Once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far away: Star Wars and Fairytales

"Star Wars is more fairytale than true science fiction." - Mark Hamill

"I have been offered a movie (20th Cent. Fox) which I may accept, if they come up with proper money. London and N. Africa, starting in mid-March. Science fiction – which gives me pause – but is to be directed by Paul [sic] Lucas who did American Graffiti, which makes me feel I should. Big part. Fairy-tale rubbish but could be interesting perhaps." - Alec Guinness

During my undergrad studies I took a course called Philosophy and Science Fiction (which, in case you were wondering, was the most awesome course I ever took), and more than once the whole class got into an argument about "hard" and "soft" science fiction. Star Wars only came up once, and everyone pretty quickly dismissed it as neither hard nor soft, but not even science fiction at all. Nothing more was said about it there other than to say what it isn't, but had we been discussing what it is, I'd argue that Star Wars is, in fact, more fairytale than anything else. Another day I might make a post about space fairytales in general but for today I just want to talk about Star Wars. (cue Oscar Isaac strumming a guitar and singing "Star Wars, nothing but Star Wars..." as that is the only thing in my head lately) (that and other Oscar Isaac-related things) (I digress)

Fairytales very often begin and end with stock phrases. Everyone's familiar with "Once upon a time," but also commonly used are "There was and there was not," "Once on a time," "Beyond seven [mountains/rivers/lands/seas/etc]," and many, may variations on "Long ago," "In ancient times," "Far away," and all sorts of references to this tale taking place a long time ago in a place far, far away. Right from the very beginning, Star Wars lets us know the kind of story we're dealing with. These stock openers signal that our story is taking place in a realm other than our own: not necessarily in a different galaxy, but another country, another place, another time. It takes us out of reality so that the magic and unrealistic happenings are easier to accept.

The Force Awakens spoilers ahead!

Fairytales also make use of stock characters, something Star Wars both uses and plays with, in the manner of all great modern fairytales. The princess is perhaps the first one that comes to mind, and with good reason. The first princess we encounter in this universe is Leia, who immediately challenges the stereotype of fairytale princesses with her sharp tongue and stubborn defiance. She isn't without her predecessors, of course - I've talked before about how many fairytale princesses, particularly those outside the Western canon, are much feistier than the Snow Whites and Sleeping Beautys that might first come to mind when we think "fairytale princess." Leia and her mother Padme are action princesses (well, Padme's a queen, but semantics), with blasters in their hands, fighting everything that comes at them just as much as any other hero. Padme climbs the pillar to which she's chained working on her escape while Anakin and Obi-Wan argue about how to escape. Not 5 minutes after the knight Luke rescues her from captivity, Princess Leia's shooting a blaster at stormtroopers, taking charge and yelling, "Somebody has to save our skins! Into the garbage chute, flyboy!" Not to mention strangling her own 'dragon' with the chains he held her with. Rey has tendencies like Padme and Leia as well: Finn and Han storm Starkiller Base to save Rey only to run into her scaling a wall and escaping on her own. Star Wars ladies are not numerous, and they almost exclusively inhabit the "princess"-type role, but these are princesses of the self-rescuing variety.

Rey is the first main trio woman not to be actual royalty, which is interesting. Though she is very similar to Leia and Padme, she also has similarities with Luke, who is, of course, the fairytale hero. His story does not revolve around saving the princess and living happily ever after, since 1) that's more of a minor happening in the first third of his story and 2) she is his sister, y'all. Struggles with the Force are what connect Rey and Luke (it is difficult to discuss Rey only knowing the first third of her story when we know so much more about Luke's but stay with me). Theirs is the story of good conquering evil, a tale literally as old as time. Darth Vader wasn't really the villain for Luke any more than Kylo Ren is really the villain for Rey; Luke fights for the good in his father, and the defeat of evil isn't in Vader's death but in his redemption just before. Not knowing where the new trilogy goes from here, I'm just going to say that narratively speaking we hope Kylo is redeemed before Anakin was, that he has time to live his life for the side of good rather than turn toward the light and then...immediately die. (For more on evil itself as the villain rather than an evil being, see Sleeping Beauty!)

