Last week I wrote a midterm for a class on Theories of Myth. One of the essay questions asked to apply one of the theories we’d examined to a modern movie or book and see how accurately it fit.
Now, we hadn’t looked at Joseph Campbell yet, so I couldn’t take that easy route. After all, there are many examples of modern stories that were specifically written to follow Campbell’s Heroic Journey structure. Instead, I thought I’d take one of those stories meant to follow Campbell (Star Wars) and apply a different theory of structure on it—that of Sir James George Frazer’s Golden Bough.
I decided on this course for two reasons—as an exercise in utter bullshit to see if I could, and to use the fact that I bullshitted it to reveal how full of the same Frazer’s theory is.
So first let me elucidate Frazer’s Golden Bough for you. Frazer saw a particular ritual in a particular forest in ancient Greece wherein the priest of a shrine of Diana obtained his priesthood by killing the previous priest. The story goes like this: the priest, or “King of the Wood,” only gets to keep his priesthood as long as he can survive others trying to kill him. Those trying to get the priesthood from him must be slaves. They must come to the wood, they must pluck the “Golden Bough,” a particular branch from a particular tree, and they must slay the current priest in single combat. Having done so, the slave becomes the new kingpriest.
Frazer says that this ritual is grounded in fertility. The health of the wood is dependent on the reigning kingpriest—if the kingpriest weakens, the forest will die. Thus, the slave comes to kill the kingpriest when he weakens and take his place, renewing the fertility of the land. He plucks the Golden Bough because it contains the kingpriest’s spirit, and unless he does so the kingpriest will be unbeatable. (Frazer, The Golden Bough, xxii)
All right, fair enough. But then Frazer goes on to say that this structure of weakening, killing, and replacing, all for the purpose of fertility, applies to every myth everywhere. That’s what myth is. It’s the dying and rising of fertility. He proceeds to give a whack of examples of this, taking stories and shoehorning them into his mould to prove his point.
So not only do later scholars look at this and see very plainly that most of examples are bullshit—they also point out that his whole basis myth of the King of the Wood is essentially non-existent. If anything, the shrine to Diana was just a sanctuary for runaway slaves. (T. H. Garter, forward to The Golden Bough, xvi)
So, Frazer’s pretty much debunked as a useful myth theorist. And to prove it, I applied his very own methods to Star Wars. After all, all stories are just fertility myths, right?
So, the hero Luke Skywalker grows up a lowly farm boy, bereft of the freedom he yearns for (slave). Eventually, he manages to escape his fate and enter the wider world of the galaxy, the Empire, and the Rebellion (the Wood). Here, he encounters Darth Vader (the King of the Wood), ruling the galaxy with an iron fist. But under the rule of the mostly-machine Vader, the galaxy is crumbling to ruin. People are dying (loss of fertility).
Thus, Luke must find the Golden Bough (his lightsabre and mastery of the Force). Using this boon, he confronts Darth Vader (single combat) and defeats him, restoring peace (fertility) to the galaxy (Wood).
Luke Skywalker is even typical of a Dying and Rising God (a style of god falsely used by Frazer to illustrate his point, where deities like Osiris and Attis and Adonis are dismembered and die, losing fertility, only to come back and renew fertility). Before he can renew the fertility of the galaxy, he must be dismembered and defeated. Heck, Darth Vader is a Dying and Rising God because he becomes mostly machine before being redeemed by Luke and becoming a benevolent Force ghost. Right?
So, clearly, Star Wars fits precisely into Frazer’s framework.
Except of course, the Golden Bough doesn’t contain Vader’s soul, it’s just a necessary tool. And the galaxy isn’t faltering because Vader has lost his virility, he’s just a dictator. And Luke doesn’t become the new King of the Wood after defeating Vader. And the story isn’t about fertility. If anything, it’s about man versus technology, it’s about faith, it’s about heroism, it’s about freedom. And Luke is not a god of vegetation.
After all, he lives in a desert.