Star Wars: myth, legend and fairy tale

As individuals we live fairy tales, as societies, legends, and as a species, myths.

This sentence popped into my head when I woke up this morning, after sitting up late watching the new Star Wars film on the computer (don't ask me how I happened to have a video disk before the film even reached the cinemas here). It's a nice first line; now I have to work out some justification for it. The idea that individuals unconsciously try to pattern their lives in accordance with the archetypes found in fairy tales is common. Some schools of psychotherapy, such as Transactional Analysis, draw heavily on the idea: Cinderellas and Frog Princes abound. Of course life is not a fairy tale; usually Cinderellas do not go to the ball, and, as the saying has it, you have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find a prince. What life has in common with fairy tales is that the hero or heroine is nearly always a pretty ordinary person: a woodcutter's son, an orphaned girl or suchlike. Even the princesses and princes tend to be quite undistinguished examples of minor aristocracy; it's the supporting cast of ogres, witches and giants who are larger than life (or smaller, in the case of Snow White). This is why characters like Beowulf, King Arthur and Hercules are the stuff of legend, not fairy tales.

Legends are not for individuals, but for societies. While Cinderella could be any girl, Beowulf was not any Anglo-Saxon, he was everyAnglo-Saxon (well actually he was a Geat, but you get the idea). A modern example of the Beowulf legend is the Alien films. Lieutenant Ripley may start off as an average spacewoman, but by the end of the first film, she has killed Grendel the Alien and acquired, not the strength of ten men, but the moral stature. Unlike the heroes of many action films, she does not then make a wisecrack to her buddy and go off to have a hamburger (after all, there's only the ship's cat alive to talk to). She has changed; she is not one of us any more, but a symbol of what we value in our society: courage, intelligence and compassion. This is clearer as the films progress: in the second film she kills Grendel's mother (the Queen Alien) and in the third she defeats the firedrake and dies to save her people. This, by the way, is why the last Alien film doesn't fit in (Ripley is Beowulf, not Jesus), and why, although the films were made by Americans, they still have a sober Anglo-Saxon atmosphere. This is also why Die Hard grossed more than Thelma and Louise, why Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid freezes just before they get killed, and one of many reasons why Star Wars is more popular than Aliens.

Star Wars, though, is not just an American legend, it is fairy tale and a myth as well. Myths as such do not make good films; they appeal to our common humanity and touch our unconscious yearnings, but they do not tell the story of a person, or even of a people. Myths are timeless, and although they vary from culture to culture, they are almost placeless as well. Nevertheless, a mythic element can be present in films, and Star Wars practically brims over with it. It is, admittedly, a very simple Manichaean myth, the eternal struggle between good and evil, the Force and its Dark Side, but simple is effective here. Like any film, Star Wars has its good guys (Luke Skywalker), bad guys (Darth Vader), loveable rogues (Han Solo) and slimeballs (Jabbar the Hutt), but behind all of them are the eternal powers of Good and Evil, embodied by Obi-Wan Kenobi and the Emperor. Obi-Wan is not merely a hero, he is an avatar; his human story was ending just as Skywalker's was beginning, and as for the Emperor, he's less of a person than a metaphysical principle. This is why both these characters make only brief appearances; they are the mythological movers behind the events of the story, just like the gods manipulate things behind the scenes of the Iliad.

Star Wars is a very different legend from Beowulf (and thus a very different film from Alien) but it is, nevertheless, a legend. The first three films (which, confusingly, are parts four to six of the saga) are the story of how Luke Skywalker and his brave friends defeated the Evil Empire and brought peace, harmony and justice to the Galaxy. Just as Beowulf is an idealised Anglo-Saxon, Skywalker is an idealised American, and his story is simple: from hick to hero. Although there are strands from a number of legends woven into the Star Wars tapestry, the overall story is Robin Hood. The kingdom is oppressed by tyranny, cruelty and greed. A young man of noble birth but straightened circumstances is forced out of his home, lives with rebels and outlaws, and leads them to victory. And then, instead of becoming king, he hands the kingdom over to its rightful ruler, King Richard / Princess Leia. It's a feel-good legend.

However, Star Wars is a fairy-tale too. Skywalker is larger than life, but not too large. Unlike Beowulf, who wrestles with a sea-monster as a starter before even hearing of Grendel, Luke starts life as just a good ol' country boy - the woodcutter's son, in other words. His real father may be Darth Vader, but it takes another two films before he learns that this is the case (or that Princess Leia is actually his sister - Jedi families seem to be pretty dysfunctional). Again, hidden nobility is a common theme of fairy tales: the woodcutter's son is really a prince. Children love to fantasise about this, and even as adults we often feel that deep down we are not really janitors or accountants, and all we need is to be kissed by a prince(ss) or whisked of by a Jedi knight.

An interesting variation here is that Luke's parentage is not enough: in The Empire Strikes Back he has to work at becoming a hero. Robin Hood is by his nature the best bowman in England, but young Luke has to perform his apprenticeship with Yoda before he can be a Jedi Knight. This apprenticeship and initiation theme is common in both legends and fairy tales, and it crops up again and again in martial arts films from The Seven Samurai to The Karate Kid. It is no surprise then, that Yoda, big ears and green skin notwithstanding, has a decidedly Oriental look, and out of all the aliens in the galaxy seems to be the only one who cannot master English grammar. If Obi-Wan is Luke's Merlin, Yoda is Mr. Miyagi.

