“The one about the dinosaur?”
“No, a different one.”
She shrugged. “Anything. You pick.”
I was not in my most creative frame of mind and was having trouble coming up with something. So I went with the story most familiar to my heart, the story that filled my childhood and helped to teach me the basic moral understandings of the universe.
“A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…”
I recounted for her how the gallant Princess Leia of Alderaan is captured by the nefarious Darth Vader, but is able to send a message with the plucky droids C-3PO and R2-D2 who escape and land on a desert planet called Tatooine. There they are captured by Jawas before being bought by an earnest farmboy named Luke Skywalker. R2-D2 sets off alone into the wilderness to fulfill his promise to Princess Leia to find Ob-Wan Kenobi, and Luke sets off in search of the little droid.
“We have to stop there,” I told her, noticing how late it was getting.
“No!” she insisted, her eyes wide. “What happens to Princess Leia?”
“I’ll tell you tomorrow.”
She reluctantly agreed to go to bed. As her mother tucked her in, I heard her recount the story: “Princess Leia was locked up by Darth Vader and couldn’t escape. And the one robot was knocked over by the little creatures who talked like this: ‘Yimee yimee!’ And then Luke drove the other robot into the desert in his car.”
My spouse came out of her room and asked me, “Did you tell her about Star Wars?”
The next morning, the very first out of my daughter’s mouth when she saw me: “Tell me the next part about Princess Leia.”
All week, in fact, she has been asking me for “the next part.” I have the movie memorized; I literally can recount it scene for scene and nearly line for line. I was born a year after the first Star Wars film was released and I cannot remember a time in my life that I didn’t know its story. I remember my parents taking me to see The Empire Strikes Back at a drive-in movie theater, although that memory seems suspect since I would have been only two years old when it was released. But the Star Wars characters have been a part of my life since I can remember. I had the action figures; I had the picture books accompanied by 45 records that required me to turn the page every time R2-D2 chirped; I even slept with a stuffed Ewok at night. There are plenty of other stories that have had profound impacts on my life – books like Where The Wild Things Are, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, To Kill a Mockingbird and A Prayer For Owen Meany; movies like The Godfather, Forrest Gump, any Pixar movie; TV shows like The X-Files and The Wire. But all of those held sway over particular periods of my life. But there are only two stories that have had a consistent lasting effect over every moment of my life, having existed in my consciousness since I was born and every moment since: Star Wars and the Bible.
We’ve now started to have the conversation about how old a child should be before letting them watch Star Wars for the first time. I know that I was well aware of the stories before I was her age, although the only time I distinctly remember watching any of the first movies and truly understanding the stories was when Return of the Jedi was released. I was five years old and my father took me to see it in the theater and I remember feeling as if I were coming in to the last chapter of a story I already subconsciously knew. I didn’t directly remember how Han Solo had gotten frozen in carbonite, but I understood he needed rescuing and had the faintest of mental images of him surrounded by orange and purple as Leia and Chewbacca looked on helplessly. Is my child any less ready to watch these films than I was at her age? It’s not any scarier than other movies she’s watched – Monsters Inc. has plenty of scary moments, and she loves that movie. It’s perhaps more violent than the movies she’s used to watching, but I’m of the opinion that children are far more aware of violence and death than we give them credit for. (See: Grimm’s fairy tales.)
I’ve decided, for now, not to show her the movies. Not because I think she’s not ready for them, but because I want to preserve the power of myth that resides in the oral tradition. Much has been made about the Joseph Campbell mythical hero quest arc that George Lucas so deftly utilized (or stole) to craft his epic space opera. The story of Star Wars has, in effect, been told for centuries in the epics of Gilgamesh, the Arabian Nights, Greek mythology, and the folklore of King Arthur. This powerful “monomyth” of the noble journey, or the struggle for what is right, of the transformative influence of fellow travelers and friends in a protagonist’s bildungsroman; this is, in effect, the story of humankind. These are archetypes that inform and order our experience of the universe. These stories are everywhere. In many ways, we cannot not tell this story to our children, from the stories of the Bible to The Cat In the Hat. Asking whether or not my child is ready for the story is ridiculously redundant. Not only does she already know the story, she’s already retelling it.
The reason that Generation Xers hated the Star Wars prequels isn’t just because they were bad movies. I believe they were inferior to the first three, but the first three aren’t exactly cinematic masterpieces. There’s plenty of awkward dialogue, wooden acting, and pandering optimism (I don’t care about Lucas’ revisionism: Han shot first!). The reason our hatred of the prequels was so visceral is that they exposed to us that movies are smaller than the myths. We didn’t see the first movies as critical adults in a theater; we saw them as children absorbing stories of life. We didn’t care that Mark Hamill is maybe not the best actor, or that Chewbacca has only one facial expression, or that it is a little too convenient that Luke just happens to crash within one mile of a Jedi master who has devoted his existence to not being found. And if you just responded to that last sentence by explaining away all three of those things in your head, then you are proving my point – they don’t matter when faced with the larger implications of the myth. The myth is deeper than the story.
This is true of all myths. It’s true of the Bible – who cares where Cain and Abel’s children came from? Who cares how Jonah could survive inside a whale’s belly? Who cares about the biological implications of virgin birth or bodily resurrection? If you’re hung up on those details, then that’s like dismissing all of Star Wars because the space battles depict the astrophysical impossibility of sound in a vacuum.
It’s just as true as the more localized, personal family stories we tell ourselves and our children. My daughter has heard stories of her namesake, her uncle. She’s heard these stories from her mother – who never met my brother. That’s a ridiculously small detail when compared to the larger mythical import of the story: that my child understand there are people in her family who came before her that left an impact on the people who love her and that, through her, will continue to impact the world.
A myth is always greater than the medium in which it is told. That’s why people of my generation sat through The Phantom Menace with an increasing sense of despair: we were grown and no longer able to separate ourselves from the critical examination of the conventions of cinema. My child does not have that problem yet, and I don’t want to rush it. I will continue to tell her the stories of Star Wars, just as we tell her the stories of the Bible and of our own family histories, so that she can absorb them without having images and meanings imposed and contrived. We will show them to her for sure; maybe in another year or two. In the meantime, I’m treasuring that Star Wars is an intimate experience between the two of us. When she does watch the films, she’ll watch them as stories that she heard from her father, which will infuse them with a deeper import. Just as the stories of the Bible are best told in the context of a community of faith, so do I want the stories we tell her to be connected intimately with the people that love her.
Stories outlive their tellers, and in doing so they take on a new life. They change as we change, often more. They convey our faith, our beliefs, our values, our very selves to those who come after us. They are our most treasured gifts to our children because they are pieces of ourselves that go with them. I believe there is something sacred at work when, in a few quiet moments between me and my child, she says, “What happens next?”