I’ve been thinking lately about the idea of epic poetry and how great poems become the foundational stories of a cultural identity. Chaucer, The Song of Roland, The Saga of the Vulsang, The Aeneid and Homer’s Epic Cycle weren’t just great works of literature. These were the foundational stories of civilizations.
These are the works taught to kids that help inscribe the mythical and literary origins of the cultures they belong to. They help impart morals and a sense of continuity to young people like they’re participating in the March of civilization.
English kids used to be taught Old English to read and understand Beowulf. College educated men used to have to learn both Greek and Latin to read philosophy, poetry and rhetoric in their original languages. As challenging as that was, it imparted incredible wisdom and education into some of the greatest minds in western history.
Of late, I’ve wondered if America has such a story. What is our great contribution to world literature that’s going to be remembered a thousand years from now?
Consulting my co-writer Ana, she gave me a simple answer: “The three great American writers were Poe, Lovecraft and Hemingway”.
Interesting answer but I wasn’t necessarily satisfied. Certainly all three of them are masters of literature and genre fiction but there’s no central work in their bibliographies that holds the central weight and power of a work of literature like The Illiad.
(Alexander the Great literally slept with a copy of The Illiad under his pillow. I highly doubt Patton was cradling a copy of At the Mountains of Madness during the invasion of Sicily. Robert McNamara on the other hand…)
I started to wonder if such a work of art even existed or could exist. America is a young country but our writers haven’t produced epic and essential myth making that captures the heart of the American experience in a uniquely poetic way. Poetry is essentially a dead art form. We arguably haven’t produced a notable poet since T.S. Elliot, and he was an ex-patriot who defected to Britain.
Modern American poetry is basically unreadable. I highly doubt a great work of narrative poetry is going to escape the hell of modern progressive politics. Even moderately progressive works like Hamilton are being canceled for insufficient wokeness.
Offhand, I could only think of three things that MIGHT come close:
The first is a mostly forgotten work of poetry by the critically acclaimed 19th century poet and scholar Henry Longfellow called Song of the Hiawatha. The poem was a retelling of a Native American legend reprinted and reproduced for contemporary audiences. Alas, for as critically acclaimed as the poem was its largely fallen by the wayside.
The second was the collective filmography of John Ford and John Wayne. Certainly there’s a case to be made for this one given how deeply their work together enraptured generations of Americans and helped cement the notion of manifest destiny in the American conscious.
The problem of course is that John Ford’s work is somewhat fleeting in modern discourse. John Wayne is essentially untouchable as a force of nature, despite leftist attempts to mar his legacy. At the same time, John Ford’s name mostly exists as a historical oddity for film theorists. Young people aren’t studying his movies anymore or treating them like holy gospel. He’s become a footnote in the history of cinema while young people study the postmodern films of Tarantino.
The third possibly struck me as possibly the most fascinating of the three possibilities. When I reflected upon the unanimity of art in the past fifty years, I came back to the same conclusion as to what the most influential and lasting work of narrative fiction has been in the last century.
Upon further reflection, Our great contribution to literature may end up being Star Wars.
I don’t mean that just because it’s the most popular franchise ever or because it’s hyper literate in the mold of Milton or Dante. I mean it simply because it’s the most quintessentially American piece of epic storytelling any artist has created in the past century.
The original trilogy has been the most popular work of fiction, possibly ever, to come out of the United States and remains one of the most lucrative entertainment properties alongside Pokémon.
Beyond that, it’s also a uniquely American work of art. It has no allusions to patriotism, American flags or history but embodies the values of modern culture within the context of a classical hero’s journey story.
The entire production is brimming with allusions to Americana, American archetypes and American art. It’s entirely built upon allusions to western films, World War II history, contemporary resentment towards the Vietnam War, draws upon the contemporary sexual and identity politics of the 1970s and roots its morality in popular Christian notions of salvation, original sin and redemption.
In many ways, Star Wars is the great melting pot of American pop-art and collective identity. It was a universal story that captured the essence of every political perspective, spiritual perspective and individual perspective in American life and repackaged it as a classical heroes journey.
The fact that it remains the most popular film trilogy after four decades and continues to receive new sequels, rereleases and reimagining speaks to the way the original three films hit a deep nerve.
We still argue about the meaning of those original three movies because were struggling to apply the lessons they taught us to our modern situations.
That leaves me with an interesting question, what could future generations possibly learn about America if the original Star Wars trilogy became our legacy?
