"I realized that there are really no modern fairy tales... I wanted to make a ... film that would strengthen contemporary mythology and introduce a kind of basic morality."--George Lucas (Star Wars Original Movie Script)
On May 25, 1977, Star Wars: A New Hope opened in theatres across America. Now virtually imbedded in popular culture, the Star Wars trilogy has been labeled as a part of many genres: ground-breaking science fiction, classic space opera, swashbuckling adventure. But it is hardly ever recognized for what it truly is: a fairy tale. Although we may find it difficult to attribute a great deal of meaning and psychological importance to a modern movie (especially one that has capitalized on the entertainment industry in such a monumental way), we must take a closer look, and not only identify in its basic story the elements of the classic fairy tale, but also recognize all the benefits these entail.
At first glance, it is difficult to acknowledge Star Wars as a fairy tale because of its label as a Science Fiction movie. Although the films were undeniably leaders in the technology of movie science fiction, this popular description often overshadows the real intentions of the movie. The story is set in a time when society is more technologically advanced than our own, but technology is not central to the plot of Star Wars: "Special effects are a tool, a means of telling a story"(Lucas- "from Star Wars to Jedi"). The technology or problems therewith were therefore not in any way intended to be the focus of the movies. This discredits the idea of Star Wars as primarily "Science Fiction". In fact, the expanded Star Wars story seems to teach that technology is not essential for power. For example, the little Ewoks in Return of the Jedi managed to overpower the Imperial forces, in spite of the fact that they pitted crude wooden armaments against gigantic chrome machine-monsters.
Another reason why many people have trouble accepting Star Wars as a true fairy tale is its format: it is a movie. Most people find it hard to accept a fairy tale in any other form than an old, dusty, hardcover book with no pictures. However, what these people fail to recognize is that, just as story telling was the major form of communication in rural communities long ago, movies and television are now the media through which values are presented to our children. Today, they learn from examples set by televison and movie characters in the same way that the children of the past learned their moral lessons from characters in books. Therefore, the movie format of Star Wars is an merely an adaption of the old oral tradition associated with folk and fairy tales; it is a way for a modern-day fairy tale to gain as large an audience as Rapunzel or Snow White. The presentation of the movie as well, i.e. the dazzling special effects, serves as a way to attract and hold the attention of an audience today. For as the fairy tale's mission is "to delight and instruct" (Bettelheim), it must first capture the audience before it even has a chance of transmitting its message. Therefore, the Star Wars story takes its shape under the guise of a "science fiction movie", incoporating three popular elements in order to appeal to a large majority of the world's population.
Fairy tales are not folk tales; unlike folklore, which is a part of a people's heritage and has been passed down from generation to generation over hundreds of years, the origins of most fairy tales are not lost to time. People compose fairy tales, Anderson, Grimm and Perrault being the most famous examples. However, because these men all lived in a past age, it has become difficult for us to believe that 'true' fairy tales can be written so close to our own lifetimes. This is another reason why Lucas' Star Wars trilogy does not get the credit it deserves: people cannot believe the writing of fairy tales to be a modern day process. But it is essential that people continue to write fairy tales, to present their unconscious messages in formats tailored to specific audiences. If this does not happen, entire populations of people will fail to be exposed to this most important ingredient to a healthy psyche.
The 'classic writers' recognized the necessity of revision in order to become more acceptable to their changing audiences. The Grimm brothers made significant modifications to their texts between the composition in 1812 and later publications in the 1850s:
"While [the Grimms] evidently tried to retain what they considered the 'essential' message of each tale, they tended to make the narratives for proper and prudent for bourgeois audiences. ...while editing the tales, they eliminated sexual elements that might be offensice to middle-class morality, added numerous Christian expressions and references, emphasized specific role models for male and female protagonists according to the ...code of that time."(Zipes, The Brothers Grimm, p13-14).
It is therefore not remarkable that the Star Wars story continues to undergo modifications in order to ensure its success with each generation. However in this case, it is not the morality of the story or characters that must be changed, but instead the upgrading of special effects is necessary in order to appeal to a critical generation of technology-immersed children. As a result of several reworked rereleases, Star Wars is succeeding in capturing the imagination and hearts of children thirty years after its production.
