It’s been a nostalgic turning of the year. A first holiday visit back to my California hometown after a move to Washington was an important time to reconnect with family there, especially my aging grandmother who’s recovering in assisted living from a nasty fall. Working out of my father’s office for the week, I spent my lunch hours with her, and then went home to her house at night with my wife and two sons.
I made so many happy childhood memories in and around that house, it is often appears as a place of power in my dreams. It’s hard to watch the home age and the land change around it, wondering what the world is like when it is no longer here. I spent every Friday night out there with Grandma after Grandpa died, from elementary school to the time I left for college. So it was a bittersweet experience to put my own kids to bed in the tiny side bedroom that still has a sticker with my name on the door at kindergarten height. This is where Grandma and Grandpa met Santa Claus in 1974, when they slept in the downstairs family room for Grandpa’s last Christmas. Surrounded now by light industrial and condo developments, when it was built, the house was the only home on the Easternmost edge of a California railroad town on the very fringe of the San Francisco Bay Area. In the Depression through World War II, hobos used to chalk the fence posts down by the tracks to get a free meal from my grandparents after hopping off the boxcars entering town.
I remember standing on the fence watching the sun set and the trains going by, feeling very much like a seven-year old Luke Skywalker. That made it all the more poignant to see the new Star Wars movie with my father and two brothers one night down on First Street, where Dad took me to see the first one back in 1977.
If you’re the one person who still hasn’t seen it yet, there may be spoilers here. But hey, what can I say? I waited 32 years to learn what happened next. A spoiler or two won’t hurt anyone. Suffice it to say, as a first-generation fan, it was magical to see my original cast onscreen again. It has been criticized for being a mashup of the most effective elements of prior installments: masked villains, tiny mentors, deserts, snow, and forests. Even George Lucas has called it a “retro movie.” It is fun and flawed, with more emotional maturity than the first. A lot of that poignancy comes from the original cast of characters who have aged in story-time the same amount we have lived in the world off screen. Seeing it when and where I did, with constant reminders of the passing of time, I realized there’s a lot more going on in it than selling popcorn and introducing a fresh young cast. Where the original Star Wars trilogy was about growing up, the new one is about getting old, and that’s very much by design.
Consider the source material:
An immature farm boy learns his deceased father was in fact a knight, inherits his blade and begins his own quest to maturity and knighthood…
It’s a common enough theme, the classic Arthurian legend. It inspired Wagner and T. S. Eliot long before it inspired Lucas. In the Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell famously pointed out that Parzival was the jumping off point for Luke’s hero quest. Like Parzival, in the original trilogy, Luke meets teachers with a secret connection to his family, gets lost along the way, and ultimately becomes the knight his father’s heritage destined him to be. All well and good.
Thanks to Campbell, it started a generation of New Age obsession with the Hero’s Journey and following our bliss. Somehow, in all the excitement, we never noticed he only told the young man’s part of the story. The whole Baby Boom culture and its Gen X progeny was so entranced by the “Hero’s Journey” come to life, somehow we never noticed that Lucas left out the most important part. As Parzival, Luke never reached Act Two. We see him initiated, but to what end? The myth of Parzival makes that clear, but Star Wars never did. Until now.
On his quest to become a knight, Parzival is a bit of a buffoon. Dressing in home-made, ill-fitting armor emulating his father, he stumbles through adventures without knowing the first thing about chivalry, honor, courtly love, or compassion. Eventually, he wanders to a wasted land, ruled by a wounded king he finds fishing in the murky waters surrounding his ruined kingdom. It is the Fisher King, and his castle is none other than the Grail Castle. Inside, Parzival witnesses a silent procession involving a bleeding lance that wounded the king, and the Holy Grail. But naive Parzival makes the mistake of silence. He fails to ask a question the king and all his court have been waiting for, a question that would heal the king and restore the kingdom. Consequently, the castle vanishes. Parzival awakes to find himself alone in the moors and spends the rest of the tale trying to make his way back to ask the healing question.
Eventually he meets an old hermit priest, who instructs him in the way of true knighthood and of his family legacy. The Fisher King is Parzival’s uncle, charged with safeguarding the Holy Grail. Because of his wound, he is unable to father children to pass on its legacy. Only the Grail Knight can set things right by asking the healing question. Through the path of suffering, Parzival learns compassion. The way to the Grail Castle reopens to him, and when next he sees the Grail ceremony, he is ready. He asks the healing question, unlocks the power of the Grail, heals his uncle, restores the kingdom, and becomes the new Grail King. The End.
I propose that the writers are building the new Star Wars trilogy on the same Parzival foundation George Lucas laid for the first one. All the elements setting up the missing Act Two are there. Consider the deus ex machina in the final scenes, where Artoo just happens to contain the rest of the map leading back to the vanished Luke Skywalker. Notice, though, it’s a question (from BB-8) that unlocks it. And where does that question lead? To the ocean world of Ahch-To, the site of the first Jedi Temple. There an aging, wounded Luke Skywalker sits among its ruins, surrounded by endless gray seas.
As in Parzival, a question opens the way to the wasteland of the Grail castle. Here, the Parzival of the old trilogy has become the Fisher King of the new, waiting for a healing question that will allow him to restore the Kingdom (the destroyed Jedi Order) and pass its custody on to a new generation (Rey?). The new characters are all vibrant and exciting, but it is the old man’s quest that drives the arc out of this movie into the following films. Star Wars has finally gotten around to the rest of the story. If it catches on, perhaps that’s good news for a youth-obsessed culture, all fitted out for the Hero’s Journey these past three decades, but without a clue where to go next.
