Lord of the Rings
2001: Space Odyssey
The Wizard of Oz
E.E. "Doc" Smith
More other stuff
Other Science Fiction
Will the destruction of moon-sized battlestation orbiting the forest moon of Endor cause any negative environmental consequences? Like, say, an Endorian Holocaust? Illustration courtesy of Justine Shaw, ©1999.
How can I contribute to this project?
Please share your ideas with us at the Star Wars Origins Message Board!
As for me personally, I spent two solid years and over a thousand hours sifting through Star Wars and related stuff, from roughly October 1999 to October 2001. Now I need to never think about it again or my brain will explode. If you'd like to contact me personally concerning something that doesn't belong in the forum, please send me an email.
When was this website last updated?
The last tweak was on September 4, 2006. Hopefully this is the final version. For breaking news and original observations by readers, please visit the Star Wars Origins Message Board.
Are you accusing George Lucas of plagiarism, or saying that Star Wars is unoriginal?
Exactly the opposite! The surface elements of a story are the most visible, but when you start explore how story works you quickly realize that surface elements are really the least-significant parts of a story. For instance, Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings borrows the idea of "orcs" from the orcneas of Beowulf. Tolkien noted in his private papers that orcs are the same creatures he called "goblins" in The Hobbit. He probably became unhappy with the word "goblin" because it derives from the French (gobelin), and he wanted to create a myth that was English. Does that mean that Tolkien ripped off Beowulf? On the other hand, if Tolkien had called his orcs "goblins," would that have changed his story in any really important way? The power of a story lies mostly in how the underlying archetypes relate, not what form those archetypes take. The surface elements just need to be appealing, easy to understand, and fit together with some kind of logic.
So why borrow from inspirations at all? Star Wars is a compressed form of the epic myth, which is kind of a "summing up" of all the best stories and perspectives of a culture into a single story. Lucas tied together ideas from world cinema, science fiction, comic books, fantasy, westerns, fairy tales and myth. If this sounds easy, check out any of the films and television programs that tried to repeat the "Star Wars success formula." Why are they so awful? Because they imitate only the surface, and the surface is almost irrelevant. The film which best repeats the inner lessons of Star Wars is The Matrix, which is carefully structured to avoid a superficial resemblance.
A myth-maker's originality lies in the way they combine mostly pre-existing ideas as seamlessly and appealingly as possible. As Joseph Campbell has often said, myth is an essential tool for living. George Lucas has modernized the Universal Myth in a way people all over the world can easily connect with. That's not just hype, it's a real contribution to the world. That's why Star Wars is such a big deal.
Haven't some film critics accused Lucas of being derivative?
Sure, but this says more about the illiteracy of film critics than about Lucas. The well-educated critics of the previous century would read The Odyssey, for instance, and think "Ah, here's an idea from Gilgamesh, another from Egyptian mythology, and this character is from a folk tale the Semites popularized in Greece for hundreds of years before Homer was born." They wouldn't therefore dismiss Homer as "derivative," but judge him by the craft he displayed in weaving these basic, timeless story ideas together. The modern critic rarely recognizes the literary sources behind most great movies because they're typically not well-read. But they have seen lots of movies, so they're quick to spot the riffs Lucas borrows from classic films and, misunderstanding the creative process, accuse him of being "derivative."
Don't get me wrong, if a story feels like a blatant rip-off to you, trust your instinct to avoid investing in it emotionally. But if you're hesitant about a story you love because a naysayer points out the story's sources, relax: even the Bible, Shakespeare and the Greek tragedies were strongly grounded in earlier stories, along with all the great epics, folktales and religious scriptures from all over the world. Even our oldest written stories, dating back from the time writing was first invented around 3,500 BCE, were based on oral stories composed probably tens of thousands of years before. All great stories have deep roots. Don't let the insecure project their fear of appearing uncool onto you, bamboozling you away from what rings true in your heart. To learn best from stories you've got to trust your gut to decide which stories nourish you most, no matter how goofy they seem to anyone else. Tinky-Winky Uber Alles.
The next time a critic makes dismissive comments about a story you love, remember this: For nearly the entire history of literary criticism, from Aristotle's Poetics (340 BCE) through Horace's Ars Poetica (13 BCE) through Torquato Tasso's Discorsi dell' Arte Poetica (1587 CE), the merit of a critic's opinion was measured by the number of years they had worked successfully as an artist.
How popular is this website?
