Tuesday, April 3, 2012

It's All Greek To Me

-Myths and Epics and Dramas, Oh My–

“If The Odyssey had enjoyed – or suffered – as much anticipatory
fluffing as Phantom Menace did, some ancient Greeks surely would
have muttered, ‘Homer’s lost it.’ And the poet would
defend himself, as Lucas does today.”
- Richard Corlis, TIME, 2002

     After winding my way through several interpretations and commentaries on the grand Greek duology, The Iliad and The Odyssey, it doesn’t take too much effort to find all the implications to Star Wars. At least, not for me. Then again, my mind pretty much automatically translates everything of this ilk into being about Star Wars, whether it is or not. Still, the comparisons are there and pretty interesting.
     This isn’t going to be a detailed look at the specific parallels between the stories, so much as a quick glance at various elements I’ve gleaned from my own studies. The first time I can consciously recall hearing any such comparisons were, no surprise, from our old friend Joseph Campbell. In The Power of Myth, Campbell remarked on a similarity between the quest of Telemachus, who’s looking for his long lost father, Odysseus, and Luke Skywalker, who is doing much the same in the original trilogy. According to Campbell, it’s about finding out what your source is and what your career is. What your adventure is.
     While flipping through World Mythology, a grand collection of tales the world over, Donna Rosenberg made some interesting comments about the nature of the twin Greek epics that inspired so much of Western culture. It is believed that the poet Homer probably created both The Iliad and The Odyssey, perhaps the first in his youth, and the second in his older years, though there’s obviously a lot of debate about this. What is really interesting to me is her descriptions of the two works:

The principal difference between the two epics is that The Odyssey
is primarily a superb adventure story, perhaps the greatest in literature,
whereas The Iliad is a serious, dramatic portrayal of human personality
and the conflicts that arise between a person’s own wishes and his or her
responsibility to the needs of the community.

Thus, the plot of The Odyssey has a narrower focus than that of
The Iliad. Instead of presenting the heroic deeds and psychological
conflicts of Greek and Trojan heroes, The Odyssey describes a long
and difficult journey of Odysseus, one of the heroes in The Iliad as
he returns from Troy and struggles for his control of his kingdom.

     Those two paragraphs really struck the fanboy in me when I first read them. She could just as easily have been talking about the prequel trilogy and the original one as opposed to the Greek epics. Actually, the main difference is that George Lucas, unlike Homer, wrote and directed the prequels in his older years and the sequels in his youth. Still, the comparisons are ripe.
     The original trilogy paints the tale of Luke Skywalker, who is striving to become a Jedi Knight and overthrow the evil Empire which has the galaxy enslaved. Perhaps first and foremost, like The Odyssey, it is a superb adventure story, arguably the greatest adventure story in the history of cinema. It also focuses on a narrower cast of heroes and, while the galactic civil war is still going on unlike the Trojan one, there is certainly a struggle for control of the kingdom, played out in large part between father and son. And true, Luke doesn’t have to outsmart a Cyclops, but he does have to take down a Rancor.
     The prequel trilogy is perhaps a more serious and dramatic portrayal of human personality, much like The Iliad. While centering around the windy plains of Troy, much of the conflict takes place between Agamemnon and Achilles. While the greatest Greek warrior - the Chosen One, if you will - Achilles’ honor has been taken from him by Agamemnon, the leader of the Greeks. Incidentally, for those who found Anakin Skywalker whiny in the prequels, Achilles spends a significant amount of time not fighting alongside his men in the Trojan War, but rather pouting in his tent. Just a note.
     At any rate, the prequels also boast a profound conflict between a person’s own wishes and his responsibility to the community, a conflict that is found in spades in the Anakin and Padme relationship. It also lurks behind the entire Jedi Code.
     Donna Rosenberg also notes:

In addition, the moral issues in The Odyssey are clearer than they are
in The Iliad. Many characters in The Odyssey act more like heroes or
villains, whereas more of the characters in The Iliad have complex
personalities and display a combination of good and bad traits. In
keeping with Homer’s attitude toward good and evil in The Odyssey,
the heroes survive, the gods punish the villains by killing them, and
the story ends happily. In contrast, the best among the heroes in The
Iliad make mistakes and die, and the story has an unhappy ending.

