The Myth Awakens
Canon, Conservatism, and Fan Reception of Star Wars
- ISBN: 9781532619731
- Published By: Cascade Books
- Published: September 2018
The nine essays plus introduction and preface of The Myth Awakens: Canon, Conservatism, and Fan Reception of Star Wars offer thoughtful assessments of what fan reactions to Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (TFA) and other iterations of the Star Wars (SW) franchise say about contemporary functions of myth, popular culture, and religious studies. Scholarly and erudite in the ways of SW and religion, the collection still achieves an accessible tone, in keeping with co-editor Ken Derry’s hope that it be fun. “To the extent that Star Wars is fun, and (many of the) fan responses to Star Wars are fun,” Derry wonders in the volume’s introduction, “would it be a good thing if academics studying the films and/or the fans had fun doing so?” (12). The book’s authors seem to have managed that well. Together, they include more than two dozen images to illustrate discussions of films, games, toys, fan postings, and their own engagements with SW, and even the usually dry section of contributors’ self-descriptions is not to be missed.
The collection expands on a 2016 American Academy of Religion panel that considered fan responses to perceived continuities and responses to perceived continuities, and—even more energetically—to discontinuities between TFA, released in December 2015, and the original trilogy of SW films, especially the first film, Episode IV: A New Hope (1977). As a matter of timing, therefore, an unavoidable shortcoming of the book, acknowledged by Derry, is that the authors wrote without knowing the full narrative arc of the film trilogy TFA initiates. Only a few of the essays include last-minute references to Episode VIII—The Last Jedi (December 2017) and none address Episode IX—The Rise of Skywalker (December 2019). Were there to be a well-deserved second edition, the most helpful revisions might come in those essays dealing with character development and other matters that evolved over the three films. As readings of the first film of the trilogy, however, the essays have the balancing advantage of approaching TFA in the spirit in which it was initially received: as the latest installment in an unfolding saga, placing it in relation to what has gone before, with projections of what might be yet to come.
The panel’s impetus, Derry writes, was certain fans’ complaints that TFA’s inclusion of lead characters who are female (Rey, played by Daisy Ridley) or Black (Finn, played by John Boyega) signaled a “shift in Star Wars away from the blond, blue-eyed, male protagonists of yore” (xvii). Other fans responded positively to a return in TFA’s plotting to the familiar mythic framing of the first film. Both positive and negative reactions, however, pointed to SW’s inherently conservative role as a source of culturally defining myth, while shining a light on the interpretive fluidity that myth invites. Despite similarities, TFA differs from the earliest films, co-editor John C. Lyden observes, by “mirroring to a greater extent the ambiguity and complexity we increasingly see in our times” (31). The range of fan response, he adds, demonstrates how myths “resist interpretation, instead offering themselves as ciphers to decode, or think-pieces to encourage our reflection on our own values, goals and destinies.”
TFA’s resurrection of the first film’s narrative structure, rooted in Joseph Campbell’s monomyth of the hero’s journey, leads several of the essayists to ask how TFA’s proffered heroes fit that model. Lindsay Macumber worries about the apparent absence of a clearly delineated villain on the order of Darth Vader, who can embody the Jungian archetype of the “shadow” that the hero must confront to complete the journey (34). The ambiguous positioning of Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), the most obvious candidate, as torn between the dark and light sides of the Force, may reflect a more widespread loss of “identifiable shadows and heroes” in other areas of popular culture, she cautions (44).
Chris Klassen, on the other hand, steps away from Jungian readings of the monomyth to consider how the question of gender plays out in SW’s presentation of female heroes Leia (Carrie Fisher) and Rey. While Rey follows the traditional hero’s journey exemplified by Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), Leia has arrived at a position of political and military power. Both expand the ways heroism can be conceived, whether by males or females. Kutter Callaway traces the evolving role of the series’ music scores in conveying mythic content, similar to Wagnerian leitmotifs, focusing on the use of a theme associated with Leia and Han Solo (Harrison Ford) for a controversial scene of Leia and Rey hugging as they meet for the first time. This musical elevation of their “mysterious bond,” Callaway suggests, further complicates SW’s gendered landscape, revealing that “Star Wars is all about women. And it always has been” (69).
Daniel White Hodge and Joseph Boston address the racist reactions to Finn’s casting, but push further to critique his representation as lacking the same heroic agency afforded White characters. While director J.J. Abrams “appeared to be sending a message that a Black man and a White woman can save the universe” (75), Hodge and Boston call Finn’s role “hyper-tokenistic” and complain it “offers only a wink towards interculturalism” (83). Joshua Call notes successful multi-cultural representation in SW-associated gaming and other franchise elements, but argues that the flagship films fail to provide a full range of opportunities for fans to identify with characters.
The concluding trio of essays unpacks the fraught engagement, mimicking religious devotion, of fans with the franchise. Such commitment, Justin Mullis observes, helps explain fans’ investment in particular framings of SW’s imagined universe, as well as their antipathy to certain innovations. Syed Adnan Hussain discusses similar fan resistance to efforts by Disney, the new franchise owner, to “de-canonize” elements of the extended SW world, seeing this as a “break in the chain of memory that undergirds Star Wars fandom as a tradition” (136). Kenneth MacKendrick shifts the focus to “canonization” as “an open-ended process” and “contested public sphere of imagination” (152), in which fans as well as franchise owners create a “shared imaginary world” like those produced by religious canons (156).
Although the essays’ attention to such fan obsessions as canon construction suits this collection for hyper-informed followers of the Force, readers with all levels of acquaintance with SW will find much to appreciate. Overall, this collection is a vibrant and valuable contribution by religious studies scholars to the ongoing discussion of an important cultural phenomenon.
James H. Thrall is Knight Distinguished Professor for the Study of Religion and Culture at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois.James ThrallDate Of Review:February 12, 2022