So, most of you guys probably don’t know this yet, but one thing about me is that I am a huge Disney fan. I grew up saturated on Disney princess movies and the wonderful world of Pixar, and as such, believing in grand narratives of life, love, and adventure. One might say I started getting used to finding these overarching themes in the different media I was exposed to.
If you know anything about Disney (or Star Wars), you might also know that Disney purchased Lucasfilm Ltd. in 2012 at an estimated market value of $4.06 billion. Having avidly watched films from both franchises (now you know this too), this came as a shock to me at first. What would this mean for the future? Would we suddenly have Buzz Lightyear facing off against toy X-Wing star-fighters? Might Stormtroopers walk the streets of Tomorrowland? And can we finally have a Mos Eisley Cantina created lovingly by the hands of the Walt Disney Company Imagineers? (Sorry for all the references. Just so you know, one of these is untrue, one of these is already true, and one of these will be coming true. Try and guess which is which.)
Anyways, I visited California’s Disneyland Resort this past summer to see the revelry of the Diamond Celebration for myself. (I won’t talk about that anymore here, but if you find me in person I could talk your ear off about it! haha) In preparation for that, I re-watched every single Disney-related film I could find…which now meant watching the Star Wars films again, too. I watched Episodes I – VI in successive order, the first time I had ever done so, and the first time I felt that I fully comprehended the overarching narrative of the saga. As the school year had its start and we began to read Oedipus Rex, I began to notice more and more similarities between Oedipus and the (arguable) protagonist of Star Wars – Anakin Skywalker, more famously known as Darth Vader.
*cue heavy machine breathing* (Spoilers follow, if you haven’t seen the films.)
The six films of the Star Wars series are set during a precipitous time in the fictional galaxy “long, long ago” and “far, far away”. At the outset, the Galactic Republic is on the verge of collapse, and the evil Sith Lords have a hidden representative among the senators who is slowly gathering power for himself – Senator Palpatine. Aside from the references to the formation of the Roman Empire, and basically every other totalitarian regime throughout history, the meteoric rise of Palpatine, and the reverence with which the senators view him as he is granted emergency powers to stop the impending war, seemed to harken to the relationship between Oedipus and the people of Thebes. Both of them won their ennobled status through merit and salvation for the people; both of them adopt a patriarchic attitude towards the people they are intended to protect; and both of them upset the order that existed before they came to power.
However, the primary parallel begins when we encounter Anakin, the son of a slave living on the desert planet of Tatooine. The interesting thing about him is that he was conceived without a biological father; his mother became pregnant through “midi-chlorians” (this whole thing sounds weird, I know), which are the biological representation of the Force – the life energy surrounding all things that gives the lightsaber-wielding Jedi Knights their power. As a result, Anakin is born with an astronomically high concentration of midi-chlorians within him, and a prophecy begins to emerge from times long past – that he is the Chosen One who will eradicate the Sith and the dark side, bringing balance back to the Force. The parallel with Oedipus is apparent – the ambiguous birth, parentage, and childhood, the prophecy that signals a burdensome fate, and, to carry the “order” motif forward, a return to balance that comes with that fate.
As Anakin is rescued from slavery and begins his training as a Jedi Knight, he grows tremendously in skill, mental acuity, and virtue – but also proportionately in pride. He also falls in love with Padme Amidala, a senator from the beautiful lake planet of Naboo, whom he met when they were children. As Jedi are forbidden to partake in romantic relationships (le gasp), this, coupled with Naboo’s escalating political role in the Republican crisis (double gasp), causes a great commotion both within Anakin himself and with his mentor, Obi-Wan Kenobi. Anakin’s other great flaw is an impetuous hot streak – when he receives a vision that his mother is in danger, he flies back to Tatooine with Padme even while on a mission to act as her bodyguard. Then, when they discover that his mother has been killed by nomadic desert raiders, Anakin, in a fit of rage, tracks down their village and murders every last person there. Finally, Padme and Anakin are secretly married (triple gasp escalating conflict yo!!!). In both Oedipus’ and Anakin’s adult lives, the similarities grow ever more apparent – exceptional talent, pride in their own abilities, forbidden love, and even family-related murders rising out of angry emotion.
