Knighthoods have returned! No, not in Australia – Malcolm Turnbull remains PM, and the highest award in the Australian honours system will remain closed off to everyone. The galaxy’s most famous knights, those warrior-monks of the Jedi Order, returned to the silver screen last month in the much-hyped continuation of the Star Wars franchise.
Academics like to say that pop culture is a microcosm of the wider culture, and that what we see in film, television and literature is merely a reflection of the contemporary society in which it appears. Like much of what academia says, this is specious at best. The suggestion that Hollywood is a reflection of modern civilisation is simply too pessimistic to contemplate.
In fact, what people read into pop culture says more about Western culture than anything else. So while the film itself doesn’t say much about contemporary cultural attitudes, the surrounding commentary is revealing; and what is said about Star Wars reveals a lack of regard for Western history, particularly our history of orders of chivalry and crusading knights.
In the galaxy far, far away, we can generally conclude that the Jedi are the good guys. Yes, they take in and train the future Darth Vader on little more than an unverified prophesy. And, yes, ultimately their dedication to protect the highly bureaucratised and high-taxing central galactic government blinds them to the fact that the office of the Galactic Chancellor was being occupied by a Sith Lord (preventing that was surely a key performance indicator). That all goes to questions of competence, but their intentions were generally always pure; they are the heroes of the piece.
This inspires much commentary on what real world comparisons can be made to the Jedi, and the commentary tends to reveal a glaring absence of Western historical knowledge. So while the Asian influences are well known and oft-repeated, what is typically disregarded is the fundamentally Western basis of the Jedi knights. It’s easy to imagine the creation of the Jedi being influenced by the paladins in the court of Charlemagne, senior soldiers who embodied Christian valour. In fact, Jedi chivalry is lifted right out of mediaeval Europe, which in turn was highly religious.
This knightly piety influenced the crusaders. In particular, military orders consisting of sword-wielding warrior-monks, dedicated to religious conflicts – a description which safely covers the Jedi, too. The longest surviving of those warrior-monk orders was the Order of Saint John which ruled the island of Malta until their capitulation to Napoleon’s forces in 1798. Like the Jedi, the Knights of Malta were required to swear vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. It was also highly exclusive like the Jedi Order; where a person could only become a Jedi Knight if they had an affinity for using the Force (the much derided explanation is the existence of ‘midi-chlorians’ in the blood), a person could traditionally only join the Knights of Malta if they belonged to a noble lineage (a sufficient blueness in the blood).
Admittedly, noting the Crusader background of the Jedi might be discomfiting; the Crusades are universally considered a dark period for Christianity. Yet, as historian Professor Bernard Lewis noted in his Brief History of the Last 2000 Years, the Crusades were a limited, defensive quest to reclaim holy sites in the Middle East, and to also unite the Eastern and Western branches of Christianity. Viewing the Crusades as unmitigated Christian evil is an overly simplistic perspective of an incredibly complex period of Christendom’s conflict with Islam, but it sticks nonetheless. For their part, the Knights of Malta would later play an undoubtedly positive role in the world by combating the Barbary pirates and policing the Mediterranean Sea.
Regardless, mediaeval Christianity should be readily identifiable in the Jedi. Instead, the focus invariably gravitates towards the Asian influences, such as Hinduism, Taoist philosophy and the films of Akira Kurasawa. Bizarrely, comparisons are now being drawn between the Jedi and today’s greatest villains, the genocidal butchers of the Islamic State.
Comparing the Jedi to the Islamic State is not necessarily oxymoronic, just moronic. Islamist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, and the continuing rampage of the Islamic State in the Middle East, made it the biggest global story of 2015. In pop culture, nothing was as big as the continuation of the Star Wars franchise. It’s not really surprising that it has become fashionable to try to connect the two. And so it is we have shallow suggestions that the Jedi Order is just like the Islamic State, while Luke Skywalker was actually on the path to jihad, whose participation in the destruction of the Death Star was naturally re-imagined as a terrorist attack.
Obviously, the Death Star assault could only be designated as an act of war: it was a planet-destroying military installation – itself an instrument of terror – that actually travelled to the Rebel base to deliver their destruction. For the Rebellion’s response to be characterised as an act of terror would be to characterise every military engagement as terrorism – and thus make the term meaningless altogether.
Any jihadi comparison is similarly implausible. Professor Lewis identifies Muslim jihad as an offensive war to bring the world under Islamic law. The same cannot be said for the Jedi. As it was for the Crusades, the Jedi’s holy war is only a temporary battle, and by the time of The Phantom Menace, the Jedi have long since fought their holy war against the Sith. At this point, and much like the post-Crusades Knights of Malta in our world, they serve a peacekeeping and law enforcement role. And just like the Knights of Malta in 1798, the Jedi’s indolence led to their end, albeit much more violently.
Ultimately, people can and will interpret these things in any way they please. But the fact that the rebuttals – or any other commentary for that matter – fail to even mention the Western basis for the Jedi Knights feeds into a sense of cultural malaise.
After all, if we can’t recognise the inherently Western nature of our pop culture heroes, then what does that say about attitudes toward the modern West more generally?
Morgan Begg is the editor of FreedomWatch at the Institute of Public Affairs
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