The concept of “The Force” in Star Wars seems to resonant universally. The idea of the force seems easy enough to understand when you’re in the midst of the delightful intergalactic ride full of non-stop action and satisfying scene wipes, but it gets a bit more nebulous the more you try to grasp it. What is The Force, really? And why do we respond so powerfully to it?
We can usually all relate to The Force in some way because it reminds us of basic ideas, feelings and beliefs behind most of our most ancient and enduring religious mythologies without settling on exactly one in particular. The force isn’t exactly supernatural (arguably nothing should be supernatural, either it’s part of reality, or it isn’t,) in this galaxy far, far away, but it is an invisible energy that flows through everything, and can also be tapped into by certain, anointed people.
Although George Lucas has claimed that its power is something anyone can learn to access if you take the time to do it, like practising karate, the films rely on the notion that certain people, most notably the Skywalker clan, born of immaculate conception, can do this naturally and only need training to truly perfect their innate extraordinary ability. However, since the viewer identifies with the hero of the story, this technicality hardly matters.
The latest Star Wars hero, Rey (who is almost most definitely Luke Skywalker’s daughter,) seems to be able to take to all the Jedi skills immediately after she learns about them. While Luke struggled to master Jedi Mind Tricks, telekinesis, and lightsaber wielding; Rey steps into them with ease. This could imply that the force is with her more than most, and it may be, but the best explanation is that she probably learned of this stuff as a child, and then had her memory erased. Her (presumed) cousin Kylo Ren seemed to have been behind a Jedi massacre, and may have spared her life because of her relation to him. When they meet face to face in The Force Awakens, Kylo Ren says he’s “heard a lot about her,” and seems to want to be her teacher.
One major inspiration for “the force” sprang from an avant-garde film by Arthur Lipsett called 21-87. “Many people feel that in the contemplation of nature and in communication with other living things, they become aware of some kind of force, or something,” a narrator says over images of a city “they call it God.” This over-reaching, unifying notion agrees with some of the popular “new-age” ideas about religion emerging in the 1960s. While Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces greatly helped plot the hero’s story arc that resonates so well with our psychology, James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough and Carlos Castaneda’s works helped Lucas form the pulsing, universal framework on which to place a simplistic notion of good versus evil. (The Force Awakens does, however, paint a little more grey into this dark/light duality: Finn’s conflict represents the humanity and suffering inherent on all sides of any war.)
Much of this duality can be linked to the yin/yang of Taoism, but Taoism doesn’t apply ethical distinctions of good and evil on these two sides of things. Instead, the morality of Star Wars draws more from Zoroastrianism, an early monotheist religion with concepts of heaven, hell, messianism, the Golden Rule, and free will that bled into the major tenets of Second Temple Judaism, Gnosticism, Christianity, and Islam. Zoroastrianism believed that good deeds, good thoughts, and good words could lead to happiness and keep the constant encroaching chaos of “darkness” at bay. They also believed in a creator of all things called Ahura Mazda, who was in a battle with darkness, but would one day prevail completely.
A verse from The Old Testament’s Isaiah (45:7 KJV,) also ties these force elements together rather neatly: “I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things.” Although for many who follow the Judeo-Christian scriptures this concept of God as the source of evil is unsettling and provocative, Star Wars, much like Judeo-Christian morality, places the choice of how we use the power we have on the individual. Although, in the world of Star Wars, only the “royal” bloodlines have the true ability to use free will (people like Finn find it harder to choose for themselves because of their position in life, his striking out is an exception, and his survival seems extremely lucky) Star Wars works as a myth because we place ourselves in the hero’s path. We see ourselves as Luke and Rey, born ignorant of our true power to affect others, awakening to the reality of a lot of horrific “darkness” in the world, and faced with trembling anxiety about how to proceed knowing that we are capable of both healing and harm, of happiness and despair. Our actions affect others no matter our position in the world, but when we are in “darkness” a lot of the time, and cannot see that. We fume to ourselves. We strike out, we wallow in hate and fear.
For us, there usually isn’t a plain dark or light path, but a million little choices. Often we unintentionally hurt people when we are trying to do good, but we almost always end up hurting ourselves as well as others when we succumb to narrow, angry, paranoid thinking of the kind Kylo Ren and the Darths before him exhibited. The Dark Side in Star Wars is mostly an emotional and blind selfishness – literally striking out in the dark, and mistaking destruction for some kind of win. Faced with the despair over our own failings, our own death, and our pain, we have no light to show us perspective, to see the benefits of compassion for others, and calming solace of peace.
“The Force is really a way of seeing; it’s a way of being with life,” Lucas has said. “It really has nothing to do with weapons. The Force gives you the power to have extra-sensory perception and to be able to see things and hear things, read minds and levitate things. It is said that certain creatures are born with a higher awareness of the Force than humans. Their brains are different. The Force is a perception of the reality that exists around us. You have to come to learn it. It’s not something you just get. It takes many, many years…Anyone who studied and worked hard could learn it. But you would have to do it on your own.”
The prequel movies sought to further explain what the force is supposed to be by introducing a concept of midi-chlorians, an attempt at bridging the science-religion gap, which is a leap not really needed in an allegory. “I’m assuming that the midi-chlorians are a race that everybody knows about [in the world of Star Wars],” Lucas has said. “The way you interact and interface with this larger energy field [the Force] is through the midi-chlorians, which are sensitive to the energy. They are at the core of your life, which is the cell, the living cell. They are in a symbiotic relationship with the cell. And then, because they’re all interconnected as one, they can communicate with the larger Force field. That’s how you deal with the Force.”
Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader, has no father, and has an extremely high concentration of these microorganisms in his blood. Although it’s never expressly said in the Star Wars canon, there’s a Star Wars theory that because Darth Plagueis and Darth Sidious unsuccessfully tried to manipulate the midi-cholorians to create life to increase the power of the dark side, the force created this virgin birth as a kind of response.
Though there are glaring holes in Darth Vader’s paternity, his fulfillment of this Virgin Born Chosen One not only echoes Christianity, but Buddhism, a virgin-born Taiwan god named Codom, the Chinese god Lao-Tsz, and the Hindu god Krishna, the Egpytian gods Horus, the Indian-Iranian sun god Mithra, and a hosts of others. The idea of a wise leader, a “light” in the world who is part human, and part something “divine,” feels good when we search for meaning. When you’re creating a mythology like Star Wars that seeks to bridge religious gaps, a Virgin Birth must be included.
In an interview with Charlie Rose, Lucas put the meaning of his popular myth this way:
“It’s about good and evil, but heroes — what makes a hero, what’s friendship, what’s the idea of sacrificing yourself for something larger? They’re all really basic things, you might say you don’t have to make a movie about that [because] it’s very obvious, but it’s actually not. It’s not that obvious to a lot of people unless you have somebody tell you, every generation, that this is what our country believes in …
With Star Wars, it was the religion — everything was so taken and put into a form that was easy for everybody to accept so it didn’t fall into a contemporary mode where you could argue about it. It went everywhere in the world.”
The Force Awakens, written by Lawrence Kasdan, Michael Arndt, and J. J. Abrams, retreads the story of A New Hope with a thick finger, precisely because it is a successful attempt to awaken the old myth we fell in love with when we first watched A New Hope as children. While the prequels were stylized, sweeping, over-ambitious attempts at mythbuilding, what lured us into the Star Wars universe was the ingenuity and sometimes clunky simplicity born of budgetary, technology and time limits. Returning to the form of that old story is like retelling an old, familiar legend. It’s comforting. It’s something we crave, and it’s mostly things we recognized the first time we saw A New Hope.