George Lucas will inflict yet another Star Wars film on us momentarily. I detest the series, along with its successor, Harry Potter, and its antecedent, Wagner’s Ring cycle. Luke Skywalker is a retreaded Siegfried, with inborn powers that make him nearly invincible, asserting his will against authority (Wotan/Darth Vader). There are minor differences; at least Harry doesn’t have to kill Dumbledore. George Lucas explained on a recent American Movie Channel retrospective that he dipped into this swamp first as an anthropology student, reading the likes of Joseph Campbell.
Skywalker/Potter/Siegfried are a carryover of the pagan idea of heroes, which is simply the pagan idea of a god: a being who is like us, but better. Campbell claimed that the “hero” of this ilk is a universal myth, but that is plainly false. This sort of figure is largely absent both from biblical and Chinese narrative (that in part explains Campbell’s unconcealed hostility to the Jews and their sacred texts). The patriarchs could be tough, like Abraham, or averse to conflict, like Isaac, but “heroic” is not a qualifier that springs to mind. For that matter, the protagonist of every Kung Fu creaker is a humble lad who works harder than anyone else, and isn’t too proud to start by carrying slop buckets in the kitchen of the martial arts school.
My friend Francesco Sisci observes that Europe was ruled by a hereditary aristocracy while China was ruled by mandarins:
Even now there are families in Rome claiming a lineage back to Julius Cesar , living in the same area and the same buildings for millennia, despite many changes in the ruling elite of the land. The concept of aristocracy, of blue-blood privileges, was very strong for centuries in the West. Apart from the many crowned heads of State in Europe, England’s House of Lords is a modern vestige of the old Roman Senate: a group of grandees – largely chosen by the merits of their forefathers – ruling the nation of common people. In ancient China… there were no birth-determined social divides, and upward mobility based purely on merit had been encouraged and idealized since very ancient times.
China is ruled by the equivalent of the faculty of Harvard College, which William F. Buckley famously compared unfavorably to the first hundred people in the Boston phone directory. This sort of system has good points and bad points. It is embedded in popular culture, e.g., the plot of almost every martial arts film. It also encourages an educational system in which almost everyone learns calculus, as opposed to America, where one out of eight high school students learns calculus.
I suspect that the popularity of Star Wars and the Potter series arises from the generation of obese, pimply-faced young losers we are now raising, who know their real-life prospects to be miserable, and compensate by playing the hero in video games. Very few of them know how to code a computer, to be sure, and even fewer know how to build one.
Think of Skywalker/Potter/Siegfried as the pop-culture equivalent of the self-esteem movement in education. If we can’t persuade our kids to accomplish anything, at least we can enrich their fantasy life.