“Star Wars is like [epic] poetry, it rhymes”: Should we consider Star Wars a modern epic?

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With the release of the The Last Jedi, the internet is abuzz with opinions about whether the flick holds up to the prestigious levels fans expect of this iconic cultural series. As one might expect of Star Wars, there are many components of  The Last Jedi which echo themes of previous entries in the series, specifically Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, though it does have enough differences to give refreshing new entry into the series.  The Last Jedi’s influence goes back much further than just its 1980 predecessor, in fact, the entire series as a whole has been influenced by many different works and cultures, with epic poetry being one of them.

Before we discuss whether Star Wars qualifies as a modern epic, first we must understand what an “epic” really is. Generally, an epic is a large body of work which can be broken down into smaller stories and will generally contain these core elements:

  • Omniscient narrator
  • Multiple imaginative settings
  • A definitive story of heroes vs villains
  • A large number of fantastical supernatural creatures
  • Huge conflicts between both sides

Star Wars has incorporated all these elements over the course of its eight main story films. Looking at these films alongside their epic poetry counterparts reveal how similar to two really are.

Omniscient narrator: The title scroll 

Arguably the most iconic feature of the series is the opening title scroll; we’ve anticipated the monumental yellow text flying across the silver screen since the very first installment in1977.  This in itself was inspired by the Flash Gordon film serials, which Lucas watched himself as a child, however, it is still reminiscent of the openings of Homeric epic poems which begin with the narrator calling upon the muses – goddesses of poetry, arts and even science. Both serve similar purposes – to get the story started and offer some background before the epic begins.

The islands of the Cyclops in Sicily

Multiple imaginative settings: The planets of Star Wars

The locations in Star Wars have become as recognisable and iconic as their real-world parallels, from the desert barrenness of Rey’s home planet Jakku to the luscious yet unsettling jungle planet of Dagobah where Yoda trains Luke. These same ionic locations are prevalent in epic poetry. There is the beautiful sandy resort island of Ogygia, home of the goddess Calypso who detains the Greek hero Odysseus for seven years, this is a large contrast to the unkempt Cyclopean isle, home of the savage Cyclops.

A definitive story of heroes vs villains: The light and dark side of the Force 

The dark side and the light side of the force are synonymous with ideas of balance – such as the Chinese yin-yang philosophy. Comparing this to Greek mythology, there are many occasions in which we see opposites clash and reflect each other in the process. In The Iliad, the final confrontation between Achilles, the hero of the Greeks, and Hector, the hero of Troy is true of this clash. Both have suffered loses, both are supported by patron gods and both are the most renowned heroes of their sides. Their clash is similar to what we see between Darth Vader and Luke constantly throughout the original trilogy – of course, their connection is revealed to be much more personal than that of the ancient heroes yet this part of the story still encompasses similar themes to their predecessors.

Huge conflicts on both sides: The battles of Star Wars

There is little relevance to having a clear struggle between good and evil if the two never collide. In this respect, both ancient epics and the Star Wars saga give great pay-off. The entire premise of the ancient epic The Iliad follows the Trojan War, meaning conflict is common throughout it. There are pages describing the deaths of soldiers against other soldiers and the epic battle between Achilles and Hector tops them all off. The snow-based Battle of Hoth in Episode V is very similar to this, with the rebels defending themselves from the approaching empire. The pay-off in most star wars films is a lightsaber duel including the main characters of that film, of which there are many to choose from.

A large number of fantastical creatures: The same

Depiction of Polyphemus, the Cyclops in the Odyssey

This is where most of the charm from both sets of work is based. The creatures in Greek myth and Star Wars share the same sense of other-worldly wonder and intrigue that have appealed to audiences for thousands of years. The epics, especially Homer’s Odyssey, contain some of the world’s most famous beasts: Scylla – a twelve-headed, six-tentacled monster; the iconic one-eyed Cyclops Polyphemus; Circe, a magical goddess with traits synonymous with sorcery. Star Wars has provided similar fantastical creatures. In Episode VI, the ferocious Rancor in Jabba the Hut’s dungeon seems to share a similar setting and attributes to the Cyclops. The Sarlacc, a sand monster which is essentially an unsettling spiral of teeth and tentacles in the ground which, aside from its residence in the desert, is very similar to the Greek mythological monster Charybdis – a creature residing in the ocean whose mouth is a teeth-filled whirlpool of impending doom. In this category, it seems Star Wars has borrowed much from its epic predecessors.

Evidently, Star Wars has much in common with the ancient Greek epics. It’s no surprise to me as Lucas himself in his conception of Star Wars wanted to make 12 films – a number equal to the books in Virgil’s Aeneid, the famous Roman Epic.

With the upcoming film Solo, the 12-film saga may be on the way reaching its conclusion. Star Wars may not have reached the legendary status of its ancient epic counterparts, but it also is not over two thousand years old. From the success of the original trilogy, Star Wars has become a legend of popular culture, and that solidifies its place as a modern epic for the time being.