As of September 2006, this site has logged more than 800,000 unique visitors. Extreme tracking is kind enough to offer a free online report of how many people visit this website. The counter wasn't up for the first year and then I had some problems with my server, so I estimate about 20,000 more unique visitors than the reports reflect. This website is required or suggested reading for at least 35 college and high school courses that I know of. Kodansha television in Japan called it "better than Bill Moyers" for understanding the relationship between Star Wars and myth - high praise indeed! Origins regularly receives favorable mention from the mainstream media and was even included in Homiletic magazine, which provides 13,000 pastors with information they might include in their sermons.
If you use this website to teach a class, even if you've already contacted me, please drop a note to let me know what you're teaching and how these materials help. I'm going to start looking for a publisher for the expanded book form of this website in a few months, and I'd appreciate being able to mention your class in the proposal.
Can I reprint information from this website?
Yes, you may reprint information (not my exact wording) from this website provided that you cite this website as a source and include a hyperlink back to this site if you print on the web. Unless a source is footnoted, this information comes from firsthand research. We're talking over a thousand hours of work here, a significant portion of which consisted of reading and watching ancient, knuckle-whiteningly terrible "scientifiction." Believe, I've paid my dues. Please don't steal my work without at least crediting me. Or I'll put a pox on you. I mean, the pox may involve lawyers and cease-and-desist orders and like that, but essentially it'll be a pox.
If more than 50% of the information in your website, magazine article, book or news story is taken from this site, please either pay me, interview me or hire me to write it myself. I know it's tempting to cheat a little, but imagine the look on your bosses/editor/publisher's face when he receives the first of thousands of emails pointing out that one of the "facts" in your allegedly-cross-researched book or article was completely fabricated as an extremely-difficult-to-legally-contest trap for the unscrupulous, thus leaving your publication wide open for a copyright violation lawsuit. That would conflict with your career goals. Who knows how many of these fabrications this site is booby trapped with? You will, because you're diligent enough to check your sources.
Why did you create this website?
After survival and relationships, what matters most to me is to write beautiful, exciting, nourishing stories. By the time I was thirty I had earnestly stumbled my way through writing a few novels, including After Kelly, Josie Has a Secret and Clown Story. I was happy with the work I'd done, but under no illusion that my books were anywhere near as potent as the stories which quickened my heart and opened my mind while I was growing up. I started to think seriously about what it would take for me to someday write a story I liked just as much. With the help of libraries and especially librarians I found three primary starting points:
First, I faced the obstacle of lack of access to education. A bit of research quickly revealed that the most influential storytellers from throughout history usually had access to the best educations available in their time. This frustrated me because I was among the 65% of Americans who aren't fortunate enough to have the resources for even a basic college education. Luckily I came across the story of Drona and Ekalavya from the Mahabharata: A young boy named Ekalavya begs to be accepted as a student by Drona, the best archery teacher in the world. But Ekalavya is from a low caste (he's broke), so Drona refuses. Rather than becoming discouraged, Ekalavya goes off into the forest and builds a clay statue of Drona. Ekalavya trains under his Drona-statue just as if he were the real Drona. Whenever he has a question about archery he asks himself "What would the real Drona tell me?," figures out the most likely answer, then follows each instruction as though Drona himself had delivered it. By training this way Ekalavya eventually becomes the equal of Arjuna, Drona's official student and the best archer in the world. This website is a Lucas-Drona.
Second, I was concerned about what Harold Bloom calls "The anxiety of influence." I don't mind borrowing ideas from other creators, but I see no point in writing another of those endless Tolkien or Star Wars/Star Trek rip-offs that flood the bookstores and my filing cabinets of early writings. How could I make a story that felt somewhat original? I found my answer in the writings of Basho (aka Matsuo Munefusa, 1644-1694 CE), the Japanese poet most responsible for the modern form of the haiku and haiga. He wrote "Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the wise. Seek what they sought." Aha!! That rang true for me, so I shifted my focus away from the surface elements - plot, character, setting - and began to study the creation process behind my favorite stories.
Third, I needed a method for learning an artist's creative process. Luckily I once heard a lecture by a modern orchestral music composer who revealed a powerful technique for learning how to compose music: compare the work of our favorite composers against the music of their favorite composers, until we develop an intuitive feel for the creative leap between. So like Mozart religiously studied Haydn, then took Haydn's riffs further. The idea was that if we could understand the difference between Haydn and Mozart, we could use Mozart's music as a starting point and hopefully move a little further in the same direction he'd been going. In fact that's exactly what Beethoven did; It's almost as if Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven organized a relay-race in which every runner contributed to the overall goal of evolving symphonic form away from the operatic overture and towards Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. When possible it also helps to read up on what issues the creator was struggling with in his own life, and figure out how he addressed those issues using the ideas he drew from his influences. If you want to learn someone's rhythms, walk for awhile by their side.