As much as Star Wars relies on tropes and playing with those tropes, it's interesting that The Force Awakens is playing with them even more. The familiar trio of the princess (Padme/Leia), the knight (Obi-Wan/Luke), and the rogue (Anakin/Han) isn't as clear-cut in the new trio. Rey isn't a princess and will likely go on to train as a Jedi knight. Poe is a pilot, which he has in common with both Luke and Han, but we don't know enough about him as a character yet to place him in either the knight or the rogue position. Finn is a rogue Stormtrooper who takes the knight role in rescuing Poe. I guess if Poe's getting rescued he's the princess. Anyway, I really like this set-up and am interested to see where they take it.

Back to stories we do know more about. Fairytales don't generally have much story-wise that's terribly surprising and tend to use and re-use a lot of the same narrative devices. I've heard a lot, more recently, but also fairly consistently, about Star Wars just telling the same story over and over again, which is a textbook fairytale thing. The interest in fairytales doesn't really come from doing new and surprising things story-wise, though that's often the point of re-tellings and can be done really well and interestingly. The interest comes from taking the same story we know and putting new people in the character slots, or setting the same story in a different place and time and seeing what changes and what stays the same.

For example, the death of a father figure is incredibly common in fairytales (see Snow White and Cinderella) and is also a staple of the first of a Star Wars trilogy. In episode I we lost Qui-Gon Jinn, in episode IV we lost Obi-Wan Kenobi, and in episode VII we lost Han Solo. It has a shade of "all this has happened before, and all of this will happen again," to it, but the Star Wars universe is pretty innately cyclical; insisting on balance in the Force rather than a triumph of good/light over evil/dark is going to necessitate conflicts rising up again and again. Another hope I have for the new trilogy is, actually, putting an end to the cycle once and for all, and I think that's something I may talk about in that post on space fairytales in general I was talking about so we'll just throw that out there and then scoot it into the corner and deal with it later.

Probably the biggest factor that sticks Star Wars squarely in the realm of fairytale rather than science fiction is the Force. The Force is magic, plain and simple. You have good witches and bad witches, good fairies and evil fairies, Jedi and Sith. Magic can be used for good, magic can be used for evil. Magic can be religious, which is something Star Wars uses rather heavily. But it doesn't have to be. Kylo tells Rey she needs a teacher for her to be able to use the Force properly, but she proves him wrong. She's likely about to get her training from Luke anyway, but the point is that she doesn't need to be trained in order to use the Force. Luke's training was pretty formal from Obi-Wan, but Leia's Force-sensitive, too, and uses the Force even though she didn't get the same training. (Note: that's just canon. I'm not going to argue anyone about it. Look it up.)

There's more to discuss on the topic of Star Wars and fairytales, but I will save that for another post; the main point I'm trying to make here is that Star Wars is a space fairytale, and that is really interesting. A background in fairytales makes you look at tropes and characters and story choices in Star Wars differently, it makes you expect things differently, and it's fascinating. Not knowing what lies ahead in the story,  but knowing what came before, and knowing what often happens in fairytales makes it exciting, for me, at least.


  1. This is what makes me worry a little bit about the spinoff movies. Will Star Wars still work for me now as something outside of the hero story/fairy tale?

    I read piles of the novels a couple decades ago; and while I enjoyed them as a bit of adolescent timesink, most were truly awful in retrospect. They simply do not feel Starwarsy enough. They feel more like a scifi drama. Star Wars really shines brightest for me in that first flick where things are at their most paired down, and the edges of the map are still a bit fuzzy.

    Either way, for the first time in a long while I'm looking forward to more Star Wars. And that's good.



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