Star Wars and the Classics, Part I: The Prequels

151215stormStar Wars takes many of its cues from mythology and classical history. Here’s some recommended reading if you want to see how themes from the classics found their way to a galaxy long ago and far, far away.

Episode I: The Phantom Menace – Homer, the Iliad, Book 1

I can still remember my feeling of anticipation when I first sat in the theatre to watch The Phantom Menace. We’d waited years to get the story of Anakin Skywalker’s fall from grace. We were going back in time to a more civilized age, a golden age of Jedi knights and the sophistication of the galactic republic.

The screen went dark. John Williams’s fanfare blasted from the speakers. The opening text began to scroll up from the bottom. This was everything we had been waiting for!

So what’s this crap about taxation of outlying trade routes? Huh? What is this, Accounting Wars?

The story began. We saw Jedi sitting in a conference room waiting for some cowardly bureaucrats to come and talk turkey. My heart sank in disappointment. (And we hadn’t even gotten to Jar-Jar Binks yet.)

It took many more years and several viewings of Episode I for me to appreciate what George Lucas was doing in this movie. There is a point here and it’s an important one: momentous events don’t start out looking momentous. Terrible things happen because no one is paying close enough attention to stop them when they’re small enough to be managed; only when they roll out of control do people realize what’s happening. Of course the fall of the galactic empire started because of a minor trade dispute and a lonely boy from a desert planet in the middle of nowhere. It could have started in any number of ways, but they all would have seemed just as trivial.

(Mind you, this doesn’t actually make Phantom Menace any better as a movie. It’s still plagued by terrible dialogue, wooden acting, and disturbing racial caricatures. But as a storytelling choice, it’s interesting.)

The classic mythic example of small causes leading to momentous and terrible events is the Trojan War. While pieces of the story are told in many different sources, there’s no single work that covers the entire war. Book 1 of the Iliad, however, puts us in the middle of the action to watch the last act of the war unfold. I’ve written about Book 1 of the Iliad here before, but it’s one of those texts that rewards going back to again and again.

As the Iliad opens, the Trojan war has already been going on for ten years. What we witness here is the conflict between two of the Greek captains, Achilles and Agamemnon. It begins when Agamemnon refuses to ransom a captive woman back to her father. By the end of the book, Achilles has withdrawn his forces from the fighting, which will swing the war in the Trojans’ favor, leading to the near defeat of the Greek forces, the death of Achilles’ friend Patroclus, and Achilles slaying the Trojan prince Hector in madness and grief. The death of Hector robbed the Trojans of their best warrior and sealed the fate of Troy. And it all flows from a dispute over the ransoming of a prisoner from an outlying village.

Episode II: The Attack of the Clones – Vergil, the Aeneid, Book 4

In Episode II, the awkward but kind of sweet friendship between Anakin and Padmé blossoms into an awkward and kind of icky romance. Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman have no onscreen chemistry and Padmé falling for Anakin’s creepy brooding stalker routine is the least believable thing in a movie that also features light-swords and sonic booms in space.

As a story, though, the doomed romance is interesting because this romance is not doomed for the usual reasons. From Pyramus and Thisbe to Romeo and Juliet to any number of angsty YA novels, the young lovers are usually pulled apart by forces beyond their control, whether family or fate or social pressure. Padmé and Anakin’s romance is pulled apart not by outside forces but because of their own choices. There’s plenty of machinations going on all around them, but what ultimately breaks up Padmé and Anakin is that both Padmé and Anakin decide that they have things to do that are more important than their love. These are no star-crossed lovers; they make their own painful fate.

Just such a love doomed by the choices of the lovers is the romance between Dido and Aeneas described by Vergil in Book 4 of the Aeneid. We pick up another piece of the Trojan War saga here, as Aeneas, the last surviving prince of Troy, leads a remnant of his people to their ultimate fate of founding Rome. Before arriving in Italy, though, they are washed up on the shores of Carthage, a new city ruled by its founding queen, Dido. Dido and Aeneas fall in love and Aeneas contemplates staying and settling his people in Carthage, but in the end he decides that he has to continue on the path laid out for him and bring his people to Italy. Dido kills herself in grief and rage at Aeneas’ betrayal, planting the seeds of eternal hatred between Romans and Carthaginians.

