Star Wars Medieval Dystopia-edited2

‘Star Wars and/as medieval dystopia’: UoN Popular Culture Lecture Series


PhD student Emma Vosper reviews Dr Christina Lee’s examination of the medieval influences on Star Wars.

Since the release of the second trailer for ‘Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens’ on 16 April, Star Wars fever has been gaining increasing momentum across the globe. In their combined contribution to the University of Nottingham’s Popular Culture Lecture Series, Drs Christina Lee and Nathan Waddell tapped into this growing frenzy with a compelling analysis of the medieval and dystopian influences on George Lucas’ epic franchise.

In her half of the discussion, Dr Lee promoted a view expounded by Marilyn Sherman in 1979, two years after the release of ‘Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope’. Sherman observed striking parallels between Star Wars and the iconic and much-loved genre of medieval Arthurian romance. ‘For example, Luke gets his knowledge of the Jedi Knights and their noble values from the wise, mystical, and Merlin-like character, Obi-Wan Kenobi’.

Dr Lee expanded Sherman’s comments by examining several themes visible in the Star Wars franchise that are eerily foreshadowed in medieval literature. In doing so, Dr Lee raises an exciting question – is George Lucas a fan of medieval literature?!

A Doomed Empire

Roman RuinThe new trailer for ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ opens by panning across a deserted landscape to a crashed Star Destroyer (one of the imperial warships featured in the original Star Wars films). For Dr Lee, this scene evokes the destruction of the Roman Empire as depicted in the Anglo-Saxon poem The Ruin. This poem gives a haunting description of the crumbling remains of a Roman city that has been ‘wasted by fate’ (wyrde gebræcon) and now lies in disrepair.

The religiously inspired notion that all humans are doomed to fall is hugely prevalent in Anglo-Saxon literature and Dr Lee highlighted that growing awareness of the Apocalypse (brought forward by the greed and corruption of mankind) was the cause of this damning perception of humanity. It is a perception apparently shared by George Lucas, whose original Star Wars trilogy focused closely on the inevitable victory of heroic rebels over a corrupt and self-serving system.

Wyrd: A Precursor to the Force?

The Ruin’s reference to wyrd (defined by the Bosworth-Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary as ‘fate, fortune, chance’) was presented by Dr Lee as ‘a concept similar to the Force’. Scholars have fiercely debated whether wyrd is a Christian or pagan concept, but Dr Lee believes that it is neither. Instead, her discussion proposed that wyrd—a difficult idea to express in modern English—was entirely divorced from faith and that, to the Anglo-Saxons, it shaped people’s lives with greater authority than fate or chance alone. Was it a supernatural power more akin to the Force harnessed by Jedi and Sith than to the prophetic agency of fate? Dr Lee argues that this might be stretching the analogy too far, yet George Lucas may well have drawn upon wyrd—a concept that survived into Shakespeare’s age as demonstrated by his famous ‘Weird Sisters’ in Macbeth—when forming his ideas about the Force.

Wastelands 

Guthlac 2Wastelands held huge significance for medieval authors as the dwelling places of monsters and other individuals who have been ostracised from society. A common trope in medieval literature is the self-banishment of the hero to a forgotten wasteland where he battles his inner demons. Dr Lee highlighted the striking resemblance between St Guthlac’s struggles in the Cambridgeshire Fens and Luke’s struggles on Dagobah. Guthlac was an Anglo-Saxon mercenary warrior who fought for King Æthelred of Mercia before renouncing his secular life to take holy orders.  He travelled to the remote island of Crowland in the marshy Fens where he battled demonic figures and proved himself to be a worthy soldier of God. Luke also travels to a marsh-filled land where he earns his right to the title ‘Jedi Knight’.

Fathers & Sons

Hildebrandslied KummerAnother tale that bears a striking resemblance to the Star Wars franchise is the Old High German text Hildebrandslied. In this work, Hildebrand meets his son, Hadubrand, on the battlefield. Hildebrand quickly realises that Hadubrand is his son and tries to convince him to come to his side. But Hadubrand, believing his father to be dead, thinks Hildebrand is trying to trick him and so father and son fight to the death. The similarity between this tale and the iconic ‘I am your father’ scene in ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ makes it hard to believe that Lucas was a stranger to medieval motifs. The idea of a son fighting his father after refusing to believe his father’s claim to paternity is a common theme in medieval literary tradition. Yet instead of concluding that Star Wars is directly influenced by medieval literature, we should remember that many tropes popular in the Middle Ages have continued to the present day.

Dr Lee’s light-hearted but fascinating discussion was a welcome representation of medieval studies in the successful and well-attended Popular Culture Lecture Series. Since this blog post gives only the barest glimpse at her arguments, it is to be hoped that similar lectures will take place in the future!

Images: ‘Roman Town House – Dorchester’ © Elliott Brown; ‘Guthlac Arriving at Croyland’, Harleian Guthlac Roll Y.6 © A Clerk of Oxford; ‘Hildebrandsleid’ © The Chaucer Studio

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