Arthurian Symbolism in The Force Awakens

I love mythology. I love mythology retellings. I even find the Prequel Trilogy to be more palatable if I follow it by reading The Star Wars Heresies.
In fact, this is why I love Star Wars so much–it’s steeped in mythology and symbolism and I love it. I love pulling out the threads of older stories.
I’ll be honest…I wasn’t quite expecting The Force Awakens to continue that tradition…let alone continue it with the symbolism of one of my favorite mythologies. Maybe that’s why I’m loving it more and more each time I see it–a count which stands at three–right now, I’d have to rank it as #2 of my personal favorite of Star Wars, right after Empire. The Force Awakens combines two of my favorite mythologies: Star Wars and Arthurian legends.

Spoilers ahead. If you have not seen the movie, get thee to a theater before thou readest!

 

 

 

The search for Luke and the absolute reverence with which he is referred to put me in mind of an Arthurian staple: the Quest for the Holy Grail.
I’d say the map to Luke’s location is the Holy Grail appearing in Camelot at the Pentecost feast: the search for it kicks off the plot and it is fought over by the worthy and unworthy alike.
The Force is the Waste Lands, laid desolate by a young knight who slaughters a guest, unlawfully uses Spear of Destiny–betraying and wounding the Fisher King in the process. Balyn kills the king’s guest and uses the Spear to wound the Fisher King; Ben Solo slaughters his uncle’s apprentices, betrays Luke and tries to claim the lightsaber by brutal means at Starkiller base.
Luke himself also functions as the Holy Grail, in that he is the object of the Quest. Everybody has different objectives for finding him: Kylo Ren wants to kill him, Snoke just wants him to stay hidden, Leia wants his strength for her war. Rey, in the end, wants his training. You could also make an argument that Luke functions as the Fisher King as well. He is, after all, found on an island overlooking the ocean and he’s taken an emotional wound in the side by Ben’s betrayal.
I’d probably say that Luke’s old lightsaber is the Spear of Destiny…which is the spear used to maim the Fisher King and is sometimes connected with the spear that pierced Christ’s side. That’d certainly fit this lightsaber’s history as Anakin used it to commit his first atrocities as Vader. It’s used to commit an act of great evil but is thereafter used to further the triumph of the one it wounded.

In the Arthur legends, the Waste Lands and the Fisher King can only be healed when a knight (Galahad) proves himself worthy to hold the Spear and and drink from the Grail, undoing the damage that Balyn did. So: the Force can only be balanced when a Force sensitive person proves worthy to follow the map, carry the lightsaber and receive Luke’s training.

I would say that Rey is Galahad the Grail Knight, albeit a rather reluctant version. Either way, she’s young, of mysterious and isolated origins, seemingly untrained but unbelievably talented, and draws out a
sword of tainted legacy. Yes, I know I’m mixing up the metaphor here by double-casting the lightsaber as both Balyn’s sword and the Spear, as well as Luke as both Fisher King and Grail. In my defense, I’m not the only one who mixes up Arthurian symbols, however: almost everyone gets Excalibur and the Sword in the Stone confused. And speaking of…

 

The Grail Quest is not the only Arthurian interpretation of The Force Awakens. A slightly better known one is also applicable. You could structure it with Rey as the young Arthur and the lightsaber is both the Sword in the Stone and Excalibur…although presented in reverse fashion. That is, Rey is first offered the saber by a mysterious and ancient female handing it to her out of the depths–water in the legends, but I suppose the basement of a castle works too. (The Falcon does dramatically fly over the water before landing at the castle, which draws on the imagery of the Excalibur legend, the boat that takes Arthur to retrieve the sword.)
Then Rey draws it out of the snow like Arthur drew his sword out of the stone. Both actions are presented as an impossible feat…Rey because of her lack of training and Arthur for more obvious reasons. Both acts prove the character’s worthiness: Arthur to rule, Rey to take up Luke’s legacy.

As a bonus point for Rey-as-an-Arthur-figure…just look at her name. Yes, it evokes Luke’s own name as they both represent light: Luke is taken from the Greek word for light and Rey puts one in mind of a ray of light. It also invokes the once and future king: as Rey is Spanish for King. King of light, as it were. Well, female king of light.

 

Another Arthur bent to the story is the one told in the backstory and at the ending.
Kylo Ren aka Ben Solo stands fairly well in the place of Mordred, with Luke as King Arthur. Now, this doesn’t exactly match up as Mordred is usually presented as Arthur’s nephew (check)…and as his son. (Thankfully, they didn’t go there. People still haven’t quite recovered from the kiss between unknown siblings in Empire.)
Anyway, Mordred brings down Camelot by unexpected betrayal, aspiring to usurp Arthur’s place as King. Arthur, taking a wound at the battle in which he kills Mordred (I did say this wouldn’t line up exactly), retreats to the magic-steeped island of Avalon. He goes to recover from his mortal wound, but before he leaves, he tells his followers that he will return in the hour of Britain’s greatest need.
In this, Avalon is the island Rey finds Luke on, Luke is the Once and Future King and Rey, I would say, is all of us, telling him “Time to wake up, buddy. Hour’s here.”

Nothing quite matches up in a one-to-one correlation…but then, that’s a sign of good retelling. Yes, it uses the symbolism of an older tale but it also can stand as a complete and compelling story in its own right. Influenced but not a carbon copy. That’d just be boring.
I am, thanks to Mom, fairly more Arthur-obsessed than the average person. It’s very possible that I’m reading too much into the movie (I’m quite good at overthinking things). But, as Joseph Campbell says, there’s only one myth in the world, retold in a thousand different ways. His works have influenced Star Wars from the very beginning, so I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to think that Abrams and Kasdan looked to mythology for inspiration. If so, they’ve done an excellent job of retelling Arthur in a galaxy far, far away.

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Categories: ordinary life | 1 Comment

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One thought on “Arthurian Symbolism in The Force Awakens

  1. Deek

    Excellent post! People missed a lot of this watching the movie, but it’s rich in symbolism — especially in Arthurian symbolism. Great stuff!

    Like

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