Dear human race, have you heard?
A new Star Wars trailer came out this week. At last check, it only has over 1 million views. Something is wrong with that, human race. There are 7 billion of you at least, and you can’t watch a Star Wars trailer just once.
Stop what you’re doing and watch it.
I loved The Force Awakens (bring it on, haters) and how it set up this leg of the Star Wars story. I can’t wait to see how this one plays out. Will Rey be a badass Jedi? Of course she will. But what role will Luke play in her training and her destiny? Is Finn going to be OK? Why does poor Poe Dameron keep getting his ships blown up? Why does Luke think it’s time for the Jedi to end?
All good questions which just about every tech, sci-fi, media, and culture blogger on the planet is trying to answer right now. But thinking about how to respond to this trailer (of course I was going to do a blog post about it) made me think about the value of stories in general.
Read on, and I’ll explain why I think Star Wars is one of the most important stories we have.
What Stories Do
“We have not even to risk the adventure alone
for the heroes of all time have gone before us.
The labyrinth is thoroughly known …
we have only to follow the thread of the hero path.
And where we had thought to find an abomination
we shall find a God.
And where we had thought to slay another
we shall slay ourselves.
Where we had thought to travel outwards
we shall come to the center of our own existence.
And where we had thought to be alone
we shall be with all the world.”
– Joseph Campbell
We all need stories.
We all need stories because we all need tools for surviving and thriving in a world where we have limited information.
Stories give us models for successful survival and thriving in the world in ways that nonfictional fact reporting can’t. Stories help us to “play” out survival scenarios, moral scenarios, and personal character choices that we haven’t encountered yet or that we might never encounter – but which can shape who we become anyway. Stories help us concretize abstract concepts like “goodness” and “truth” and “beauty” into particular images and faces and names that resonate with us. We draw on those concretes when we need to remind ourselves of who we are and what we value.
Stories do a million other things, and they usually do them well. That’s part of why stories survive. It’s part of why they’re so prevalent as a means for passing on knowledge.
What’s Our Story?
The quality of your stories shapes the quality of your life, your people, and your society. If your driving story is “heroic guy is expression of master race, makes all others serve him, establishes a thousand-year reign,” you’re gonna have a bad time. Looking at you, Nazi Germany.
So what’s our driving story here in the West in the 21st century? Everyone’s different, and the West isn’t a unified mass, but let’s assume some shared values and experiences.
Religion – particularly the Christian narrative that defined the West for so long – is less and less a part of peoples’ lives. Fairy tales and folk tales and oral traditions seem to have all but died out on us as ways of passing on stories. Teens seem to have a swimming pool full of dystopian literature they can read, but dystopian literature is less culture-creating and more culture-reactionary. Grown-ass adults still buy into the narratives of nationalism, but not nearly as much as they used to, thank God. Many people are afraid or agitated by the tech replacement narrative – that humans are destined to extinction or irrelevance because of our machines.
How Star Wars Gets Its Power as a Story
Things aren’t as bleak as they seem.
We can look toward this awesome Star Wars trailer and the Star Wars movies as further evidence that we have as powerful and sophisticated a story as any culture ever had.
The balance and conflict of light and dark? Finding out who you really are? Coming back from defeat or death? Families betraying each other and allies standing by each other?
These aren’t just plot points George Lucas whipped out of thin air. These are all tragic and romantic and comedic themes older than the first Greek playwrights. They’re expressions of what mythologist Joseph Campbell called “the monomyth” – the meta-story of human existence which all stories are trying to relate.
“In narratology and comparative mythology, the monomyth, or the hero’s journey, is the common template of a broad category of tales that involve a hero who goes on an adventure, and in a decisive crisis wins a victory, and then comes home changed or transformed.”
You’ve probably also realized at this point that the monomyth describes just about every adventure movie or book you’ve ever encountered, from The Lord of the Rings to The Chronicles of Narnia to more ancient stories like The Odyssey to even more modern stories like The Life of Pi.
What’s unique about Star Wars is that it’s something futuristic made according to old, old patterns. It’s ironic that Star Wars sets itself “a long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away,” because much of its technology is often just an advanced model of what we have now in transportation (space flight exists), health, weaponry, entertainment, etc. The only things that are old about Star Wars are the themes.
Why Star Wars Matters for Us
“If you want to change the world, you have to change the metaphor.”
– Joseph Campbell
Star Wars gives our culture an important story by giving us a surprisingly sober and relevant view of the future.
In contrast to our dystopian young adult novels, Star Wars tells us that humans will never be fully enslaved or fully liberated. Realistically, in the example of the the Rebellion vs. the Empire, it makes the case that humans will always be fighting for greater freedom or greater control.
In contrast to our technological human-replacement narrative, Star Wars tells us that humans and other sentient beings are the ones who benefit from and drive the creation of new technology. It tells us that innovation is still messy in the future. Just look at Han Solo’s bucket of bolts that can still make the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs. It also shows us that ingenuity can still be turned toward great, extinction-level evil, as shown by the multiple Death Stars of the Star Wars saga.
In contrast to our nationalism, Star Wars shows us a galaxy in which sentient beings are more often than not united by trade and by shared values. Realistically, it also shows us that forces that seek power will try to homogenize or destroy cultures that don’t assimilate. The Empire’s destruction of Jedda in Rogue One and its surprising human-centricity are good contrasts to the Rebellion’s ragtag team of smugglers, alien races, and idealists.
In contrast to our increasing post-modernism or secular skepticism of overarching narratives/meanings, Star Wars helpfully points to a real meta-narrative for human life with its yin and yang or Light side and Dark side. In the Star Wars world, there is a real sense in which order and chaos and the balance between the two process and shape history and reality. There is a real sense also that humans can be more attuned to these forces when they try, and that they can play a role in shaping them. Just look at the Jedi and the Sith.
Most importantly, Star Wars tells us that human nature in the future will more or less be the same in the future as it is now. The struggles we all face every day – being true, being good, being lovely – will remain to be conquered by our children and their children to come. That’s both a realistic view and an idealistic one. Like all good heroes, Star Wars heroes are heroes who win when they refuse to give in to hate and rage and power-lust. They take moral responsibility when the rest of the galaxy has every reason to give up (this is the whole story of Rogue One). They find new life by passing through darkness and danger and death.
The constancy over time of the hero’s journey of self-development and self-discovery allows for every possible variation in how that story expresses itself. You could tell and retell the meta-story of the hero’s journey until the heat death of the universe – and you would not run out of ways to live a life devoted to finishing that journey well. They’ll still be telling the monomyth and walking down the hero’s path when they have blasters and space cantinas and droids.
Why Star Wars Matters for Stories
There’s one more thing.
As a cultural phenomenon, Star Wars is a signal that anyone can now generate meaningful myths for our world.
Star Wars a story that seems like it should be part of an oral tradition, but it was written and filmed in the last 40 years. That shouldn’t be possible. It’s rare for a story written by just a few guys to become so popular, let alone something that’s taken on a life of its own through fan fiction and spinoffs and art and its own “expanded universe.”
Again, this was 40 years ago. Now anyone can get better film quality on their smartphone than Lucas had available to him at the filming of the first Star Wars movie.
Nothing is holding anyone back from creating a new defining expression of the mono-myth. We are starting to see the results of that shift in the millions of videos, short stories, short movies, cartoons, and that people of all kinds are creating every day. All of these small stories express the inescapable mono-myth of the hero. Because they arise in a culture with the values of Star Wars, we can bet that they’ll equip young heroes with the stories and values they need to find what a Jedi might call that “balance in the force” that we’re all looking for.