U.S. Intellectual History Blog

“Before the Dark Times, Before the Empire”: *Star Wars* and Historical Memory

Science fiction has long told stories about the difference between how people remember the past versus what actually happened. Sometimes, this involves time travel—as in the shock the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise-E experiences when meeting a flawed, human version of their warp drive hero Zefram Cochrane in Star Trek: First Contact. The Babylon 5 episode “The Deconstruction of Falling Stars” asked one simple question: how would people in the Babylon 5 universe remember the heroes that we, the viewer, rooted for (at that point) over four seasons? The answer was: far from the way we’d want them remembered. Science fiction literature also has many examples of this too: Canticle for Leibowitz (of which “Deconstruction of Falling Stars is partially inspired by) explores a far-future world where a monastic society struggles to keep alive the scientific advances of a fading past. Star Wars is no different in this regard.

The Star Wars universe is one where an Old Republic once reigned, before the rise of Chancellor (and later Emperor) Palpatine and the militarization of the galaxy to deal with threats from Separatists and “traitorous” Jedi. The way in which the history of this era is described by Episode IV, A New Hope, however, indicates a past that is being interpreted—and reinterpreted—by the survivors of that era. The title of my piece, of course, is taken from Obi Wan-Kenobi’s conversation with Luke Skywalker about his own cloudy past. Kenobi, while giving Luke a lightsaber, described to Skywalker the Jedi Order, arguing that the decline of its power and that of the Republic ushered in the era of Imperial oppression.

No doubt based on what we see in A New Hope it is clear the Empire is not exactly a stabilizing force for good—torturing politicians, massacring villages, and destroying entire planets does not seem, in my humble opinion, to be the most humane way to run a sprawling galactic government. Nonetheless, what makes the Star Wars saga interesting, from the point of view of a historian, is how little most of the characters talk about the past. Think of the way the Clone Wars are discussed in Episode IV. It was a conflict so important that Luke gasps in awe when Kenobi tells him that he fought in it. Yet the viewer Obi-Wan-Kenobi_6d775533learns little about what the war was actually about. Which, in some ways, is an intriguing story choice from George Lucas. One, it might reflect how Lucas was still developing the inner workings of the Star Wars universe—debate still rages about how much Lucas actually planned out the entire saga from the mid-1970s on. But second, it reflects a storytelling choice to drop the viewer into the middle of that universe with little of a safety net. Of course Kenobi doesn’t say much more about the war because it’s presumed Luke at least has some understanding of the conflict.

Or does he? We should think about the Galactic Empire in Star Wars as a regime that is oppressive not just because it has storm troopers, Star Destroyers, and Death Stars, but one that also has within its power the ability to shape how the past is understood by its citizens. As fans of the saga, we’ve now had the opportunity to see the Clone Wars on the big screen in the prequel trilogy. And the way the war ends in Revenge of the Sith shows a conflict ending as a defeat for practically everyone—except Chancellor Palpatine, of course. But if it’s true that victors always write the history, one wonders how Palpatine took the Clone Wars—and his subsequent oppression of the Jedi—and used them to consolidate power in the galaxy in the decades leading up to the events of A New Hope.

By the time A New Hope was released in 1977, Americans had plenty of understanding in regards to how a government could shape and mold public information, even in a democracy. Revelations about the Pentagon Papers and the investigations of the Church Committee into America’s clandestine activities overseas meant that Americans realized the recent past was not so clear cut. And, of course, the twentieth century is filled with examples of totalitarian regimes in the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany changing history—through the alteration of photographs and directives on how to teach history to the masses. The prequels of 1999-2005 were informed by this history, as well as by the early War on Terror and concerns about encroaching limitations on civil liberties in the United States.

Uncertainty about the past also plays a role in the trailers for The Force Awakens. Han Solo assures someone off-screen that the stories about the Jedi, the Force, and their exploits during the Galactic Civil War are all real. It begs the question of how much the galaxy truly knows about the war seen in the Original Trilogy, and whether the events of thirty-plus years ago are important to the characters of The Force Awakens. ( I have already seen the film once and could say more here, but will not do so out of consideration for people who have not yet had a chance to watch the new movie.)

Star Wars, of course, is about having a good time at the theater. But, like any decent fictional universe, the ways in which characters struggle with the conflicts in that universe can serve as cause to reflect on the real world. So in that sense, the stories of a galaxy far, far away are good fodder for thinking about how citizens remember the past—and why they choose to remember what they do.

2 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Thanks Robert. Your post got me thinking about storytelling technique—when details from the past either help forward, or distract from, the story you’re trying to tell. When is it appropriate to leave certain backstories, or history, vague—letting the reader do the necessary exploratory work—and when to specify. In this case (i.e. Ben referring to the Clone Wars in Episode IV), it seemed fine to leave it vague, if still important sounding.

    Tolkien is another who had to do this, in the Lord of the Rings. Indeed, the vague—but clearly rich and important past—fueled one’s imagination in that saga. Tolkien leaves the reader with questions, but those questions can be bracketed in the present story.

    Just thinking about these untied-but-important-historical ends comforts me in relation to my current book project, which relies on knowledge contained in my first book. I guess my readers will let me know if the open ends in book #2 are “too open.” – TL

    • These are all important points–that vagueness, in a way, adds a richness to the universe. I remember growing up in the 1990s and everyone merely guessed at what the Clone Wars were.

      And as for your new book project, I suspect readers will be able to follow along just fine. Can’t wait to find out!

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