Once we recognize that Star Wars is in fact a modern fairy tale, it remains to be seen what models and values it is its duty to transmit. According to Bettleheim, "the form and stucture of fairy tales suggest images to the child by which he can structure his daydreams and with them give better direction to his life."(Bettelheim, 1976) In other words, the fairy tale provides a framework for children's fantasies, the play through which they can externalize their internal psychological problems associated with growing up. Since Bettelheim argues that this is the fairy tale's main purpose, the characters, situations, and motifs of Star Wars should in a way be reflective of the kinds of values and models that our children need today. Star Wars' true benefits as a modern fairy tale can only be recognized once we understand the unconscious messages that it is relating to our children, and we can identify these messages through the same process that Bettelheim applied to numerous fairy tales in "the Uses of Enchantment": the technique of logical analysis. In this paper, the Trilogy will be analysed with regards to two elements, character and plot.
IDENTIFYING WITH THE REBELS
Bettelheim distinguishes between two basic types of fairy tales, the moral tales and the amoral tales. Where the moral tales depend on the child identifying with one character and rejecting the values of his or her enemies, the amoral fairy tales "show no polarization or juxtaposition of good and bad person; they build character not by promoting choices between good and bad, but by giving the child the hope that even the meekest can succeed in life" (Bettelheim, 1976, p10). Since the overall meaning of the tale derives from this first basic classification, it is necessary to subject Star Wars to the same scrutiny. Although Star Wars certainly places an emphasis on the success of the underdog, as exemplified by the struggle between the Empire and the small, disorganized Rebel Alliance as well as other situations. However, it cannot be deemed amoral because of the clear distinction between good and evil. Therefore, it must be a moral tale.
The moral tale requires certain characters in order to accomplish its purpose. First of all, there must be a strong polarization of good and bad, as discussed in the paragraph above. But Bettelheim insists that it needs more than that, as "a child's choice are based, not so much on right versus wrong, as on who arouses his sympathy and who his antipathy."(Bettelheim, 1976, p9) Therefore, the child will follow the character who awakes his interest, who he identifies with the most. If Darth Vader was the most developed and attractive character in the series, we would have a serious problem, as scores of youngsters would identify with the wrong side and the moral suggestions of the tale would be lost. It is for this reason that the characters of Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and Princess Leia Organa are endowed with certain special character traits to attract the child right off the bat.
Bettelheim places a great deal of influence on the "simpleton", the third or youngest child. He explains that children are most drawn to such a character because of the situation that they themselves are in. Children, in relation to their parents, are indeed "simpletons", and often feel rejected and unknowledgeable in comparison. As well, the child is the third and youngest person in the family triangle of mother-father-child. It is for these reasons that the hero of so many stories is placed as the third and youngest sibling in the fairy tale family, and is mocked by all as 'simple' and 'stupid'. This, along with the non-distinction between the two elder siblings, attracts the child to the hero of the story. Once this connection is established, the child will follow the man character and learn through his adventures.
Luke Skywalker fills the role of the 'simpleton'. He starts out as a farm-boy, unworldly and repressed by his aunt and uncle. Even in with his friends, Luke is ridiculed and made to feel unimportant. In a crucial scene that was unfortunately cut before the 1977 release, we see Luke established in a 'third child' relationship as compared to his more worldly and experienced friends, Fixer, Camie, and Biggs:
His big dreams and enthusiasm disrespected by his peers, Luke is the perfect hero for the young child, whose fantasies and worldly wonder are immature in relationship to his parents.
Han Solo, the fast talking gambler and space pirate, stands in sharp contrast to the simple farm boy, and at first glance one may not understand his role in the moral tale. However, Solo is an absolutely vital character in the Star Wars story. First of all, he attracts the older, tougher children who like more action than the sweet, endearing Luke can offer. This is important, as these children must be attracted to the good side of the story in order to benefit from the positive effects of the tale. Without Solo, these children would inevitable turn to the "dark side", finding more fascination in the manipulative evil of Darth Vader than the wide-eyed Luke.
Even though Solo's lofty ego-centric attitude may alarm some parents, it is important to realize that this character changes drastically throughout the Trilogy. In the first episode, A New Hope, we see a mercenary character, only looking out for himself. But Han's compassion is evoked through his adventures, and by the end of the Trilogy we see a Solo who is not only romantically involved with Leia, but who also takes on huge responsibilities, leading the most dangerous part of the attack at Endor, without a promise of a reward. The tough kids who identified with Solo at the beginning of the series emerge from the trilogy having followed him through his transformation, still holding to a role model who is now practical and sensitive.
Although the motif of rescuing the princess was thought by Bettelheim to represent a healthy transferring of oedipal desires to a needy object other than the parent, the character of Princess Leia does not fit this mould. She is not needy or dependant, but instead is a strong, capable woman, determined to single-handedly restore truth and justice to the galaxy. Leia is therefore like Luke the Simpleton and Han the Rogue: another character designed to attract followers for the good side.
