Why Star Wars Matters
By Matt Woolley, Ph.D.
I was 5 years old when Star Wars A New Hope was released in theatres. The experience of seeing that movie on the big screen at that young and impressionable age was powerful. Today, watching Star Wars in the comfort of my own home, I still get goose bumps when the star destroyer (now in HD) lumbers overhead in the opening scene or when Darth Vader ominously enters the screen onto the captured ship, Tantive IV, for the very first time. Even though the movies are unquestionably cool, over the years Iâ€™ve wondered, seriously, why Iâ€™ve always loved Star Wars so much!
As a teenager in the mid to late 1980â€™s, when most of my friends were no longer very interested in the films, I would find myself sneaking down to the video store (VHS baby!) and renting the original trilogy over and over again. Not wanting to be seen as a nerd by my friends I generally kept this habit to myself (sad and fairly pathetic, I know). And even then, way before becoming a psychologist, I wondered why the films were, to me, more than entertainment. Why did I, as an angst-ridden teen, actually feel better emotionally after seeing Obi-Wan Kenobi show up to rescue Luke from the Sand People, or listening to Yoda tutor a sulking Luke in the swamp of Degobah, or experiencing Han Solo proclaim, â€œNever tell me the odds!â€
The answer to my question, I now know, is identification with the archetypal characters of the films. An archetype is a universally understood symbol, a prototype. Character prototypes are often used in myths and storytelling as a way to portray basic aspects of human character and evoke meaning in the story and emotion in the reader or viewer. Star Wars is absolutely full of them. Luke is the Hero, Obi-Wan Kenobi is the Mentor, Princess Leia is the Damsel in distress (sort of, sheâ€™s really more of a heroine), Yoda is the Wise Old Sage, Han Solo is the Rogue, Chewbacca is the Loyal Friend, and Darth Vader is the Shadow or perhaps the Devil. George Lucasâ€™s characters make transformations from film to film and their archetypes change shapes accordingly, but these are a few basics from the original trilogy.
Ok, but why does this matter? It sounds simple enough, take a basic character prototype, like a hero, put him or her in the story so people will relate to being the hero or wanting to be the hero, and you create an emotional connection that keeps people coming back for more. The truth is itâ€™s much more personal and significant than that.
Star Wars matters because as a mythology it utilizes archetypal characters that are projections of basic aspects of the human psyche; basic aspects of who we are, who we wish we were, and what we need, want, and fear. And the fascinating thing is that over time we relate to different character archetypes more keenly based on what we are going through at the time (i.e.: what we are projecting from our unconscious psyche). Therefore, at different times in our lives we may feel drawn more toward one character versus another based on our needs.
For example, a young child who feels the desperate need to overcome challenges and be the hero of his own life is likely to focus on Luke Skywalker. A lonely child who wants a close friend may focus on the loyalty of Chewbacca or R2D2, or an adolescent who is in need of guidance may relate primarily to Obi-Wan or Yoda. By identifying with a character that represents our own personal unconscious projections we can vicariously work out our most basic and fundamental needs in real time. Very cool!
Hereâ€™s a short personal story to illustrate my point: Shortly after moving from one State to another I found myself sitting in a classroom of kids I didnâ€™t know. At the time I was feeling pretty out of control and lonely, making friends at the new school wasnâ€™t going very well. On this day one particular student who had been mean to me at recess was talking, droning on and on to the teacher about something, and I was feeling very annoyed. I still recall lifting my right hand, cupping my thumb and forefinger in the air, and thinking that if I just concentrated hard enough I would be able to use the force to choke my new nemesis (ala Darth Vader: â€œI find your lack of faith disturbing!â€). Yes, Iâ€™m still somewhat embarrassed, but hey thatâ€™s who I was and what I was going through at the time. Who was more powerful and in control than Darth Vader? No one! Who was angry and feeling powerless? I was. To my credit, even at that young age, I had a pretty good idea that I wasnâ€™t actually going to be able to use the force to vanquish my foes, but via the vehicle of the Darth Vader archetype maybe I did, at least vicariously.
During adolescence much of our personality identity development is taking place. â€œWhat type of person am I becoming?â€ â€œWill I be a hero or a villain, a warrior or a sage?â€ These are unconscious questions, but part of the process of our psychological development and the building blocks of our adult personalities. But archetypes represent aspects of the human psyche at all stages of development, after all Yoda was nearly 900 years old! Young and old alike relate to and benefit from the process of identifying with literary archetypes.
Now, back to my Star Wars filled childhood! I still vividly recall playing in the sand pile behind our home in Fullerton, California with all of my â€œStar Wars guysâ€ in various forms of battle. I literally would play for hours setting the figures up and playing out suspenseful dramas and battles. And at that time Luke Skywalker and Han Solo were definitely my favorites. Heroes and rogues, what more does a young boy need? Now I am a much different person. Iâ€™m certainly older. I am a father, a husband, and a psychologist who meets and talks intimately with individuals every day. My appreciation for Obi-Wan, Yoda, and yes even Qui-Gon Jinn, have greatly increased. I find myself more focused on these characters than I am on the younger heroes and villains of the stories.
So, am I still working out the details of my identity as I sit down to watch Star Wars with my kids? I sure hope so! Psychologist Carl Rogers taught us that as human beings we are forever in a state of â€œbecoming.â€ I believe that. And Iâ€™d like to think that perhaps Iâ€™m becoming a little more like the character Iâ€™m meant to be each time I get lost in a galaxy far, far away.