Star Wars and the Classics, Part II: The Original Trilogy

151216vaseYesterday we looked at how classical literature offers interesting ways of looking at the Star Wars prequel movies. We continue today with the original movies.

Episode IV: A New Hope – Homer, the Odyssey, Books 14-22

Episode IV can be read, from a certain point of view, as an essay in heroism. In particular, we see three different kinds of heroes: the always-was-a-hero, the becoming-a-hero, and the choosing-to-be-a-hero.

Leia is the always-was. She is a hero from the beginning of the movie straight through to the end. We never see her stop being heroic, even when being rescued. She has been part of the rebellion literally since she was born and even the destruction her homeworld doesn’t stop her.

Luke is the becoming. He starts as just a farmboy who dreams of far-off adventure. When he discovers his true heritage he strives to live up to the legacy of his father Anakin the great Jedi. Much is expected of him and he does his best to be the hero that people like Obi-Wan and Leia need him to be.

Han is the choosing-to-be. He’s a smuggler and scoundrel who isn’t in it for the rebellion. He just wants to do a job and get paid. He could have just flown away from Yavin with his hold full of cash and nobody would have been surprised. Instead, he decides to come back and help Luke blow up the Death Star.

The same three kinds of heroes appear in the Odyssey. In Book 14, Odysseus has just made it safely home to Ithaca but is still in disguise, getting the lay of the land and figuring out how to deal with the suitors who have been gorging themselves in his hall. The next few books follow Odysseus as he gathers allies, makes plans, and finally confronts the suitors in the final battle in Book 22.

Odysseus is here the always-was. He is a veteran of the great war at Troy and a cunning warrior. He begins the epic as a hero and never falters. Nothing stops him in his determination to get home and reclaim his place as king. Books 14-22 show him as a steady, crafty commander, biding his time and waiting for the right moment to strike.

Odysseus’ son Telemachus is the becoming. As the epic begins, he is just entering manhood and starting to take his first tentative steps into his father’s old role. For Telemachus, the Odyssey is all about proving that he is a worthy son to a heroic father that he knows only through stories. In this stretch of the epic he finally meets his father and proves that he can live up to his example.

The choosing-to-be hero of the Odyssey is Eumaeus, swineherd to Odysseus’ house and one of the servants who remains loyal to Odysseus, even when his master has been gone for twenty years. The sensible thing for Eumaeus to do would have been to abandon Odysseus and suck up to the suitors, like many of the other servants do, to secure his place in the household when Penelope eventually marries one of them. Instead, he sticks by his old master and helps him take back his home.

Episode V: Empire Strikes Back – Sophocles, Oedipus the King

Episode V bring us an interesting example of an ancient problem: destiny vs. choice.

There’s an awful lot of talk about destiny and fate in this movie, mostly directed at Luke. Vader declares it Luke’s destiny to join him and rule the galaxy as father and son. Yoda warns Luke that going to Cloud City to save his friends will destroy everything they have worked for. Everyone seems to know more about Luke’s fate than he does himself.

In fact, they’re all wrong. Luke doesn’t fall to the dark side and he doesn’t destroy the rebellion. How could so many very wise people be so wrong? Yoda, Obi-Wan, Vader, and Palpatine all make the same mistake: they assume that Luke will be just like Anakin and will make the same choices Anakin made. It’s not an unreasonable assumption. Luke is a lot like his father: impetuous, passionate, and committed to the people he cares about. The people who saw Anakin fall see the same traits in Luke and assume that, given the opportunity, his fate will be the same.

Luke surprises them all because, faced with the same circumstances, he makes a different choice. He defies Vader and chooses almost certain death over joining the dark side and the empire. What makes Luke different from Anakin? The one thing Luke has that Anakin didn’t is Vader. He has before him a clear example of what happens when you choose the wrong path. He understands far better than Anakin ever did the consequences of choosing power and order over compassion and tolerance, and he understands it because of all the people around him who were so sure they knew his future. With Obi-Wan and Yoda on one side and Vader and the emperor on the other, Luke’s choice was easy to make. It was those who were most certain about Luke’s destiny that made it possible for him to choose a different path.

