Medievalism in The Force Awakens
This week, one of the most highly anticipated pop culture events hit theaters everywhere: Star Wars, Episode VII: The Force Awakens. I saw the film as early as I could, and have a lot to say about it. Most specifically, as a medievalist, I was struck by a certain amount of medievalism built into this movie.
I’m not the first to consider Star Wars and the Middle Ages together. Peter Konieczny has previously discussed a number of parallel ideas on Medievalists.net. Bryan C. Keene used Star Wars as a lens to think about the “close link between the celestial and the spiritual” in medieval manuscripts at the Getty’s online magazine The Iris. A while back, there was quite a bit of interest in a Yoda-look-alike from a medieval manuscript, London, British Library, Royal 10.E.iv–which isn’t the only image like it, as Erik Kwakkel noted another in London, British Library, Royal 2.B.vii, and Discarding Images found figures similar to both Yoda and Gandalf in Warszawa, Biblioteka Narodowa, Rps 8002 III. The British Library Medieval Manuscripts Blog has collected a host of other images from medieval treasures with characters resembling various aliens (including the one above). With another perspective in mind, Tom O’Donnell has recently retold the story of Episode IV as an Irish saga.
In this post, I want to focus on how some ideas and themes from The Force Awakens resonate as parallels to medieval European culture.
[While the following discussion is somewhat general, some spoilers do creep in, more notably at the end. I’ve marked some of the more egregious ones, but read at your own risk!]
The trajectory of the Star Wars films (and the expanded universe beyond them) is, in many ways, similar to the general history of Rome, especially in late antiquity. In the pre-cinematic Star Wars universe, there was the development of the Old Republic–the golden age of classicism, when learning, philosophy, peace, justice, and culture flourished. The prequel films (Episodes I, II, and III) portrayed the rise of the Galactic Empire, with the autocratic rule of an emperor and expansive colonization. In the original film trilogy (Episodes IV, V, and VI), we see the Empire at its height as well as the civil war raging as colonized peoples fight to reconcile their own cultures in the face of new imperial rule over them. In many ways, these events mirror the supposed golden age of the Roman Republic, the rise of the Roman Empire, and its decline as the colonized (insiders as well as outsiders) resisted expanding imperial control. No doubt George Lucas was aware of these parallels in his conceptions of the larger narrative.
With The Force Awakens, we encounter a world thirty years later, in the middle of a civil war, as the Galactic Empire fights to hold on despite its seeming decline–similar to the late antique and early medieval period after the Roman Empire has receded from its once-expansive boundaries. In both trajectories, legends circulate as reminders of the past and people’s connections to it; oral stories are the vehicles for memory as people seek to collect fragments of knowledge; people seek relics of the past to root themselves in a larger narrative; figures–both would-be colonizers and colonized–struggle to reconcile the old world with the new as they also struggle to understand it all.
Metaphorically, the protagonist Rey’s search for the truth about her identity amid legends and ruins of the past in The Force Awakens is not all that different from how some medieval people viewed their world. Someone like Bede (672/3-735), for example, saw himself as sifting through his sources to understand connections between ancient Israel, Christian Rome, his own Germanic ancestors, and what that meant for the identity of the inhabitants of Britain (himself included). We learn early in The Force Awakens [minor spoiler] that Rey is an orphan, left on the desert planet Jakku at a young age. Although it might be anachronistic (and a bit simplistic) to call Bede an orphan because he was sent to the monastery of Monkwearmouth at the age of seven, there is a curious parallel. Indeed, the medieval example of sending children into monastic life is a clear link to children entering Jedi orders in the Old Republic era of the Star Wars galaxy–and one reason, presumably, why Yoda uses the excuse that Luke is “too old to begin the training” in The Empire Strikes Back. To push parallels further, Bede spent his life exploring the ruins of culture in written books to find historical and religious truth; whereas Rey has spent much of her life and the plot of The Force Awakens (true to classic Star Wars, following the archetypal hero’s journey) exploring ruins of the legendary past to sort out the truth about herself and her place in the galaxy.
