Star Wars Origins - Lightsabers
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LEFT TOP: Universal Translator from Star Trek, The Original Series. LEFT BOTTOM: Phaser beam from season two of Space: 1999. RIGHT: Mr. Skywalker's finest letter-opener.

The Star Wars Origins project began with one question: "How did George Lucas invent the lightsaber?" I thought it would be easy to find an answer, but the search ultimately led to two years of research culminating in this website. Studying lightsabers taught me two important things: One, a "magic item" in a fairytale is just like a character: they're interesting in direct proportion to the number the "archetypal masks" they wear. That's why Luke's lightsaber is such a memorable part of the original trilogy: it's a gift from his mentor, who passed it along from his father, which Luke uses to fight his father, which his father destroys, so he builds a new one, which he ultimately refuses to use against his father. These are all important mythic steps, and each one infuses the saber with more "mythic power." In The Phantom Menace lightsabers are beautifully depicted but serve fewer mythic roles, making them less narratively interesting.

The second lesson I learned from the creation of lightsabers is that the more ideas you can compress into a single metaphor, the more powerful that metaphor will be. But there's a limitation: the metaphor must remain simple enough to be easy-to-understand, or it's worse than useless, running the risk of destroying the delicate "communication channel" that opens up between a good story and an audience.

A Wikipedia contributor has identified what I suspect is probably the strongest inspiration on the idea of the lightsaber: the "force-blade" from the Lucky Starr series of science fiction juveniles, originally published 1952-1958 by Isaac Asimov (1920-1992) under the pen name "Paul French." The force-blade is "a short shaft of stainless steel" which can project a force field that can cut through anything, making it "the most vicious weapon in the galaxy." Asimov's force-blade expands on his earlier invention of "a penknife with a force-field blade," first used in his Foundation novel (1951). Visit Wikipedia's lightsaber page to read Asimov's original description of a force-blade.

It's possible that the physical appearance of the lightsaber handle was inspired by the Universal Translators from the original Star Trek series, particularly the translator carried by the Gorn from the Arena episode. They look very similar, but just about every science fiction movie and TV show from 1930 onward had stuff that looked like this. Also, Lucas was very careful to avoid resemblances between his movie and Star Trek. The lightsaber blade itself might be modeled after the phaser effect used in season two of Space: 1999 (1975-1977), which was probably developed by Brian Johnson (who may have been inspired by similar effects in Japanese giant-monster movies).

I think it's a safe bet lightsabers were also influenced by the magic swords from The Lord of the Rings: When Luke watches from across a chasm as his mentor Obi-Wan duels with Darth Vader, that echoes the scene in which Frodo watches from across a chasm as his mentor Gandalf duels with the Balrog. The good guys magic swords (Glamdring and Sting) glow blue, the evil Balrog's magic sword glows red.

LEFT: Painting of Gandalf wielding Glamdring by John Howe; it burns with a magical blue fire. RIGHT: Luke with his first lightsaber.

Where did Tolkien get his idea for the flaming magic sword in the first place? He was almost certainly inspired by Surtur, the king of the fire giants from Norse mythology. Surtur set Ragnarok (the twilight of the gods) in motion by lighting the world on fire with his flaming sword. The idea of a flaming sword is at least as old as the Book of Genesis: after Adam and Eve were cast out of the Garden of Eden, a magic flaming sword guarded the entrance to prevent them from returning (in one part of the Bible the sword is held by an angel, in another the sword magically floats in the air).

Other Theories

That guy from Gilligan's Island (Bob Denver)... the original Jedi?

Here are a few of the best alternate theories on which stories may have inspired the lightsaber:

Kaldar, Planet of Antares by Edmond Hamilton, 1933 (Weird Tales magazine, reprinted in paperback 1965): Allen Varney suggests that Lucas may have been inspired by this passage: "The sword seemed at first glance a simple long rapier of metal. But he found that when his grip tightened on the hilt it pressed a catch which released a terrific force stored in the hilt into the blade, making it shine with light. When anything was touched by this shining blade, he found, the force of the blade annihilated it instantly. He learned that the weapon was called a lightsword..." It seems likely that Lucas was at least familiar with Hamilton's work, since Lucas hired Hamilton's wife Leigh Brackett to write the first draft of The Empire Strikes Back.

Nightwings by Robert Silverberg, 1968: includes a sword (or knife?) with a blade of light that snaps on and off: "'Give me your blade!' I handed it to him, and he seized the handle and pressed the stud that brought forth the cool, keen beam of light." This Hugo-award-winning book also contains the line "He looked more machine than man..."

Gather, Darkness! by Fritz Leiber, 1943: this story concerns two warring groups of priests, who wear hooded brown and black robes. Each carry "Rods of Wrath," short metal hilts from which spring a blade-like terminated beam of violet light, which can cut through just about anything. There are no "sword duels," however. Another weapon casts a "writhing, electric beam of blue light." The casting down of the statue of the Emperor at the end of the special edition of Jedi might be an echo of the casting down of the statue of the evil pope at the end of Leiber's book.

Far Out Space Nuts, television series 1975-1976: Chuck McCann, who played Barney, said that Lucas was working on the same film lot in the early '70s, and wandered into the studio cafeteria one day to see the Space Nuts cast sitting around having lunch wearing various alien costumes - he believes that was the influence for the Cantina scene.1 McCann further suggests that the lightsaber was inspired by the "laser sword" from the Space Nuts episode Tower of Tagot, pictured above left. (Okay, I added the glow effect; in the original it looks like a glass stick on the end of a flashlight) Lightsabers were called "laser swords" in the first draft of Lucas' script and several concept paintings. Bob Denver's orange jumpsuit even looks like Luke's X-Wing pilot outfit!! (They were both probably influenced by Airforce flight suits.)

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1Pufnstuf & Other Stuff; The Weird and Wonderful World of Sid & Marty Krofft, by David Martindale

Star Wars created by George Lucas, © LucasFilm Ltd.
Star Wars: Origins © 1999-2006 by Kristen Brennan,
part of the Jitterbug Fantasia webzine.