     This certainly holds true when comparing the original trilogy to the prequel one. From the first scenes onward, a Sith Lord dressed all in black captures a princess dressed all in white, and there is little question in A New Hope who the good guys are and who the bad ones are. Even the mercenary Han Solo comes around in the end. Right up until the last act of The Empire Strikes Back, particularly with the revelation of Darth Vader’s fatherhood, the heroes are heroes and the villains are villains. In the end of Return of the Jedi, Death Stars are blown up, the Emperor gets the shaft, and it’s hard to get much happier than an Ewok party in the tree villages of Endor.
     The prequel trilogy, on the other hand, is often mired in ambiguity. Much like in The Iliad, the characters have a very complex set of traits. The Jedi practically initiate a war in front of legions of clone troopers and aboard the bridges of Star Destroyers, while the lead hero falls to the dark side in Revenge of the Sith. Characters even repeat dialogue at different points, such as Chancellor Palpatine and Mace Windu who each tell Anakin that respective enemies are “too dangerous to be kept alive.” The heroes make mistakes and the bad guys win the day. The prequel trilogy ends with Obi-Wan and Yoda exiled, Padme dead, Anakin as Darth Vader, and the Sith once more in control of the galaxy. Grim, indeed.
     Along these lines, I’ve also been enjoying the Modern Scholar series on CD. The first I chose was Monsters, Gods, and Heroes, which traces the development of the epic in Western civilization. With lectures by Professor Timothy Shutt, it began with The Iliad and The Odyssey, and then Virgil’s Aeneid, eventually moving on to Dante’s Divine Comedy, Milton’s Paradise Lost, some Edmund Spenser, and a few others that have developed outside the realm of verse, taking the form of novels.
     For my money, Star Wars is certainly a continuation of this trend. In point of fact, I would stand it up against about any of the others mentioned. It would acquit itself well. While Professor Shutt did cite Lord of the Rings and other fantasy works as bringing the epic back into the postmodern world, he did mention “the various Star Wars films” in the course booklet that came with the series as doing the same.
     He also hit on the very real hunger that still exists for these types of stories, regardless of whether human beings can accept them as being serious and true anymore. They may have to exist in the realms of science fiction and fantasy, because a post-Enlightenment Western world can’t accept them anywhere else, but one is certainly a continuation of the other.
     Nonetheless, Shutt did mention how engineering majors and such would no doubt write myth and epic off altogether as “A lot of silly stories that don’t mean anything.” No doubt they would feel the same way about Star Wars as well, not to mention people who dress up as stormtroopers and Jedi on a regular basis. In my opinion, this attitude has become a significant problem in society today.
     Sure, the liberal arts and humanities are at something of an impasse as they do not automatically lead to six figure incomes, yet without them society winds up creatively and intellectually crippled. A mythic wasteland. Still, Shutt feels the epic is on the rise, even with the predominance of irony and the abstract in the art world (Fair enough, he feels the abstract pretty much peaked with Jackson Pollock splattering paint on a canvas).
     Incidentally, I’ve also been listening to more of the Modern Scholar series, this time with Professor Peter Meineck on Greek Drama. Yes, more comparisons abound. I found it interesting that “theater” actually means “seeing place” and, while there was a profound marriage of the literary and the visual in Greek drama, it is nice to be reminded that film is first and foremost a visual event. One quite literally goes to the cinema to see, and the vistas and splendor of Star Wars is unparalleled in that regard.
     It’s funny listening to Meineck conjure up images of Athens in the fifth century B.C., particularly when Greeks are camping out in lines to get good seats. Granted, no one was dressed up as Darth Maul or Yoda, but it is highly reminiscent of the inevitable lines that creep around the cinema whenever a new Star Wars film debuts. Actually, in the days of Sophocles and Euripides and Aeschylus, it surprised me that plays were performed one time, and one time only (Imagine a Star Wars film coming out and only getting to see it one lousy time! Now that would be a tragedy).
     The professor also waxed lyrical about the shared communal experience, which also strongly reminded me of what happens to an audience during a midnight premiere of a Star Wars film. It is a highly emotional experience and, much like in ancient Greece, perhaps even a borderline sacred one. Even going to the theater today, with its stadium seats, enormous screens, and all-encompassing stereo sound, brings a taste of this to the modern soul. Particularly when everything goes quiet and the words “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away” form on the screen. And much like the Athenians, they didn’t go to the theater to see “kitchen sink drama,” but rather tales of gods and heroes, stories that dealt with social, political, and mythological themes.
     In short, your average fifth century Athenian would have felt right at home watching Star Wars at the local AMC, or more at home than you might think. And as far as Greek tragedy goes, I bet Revenge of the Sith or The Empire Strikes Back could certainly give the plays of Aeschylus a run for first prize ….

P.S. Yes, the rumors are true. The Star Wars Heresies is graduating to book form, hopefully by fall of 2013. Unfortunately, that also means my blogging time is seriously hijacked. Between that and a move, time has been in short supply. Hopefully I will be getting better at balancing it all. Stay tuned!


  1. My literature teacher adored Homer and used to say, "His works should be read while kneeling," half-jokingly. She’s a passionate fan, just like I'm a fan of Star Wars.

    But that's not the only reason I've always felt sure there's something similar between Homer and Star Wars. *gg*

    Fascinating reading! Thank you! :)

  2. I also meant to mention that one-third of the lines in Homer are repeated. Which is also a Star Wars thing. Only instead of the "Rosy-fingered dawn" or the "wine-dark sea," we get "I have a bad feeling about this" or "This is where the fun begins." Oh well, I kinda wrote it in a hurry ...