Leia's followers are usually female, and are originally attracted to her for two reasons: one, she is the only female lead character, and two, she has the romantic station of "Princess". Although Leia is certainly a new take on the old princess in distress, she still maintains some classic fairy tale characteristics. She is clad mainly in white, representative of purity, suggesting that brash and headstrong women still retain a strong sense of morality. She is beautiful as well, which Bettelheim insists is important; as children can only see the world in extremes, all model characters must be beautiful and all evil ones must be ugly.
Leia also takes her followers on a unique voyage of self-discovery. In the beginning we see a woman fanatically devoted to her cause and unable to consider any other options in her life, such as a long-term relationship. Leia is not tied down to anything except the Rebel Alliance, an independence and aloneness further stressed by the destruction of her homeworld of Alderaan. But towards the end of The Empire Strikes Back, Leia is able to admit that she needs someone in her life by telling Han she loves him. This is further solidified in the final scenes of Return of the Jedi: Leia and Han's love is declared under the light of the exploded Death Star, and in the Ewok celebration, we see him holding her protectively. Also in Return of the Jedi, Leia discovers that Luke is her brother. This identification insinuates that Leia is no longer alone as she was in the beginning. Now she not only has a lover, but also a family on whom to rely.
In Leia's example we see a new fairy-tale motif. Instead of the less complex examples of dependence or independence seen in the females of most classic tales, Leia's story represents a new concern for women of our lifetime: the balance between the woman's career and personal needs. The girl child who follows Leia's story learns that not everything can be done independently, that human companionship is as necessary as independence. This is not an anti-feminist message, but a humanist one; in it, we see a recognition of the female as human, with human needs and wants, and females learn not to overlook these human characteristics in their haste to embrace a dominating place in the workforce. That is, in order to be full and content people, we must look to integrate these contrasting and often opposing positions in our lives.
THE WICKED STEP-MOTHER
No one who has seen the trilogy can ever forget Darth Vader. His terrifying armour and black clothes are representative of the evil of his heart and his intentions. He frightens and fascinates every child as he murders men without a second thought, sells Han Solo to Jabba the Hutt, and even tries to kill his own son and daughter. However, Vader is much more than the ultimate villain. He towers over everyone on the screen, just as grown-ups tower over children. He possesses and exerts a kind of control that leaves the other characters feeling as vulnerable and powerless as children feel when faced with their omnipotent parents. Even his name gives us a clue as to his role in the Star Wars story: Darth is a mixture of 'dark' and 'death', Vader is reminiscent of 'father' in the Germanic languages: essentially, "Dark Father". So Darth Vader is distantly related to the Snow White's Evil Queen: he is the all-evil parent.
Bettelheim goes into some detail about the wicked step-parent, present in many fairy tales. He explains that the role of this character is simply to provide a person onto which the child can project his own anger towards his parent without guilt:
"...the splitting up of one person into two to keep the good image uncontaminated occurs to many children as a solution to a relationship too difficult to manage or comprehend... all young children sometimes need to split the image of their parent into its benevolent and threatening aspect to feel fully sheltered by the first...[the] fantasy of the wicked stepmother preserves the good mother intact, it also prevents having to feel guilty about one's angry thoughts and wishes."(Bettelheim, 1976, p67-9)
Once acquainted with the idea of the wicked step-parent, the child that is angry at his parent for some reason can easily pretend that his parent was replaced by an evil impostor, and healthily project his anger and hatred onto this monster instead of his actual parent. For this reason, the step-mother archetype and other examples of split characters exist in countless fairy tales around the world, including Star Wars. Children can guiltlessly transfer their negative feelings towards their own parent onto such an evil and terrible parental figure as Darth Vader.
But for every story where a wicked step-parent exists, Bettelheim says that there must be a polar opposite, a figure onto whom children can bestow their love and trust. In Snow White and Cinderella, this is the girl's true mother, and in Star Wars, it is Ben Kenobi. Just as Darth Vader embodies the evil side of the parent, Obi-Wan represents the good and sheltering aspect. (It is important to realise here that Vader has already been split into two characters, Anakin Skywalker and Darth Vader, thus alienating the evilness of Vader from Luke's true father. However, as Anakin does not play a dramatic role in the series until Return of the Jedi, Kenobi is the major parental figure in the series.) Kenobi is a nurturer, and supports and believes in Luke from the beginning. He also endows Luke with the most valuable tool in Luke's life: he educates him about the Force.