I began by reverse-engineering Star Wars, partially because it was one of my favorite stories as a child and partially because it's easy to research. To take apart The Lord of the Rings to the same level of detail you'd need to read The Kalevala in Finnish, Beowulf in Old English, Das Nibelungenlied in Old Norse... forget it! An early confirmation that I was on "the right track" was the discovery that Tolkien, Lucas and Herbert also spent years reverse-engineering their favorite stories. Some claim that "overthinking" art steals away the magic, but study any serious artist and you'll quickly realize that this is merely wishful thinking we indulge in when we feel lazy. The people who contribute most to the world are the ones who work hard toward specific goals over a long period of time.
Star Wars Origins represents the stuff I learned which I thought might interest other Star Wars fans. The stuff I learned specifically about story-telling is summarized in Story-Telling Lessons from Star Wars. Ursula Le Guin once wrote "If you're going to write science fiction within even a moderately narrow definition of the term you must have read it. If you haven't, you're wasting your time and everybody else's." That sounds reasonable, so I also gave myself a broad overview of the science-fiction genre, summarized here.
What's your novel about? When will it be published?
The story I'm working on is code-named Calliope (the Greek Muse of epic poetry, dontcha know). It's a Hero's Journey, like Star Wars, Dune, The Lord of the Rings, Star Trek, A Princess of Mars or The Matrix with a female hero. It's science fiction, kinda sorta. I've hoping to have it in bookstores by 2008. That's all I'll say for now.
Are you ever going to publish Star Wars Origins as a book?
Yes!! Originally this project was meant only as research for my "Calliope" project, but Star Wars led me to Jung and Joseph Campbell, which became a "gateway drug" triggering an all-consuming passion for mythology. The book version will include more than 10 times the amount of material available online: everything from the website plus lots more reverse-engineering of science fiction, fantasy, comic books, epics, symphonic music, and a vastly-expanded version of the storytelling lessons section. The book addresses questions like "What is language?" "How does consciousness work?" And "What's the ultimate purpose of stories?" The book reveals a few more even deeper mechanisms of the mythic structure underlying Star Wars. If you learned anything from this website I think the book will blow your mind.
What is science fiction?
That's a tough question! No two science fiction authors, editors or fans seem to agree on a single definition. For the purposes of this study I found it most useful to divide stuff into four broad categories:
1. Hard Science Fiction (or "Gadget SF"): These are stories about incredible inventions presented as scientifically plausible. Hard SF is identifiable by a strong focus on the technology rather than the characters, who may be little more than ciphers. I think of Jules Verne as the father of Hard SF, beginning with his 1865 novel Five weeks in a balloon. Hard SF fans tend to be bright, linear-minded, male and generally not focused on socializing. Hard SF is nearly the exact antithesis of Hollywood, so it's almost never filmed, and when it is it's always changed into something else. Several Hard SF authors have argued that it's the only "real" SF, and although my affections lean toward science fantasy, I must concede there's some truth to that. The best Hard SF authors tend to be scientists, and the best Hard SF can actually become reality (like Heinlein's waterbeds or Wells' nuclear reactors).What is The Force?
Illustration courtesy of Justine Shaw, ©1999.
The Force probably borrows some ideas from Carlos Casteneda's Don Juan books and a few other places, but I think it's mostly a combination of the Chinese idea of Ch'i, especially as used in martial arts, and Joseph Campbell's idea of the transcendent.
Campbell spent his life studying the way different cultures thought of the divine: In the West divinity is usually anthropomorphized as a human-like god, goddess or pantheon of gods. In the East divinity is often represented as a "vital energy which pervades the universe," called Prana in India, Ch'i in China and Ki in Japan. Campbell's studies of myth revealed that although cultures often have different ideas of what shape divinity takes, they all seem to agree on the same basic underlying ideas. This led him to conclude that "All religions are true, but none are literal." That is, the divine cannot be experienced except through metaphor, and the important thing is to remember that any word, name, image or other representation of the transcendent is only a metaphor, not the transcendent itself.
Campbell believed that the purpose of myth is to help us figure out how to live in communion with the transcendent. Doing so gives us a sense of our place and purpose in the world, brings us into inner balance, removes our fear of death and teaches us how to treat other human beings with dignity and compassion, even when they want to hurt us. Campbell's message is valuable because, as he points out: "There are countries going to war because they have different names for the same god."
How can I learn more about The Force?