The great classic meditation on fate and choice is Sophocles’ tragedy Oedipus the King (also known as Oedipus Tyrannus or Oedipus Rex). We often think of Oedipus as a character doomed by fate. Son of the king and queen of Thebes, he was abandoned in the wilderness as a baby because of a prophecy that he would kill his father. He was rescued and taken in by the king and queen of Corinth who raised him as their own. As a young man he went to the oracle and Delphi to learn his future and was warned that he would kill his own father and bed his mother. Horrified at the thought, Oedipus did not go home to Corinth but went instead to Thebes after killing an old man on the road who refused to make way for him. There he married the queen and became king, only later to discover that the queen was actually his mother and the old man he killed on the road his father.

Fate seems to reign supreme. Every attempt to evade prophecy just leads to its fulfillment. But Oedipus isn’t just a pawn. Fate didn’t make him kill a stranger on the road. He did that because he was an arrogant, reckless young hothead. All he needed to do to change his destiny was be a little more patient.

His fate was always in his own hands.

We see Oedipus’ character displayed early on in the play. When plague falls upon Thebes because of Oedipus’ actions, he calls upon the seer Tiresias to reveal the cause of the gods’ anger. Tiresias refuses to do it because he knows Oedipus won’t listen to him. Oedipus flies into a rage at the seer’s refusal. He is still the same impatient, violent hothead he was when he unknowingly killed his own father. He knows no way to cope with frustration except violence.

Oedipus is doomed, there is no denying it. But his doom comes from within, not without. His own choices seal his fate, not some external destiny that he cannot escape, just as Luke saves himself and the rebellion not by fate but by his own choice.

Episode VI: The Return of the Jedi – Homer, the Iliad, Book 24

We began with the opening of the Iliad, so it is fitting to conclude with its ending.

While the original trilogy was the story of Luke Skywalker, the whole hexalogy is Anakin’s story. We saw his fall in Episode III. Episode VI brings his redemption. Anakin’s fall to the dark side was a choice and so is his return to the light. He chooses to save his son by destroying the emperor, abandoning his loyalty to Sith and empire in favor of compassion for another person’s suffering. At the last he confesses that Luke was right to believe in his capacity for goodness.

A powerful scene of compassion also comes at the end of the Iliad. After losing his friend Patroclus to Hector’s blade, Achilles was driven into a madness of grief. He became an almost superhuman killing machine without pity or remorse. He lost something of his humanity when Patroclus fell.

After he kills Hector, Achilles’ rage is finally spent. His madness passes. Then something remarkable happens: Priam, king of Troy, comes secretly to Achilles’ tent in the night and begs Achilles to give him back Hector’s body so that he can bury his son.

At the beginning of the Iliad, Achilles and Priam had no reason to hate one another. In his quarrel with Agamemnon, Achilles points out that the Trojans had never done him any harm. Priam, in his first appearance in the epic, has to have the Greek commanders identified for him by Helen, an indication of his disinterest in the war. By the end of the epic, things have changed. Priam’s son killed Achilles’ best friend and Achilles himself killed Hector. Both have suffered painful losses and both have every reason to hate one another. A meeting between the two of them should have been a fight to the death.

Instead, they share their grief. They shed tears together and Achilles shows kindness to Priam. Achilles, the implacable warrior, proves that there is still goodness in him.

The end of the Iliad mixes despair and hope. We know that the story is already written. Troy will fall, as it must. But the story of Achilles gives us hope for the future. If even someone like Achilles can find his humanity again, can choose compassion over vengeance, then there is hope for the rest of us. Peace comes when people who have every right to hate one another choose to weep together instead. Star Wars ends with just such a moment of hope. If someone who has gone as deep into hatred and destruction as Anakin has can still choose to change his path, to do good instead of evil, then so can the rest of us.

Post edited for clarity

Image: Star Wars Greek Vase by Andre Asai via Deviantart

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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