Wan's dangerous trip across the "bridge" to the tractor beam station to rescue her. Like Gueneviere, who turned from Arthur, the spiritual king, to Lancelot, paragon of worldly prowess, Leia in Empire turns from Luke to Han, who represents material excellence divorced from the Force in Star Wars.
Central to Percival's adventures is the Grail castle. The Grail is guarded by a maimed king, wounded in battle by a blow to the thighs. This symbolic wound, indicating a spiritual as well as a physical sterility, creates a blight on the land, the Waste-land motif (familiar in twentieth-century literature from its use by T.S. Eliot). Loomis again links this figure to a Celtic original in Bran, an identification which has been challenged by other scholars. Percival neglects to ask the proper question which would heal the maimed king, who is known as the Fisher-King. In Star Wars the Fisher-king seems to correspond with Vader. The Fisher-king is identified as Percival's close relative (an uncle rather than a father) and is associated with magical mysteries, both by the symbolism of fishing (bringing forth the hidden from obscurity) and by his physical affliction. Such individuals are commonly believed by primitive peoples to have been given psychic or magical powers in return for their disability and are frequently found as shaman or prophets. Mythological examples include Odin, who traded one eye for knowledge, and Tiresias the blind seer in Greek legend. In Chretien, the Fisher-king is kept alive by magic means: a host (Mass-wafer). The parallels to Vader - wounded in battle, gifted with magical powers, and sustained by technology evidently related to Clarke's Law ("Any sufficiently advanced technology is equivalent to magic") - are clear. Vader's relationship to the Wasteland motif is obvious. He appears on spaceships, in his TIE, and on the ice-world of Hoth, where, in Han's words, "there's not enough life... to fill a space cruiser." The contrast with Yoda's teaming world of "massive life readings" is pointed. A magic sword, doubled with a bloody lance, is found associated with the maimed king in Chretien. Percival later learns about him from a hermit, a figure who evidently corresponds to Kenobi.
Later authors refined the Grail quest from its strongly folkloric origins in Chretien and rationalized it. Manessier and Gerbert de Monteuil have Percival inherit the Grail Kingdom from the Fisher-king, an interesting detail since Luke is at present Vader's only known possible heir in the Star Wars universe. A number of hermits come and go to explain various mysteries and visions; these hermits are frequently Percival's uncles, which again suggests a closer relationship between Vader and Kenobi than merely teacher and former pupil.
Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzifal, source of Wagner's version, is the final, coherent retelling of the story. Here Percival again has a hermit uncle who instructs him. Percival's father took military service with the Caliph of Bagdad, a non-Christian (hence evil) king who may correspond with Vader's emperor. The Fisher-king is head of an order of knights-errant who are similar to the Jedi, and his wound is described as the "reward of pride", surely Vader's major fault. In von Eschenbach, Percival is given a sword by the Fisher-king, paralleling Kenobi's original assertion in Episode IV that Luke's lightsaber was his father's and his father wanted him to have it. The Grail quest here has become a quest for purification, and Parcival must overcome his own pride in order to achieve it. This corresponds closely to Luke. Luke is described as "reckless", always looking away toward excitement and adventure. He insists on how much he has learned, demands to be trained as a Jedi, and proclaims excessive confidence in his Force-ability over the protests of his teachers Yoda and Kenobi. How closely Luke's future will follow Percival in his achievement of the Grail must await Episode VI for resolution.
Galahad was a very late addition to the Grail legend, representing a heavily Christianized version only distantly related to Chretien. Again, however, we have an illegitimate son, conceived by Lancelot on King Pelles's daughter through the use of a magic philtre. Galahad is raised as a virgin in a nunnery, ignorant of his parentage, and is unknowingly knighted by his father. The young Galahad is brought to court by an old man; he removes the sword from the stone, achieves the Siege Perilous, and is hailed as "the one sent by God to deliver the land from great wonders and strange adventures." He achieves the Grail, here identified with God's grace. The relationship between Lancelot and Galahad in this late version is suggestive. Lancelot is presented as supreme in earthly glory and skill at arms, yet unable to gain the Grail due to his worldly pride, while Galahad is successful because he is pure and properly motivated. There is certainly a resemblance to Vader and Luke in their relationship to the Force.
How consciously Lucas intended the symbolic imagery described above, and how closely he modeled his quest after the Arthurian version, are questions only he can answer. We are all aware, however, that there is considerable evidence to suggest the parallels are intentional. From the moment "Long Ago in a Galaxy Far, Far Away" appears on the screen, Star Wars is a modern retelling of folkloric themes. Since the saga has been accepted as a meaningful drama, those who create it have become much more open in describing the research and serious purpose underlying its high adventure. Lucas's masterful use of color symbolism, for example, is also clear from THX-1138, and there seems to be no question he is veil aware of this aspect of Star Wars as well. We can safely conclude that Lucas knows exactly what he is doing, to which he would no doubt reply, "Of course; I could have told you that."