If America were suddenly destroyed off the map and this film trilogy became our only remaining legacy, what would the people of the future say about American culture as it existed in the late 20th century?
But what does the original Star Wars trilogy say about America and the story we tell to ourselves?
Star Wars as Post-Christian Spiritualism
The first thing I think future generations would learn about us is that we’re a deeply spiritual nation as well as a deeply anti-superstitious nation. Despite our “Judeo-Christian heritage”, America has just as deep a history of religious antipathy as it does religious fundamentalism.
That was true as early as the founding fathers: half of whom were fundamentalist Christians and the other half of whom were enlightenment rationalists who questioned the church, denied the divinity of Christ and fought fiercely the keep the federal government from enforcing religion upon the populace.
That said, the tensions between these two ideas has never been clean cut. Despite New Atheist efforts to portray the founders as similarly likeminded atheists, they still believed in God.
Our country has a long history of religious tension at the core of our identity. Often, atheists are some of the most moral people in our country when viewed through the lens of Christian ethics.
I think that’s true for George Lucas. Lucas was famously a hippie with a fascination in Buddhism but he’s spent his entire life, from childhood, in and out of the Methodist church. He’s never followed his atheism to its logical endpoint but he’s also never repudiated his childhood faith.
We see that reflected in Star Wars itself. The story is a traditional heroes journey but overly draws connections to Luke Skywalker as a kind of redeemer and Christ-figure. His intense personal morality and optimism in the face of ultimate evil is what ultimately saves the galaxy and redeems his father from the depths of evil.
Star Wars is a story about the power of faith and hope, for its own sake. It states that even the most evil of souls are capable of redemption and that love is the most powerful force in the universe.
At the same time, the story embodies religious antipathy. Star Wars is not a mythologically based story. It’s influences are entirely fictional: Tolkien, Flash Gordon, Kurosawa, etc.
Unlike a classical myth like Le Morte D’Arthur or The Aeneid, it’s not drawing upon a previously believed in cultural myth that is widely believed upon. Despite being a Christian morality play, it’s also a story that’s aesthetically uncomfortable with the trappings of Christianity (otherwise Lucas might’ve just directed a religious epic).
This sets it at a distance from something like Lord of the Rings, which similarly distances itself from Christian aesthetics but directly alludes to Catholic concepts such as the adoration of the divine feminine and the Eucharist within the lore in subtle ways.
The popularity of Christian morals in a non-Christian story suggests that Star Wars speaks to our inner American religious tension. We want religious stories but we aren’t comfortable with the trappings of religion. We want the complexity and depth of classical mythologies but we don’t want to carry the baggage of ACTUALLY believing in them like our ancestors did.
Least we forget, the Romans genuinely believed that the events of The Aeneid signified that the founder of Rome was a descendent of the Gods. Homer’s readers genuinely believed that the God’s helped their ancestors destroy Troy.
12th-16th century christians who read The Divine Comedy and Paradise Lost genuinely believed they were reading a poem that literally described elements of their understanding of the afterlife or their creation story.
Even as late as the works of John Ford, religious Americans believed in Manifest Destiny and that their nation had been God ordained and blessed to be a great Christian nation.
Future generations could well look at Star Wars and find it curious that our desire for moralistic and mythological storytelling never went away even as the popularity of mainstream Christianity diminished in the west. We remained every bit as superstitious and mythical but couldn’t rationalize it within a genuine mythology.
It took a random hippie’s Flash Gordon ripoff to touch the religious nerve in people’s hearts and minds.
Star Wars as Political Statement
The political subtext of Star Wars has been a deeply controversial sticking point for fans of the franchise. Superficially, most fans mostly want to engage with the material as an action film/space opera/fictional universe.
When progressive fans start dragging the implicit political subtext of the films into discussion, it tends to alienate fans who haven’t come for that discussion. Still, I think it is worth discussing some of those nuances.
Generally, the popular reads on Star Wars are as a anti-Vietnam war metaphor or an anti-fascist tract. Leftists point out the direct allusions to Republican presidents like Richard Nixon and George Bush, and subsequently point out the superficial similarities of the First Order and the Alt-Right/Neo-Fascist movements in modern politics.
Certainly all these elements exist within the text of the original trilogy. The Empire is overtly coded with Nazi symbolism, aesthetics and calls its solders “storm troopers” like the Nazis did. There’s not much subtly here. The audience immediately looks at the Empire and thinks “Space Nazis!”