The Adult Years
As the Republic enters its twilight years and descends into full-scale war, Anakin reaches what will be the peak of his abilities as a Jedi, and is praised throughout the galaxy as a war hero. However, a complication arises – Padme is pregnant (!!!) and Anakin has been receiving troubling visions from the Force that Padme will die in childbirth (okay red alert right here). Padme attempts to dissuade his visions, saying that “the shapes of prophecy lie”, that “they are all illusions” (Sophocles 62, lines 1099-1100), but, overcome with confidence in his ability as a Force-wielder, Anakin begins to search for a way to use the Force, directing it on his terms to save people from death. Soon, he is coerced by Palpatine and the dark side – who promises that his wish to save his wife will be fulfilled – and his heroic virtue begins to descend into paranoia about the Jedi friends he trusted. This screams Oedipus, who takes himself as Apollo’s vigilante fighter (Sophocles 34), approaching his task with ferocious intention, and starts to mistrust those around him – Teiresias and Kreon in particular.
The conflict comes to a head when Anakin, in an attempt to protect his only chance at saving his wife, kills another Jedi who has apprehended and unmasked Palpatine – Darth Sidious. Realizing that he has committed something unspeakable, and blinded by the task before him, Anakin pledges himself to Sidious, joining him in the future two-man tyranny of the Galactic Empire and thereby becoming Darth Vader. The climax of the movie occurs on the volcanic planet of Mustafar (a very dramatic setting for a final battle), where a concerned Padme who has learned the truth from Obi-Wan confronts and is Force choked by an enraged Vader. Vader and his former master and friend, like Oedipus and Kreon, then engage in perhaps one of the most epic film battles of all time, the dramatic tension of the story adding ever more to its significance. The fight finally ends with an exchange as such:
…after which Vader is maimed, burned by hot lava, and left to die.
Padme, having lost the will to live, dies in childbirth, but not without giving birth to fraternal twins, Luke and Leia, who will be raised apart, each unaware of the existence of the other, in order that they may be “a New Hope” for the galaxy when they come of age. As for Vader, he is finally encased in the suit that will hold him together for the rest of his years, and the reign of the Galactic Empire begins. The potential thematic references to Oedipus are many – the confrontation between Oedipus and Kreon, once good friends but now victims of paranoia, the death of Jocasta because of the revelation of Oedipus’ truth, and the entrustment of Antigone and Ismene to Kreon, only for them to rise up against his tyranny in Antigone.
Many say the original trilogy (films IV-VI, set during the reign of the Empire) is better than the prequel trilogy (I-III), but since Vader is the antagonist and a largely static character through those three (aside from the infamous “I am your father” scene that changed everything), we’ll summarize those plot points more briefly. 19 years later, Luke and Leia come together and stand up against Vader and the Empire, forming the Rebel Alliance. When Luke, who discovers his identity and trains as a Jedi, confronts the Emperor and his father, Vader, in a change of heart, kills the Emperor before being fatally wounded – thus ending the Sith and bringing balance back to the Force. In this way, Vader dies to himself twice while Oedipus does only once – Vader with the physical destruction of the body and his final, “balancing act” of sacrificial death, Oedipus in the blinding. Yet for both of them, the prophecy is fulfilled, and though they are brought to ruin by their respective prophecies, this ruination brings “balance” back to both their worlds.
Ultimately, both Anakin Skywalker and Oedipus feel to me like tragic characters who were victims of both their destinies and their fatal flaws as human beings. The rest of the parallels are probably circumstantial – though it feels to me that Star Wars definitely drew inspiration from Oedipus Rex in terms of plot points as well as philosophical and political themes like knowledge, or democracy vs. dictatorship. (And I swear I’m no science fiction geek or anything – I just thought this was really interesting as I was watching and reading and promised myself that I would write up something like this before we were done with Oedipus.) Finally, I think that both of them are great works of literature in their own times and themes. You can dismiss Star Wars as popular culture, but the fact is that plays were probably just as sensational in the heyday of Athenian tragedy as films are to us – and the original trilogy films have actually been kept by the U.S. National Film Registry as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” And what better thing to do on a weekend late night than try to synthesize two great works of literature? Isn’t that what we’re all in Arts One for? Isn’t that what we enjoy?
Thanks for reading, folks.