Like Padmé and Anakin, Dido and Aeneas are doomed not by others but by their own choices. There is no end of divine manipulation going on around them as Juno and Venus (the Roman equivalents of Hera and Aphrodite) continue to use human pawns in their endless spat, but in the end it comes down to the choices made by the human characters. Aeneas decides to place his duty to found Rome above his love for Dido and Dido chooses to end her life in bitterness and anger.

Episode III: The Revenge of the Sith – Euripides, Medea

As you can see, I’m pretty down on the prequels. Overall, I find them quite poor movies with a lot of flaws. They do have their bright spots, however, and an important one comes in Episode III, which rectifies one of great flaws of the original trilogy. We finally get to see how a good person can fall to the dark side.

The original trilogy leaves a lot of things unexplained, which is mostly fine. We don’t need to know how the Force works or where the stormtroopers came from. But what does it actually mean when Obi-Wan Kenobi says that Anakin Skywalker was seduced by the dark side? Both Yoda and the emperor in Return of the Jedi make it sound like the dark side is some evil EULA you sign without reading and suddenly find yourself stuck with whether you want it or not. “Ooh, you got angry while holding you laser sword. Welp, guess you’re going to spend the rest of your life kicking puppies and blowing up planets. No, there’s really nothing you can do about it.”

Episode III finally shows us that that’s not how it works. The dark side is a choice and we get to see Anakin make that choice. It’s not even that unreasonable a choice, on the face of it. The Jedi are corrupt and incompetent. The galaxy is in a state of chaos that the bureaucratic processes of the republic cannot contain. Compared with the arrogant Jedi council and the immobilized senate, Chancellor Palpatine’s gentle whispers seem quite reasonable. Anakin doesn’t just flip a switch and become evil. He follows a logical path to a horrible conclusion.

Euripides’ tragedy Medea shows us a character going through a similar process. The background of the play is the story of Jason and the Argonauts’ quest for the golden fleece. Medea, a princess of Colchis where the fleece lay, fell in love with Jason and ran off with him when he returned home from his quest. They had two children together, but Jason then abandoned Medea to make a politically advantageous marriage to Glauce, the daughter of king Creon of Corinth.

The play begins just before Jason is to marry Glauce. Medea holds the stage, furious and distraught at Jason’s betrayal. When Jason tries to calm her she reminds him that she gave up her home and family for him and without him she has nothing. She cannot return home, having disobeyed fer father, nor is she, a foreign woman, welcome in Greece without her connection to Jason. Jason offers only to keep her as his mistress when he marries Glauce, which enrages Medea further.

In her anger, Medea plots revenge against Jason. Since she gave up everything for him, she will take away everything that he holds dear. First, she secures a place for herself in Athens by promising to use her magical skills to help the city’s childless king Aegeus. Then she sets her plan in motion by sending a poisoned gift to Glauce. The poison does its work and both Glauce and Creon die horribly. Jason is now without a bride or a patron, but he still has his children by Medea, whom he loves. Even though Medea loves her children, too, she is determined to leave Jason with nothing, so she kills her own children. Before departing for Athens, she taunts Jason with the dead bodies of their children, denying him even the chance to bury them.

Euripides keeps us with Medea and lets us hear her explanations for all her actions. She has good reasons for what she does. Her fury at Jason is entirely justified. Euripides makes Jason one of the great douchebags of western literature and Creon doesn’t come off much better. Glauce doesn’t appear on stage, but to the extent that we learn anything of her character she comes off as vain and heartless. You can’t say that they don’t deserve what happens to them. The children, though, are innocents. In killing them, Medea takes a terrible step beyond even the bloody standards of Greek myth. And yet Euripides makes us understand why Medea does it. Like Anakin, Medea chooses to do horrible deeds for reasons we can understand.

Tomorrow we’ll look at the original trilogy with some more Homer and Greek tragedy.

Image: Stormreader by “Travis Durden,” via Galerie Sakura

Story Time is an occasional feature all about stories and story-telling. Whether it’s on the page or on the screen, this is about how stories work and what makes us love the ones we love.


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