CONTROL OF THE FORCE: ACHIEVING INTEGRATION
Of course, the most memorable part of the galaxy far far away is the Force, the mystical energy from which the Jedi draw their powers. Although the Force is not a character, its symbolism is so important to the story that it shall be analysed as such. The fact that this magical element is controlled mentally, a skill requiring much refinement, enables us to conclude that the power of the Force is representative of the powers of the integrated unconscious, when id, ego, and superego function in harmony. A Jedi, therefore, is one who has achieved such a level of unconscious control. This is supported by statements made by both Yoda and Kenobi through the trilogy. For example, Yoda says "Through the Force, things you will see, other places, the future, the past..."; this is true of a healthy psyche, when rational thought can be employed to predict and prepare for possible circumstances, as well as reflect clearly on past situations. As well, Yoda's continuous reprimanding for Luke's absence of "control" in The Empire Strikes Back recognises the need for super-ego intervention when id or ego begin to take charge.
Equally important in the link between the Force and the human mental state is the Dark Side, the side which gives Vader and the Emperor their overwhelming and terrifying power. A statement from Yoda perfectly illustrates the symbolism behind the Dark Side:
Here we see illustrated in the script that the Dark Side shares numerous characteristics with the id: it represents anger, fear, aggression, and impulsiveness. It is therefore obvious that the Dark Side can be no other than a state of non-integration, where the impulsive and aggressive id is dominant. This thesis is also supported by the physical attributes of Darth Vader: his phallic shape suggests uninhibited sexuality, and his black clothes represent the impulses of the dark side of the unconscious to which he has succumbed. Living in such a state is certainly 'easier', as Yoda says, and requires less discipline than healthy integration. However, we are shown that it is dangerous and harmful, both to oneself- as illustrated by the disturbed psyches and the evil natures of Vader and Palpatine- and to others, as demonstrated by Vader's vicious killings. So through the teachings of Yoda and the study of the mystical Force, the child learns a valuable lesson about the nature and control of his own psyche.
The mysterious benefactor makes his appearance in many classic fairy tales, bestowing the hero with a gift or with some kind of knowledge that will help him defeat any obstacles he encounters. This character is also apparent in Star Wars, and takes shape in two forms, Ben Kenobi and Yoda. Both characters act as the superego, helping Luke to understand his own psyche and to harness the energy of the Force. The other aspects of Ben's character have already been discussed above, but Yoda also serves a dual purpose in this fairy story. Not only does he fill the role of the benefactor, but he teaches another lesson as well:
Even though Yoda is only as tall as Luke's knee, he has an incredible mastery over himself which translates into mastery over other people and objects. Children who see themselves as small and even unimportant compared to adults find this remarkably reassuring: in spite of their size, they learn that even they can achieve wonders once they have mastered their inner selves.
Later, in Return of the Jedi, the actions of the Rebellion take us to the forest moon of Endor, where we encounter the furry Ewoks. These aliens teach the same optimism as Yoda: they are representative of children themselves, holding similar characteristics from their toddler's walk to their superstitious innocence. As well, they are a small unsophisticated group facing omnipotent powers, a very familiar situation to the child who compares himself to his parents. However, in spite of their small stature and their crude weapons, the Ewoks prove invaluable in their service to the Rebellion, and help the rebels to completely overpower the Imperial troops. In their story, children gain infinite comfort in the knowledge of the fact that they too have it within them to conquer enormous obstacles; no wonder most kids are so attached to this particular episode of the Trilogy.
The droids, Artoo Detoo and See Threepio, contribute on many levels to the meaning of the Star Wars fairy tale, as will be discussed later on. But the most important feature about the pair is that they are complementary opposites: Threepio the over-cautious worry-wart, Artoo free-wheeling and rambunctious. That they are such an perfect team teaches children not to limit their worlds to just one kind of person, as even the most questionable of personality combinations can work together,. It should also be noted that when the two are separated in The Empire Strikes Back, they can function equally well without each other. Thus children learn that co-operative working and learning can be safely abandoned at times, and the individual should be able to deal with both single and group environments.
In several classic fairy tales, the hero will befriend a person or attain an object which later on proves to be of much value to him, in either the saving of his life or the bestowing of magic powers. Chewbacca fills this character mould. Ever since Han rescued him from slavery, Chewie has owed him a Wookiee 'life-debt', meaning that he is forever bound to the protection of Han and of Han's family. Chewie proves himself to be of valuable service throughout the Trilogy, helping Han with the Millennium Falcon, enabling Luke and Han to save Princess Leia from the Death Star, and partaking in Luke's rescue plan at Jabba's palace. This loyal service as a result of an act of kindness is an example through which children learn to be aware of opportunities to access potentially helpful people.
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