Okay, so I did a bad thing yesterday and wrote an entire article about how Star Wars just might be America’s National Epic, but then I didn’t actually build the entire case. This happened because as I got towards the end of the article I realized there was still a lot I wanted to cover, that there was stuff I had unintentionally skipped, but I realized that I was satisfied with how the article flowed, and so I don’t want to go back and muck it all up.
So, without further ado, let’s establish beyond any reasonable doubt that Star Wars is America’s National Epic.
Picking up where I left off yesterday, I believe that for a story to be a national epic it has to have the following four features.
- It is culturally dominant (covered yesterday)
- It has the essential features of an epic
- It subordinates all other stories (There can only be one or two from a single culture in a particular time period).
- It says something specific about its nation’s character.
I can check off the first point because I covered it in detail yesterday, so we can start with the second. What are the essential features of an epic?
Looking back at the definitions I provided yesterday, we get that an epic is a “long narrative . . . in elevated style . . . in adventures . . . [related] to a central heroic figure and through their development of episodes important to the history of a nation or race,” or perhaps “a genre with the ambition to define a whole culture,” that “present[s] narratives of sustained obligation, handed down from heaven to earth; they require the interaction of . . . gods and mortals.”1
I think it’s pretty easy to start overlaying Star Wars onto most of those descriptors, including one that many potential American Epics would fail. Star Wars does have a strong interaction between the divine and the mortal. The presence of the Force and the obligations that power gives Luke is a pivotal part of the story. It wouldn’t be Star Wars without it.
But, when I look at the third point, I realize I have a bit more of a problem. Star Wars can’t just be an epic. It has to be THE EPIC. Which means I have to prove that nothing else is.
If you want a pretty dry, academic list of possible American epics, see this list from the Department of English at Columbia University. While I think the list succeeds in assembling a nice list of academically-accepted works, the vast majority fail because they have little to no standing outside of academic circles. Simply put, they aren’t popular enough culturally to qualify. Even if they were once bestsellers, they clearly don’t have the cultural relevance of Star Wars, which is still running strong more than 40 years after the first movie came out.
There’s a few works from this list I don’t feel comfortable throwing out just out of hand. The Great Gatsby is not a book for and about all Americans at all times but is extremely closely tied to the 1920’s. Another possible contender, also prominently featured in this Reddit thread, is The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Let’s be honest: there’s probably no more quintessentially American writer than Mark Twain. What this book has going for it is that it is a staple of childhood for most Americans, and relative to most “academic” epics it has more cultural power. Still not as much as Star Wars, but at least you can make the case. It also fails in having the essential features of the epic, especially lacking a meaningful connection between the mortal and divine, and I’m not sure what it would say about America if Huck Finn embodies our main characteristics.
Alright, so we’ve covered the first three points. It’s time to cover the fourth—What exactly does Star Wars say about America? Is Star Wars quintessentially American?
Both of these questions seem somewhat absurd in light of the fact that Star Wars is set in a galaxy far, far away, a long time ago.
But the more I look at this story the more it begins to remind me of America’s story.
Luke is essentially an indentured servant at the beginning of Episode IV, limited not by ambition or by adventurousness but by the economic reality of his situation. He’s hopeful, desiring to exchange the status quo for a more fulfilling life, but beyond that he’s a good person, always going out of his way to help others.
Let’s talk about the bad guys: they’re literally part of an empire, and while the specific details regarding the empire’s failure are different, the Empire and the British Empire share some of the same broad problems. Both fail to give their citizens full democratic representation and respond to criticism with overwhelming force.
And, let’s talk about the rebels. America has those, too. In fact, we’re so good at having those, we had a whole revolution and named it after ourselves just to prove how good we were at it. And, just like in the movie, underequipped, outnumbered rebels were able to defeat the Empire, ushering in a new age of freedom.
The parallels are there. Unfortunately, I’m not sure they’re quite as strong as I would like. Part of the problem with Star Wars in this regard is the fact that The Hero’s Journey is central to the story. George Lucas read The Hero With a Thousand Faces while writing the script and adopted many of its ideas. At its heart, The Hero With a Thousand Faces advances the idea that there are common elements to a story shared across myths from many cultures, even though they don’t share a common source. Lucas modified his story to fit the particular elements that reappear from culture to culture.
On the one hand, this ties Star Wars back to the Odyssey and the Iliad, as those were some of the stories consulted when developing the framework of The Hero’s Journey. On the other hand, it lends Star Wars a certain level of universality, which makes it less particularly American.
If there were to be a characteristic that Star Wars fails when in competition to be the American Epic, it’s this one. While I have advanced some areas in which it might be directly related to the history of America, I recognize that these are more anecdotal and by interpretation than by intentional design.
I want to take a moment and rate how well Star Wars fits into the categories that I laid out at the beginning. I’ve enjoyed writing this piece and I think I’m going to return to it in the future with different works. This numerical system will more easily allow cross-work comparison.
- Cultural Dominance 10/10
- Essential Features of an Epic 7/10
- Subordinates Other Stories 8/10
- American Characteristics 4/10
Overall Score 29/40
- sources can be found on yesterday’s blog
It seems as though when you talk about the American qualities of Star Wars you or only looking at the original trilogy, or maybe even only the fourth movie. The original trilogy does seem deeply based around the American Revolution, and some of that may be because the American Revolution was one of the most influential in history.
However, looking at the sequels, there is some explicit Good Guys v. Nazis symbolism going on. I think that that is cause for at least some more review.
Off the top of my head for the prequels… Actually, as I began writing that sentence Episode III jumped out at me as a commentary on bloated democracy, or democracy in general. Additionally the senate seems based far more on American democracy than Greek democracy.
I think there are more subliminal or subconscious layers to uncover in these films.