Medievalism in The Rise of Skywalker

With the release of Star Wars, Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker, the nine-part narrative that George Lucas began in 1977 has come to an end. That does not mean an end to Star Wars stories, but it does bring a conclusion to the main story arc. Like many other episodic narratives, more Star Wars stories are to come.

The addition of more Star Wars stories is just one way that the franchise parallels premodern storytelling, such as narratives in medieval literature. Medievalism is, after all, a staple of the Star Wars universe, from the early stages of Lucas creating his mythos. Echoes of the Middle Ages appear throughout the previous parts of the new trilogy, in both The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi.

True to form, the final installment in this trilogy contains its own nods to the Middle Ages. In a fascinating way, the medievalism of Rise of Skywalker provides a distinct connection between material artifacts and spiritual veneration of the past.

Most generally, Rise of Skywalker embraces the representation established in The Force Awakens of material relics from the past. As already seen in trailers, the melted helmet of Darth Vader makes its appearances as it did in the two previous films. Similarly, the lightsaber that Rey inherited from Luke (which was Anakin’s before) reappears. But these are just a few of the material objects imbued with meaning and symbolic links to the original trilogy.

[Minor spoilers beyond this point!]

In fact, the location where Kylo Ren keeps Vader’s helmet on a pedestal turns out to be a room full of venerated objects. Kylo Ren’s relic collection represents a sort of shrine to the Sith, reminding audiences of the centrality of relics in the new trilogy. It also emphasizes the significance of the search for legacies of the past through Kylo Ren and Rey seeking objects as symbolic memorials.

Relics present powerful connections to the past, particularly in Christianity but in other religions as well. The Middle Ages were pivotal for the rise of the veneration of relics. These material artifacts provide people with powerful reminders of their traditions–not only symbolic resonances of spirituality but also tangible memorials to the legacy of belief.

As Stephenie McGucken suggests, Star Wars “create[s] a pseudo-medieval relic culture” as it “offers an opportunity to consider narrative moments, visual references, and even the collecting practices of fans through the lens of medieval relic practice.”

One of the most obvious material connections in Rise of Skywalker to the deep past of the Star Wars universe are the sacred Jedi texts, first seen in The Last Jedi. These books share many similarities with medieval manuscripts, even to the point that they seem modeled on books from the Middle Ages. (Check out this video series I co-hosted with Dot Porter exploring these connections.)

As fans have learned since the release of The Last Jedi, Rey has been working with C-3PO to translate and learn from those sacred Jedi texts. Even before the new movie, this inter-film plot point was confirmed in Marvel Comic’s Star Wars: Poe Dameron issue #28.

As expected (and hoped for), these manuscripts do appear again, briefly, at a few moments in Rise of Skywalker. As some fans have noticed, they confirm more general associations with other Star Wars lore. The sacred Jedi texts especially confirm previous discussions about them containing astronomical knowledge. All of this astronomical lore highlights the same kinds of links between science and spirituality found in both Star Wars and the European Middle Ages.

Rise of Skywalker provides another relic of textual media, more central to the plot of this film: the Sith dagger. This particular MacGuffin artifact holds other astronomical lore, as it features in a treasure hunt that leads to another relic that ultimately points the way to the planet Exegol, the location of the last battle.

At one point, the dagger is described as having a message inscribed in Sith “runes.” Various types of runic inscriptions have appeared throughout recent Star Wars stories, such as in the Rebels television show, in the episodes titled “Wolves and a Door” and “A World Between Worlds” (season 4, episodes 12-13). Like these examples, runes on the Sith dagger evoke a writing system from the deep past, a medium for textual communication different from manuscript technology or the more common computer readouts.

Before the spread of Christianity and conversion of various peoples in northern Europe during the Middle Ages, runes were used as a medium of communication on many material objects.

Front panel of the Franks Casket, depicting the legend of Wayland the Smith and the Christian adoration of the Magi.

Runes were used for inscriptions before Christianity, in places like Scandinavia and England, and most commonly in an alphabet known as Futhark. Well after conversion, runes continued to be used on artifacts related to religious veneration, such as the eighth-century Franks Casket, as well as weapons like the tenth-century Seax of Beagnoth.

Even more prominently, the Sith dagger and its runic message parallel a scene in the famous Old English poem Beowulf. After the eponymous hero slays the monster Grendel and his mother, Beowulf sets out to return to his homeland. Yet, before Beowulf goes, he presents King Hrothgar with an ancient sword that he found in the den of Grendel’s mother and used to defeat her (lines 1677-86). The poet describes the sword as an “ealde lafe” (line 1688, “old relic” or “old remnant”), a material connection to the past.

A page of the poem Beowulf describing the ancient sword, in London, British Library, Cotton Vitellius A.xv, folio 170r. From the British Library.

On the hilt of that sword in Beowulf is inscribed a runic message, relating the biblical narrative of the Flood and the destruction of ancient giants. While the details of this message are not given within the poem, it is a significant moment as Hrothgar gazes upon the sword, takes in its runes, and contemplates its message before launching into a long, didactic speech to Beowulf about fame, pride, and mortality (lines 1700-84).

The themes of Hrothgar’s “sermon” to Beowulf are appropriate for the lessons of Star Wars. Hrothgar’s speech has been interpreted as a type of “parental wisdom,” of the sort given by Obi-Wan Kenobi, Yoda, and Luke Skywalker. While such fatherly teachings reinforce a certain patriarchal view, Rey wrestling with this sort of wisdom is one of the propelling ideas of the new trilogy.

Episodes VII, VIII, and IX all deal with the fame of the heroes in the original trilogy, the problems of pride in various characters, and tensions between mortality and more ephemeral connections to the universe. Rise of Skywalker especially emphasizes the themes of past legacies and implications for the present.

Through all of its material relics, Rise of Skywalker continues to emphasize the theme of the past and present entwined. These artifacts materially play out the theme of the Force as an energy that binds together generations of the Jedi and Sith. The physical relics of the medieval world and the Star Wars universe are reminders of these spiritual connections across generations.

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