I have mentioned that fantastic supporting characters are useful to set off the ordinariness of the fairy-tale hero(in)e. Without her fairy godmother, Cinderella would still be sweeping the fireplace; without his giant, Jack would just have a genetically engineered beanstalk. Star Wars, of course, has such characters by the score: C3PIO, R2D2, Chewbacca and bundles of aliens and monsters, into which category we can also place the Empire's war machines. We even have teddy-bears, in the form of Ewoks.

Star Wars does not draw only on the old tales, but also - perhaps chiefly - on their more recent rewritings. Earlier science fiction is merrily plundered, particularly Flash Gordon, and Luke's flight into the Death Star is a little like Frodo's journey into Mount Doom. We have not only the legend of Robin Hood but echoes of every Robin Hood film. The Empire's officers wear Nazi-style uniforms, while in space we have 633 Squadron and The Battle of Britain (an X-fighter is basically a Spitfire). The Empire Strikes Back uses images from World War One (the battle on Hoth), while the battle in the third film is reminiscent of jungle-fighting against the Japanese (or more cynically as a fantasy of what should really have happened in Vietnam). You could even view the Skywalker-Solo-Leia triangle as harking back to Casablanca. And then of course there's the pod race in Episode One , half Grand Prix and half Ben Hur .

Which brings us at last to Episode One ("in my end is my beginning"). People are still arguing about this film as I write, but I find the main criticism, that the film is all eye-candy and no plot, rather irrelevant. Plot is for novels, and novel-like films. If Merchant and Ivory were to make a film with no plot, I would be worried, but George Lucas? You want a plot as well ? Genesis does not have a plot. Beowulf does not have a plot (unless you count killing four monsters in a row a plot). Cinderella doesn't have much of a plot - it's not like a Jane Austin novel where you're waiting to see if Prince Charming will change his mind and marry one of the ugly sisters after all. Plot is as relevant to Star Wars as car chases are to Pride and Prejudice .

It would also be unfair to criticise the film for lack of originality. Nothing in Star Wars is original; that's the joy of it. As Umberto Eco said (describing Casablanca ) the difference between a great film and a mediocre film is that the latter contains cliches, while the former consists entirely of cliches. Episode One not only recycles the usual myths, legends, fairy-tales and Hollywood classics, but also the other three films as well. Jedi Knights no longer need to be samurai, they are Jedi Knights. We already know what's going to happen, most importantly that the cute kid Anakin will grow up to be Darth Vader. While we sympathise with the queen of Naboo (and admire her wardrobe), it is in a detached way. This is the first skirmish in a long war, and those funny amphibian allies of hers won't stand up long against real Imperial Troopers.

What Episode One lacks is not a plot, but a protagonist - a hero, in other words. In a way, this is original. It is like the Merry Men without Robin Hood or the ugly sisters without Cinderella. The other Star Wars films have hordes of characters, but they are essentially the tale of Luke Skywalker, who, colourless though he may be, provides a focus for the more interesting characters. But who is the hero or heroine of Episode One ? Obi-Wan has yet to come into his own, and his master Qui-Gon is merely an instrument of the other characters. We all know what lies in store for Anakin, but Lucas resisted the temptation to turn him into a Satanic child like Damien in The Omen - he's just a normal kid with an irritating accent and some awful lines ("I think the biggest problem in this universe is that nobody helps each other"). Then there's that gorgeous queen who makes Princess Leia look positively frumpy, but she doesn't really do very much, and for half the film she's posing as her handmaiden. If she's meant to be the heroine, there can't have been such a retiring protagonist since Ivanhoe.

Episode One is subtitled The Phantom Menace - melodramatic, but what do you expect? Perhaps it is this menace which is the real protagonist. For all it's swashbuckling Jedi Knights and (supposedly) comic aliens, this is actually quite a sombre film. I know "sombre" is not a word that comes to mind in the context of Star Wars , but behind the glamorous scenery, there is something pessimistic and disturbing. If I may be permitted a cliched quotation, "Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold." This, perhaps, is why there is no protagonist, no centre to the film. Queen Padme is led around by deceitful politicians, Qui-Gon is fooled by a prophecy into the worst character assessment in the history of the galaxy, and the whole thing is only saved at the last moment by a nine-year-old with good joystick control, who will later ... well, I won't repeat myself.

However, all of this is what makes Episode One my favourite Star Wars film to date. There is the same mish-mash of myth, legend and fairy-tale, but it is a story reflecting the anxieties of our times. Jedi Knights make wrong decisions; NATO planes bomb the wrong people. American teenagers walk into class with assault rifles; Anakin goes over to the Dark Side. It may take place long ago in a distant galaxy, but the world it describes is still our world, a world where, Tony Blair notwithstanding, Good does not always triumph over Evil, where Beowulf knows he's going to be fried by the firedrake, and that scrumptious Queen Padme is going to marry ... well, I won't tell you, but you probably guessed.