So, its Star Wars week, and I wanted to give some acknowledgement to a series that, in many ways, made a movie-lover out of me. But how to do that? There’s so much stuff out there with regards to Star Wars that I wouldn’t know where to start. My first idea here was to talk about the movies one by one, but I feel that coming off of the exhausting Spielberg Month, I wanted to dial down and try something new.
So, all this week I’m going to deal with the mystical aspects of Star Wars, not the visual effects, but the ideas, the force and the strange uneven legacy of the Jedi as the series plays out. In order to do that, I must begin where the whole saga began, not with The Phantom Menace but with A New Hope.
Through out the history of Star Wars, that being the seven films, the two TV series and the expanded universe the idea of The Jedi Order and how they function within this world have gone, admittedly, from one extreme to the other. The expansion of what The Force is and how it is properly (and improperly) used varies widely as we move from the Original Trilogy through to J.J. Abrams brave attempts to untie the knots the Lucas has tied in his own series. To understand that, you must understand how the series has evolved. For these purposes we are not going to move through the series chronologically in SW time but chronologically in real time beginning with the Original Trilogy, then very briefly through The Expanded Universe (before Disney obliterated it) then through the prequels then the TV shows and finally into The Force Awakens.
In A New Hope, The Force was presented in very broad terms. Obi-Wan explains that it is sort of a mystical energy field that surrounds and binds everything together. That’s a beautiful philosophy, a Zen idea of inner peace and harmony through the energy of the universe that allows you a power that controls your actions and obeys your commands. It is a balance of the natural world that we soon discover is easily corrupted.
For this particular film it is also very simple. Its a meditative idea that doesn’t yet suggest what would come later. There’s barely a suggestion of the ability to manipulate objects in your immediate surroundings and, if you look only within this film by itself, you might be led to believe that it is an ability that can be acquired by anyone. Once, long ago, the Jedi ruled the land but apparently so much time has passed that the current generation hardly believes that it exists at all. Some dismiss it as hokum; like Luke’s Uncle Owen who dismisses it as wizardry and craziness. Han balks at the idea of a mystical energy field controlling his destiny much like an atheist might dismiss the suggestion of a God controlling the universe. The Force here seems to be suggested as an idea that it is based on a matter of belief whereas later it would juggle back and forth as being a matter of heredity, biology and/or just the luck of the draw.
Han’s reaction may come from the tapestry of the times. The Jedi in A New Hope are pretty much the stuff of ancient history (if by ‘ancient history’ you consider a span of only about 20 years), they’re also so few in numbers that they are almost negligible.
Ben explains that the Jedi are all but extinct and we can see that he is pretty much its only living embodiment. Yoda isn’t mentioned as of yet so Ben seems to be the lone survivor. He sees Luke as the conduit for reigniting the flame. Based on an old storytelling trope that the smallest and least worthwhile figure in the universe will summon up the courage to take on the masters of the universe; it becomes Luke’s burden to carry. Why? The movie never really knows other than the fact that he is an expert pilot and the son of a great Jedi Knight who was destroyed by the film’s antagonist. He can be trained in the ways of The Force not because of his linage but because Ben can train him. There’s no suggestion here that it’s a special skill, it is suggested that anyone can do it. The construct is presented as a master/student relationship that will lead to a lifelong commitment. The term “lifelong” takes on a different meaning as the series progresses.
Getting Luke out of the dustbowl and into the action is Ben’s backdoor way of restarting the Jedi order. The legacy and dynasty of Luke’s family is something that will come about later, but here it is suggested that Ben thinks he’s the one to get the Jedi going again in order to topple The Empire for reasons that aren’t really clear. He’s the son of an old friend, one who had this mysterious power so he must be the one to undo what has been undone.
The actual function of the Jedi in The Old Republic wavers back and forth as we move through the series. Here, far from the paramilitary organization that they would be in Attack of the Clones, they are described as a sort of a monk-like order that never-the-less acted as peace-keepers within the Old Republic in the days before The Emperor and his goons decided that evil would always triumph because good is dumb.
In A New Hope only four force users exist: Ben, Darth Vader, the unseen Emperor, and eventually Luke. These four represent the balance to the force (two of them and two of us) yet, the reasons that Ben needs Luke in the middle of this conflict are a little vague. If you trust the continuity of this film it seems to be because, well, “I’m getting too old for this sort of thing.”
What the Jedi and the Sith (a word never mentioned until Phantom Menace) are capable of is only hinted at here. They have abilities to control things with their minds and, in Vader’s case, with his hands but outside of schooling a rather mouthy Senior Officer by temporarily cutting off his air supply, those elements are left largely for us to discover when we move into Empire. It is also not established here that The Force yields a dark side and a light side. Obi-Wan talks about “the dark times” and mentions that one of his students betrayed and murdered the Jedi, wiping out an order that had existed for about 20,000 years, but the idea that a Jedi could choose a darker path is not established yet.
The film also hugely suggests something that wouldn’t be fully explored until Revenge of the Sith, the idea that a Jedi can give themselves a certain immortality (something that the Sith, by their very nature cannot achieve). Ben sacrifices himself in his battle with Vader but he disappears when he is cut down, apparently becoming one with the force. Before being struck down, Ben informs Vader that “If you strike me down I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.” I’m not exactly sure how. Apparently when giving yourself to The Force, you die and are able to exist on two different planes – here and there. You can come back as a ghost to give advice and guide those you love, but it is never expressed exactly how this is “more powerful.” It is never explained here but it apparently it allows the deceased to become an omniscient figure, able to act as a sort of conscience as Ben does when Luke is aboard his X-Wing. Its power to appear in spectral form comes later.
A New Hope presents The Force as a simple and somewhat vague concept constructed out of Zen philosophy brought through an order that seems to be one dying breath away from extinction. This is an idea that would not stay solid for long. Once we move forward into the series, the rules start to get a little fuzzy, the role of the Jedi changes rapidly until the whole Zen idea is kind of washed away. We’ll find out tomorrow where the changes begin.