Relics also play a central role in The Force Awakens, as a sort of thematic and material link to the previous films. Familiar from the trailers, the two most prominent material objects used as relics are the melted helmet of Darth Vader and the lightsaber once owned by Anakin Skywalker and then his son, Luke. In one scene, we see the main antagonist Kylo Ren praying to the remains of Vader’s helmet, seeking guidance to follow in his path as a Sith lord. Throughout the film, it becomes clear that Kylo Ren venerates Vader as a type of spiritual father and Dark Side anti-saint. In another scene [minor spoiler], Rey finds the Skywalker lightsaber, has a series of visions linked to its history, and learns about it from the character who has had it for years, Moz Kanata. After initially rejecting the lightsaber, Rey later embraces her connection to the weapon and its spiritual heritage. The lightsaber remains a contested artifact through the movie, as it shifts hands and Kylo Ren seeks to take it for himself–presumably to add it to his Vader shrine. Not in the trailers, another relic featured in the film [bigger spoiler] is a fragmented map (many connections could be raised here about manuscript and digital media) that leads to the secret hideout of Luke Skywalker, who has gone missing. As the impetus for the whole plot of the film from the beginning, this object is also contested and sought by both sides of the war.
With both Vader’s mask and the Skywalker lightsaber, it is hard not to see similarities with the veneration and spiritual meaning afforded to relics in the medieval period. Relics from the Middle Ages may be found in churches across Europe, including items claimed to be corporeal objects, clothing, and possessions of certain saints or even Jesus himself. Some famous examples are pieces of the True Cross on which Jesus was crucified; the Veil of Veronica or the Shroud of Turin that represent Jesus’ burial; even the foreskin of Jesus from his circumcision. In other cases, churches and holy places had shrines with bodies, mummified skulls, fingers, or vials of blood supposed to be from saints. All of these drew pilgrims from local and distant places.
Like Kylo Ren, medieval people regularly prayed to such relics, either at the shrines of saints or in the churches where they were held, for physical and spiritual assistance. Like the Skywalker lightsaber and the map to Luke’s location, relics were often hot items, as their possession was contested, debated, and some were even stolen and traded for their value (see Patrick J. Geary’s Furta Sacra: Thefts of Relics in the Central Middle Ages). After all, relics in both the medieval world and the Star Wars universe are not only objects but also vessels for greater spiritual power and meaning.
Finally, a convergence between the plot and production of The Force Awakens reveals another aspect of medievalism connected to monasticism. Even during the movie’s production it became known that part of it was filmed on location in Ireland’s beautiful Skellig Michael, an island on which a secluded Christian monastery was founded in the early medieval period, perhaps as early as the sixth century.
As already mentioned, echoes of monasticism are especially prominent in relation to the Jedi. These include common ideals of peace and justice, emphasis on spiritual life and beliefs, a certain amount of asceticism, even simple clothing to represent simple lifestyles (just look at the robes on this Yoda look-alike!).
Yet the use of Skellig Michael for The Force Awakens evokes stronger resonances between medieval monasticism and the Jedi than simple parallels. [Major spoilers abound in this paragraph.] In the last scene of the film, we finally see Luke at his haven, confirming earlier rumors that he has followed his predecessors Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda in taking up the ascetic life of a hermit on a secluded outpost. Yet this life of seclusion echoes more than only Jedi models, as similar figures range from the early centuries of Christianity through the Middle Ages: Anthony the Great in the desert (like Obi-Wan on Tatooine), Guthlac of Crowland in the marshy fens of England (like Yoda on Dagobah), and especially Irish monks who sought out lives as homeless drifters or in complete seclusion from society on islands like Skellig Michael. In seeking his own isolation–for spiritual, personal, or psychological reasons–Luke joins in a long line of religious ascetics through the medieval period.
In all of these parallels, a strong thematic thread between the medieval and The Force Awakens is the notion of looking back in time to make meaning of the present. This idea is, really, at the heart of medievalism, in making the medieval modern through adaptation. And, like medievalism, as with much science fiction, this is partly the appeal of Star Wars: while set “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away,” it resonates with our own perspectives. Indeed, these resonances reach much deeper, into early foundations of our own culture in the medieval period.
Updates (12/31/15): See now Terry O’Hagan’s post about Skellig Michael and medieval archaeology in relation to the film; and Howard M. R. Williams’s post on Vader’s mask as an archaeological crematifact.