The recent release of the latest Star Wars film invites us to consider more fully the continued success of this long-standing cultural imagination. Why, almost forty years after the release of the original Star Wars film, does this story continue to be so well received by human beings all over the world? And what does this latest release, in particular, reveal to us about ourselves at this stage of human and world development?
The latest film is entitled Star Wars: The Force Awakens. This follows on from A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi. What we see now is that the ‘force’ itself has taken centre stage. The main theme of the film is reflected in the title, and this is not explicitly directed at one side of the battle or the other, nor at an event (see also The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith), but rather at the force itself, that it is awakening, and that it is awakening through human beings.
Here we begin to see, therefore, the beginning of a more substantial imaginative exploration of what the force actually is. Throughout the films this so-called force is respectively passed off as religious mumbo jumbo, or else it is feared (as in ‘the Dark Side’) or admired (as in the ‘Jedi Knights’). Generally, we see its central drama play itself out in the fortunes of one familial blood line.
And what of the characters who make up this unfolding mythology, and what do they tell us about ourselves? In the centre of the myth, we find the key characters of Luke, Princess Leia, Han Solo, Chewbacca, R2-D2, C-3PO, Darth Vader, and several more teachers of either side of the force, including Obi-Wan Kenobi, the Emperor, the Supreme Leader, and Yoda. Importantly, some of these characters cross from one side of the divide to the other – from light to dark, and vice versa. Other characters also come and go as required. In the centre, though, we can see the growth and development of both Anakin and Luke Skywalker from youths – through an initiation training – into powerful leaders. Here we see the unfolding, growth and development of our own higher selves, which can be tempted either by the dark side (Anakin becomes Darth Vader) or to the light (Luke inherits no new name but becomes another Jedi Knight). In Han Solo we see the cautious, sceptical, whimsical, cynical, humorous, activities of our everyday selves, complete with relevant vices, such as smuggling, drinking, gambling, and the resulting debts that such activities accumulate (he becomes entangled in the tempting, self-indulgence offered by the Jabba the Hutt figure). In Leia we find something of our most feminine and worldly soul life, full of feeling (here is the romantic love relationship of the later episodes); in Chewbacca, the giantness of our own will power; in C-3PO the doubt and indecision of our thinking, unless it is brought more alive with the assistance of a more intuitive (courage or will-imbued) activity expressed in R2-D2. In the teachers of the film, we find those characters in ourselves that come before us or exist within the environment of our own soul life, for better or worse, leading – through selfishness and fear – to the creation of Darth Vader, or through selfishness and self-indulgence to the gluttony of Jabba the Hutt, or through selflessness and service to the Jedi activity of Obi-Wan or Yoda. These are all imaginative expressions of real forces – real characters – real beings – of our own soul life. As Rilke puts it, what is within surrounds us, and here it surrounds us on screens the world over.
As the Han Solo character puts it in the latest film, looking back, set some 30-odd years after the last instalment, “It’s true. All of it. The Dark Side. The Jedi. They’re real.” Meaning, not just that it was real and that it happened in the imagination of the films, but that it is an expression of real characters – real beings – within each of us. The film is popular because we see, lit up on the cinema screens of the earth, our own selves.
And what do we see in this latest film? – we see something in ourselves awakening. We see the force awakening. There is no real religion or mythos expressed within the films themselves other than that which is expressed in the concept of the force. It is expressed by Obi-Wan as a life force, as “an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us, penetrates us, and binds the galaxy together.” It can also be used, for both good or evil. Other than this, where it comes from, its history, its future, and so on, is not really touched upon. There is talk of prophesies of a Chosen One (whose powers will be discovered slightly later in his development, who will be trained in the ways of the force, who will bring much death and destruction, but) who will ultimately bring balance to the force. This is fulfilled in the tragedy of Darth Vader, and his redemption. In the latest film, a search is underway for Luke Skywalker who, it is believed, has returned to the first Jedi temple after one of his students turned to the Dark Side and destroyed the new class of Jedi he was training. That is, the higher self put itself in service of the force, and yet a student of this path, when confronted with the question of whether to put his skills in service of others or to keep this power for himself, chose the latter. And so exists the choice for all who walk a path of self development – at this juncture, one must choose to become either a black or white magician, or, in the language of Star Wars, a servant of the Dark Side or a Jedi Knight. The character (Kylo Ren) who chooses the former path in this latest instalment says his bedside prayers to the mangled mask of Darth Vader, whom he fears he will never be as powerful as. That is, he draws his strength from the countenance of a now mythical religious expression of that which can also inhabit his own dark nature, and so it may be for us. Some thirty years later, new characters are expressing the birth, for a new generation as well as for those who have seen the previous films, of our own highest selves and the choices that will be encountered – and here we find the central characters of the latest film Kylo Ren and Ray. Here they are not positioned as father and son, but exist more side by side. The battle for the self, and with it the world, is more close at hand. (In the character of Finn we see a soldier who awakens to the immorality of his actions, and rebels against the conformity of his vocation – who cannot identify, to a degree at least, with this?)
