With classes at Mythgard Institute starting in less than two weeks, I reached out to the lecturers for our fall courses – Amy H. Sturgis, John Garth and Nelson Goering – with some questions about what we can expect to find in their classes.
First up is Dr. Sturgis on The Force of Star Wars: Examining the Epic.
Q1. Although Star Wars has been used as an educational tool in the past, from a pedagogical perspective Star Wars is often relegated to simply illustrating real-world concepts like science, politics, economics, and even programming and design, rather than looking at the story and influence of Star Wars itself. What value is there in studying Star Wars qua Star Wars from a literary and cultural perspective, and how do you see your Mythgard class filling that gap?
Great question! I think you’re quite right in saying that Star Wars has been used as an educational tool, and the reason this is the case is that Star Wars is a common global language. It requires no explanation. Even those who haven’t seen the films or read the novels or actively engaged with the saga in any way still know the major characters, general premises, etc. The very fact that Star Wars has pervaded culture to this extent raises a question: why? What is it about Star Wars that gives it such cross-cultural and transgenerational purchase? I see the Mythgard class as an opportunity to unpack the Star Wars mechanism – its genre inspirations, historical parallels, political implications, mythological echoes, and evolving multimedia forms — in order to see what makes it tick. If we better understand the building blocks of Star Wars, perhaps we will better understand ourselves and why we — across the world, over the decades — remain drawn to this cycle of storytelling.
Q2. Timothy Zahn’s “Thrawn” novel trilogy – the first book of which is a required text for your course – has been credited (or blamed) by some as reviving the Star Wars universe at a time when the franchise was flagging. Imagining, for a moment, an alternate universe in which Zahn’s books were never published, do you think Star Wars might have lapsed into relative obscurity as a fun but outdated movie series with a few interesting but little known media tie-ins? Or do you think there is something inherent in the *Star Wars* story that would have caused it to persist through some other avenue or medium, regardless of any particular author or plot-line?
It’s difficult to overstate the impact of Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn trilogy. The alternate universe you propose would be very alternate, indeed. That said, I think that the immediate impact was felt strongest by those outside the Star Wars community. The fans already knew they wanted more Star Wars, and that’s why Heir to the Empire immediately went to the top of the bestseller list and stayed there. It was industry professionals, promoters, and retailers who received the unexpected message loud and clear that popular demand had not waned, that Star Wars retained the ability to capture the imagination of audiences.
I doubt that Star Wars would have faded into obscurity without the Thrawn trilogy, although those books certainly enriched the saga tremendously and also helped make more films possible by reinvigorating the Expanded Universe (now Legends) series of novels and comics. But in the absence of new canonical material, the fans were creating fiction and films of their own, after all — and they still are, despite the current wealth of Star Wars multimedia works available! This fan participation, paired with the generation-spanning following that Star Wars now boasts, suggests to me that there is something inherent in the Star Wars story that provides it staying power.
Q3. From an academic perspective, what areas of Star Wars scholarship do you find most fascinating? Also, which areas of the Star Wars universe do you think could use more academic attention?
I’m very interested in fan participation and transformative media studies in general, and I find that Star Wars provides a unique opportunity for study from that perspective. Here is a community that began in the hard-copy days of printed fanzines and now thrives in the virtual world of online fandom, with members who have accessed the universe from a variety of different entry points (the first trilogy of films, the second trilogy, the comics and novels, video games, the Clone Wars and Rebels television series, etc.) and thus hold different expectations and assumptions about the saga.
If we think of fan works as a kind of reader-response laboratory, Star Wars gives us intriguing material to analyze. For example, fan creators had many years after the first trilogy of films to speculate about key plot points such as the fall of Anakin Skywalker. After the prequel trilogy, fans had the opportunity to react creatively, to find imaginative ways to make the different visions reflected by the two trilogies speak to each other or to critique them, and/or to integrate aspects of the new canon and old fanon in various ways. With a setting as broad and diverse as the Star Wars universe, fans also have enjoyed the freedom to tell stories in the margins and on the boundaries, creating new characters and extending original timelines. Of course, with the next films on the way, there’s the question of how fans will combine or choose among Legends and fan narratives and fresh canon about the fate of the Rebellion and the familiar characters involved with it.
For that matter, Star Wars enthusiasts have been at the forefront of technical innovation in fan film and cosplay, as well, and this also deserves more critical attention. The same is true for social innovation. Just look at how the 501st Legion has leveraged fan participation on behalf of charity and volunteer action worldwide.
Setting aside the question of whether Star Wars is better described as fantasy or science fiction — a question we will be wrestling with in the class, for certain — there is still much to be done in exploring the pulp antecedents to the Star Wars stories in all of their forms. The same is true for the influence of early silent film on the Star Wars movies in particular.
Another area that could use more academic attention, I think, is how Star Wars in effect created creators. There are the obvious and highly publicized examples, of course — James Cameron seeing Star Wars, quitting his job, and devoting himself to filmmaking — but there are many more that have not received similar attention. The intellectual, artistic, and technical “children” of Star Wars offer some fruitful avenues for study. What is it about Star Wars that inspired others to create? How do those creations engage with and respond to the saga or tell us more about Star Wars itself? What creative conversations did Star Wars join and/or begin, and how can we trace the impact of Star Wars in the works of today’s filmmakers, artists, and authors?
Q4. Finally, if you could be any Star Wars character you wanted from any area of the canon, Extended Universe/Legends stories, or even the Christmas specials and Ewok TV movies….which would you want to be? And, of course, why?
Wait, if you’re throwing The Christmas Special into the mix, does this mean I could choose to be Bea Arthur? Doesn’t everyone aspire to be Bea Arthur?
Seriously, the truth is that I’ve wanted to be a Jedi Knight since 1977. And if I had my choice of anywhere in the Star Wars universe I would like to be, it would be the Jedi Archives. My choice, then, is clear. From the Legends stories, I would like to be the courageous and committed Tahl. She was both a great Jedi Master and a wise Lore Keeper (part historian, part librarian, and perpetual researcher) at the Jedi Archives. The perfect package! As an added bonus, she also happened to be the person closest to (if I may quote from Weird Al’s “The Saga Begins”) “the Jedi I admire most,” Qui-Gon Jinn.
Tahl embodies the best traits of the Jedi; she was so attuned to the Force that even being permanently blinded during one of her missions couldn’t stop her from pursuing her work, and she was so devoted to the light side that her voice pulled Qui-Gon back from seeking vengeance after her violent death. (The terrible death stuff isn’t ideal, granted, but perhaps every heroic tale needs a dose of tragedy.) She also served as mentor to another bright soul, her padawan (and later Jedi Master) Bant Eerin, and she influenced young Obi-Wan Kenobi, as well. Tahl was independent and occasionally stubborn and truly valiant, and I find her both a compelling character and an inspiring role model. If I’m allowed to be any character I wish, I might as well aim for the best!
I’d like to thank you Dr. Sturgis for taking the time to answer these questions. For more questions and insights about Star Wars, sign up for The Force of Star Wars: Examining the Epic today, after which you’ll be able to discuss these topics and more in the student forums. Also, don’t forget Dr. Sturgis’ discussion this coming Saturday as part of the Guest Lecture Series, titled “The Jedi, the Cowboy, and… Thomas Edison?: Pulp Science Fiction and Star Wars.”
Watch for additional interviews from Mythgard professors in the coming days!