Just what is that healing question? It changes with the storyteller. In the earliest version by Chretien de Troyes, it’s “Who is served by the Grail?” In the expanded version from Wolfram von Eschenbach, it’s “Sir, why do you suffer so?” Either way, the question shows compassion, the key to becoming the Grail Knight. And if you replace “The Grail” with “The Force,” then you’ve got the likely master arc running through the new trilogy.
Q: Sir / Master, why do you suffer so? Who does the Grail / Force serve?
A: I was wounded by the lance / lightsaber, and only it can heal me. The Grail / Force serves the Grail King / Jedi Master.
Episode VII ends with Luke, a Jedi Master looking every bit the Fisher King, confronting the mysterious Rey handing him his father’s lost lightsaber, sharing a long, meaningful stare with no question asked. This is Parzival’s ceremony of the Grail Castle filmed on IMAX, and it leaves us with questions of our own.
Is Rey the Grail Knight he is waiting for? Has the Force awakened in her to restore Luke’s ruined kingdom, the Jedi Order? It’s implied she may be one of his old students, hidden away where she’d find the Milennium Falcon to carry her back to him when the time was right. In that theory, Luke trusted the future of his ruined kingdom to the Force to guide her home, knowing it would lead her to the map, the ship, and the blade until she was ready to find the castle. As a failsafe, he left the missing part of the map hidden safely within the memory of his R2 unit, who would know when to retrieve it once hearing the question asked. As in Parzival, only the true Knight could ask, because only the true knight had developed the compassion to do so.
Or, like Master Yoda said a lifetime ago, could there be another? Star Wars never steers too close to the original myth. It keeps the landmarks, but plots a different course between them. Writer Mike Klimo’s amazing Star Wars Ring Theory explores the very deliberate chiastic structure running through the first six films, how they fulfill leitmotifs in character, setting, and scene composition, while introducing variations around recurring themes. If the new creators are doing something similar, then Rey may be a bit of a red herring, her question left unspoken precisely to set up and thwart audience expectations.
Remember, the true Jedi / Grail Knight learns to walk the warrior’s path with compassion. They balance the dark and the light. On his way to becoming a true knight, Parzival blunders rashly through the story, trying and failing to be his father, in armor that’s too big. He only becomes a knight when he learns true chivalry and compassion from the priest and returns to the Grail Castle to undo the damage of his past failure. True, Rey is a bit of a cipher so far, but she doesn’t act rashly, hiding in a helmet with daddy issues. That sounds like another character entirely: Kylo Ren.
But he’s the villain, you say. Well, so far. We’ve seen role reversals before in Star Wars. Anakin was supposed to be the chosen one, but he became Darth Vader along the way. If writers have a chiastic structure like Klimo’s in mind, then what more appropriate reversal than having the seeming villain turn out to be the new Grail Knight in the making: a temperamental, Dark Side wannabe, obsessed with his family legacy and hiding in a helmet… but with an undeniable attraction to the light. Villain? Now, perhaps. But in good Star Wars fashion, I sense a hero in the making. I’m calling it now: Kylo Ren is the Grail Knight and hero of this trilogy. Of all the characters, he’s the one with the most potential for growth and the biggest healing if he opens himself to compassion.
If so, there’s another interesting element: before his return to the Grail Castle to heal the kingdom, Parzival confronts a knight who turns out to be his half-brother. Evenly matched, they fight to a draw rather than to the death and discover their hidden connection. They overcome their crusader era enmity and swear to serve the Grail together. The secret sibling in an important Star Wars trope too, thanks to Luke and Leia. If it plays out here again as the Grail Kingdom motif hints, there’s an undiscovered family connection somewhere down the line. The mystery of Rey’s absent family certainly leaves room for discoveries, but don’t forget Finn’s is a blank slate too. In fact, the Grail Knight motif makes him even more interesting in retrospect as the anti-Kylo Ren: a knight without a family, driven to get out of his white armor entirely. Regardless of whether the Grail Knight who can restore the Jedi is Rey, Kylo, or even Finn, it seems likely two will confront each other again as enemies but unite as family somehow before the Grail Kingdom / Jedi can be restored.
Back to Grandma’s house. I wish we had the Grail here, but all we have is compassion: the ability to sit with her, help her eat, and talk with her in disjointed conversations in and out of pain meds. As the week drew to a close, although I feared it may be my last stay in her house, I left feeling very much restored. In some small way I had introduced my own next generation to her legacy, sharing the surroundings and stories I loved with them, while spending important healing time with her.
In one of the uglier bouts of the inevitable fanboy snark, an online troll criticized Carrie Fisher’s age, appearance, and performance, labeling the movie a “rest home flick.” The classy actress tweeted back in top form:
After sitting with my injured grandmother, holding her hand as she napped in a rest home, I silently applauded Ms. Fisher’s statement. It convinced me of two things.
- If my grandmother’s compassionate life is proof of anything, it is old age that’s the real accomplishment in this world
- There are many worse Disney Princesses to emulate than General Leia.
Star Wars is about family, and families are where heroes are made. But knights? Those only come when we let the heroes grow up and tell the end of their story.
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