Modern Myth and Meaning is a blog series on the contributions of literature and pop culture to contemporary mythology. It investigates how themes represented in science fiction and fantasy intersect with layers of American consciousness, exploring the meanings of those connections.
“And where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god; where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves; where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the center of our own existence; where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world.”
Through all the permutations of the franchise, Star Wars has emerged today as a narrative that transcends political boundaries, engaging with roots of American consciousness.
You’ve probably heard of Joseph Campbell, the comparative mythologist who famously admired the original Star Wars trilogy and whose work inspired later drafts of A New Hope, according to Lucas. While his language does sometimes perpetuate harmful stereotypes, and the hero’s journey he made famous has been beaten flat by the formula purveyors of Hollywood, the scope and depth of the man’s insight into myth remains unparalleled.
Campbell thought that in order for modern society to rejuvenate itself from a detached spiritual condition, we were going to need some new symbols. We would need new myths that could mill the detritus of our secular culture, rearranging it in ways that would allow even a cynical modern human to feel the tug of the transcendental. So when Campbell told Bill Moyers that he thought Star Wars was an authentic myth, he actually meant that it holds redemptive powers for humanity.
I happen to agree with him. For all the imperfections of Episodes I-III and onward, Star Wars has managed to transmute the whole of this complex, factious empire we call home.
A nation of rebels
One key to this magic trick is the theme of rebellion, which has been a facet of our national historical narrative since the country gained independence from a colonial power, through to the point of becoming one. The theme allows us to see ourselves reflected in all sides of the Star Wars mythos. But we tend to identify with one.
In reading up for this article, I learned that the Rebel Alliance Starbird, or Phoenix, comes from the family crest of Vader’s former apprentice, Galen Marek, who gave his life to save the founders of the alliance. So I guess it alludes to the power of sacrifice, which recurs with Vader and then Luke. But it’s not really the hyper-inflected back story of the Star Wars canon that grabs me. I care that it was the insignia Luke wore on his helmet when he blew up the Death Star. I care that it’s the symbol of the rebellion.
I don’t think I’m alone in this, considering that the Starbird has arisen as a symbol of resistance to the Trump administration in the last few years. In 2016, some Star Wars writers used it in combination with a safety pin, indicating a combination of rebellion against empire and safe space for people belonging to vulnerable populations.
You may even have seen Leia Organa cosplayed at demonstrations such as the Women’s March, or people with signs saying things like, “Rebellions are built on hope.”
When I first saw the Starbird in these contexts, I cheered. Because I love Star Wars and I’m decidedly leftist and sick with the current state of the union. But when I started doing research on the symbol, I ran across what felt like a cruel truth: the other side loves Star Wars too. Take this blogger, who used the Starbird as a symbol of resistance against the Obama administration, likening President Obama to Chancellor Palpatine for his abuse of the executive branch.
And was that a light saber Ajit Pai was holding as he danced to the Harlem Shake and rubbed it in our face that he’d repealed Net Neutrality? Yes, yes, it was.
For me, it’s like sandpaper on an open sore to see the political Right make use of Star Wars. The child inside me cries out, It’s mine! But I have to admit to a certain shock of understanding when it comes to the blogger above, at least (not so much Ajit Pai, who strikes me as more cynical). I get where people are coming from when they ardently engage with the same myth I know and love. We’ve got some pretty similar fears.
The dark side and the shadow
My point is not to establish moral equivalency. Far from it. The point is that it’s good to humanize one another and recognize the ferocity with which we tend to resist our own shadow, or repressed psychology. As my daguerreotype boyfriend Joseph would say, we tend to manifest these deep struggles without intending to:
“Today no meaning is in the group—none in the world: all is in the individual. But there the meaning is absolutely unconscious…The lines of communication between the conscious and the unconscious zones of the human psyche have all been cut, and we have been split in two.”
America is the republic that rises from the ashes. We are the oligarchy governed by a deeply entrenched ruling class that plotted its return to power from the shadows. We exist in a deeply divided state. And Americans from all sides of the political spectrum will continue to see their own values reflected in Star Wars, because this is the nature of authentic myth. It belongs to everyone and no one.
What’s your favorite Star Wars symbol? Share in the comments below, or tweet me @ewonice or the editors @AmazingStories0!
If you liked this article, you might also enjoy reading the previous post in the series.