And, yet, what is really said or known of the force itself – this mysterious power? When Star Wars creator George Lucas was asked by Bill Moyers where the imaginations for his stories came from he replied, “Now that I don’t know – that’s a mystery.” In creating the films themselves, however, he answers, in part, something of this mystery question. In the myth of the films we see our own soul-life writ large. In the force, we discover all the spiritual strength that can stream through such soul-life and animate the higher selves of the central figures of the story. In a way, therefore, the content of the films themselves is already an expression of the force – in one sense, the force of the imagination. The soul life is already a non-physical reality, and is expressed, as mentioned, in the characters of the film. All that lives in the elemental, vital nature of the human being can be found in the various creatures that inhabit the sands (such as the Sand People), the forests (the Ewoks), the waters (the Gungans of Naboo [such as the Jar Jar Binks character]), and the air (flying creatures such as Watto, Anakin’s slave owner) – here we see expressed in imaginative form the characters – some of the beings, both good and wicked – that inhabit the elemental, vital, etheric substance of our own selves and the world around us.
But in the force itself we find a spiritual reality. While it inhabits the physical, the elemental, and the soul settings of the film and the human being, it can also be investigated and discerned within its own environment. In the film, there is no imagination for this other than the force itself. And in this film, it is an awakening power.
What is it that we then discover in the megaplexes of the world when we view a film such as The Force Awakens? We see the awakening of our own spiritual activity, and, now, our own capacity to investigate this phenomenon. No longer is it utilised as a purely unconscious element – i.e., it is not consciously known from where or what or who it springs – but it is, rather, beginning to awaken, to become part of a conscious process. At the end of Return of the Jedi we found the robed, deceased Jedi Knights of Yoda, Obi-Wan and Anakin Skywalker. In this scene we see the capacity of Luke to work with and be inspired by the dead as they manifest in the etheric or soul (and possibly spiritual) worlds. They are characters who work from these worlds, and help Luke along his path at various stages, particularly Obi-Wan. Luke is conscious of who they are, and allows himself to be inspired by these characters in higher worlds, in complete freedom. He is, in a way, a servant of them and what they stand for. Vader, on the other hand, serves only himself (or his evil master, the Emperor – whom he eventually turns on), and uses the force to do so. In a way, we could say, Luke puts himself in service of the force and certain characters he is aware of, such as his previous teachers, while Vader, or this new character Kylo Ren, use it to serve their own ends. (Kylo Ren expressly needs to fight against the ‘light’ which he feels emerging from time to time within him.)
The question we are left with, however, is who (in addition to the dead) are the characters of the force itself? If the force itself were to play itself out imaginatively on the big screen, what would we see? And what would it tell us about our own spiritual nature? This is the real question we are left with at the end of the Force Awakens, if we are prepared to acknowledge it. It may be a mystery, as it has been for Lucas, but it can begin to be explored further, now that the force is awakening in us, and as we are beginning to awaken in the force. This is an awakeness, in full day consciousness, and not a dreamy, half sleep. While we have been given the imaginations of the elemental, etheric world, and the soul life, as they have been given to Lucas in imaginative form, together with a bridge that can be built with and through a conscious working with the so-called dead, the question now is, ‘Can we, with full, wide awake consciousness – and with the whole human being – begin to explore the characters – the beings – the spiritual beings – who inhabit the force, who make the force possible, who, essentially, are the force?’
(And a warning here – a minor plot spoiler for the latest film is found in what follows; this is unavoidable if we are to continue the current line of exploration.)
It is no accident that the final scene of the film – where the young Ray – where the young Jedi-in-becoming – where our own emerging higher self must come to, and where Luke Skywalker already is – where he apparently waits patiently, is the same place. The older films and the new come together. The imagination of the higher self of the previous films, and that of this new awakening come together. There is a kind of nostalgia that is possible here in the encountering of an aged Skywalker (and indeed, the aged characters of the rest of the film), because we can see the way in which our own selves have grown older – not just our outer physical forms, but our inner lives. Thirty years since the release of the last film, and almost forty since the first, we measure where we have come to in our own soul development in this reflection of the same development in the characters on the screen in front of us. We remember. And we remember what we are here for. This new, younger character leads us to Skywalker and the others again. The younger generation, who may or may not have seen the previous films – and, if so, only recently – find in the Ray character the expression of their own highest becoming, and in so doing, ultimately, connect with that which is the same in the older generation. In this sense, we find here also an expression of a social deed – that in order to find one another, including across generations, it is the highest selves who must meet. And how do they do so? They make a space for one another. Ray comes bearing, and offering, Skywalker’s old light sabre – his sword of light. It is like a kind of reminder, as if to say, ‘Do you remember? Do you remember what you, the higher self in all of us, are destined to do – what you came here for? I come as a new expression of this, for I am here to do the same. We can help one another. I bring something new, and you have skills I need to learn. Let us meet here and put ourselves in conscious service of the force, not for the sake of the Dark Side, but of the light.’
