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Star Wars and History: Father vs. Son in Myth

January 22, 2016

~ This is the fourth of a six-post series called Star Wars and History. (See below for the six posts’ titles.) ~

Mordred -- cropped

Mordred and King Arthur

In The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, Luke Skywalker fights his father, Darth Vader. Revenge of the Sith repeats this father vs. son theme when Darth Sidious (Palpatine) reveals that Sith apprentices often kill their masters: their figurative fathers. That aligns Star Wars with a common theme from myth. Many mythic heroes confront and kill their fathers. Mordred, for instance, kills his father, King Arthur (and is killed by him). And of course, the Greeks’ Oedipus kills his father and takes his place as king of Thebes. Gods battle their fathers too, including the titan Cronus, who overthrows — and castrates — his father, Ouranos, the sky god. But a similar fate awaits Cronus; he’s later overthrown by Zeus, his own son.

In Star Wars, Palpatine seems to like the idea that he’ll someday die at his apprentice’s hands. “Darth Vader will become more powerful than either of us,” he tells Yoda (before Vader’s maiming at Obi-Wan’s hands). That fits because the mythic son’s victory confirms the cycle of life and the boy’s coming of age. The father-king fights back, but at some level, he’s proud of his mighty son.

In some myths, the father-son battle goes hand-in-hand with another dark family theme: incest. Oedipus, for instance, marries his mother after killing his father. (He doesn’t know they’re his parents — and when he finds out, he very responsibly gouges his eyes out.) And King Arthur sleeps with his half-sister, Morgause, and fathers Mordred, who as we’ve seen, kills his father. Luke Skywalker’s family struggles aren’t limited to fighting his father either. He’s attracted to Princess Leia from the start, and they kiss — before learning that they’re siblings. So Star Wars captures the spirit of myth by pairing father-son violence with incest — though Lucas does it with a PG rating.

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If you like fantasy + history, you’ll love my book, The Jericho River, A Novel About the History of Western Civilization!

Here are the six posts in this series, Star Wars and History:
1. Roman Republic and Empire
2. Fall of the Knights Templar
3. Joseph Campbell and the Urban Myth with a Thousand Faces
4. Father vs. Son in Myth (above)
5. Divine Conception in Myth
6. Samurai and Nazis

See also, Why Sounds Yoda So Archaic? and Why Did So Many of History’s Kings Marry their Sisters?

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Image: Illustration from page 306 of The Boy’s King Arthur: the death of Arthur and Mordred

© 2016 by David W. Tollen. All rights reserved.

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