May the Myth Be with You

Star Wars is a summer movie if ever there was one. Or seven. Or nine. And yet, there’s something terribly appropriate about the fact that, this holiday season, The Force Awakens is all anyone can talk about. A December opening isn’t just about Oscar lust and box office. The winter solstice has been a time of mythic meaning from the pagans, through the Christians, to the Jedis.

When the Star Wars logo appeared on the screen at today’s matinee, and the plot summary in its familiar yellow font receded slowly into star-strewn space, I felt a catch in my throat. It’s the same reaction I have on Christmas Eve when I hear the story of the wise men, even though I’ve been a confirmed atheist for a long time in what seems like a galaxy far, far away.

In neither case is my reaction because the story is factual. In both cases, it’s because the story is true.

No spoilers, I promise. I’ll refer to only one aspect of the plot, and that’s revealed in those yellow words at the opening, when we’re told that Luke Skywalker has disappeared. Later, when Luke is mentioned, one of the characters dismissively says, “Luke Skywalker? I thought he was a myth.”

The line reminded me of the opening of another modern myth—Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged—the sentence that serves as a catchphrase for hopelessness throughout the first part of the book: “Who is John Galt?” Well, after a few hundred pages, the world finds out who John Galt is, and hopeless is the last word to describe him.

When people say things like this—“I thought he was a myth”—the suggestion is that a myth is somehow less powerful than a flesh-and-blood person. In truth, men and women act upon their time in history. Myths live forever. The stories of the fictitious Odysseus still resonate for the world. Jesus was a man who became a myth, and as I write, people the world over are celebrating his birthday, or an approximation thereof.

Myths resonate so deeply in part because of their simplicity. There are a few common elements that each mythology seems to recycle. One such element is the absent hero, the hero who’s retreated from the world and is somehow coaxed back into it, toward his greatest triumph. Jesus wanders in the wilderness, John Galt creates a hidden community in the mountains. And Luke Skywalker … well, he does what Luke Skywalker does. (I promised: no spoilers.)

And then there’s the central concept that gives each myth its unifying structure, its raison d’être. I’d forgotten how cool the concept of the Force is, the idea that there’s an energy coursing through the universe that has both light and dark components. In Star Wars, it’s an almost tangible thing, external to people but still running through them. In religion, it’s pretty much the same—grace emanating from a god, granted to individuals. And in both cases, it’s a metaphor for free will. Light and dark, good and evil, lie before us all the time, and every moment of the day we choose one or the other. On some days, mostly good; on other days, not so much. In our own ways, we are all members of the Skywalker clan, tempted by warring forces within our own minds.

My favorite of all myths is the Nibelungenlied, as manifested in Wagner’s transcendent Ring cycle. There’s a force in that story, too, a force that can be used for good or for evil. And in the end, there is redemption. The most beautiful music I know is the leitmotif that pours through the orchestra at the end, when Brünnhilde sacrifices herself to save the world.   The theme is known as “redemption through love.”

There are two more movies before we reach the end of the Star Wars saga, before we find out what action saves that particular galaxy. But we know that something will. There’s a huge surprise near the end of episode 7, but the final moment of the film is completely predictable. That’s what happens in myth. And we wouldn’t want it any other way.


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