George Lucas has also been very forthcoming about the political subtext of both of his trilogies and broadly confirmed most of the intent behind them. The Rebellion loosely correlates with the Vietcong and the Empire loosely correlates with America.
“The irony is that, in both of those, the little guys won. The highly technical empire — the English Empire, the American Empire — lost. That was the whole point… A large technological empire going after a small group of freedom fighters.”
He’s further confirmed that the Prequel trilogy is about the nature of how democracies break down into fascist dictatorships.
“How do you turn over democracy to a tyrant with applause? Not with a coup, but with applause?” Lucas recalls, “That is the story of Caesar, Napoleon, and Hitler.”
What’s lost in these progressive reads is the way the films similarly code the Rebellion and the Empire in conservative ways.
The Rebellion soldiers are designed to look like American GIs and marines. This immediately would’ve appealed to American’s sense of identification with the rebellion. Star Wars only came out 32 years after World War II and most of the audience seeing it would have been war veterans or the children of veterans.
The Rebellion even seems to have coded its war with allusions to the American Revolution. While the actual political ideology of the Rebellion is unclear, we do know that they want to restore a Republican government and that they fight for liberty and freedom from tyranny.
At the same time, most of the Imperial admirals and generals, such as Grand Moff Tarkin, are coded as British.
The political dimensions of Star Wars are thematically all over the place. Both the good guys AND bad guys are coded as American in some facet. In doing so though, I think it captures another fundamental tension at the heart of the American liberal subconscious: the fear of the evil WE are capable of.
America has spent the last fifty years debating what our role in the world ought to be in light of the failures of the Cold War and the War on Terror. Americans are the world’s most influential superpower and we’ve historical existed while other more dangerous ideologies have tried to gain power: Soviet Communism, Chinese Communism, Islamic fascism, etc.
America has yet to fully resolve the tension between hawkish world policing and an isolationism that would allow the most dangerous ideologies in the world to roam freely across the globe.
Intentionally or not, Star Wars seems to depict this quagmire in its coding. Our desire to be a nation of freedom and liberty AND our predilection for imperialism are present in the movies.
Star Wars is a narrative about saving the good part of America’s identity from the broken half. Luke Skywalker believes in freedom and goodness so much that he drags his father back from the dark side just by believing in him.
Luke Skywalker’s greatest moment of pain was the realization that the world is more complicated than anything he imagine. He realized that evil was something near to him, easy to fall into and that his very father had fallen into that temptation. Therefore, he was vulnerable.
At its heart, Star Wars is a distinctly bleeding heart-liberal version of American Patriotism. It’s a story about the failure of powerful men and the temptation to cease power but it’s also a story about the heart of belief and the ability to change the world by acknowledging who we are and making the effort to change anyway.
Star Wars as Our Modern Hero’s Journey
These are just two different ways that you could read the original Star Wars Trilogy and there are certainly more ways than these that I could tackle them. Entire books, dozens of documentaries and thousands of words in film criticism have been poured out trying to deconstruct these movies.
These are just two interpretations I thought of off of the top of my head.
I didn’t even get into how George Lucas reinterpreted Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey, how the films mirror nostalgic elements of Lucas’s other films like American Graffiti, how the films decontextualize visual elements of the entire genre of cinema and dozens of body’s of filmmaking work, how the original two trilogies debated the religious concept of emotional attachment to the physical world or how subsequent generations of filmmakers have approached trying to adapt the franchise for modern audiences.
But that’s the thing about Star Wars. There are a million ways to hit it because no matter what direction you hit it from it spews candy like a piñata. You can read it as spiritual or Christian, as modernist or post-modernist, as reactionary or progressive, as shallow or deep, or plenty of other ways.
Plenty of film critics hate the Star Wars movies for the bad lessons they taught Hollywood or how the overt optimism felt disingenuous in a decade like the 1970s.
There’s a lot of bad things I could say about the way Star Wars turned the film industry into something MORE commercial than it already was and that subsequent generations of filmmakers never fully internalized the lessons those films taught them.
But I wouldn’t be the one to say those things. Star Wars isn’t a deeply literate piece of art but people engage with it on a level that most pieces or art have never been engaged with. That speaks to the fact that these films are still engaging us after forty four years and that our children and grandchildren will still be sharing them.
These may very well go on to be one of the few pieces of artwork that survives deep into the future. I think that’s fascinating!
Happy Star Wars Day 2021! May the fourth be with you!