To understand The Force as spirituality, I suggest starting with the work of Joseph Campbell. His books are brilliant, but may be a little dry for the nonacademic, so you might begin with any of his excellent video or audiotape interviews, then move on to his books when you're ready to go deeper. You might also read some Jung, Campbell's main inspiration (Campbell edited a Jung collection, so that's probably your best bet to understand the Jung-Campbell-Lucas evolution).
If you learn best through stories, you might try reading the books of Carlos Castaneda, beginning with Teachings of Don Juan; A Yaqui Way of Knowledge. Castaneda's brilliant work created a quiet spiritual revolution in the Western world in the 1960s and was a direct influence on the Yoda character. If you learn best through movement, I recommend studying a martial art with a focus on directing Ch'i.
If you consider yourself a Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist or member of any other religion, then the best way for you to learn about The Force is probably for you to study your own religion: read the canonical scriptures, attend the rituals, and spend time with spiritual leaders who earn your respect. If Campbell's theories were correct, then the more deeply orthodox you become (spiritually orthodox, honoring the original spiritual message over the political system which has sprung up around it), the more you will appreciate that your path toward communion with the divine is one of an infinite number of correct paths, and yours feels "right" because it is right for you.
If I learn enough about The Force, can I become a Jedi?
Um... sort of. Communion with The Force cannot give you magical powers! Those parts of the movies are a metaphor! But you can become the hero of your own life, by learning to listen to "The Force" speaking through your heart. If you work hard enough you might even be the next Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Mary Lyon or Joan of Arc. That's pretty darn close to being a Jedi, I think.
On the other hand, there's no reason to feel embarrassed or childish if you enjoy stories about superheroes. All primary myths involve a moment of apotheosis (becoming god-like), in which the hero's sacrifice is rewarded by making her in some way superhuman. Superhero metaphors are just another way of exploring and understanding the relationship between humanity and the divine. As with all metaphors, the trick is to not get stuck in the metaphor! Keep in mind that other ways of seeing the world are just as valid, and don't be afraid to move on to the next metaphor once superheroic stories have stopped teaching and become merely a comfortable escape from the disappointments and hardships of real life. At some point you have to stop dreaming about becoming a hero, get out there and do it. The stories are only the roadmap, not the road.
If you want to learn more about the superheroic aspects of The Force from Star Wars, try reading some of Lucas' inspirations: Frank Herbert's Dune, E.E. "Doc" Smith's Lensmen series, and Marvel comics from the 1960s.
Is there really Hebrew writing on Darth's chestplate?
Illustration courtesy of Justine Shaw, ©1999.
Amazingly, yes! (Click for a closeup.) A handful of fans have even attempted to translate this into English, one hopeful cautiously suggesting "His deeds will not be forgiven until he is deserving." Unfortunately for us romantics, Daniel Kurtzman of the Jewish Bulletin of Northern California reports that it's meaningless gibberish, probably intended to look like exotic alien writing from a distance.
Who's that character beside Darth Maul on the homepage?
A member of the Peking Opera, from the 1983 Hong Kong movie Bai ga jai (The Prodigal Son). It's difficult to tell from this picture, but his face makeup looks just like Darth Maul, and another character in the same movie wears Maul's exact outfit. Maul's horns are probably borrowed from the Christian idea of Satan. His filthy teeth and "starburst" contact lenses are probably allusions to The Emperor from Return of the Jedi, whose design was probably partially borrowed from Regan, the possessed little girl from 1973's The Exorcist. (Not the politician.)
Why don't all the essays include a source footnote?
I would love for someone to write a methodical, scrupulously annotated essay citing every idea in the Star Wars films and their probable origins, but this isn't it. This is an aspiring writer trying to figure out how the favorite story of her childhood was made, in hopes that I'll catch a glimpse of how to build a story with the same energy and beauty. When I know a reputable source for an essay, I cite it. Everything else is rumors I've heard over the years, deduction and educated guesses. So be careful: There's no way anyone could make so many guesses without misguessing sometimes, which means that parts of this website must be wrong.
Did George Lucas come up with every idea in Star Wars?
Nope. Lucas wrote the stories and oversaw every aspect of production, but of course a lot of credit goes to the people he worked with. Particularly significant contributors include Ralph McQuarie, whose paintings created the "look" of the original trilogy, Lawrence Kasdan, who cowrote The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, and John Williams, who composed all the music.
Where can I find more information on the origins of ideas in Star Wars?
Unfortunately a lot of this information is stuff I vaguely remember from books, magazine articles and websites I've read over the years, and it didn't occur to me to keep a notebook. A few readers have sent in some great observations, including:
Are you some kind of geek?
And proud of it, baby!
Star Wars: Origins © 1999-2006 by Kristen Brennan,
part of the Jitterbug Fantasia webzine.