Where do they meet? Where do they find one another amidst this questioning, this invitation, that ends the latest film? In the imagination of the film it is a cliff top perched above a lonely, isolated, island in the middle of an ocean – an island with stone dwellings – which we can only assume are the remains of the original Jedi temple. And where, of all the places of the earth, was this scene shot? – for everything is an imagination, in this sense – it is none other than Skellig Michael, off the coast of west Ireland.
Skellig Michael is a mystery ‘temple’ dedicated to and inspired by, as the name reveals, the Archangel Michael. Michael is another imagination, though of what exactly? Michael, as imagination, has been expressed throughout the centuries as one who wields a sword – in a way, a sword of light – and does so to keep the Devil or, we could say, the imagination of the Dark Side, in his place, beneath Michael’s feet. Michael’s gaze is often depicted as steady, and directed forwards. He, in a way, waits. He waits for human beings to come to him, in freedom. And so we have here, as the original and, up to now, final place of the Jedi – of the higher self (and of higher selves coming together, in the social sense) – the place where this being – this being of light – waits patiently for the higher self of the human being. In the sense of the film, therefore, this is the place that the force is born and springs from, resides, and can currently be found, waiting. Michael is, in this sense, a character of the force itself, is a being of the path of the force – is a central being of the force.
We could say, in this imaginative sense, that the imaginative earthly setting of the final scene of the film reflects back upon the imaginative cinematic setting to inspire it, however consciously, with a further step in the conscious investigation of what the force is, and who the characters or beings are that inhabit it. In order to be a free servant of something, one must be aware of what or who one serves. Michael waits patiently for the free human being to arrive in a mood of conscious investigation and service. So, though we might be tempted to say, out of such an imaginative exploration, that Michael is the force, we would perhaps be better positioned if we were to say that here we have a character, a guide, for the further inner workings of the force. It is his temple and, in a way, his school – the school of the Jedi Knight – but there are other characters, other beings who make up this school, this temple of the human being and the world.
If we see the mangled mask of Darth Vader as the countenance of the ruler of the Dark Side which, in the imaginations of centuries past, we may call the Devil (though there are other names for this character, and other characters that inhabit such darknesses), here we can also ask, ‘So what is it that Michael is the countenance of?’ Here too many other characters inhabit the light and make up, again, this temple, this school, this path, as the genuine mystery traditions of the world reveal in imaginative form, be they indigenous traditions, the Eastern path, the Christian-Gnostic path, or the Rosicrucian path. Within such traditions (and in different ages) there exist different names, however, for the being who Michael stands as the countenance for. There is, of course, a great deal of historical-cultural baggage that is connected with such names. Suffice it to say, all such names point to the character – to the being – the being that Michael stands with and for – the being who, in world evolution has sacrificed most. It seems that higher stages of ‘training’ (in the Jedi sense) or of initiation (in the mystery sense) are approached through higher levels of sacrifice. The central being of the force, therefore, along with all the other hierarchical beings who make up this same temple, in the schooling path made possible today, in freedom, by Michael, is connected to that being who has and continues to sacrifice and serve most selflessly in world evolution, and in our own selves. There is a part of ourselves – our higher selves – which serves the forces of light and humanity, with no desire for the selfish temptations of the Dark Side – this part of ourselves is the being who is awakening in our time to that most selfless of beings, and who we can awaken to, through the training of our own inner Jedi – our own higher selves – in order that we may serve consciously and selflessly this most selfless of beings that constitutes the force, and in so doing hold open a space for the same possibility to unfold in others.
For, with the final scene of The Force Awakens, we are left also with the question, ‘How do I need to be in order that you may become a Jedi? – How do I need to be in order that your own highest self may be more fully realised? How do I need to be in order that the most selfless of beings in world evolution can live and weave between us in order that we may put ourselves in service of it, through the schooling made possible by the inspirer of the temple-island upon which we now stand, and stand in every social encounter?’
How we answer such questions will determine the direction in which civilisation continues in the time between now and when the next film returns to the very place from which this one left off…and beyond.
John Stubley, PhD