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Medievalism in ‘The Last Jedi’

Guest post by Brandon W. Hawk

With the release of Star Wars, Episode VIII: The Last Jedi, we have another installment in a saga that has captivated audiences for over 40 years. Even more than familiarity and nostalgia, the new movie offers an extension of the types of mythic stories that have entertained audiences for thousands of years.

When Episode VII: The Force Awakens came out, there were plenty of Easter eggs of medievalism. In this new film, we have even more.

For those interested in the medieval world, one feature stands out in The Last Jedi more prominently than the rest: the promise of books. The trailers featured both a shelf of books and a specific tome with tantalizing possibilities. After all, manuscripts have great potential to hold answers to questions about past and present. This is also the first Star Wars movie ever to include books in any respect.

After watching The Last Jedi, this article might as well be titled OMG L00K AT DAT CODEX!!!

[No spoilers yet, but there will be: watch for the warning below.]

Before exploring the role of books in The Last Jedi, it’s worth dwelling on the idea of books as a definitive piece of the medieval period. (If you’re really itching for Star Wars content, skip to the bracketed warning about spoilers below.)

One of the most distinctive technologies of the European Middle Ages is the book. In its most basic form, a book is a collection of pages (often parchment or paper) fastened together (often bound) with a hinge on one side. In its most usual form, the book is a bound object also known as a codex (plural codices). This medium is thoroughly medieval.

To many of us, the book is now a common object, an everyday commodity taken for granted. But this wasn’t always the case. (It’s worth noting that it’s still not the case in many places around the world.) Before the industrial revolution, books were not mass marketed and remained status objects.

The eighth-century St. Cuthbert Gospel: hailed as the earliest surviving bound manuscript from Western Europe. (London, British Library, MS 89000)

Types of books emerged in the early centuries of the common era, at the same time that Christianity arose as a major religion in the Roman Empire. Some late antique authors mention collections of wooden tablets, or collections of papyrus sheets, but the main medium for textual communication in the classical and late antique world was the roll. That changed when codices gained popularity. Books as bound collections of pages took hold between about 300 and 400. By the fifth century, rolls were barely in production anymore.

From the fifth century onward, the book became the dominant technology of textual communication in Europe. It remained a key medium throughout the medieval period and into our own so-called digital age.

Even the modern term for books derives from a medieval language. While the less familiar word codex comes from Latin, our vernacular term comes from the word boc in Old English, a language spoken in England between about 500 and 1200.

Books on a lectern in a classroom, from Rouen, Bibliothèque municipale, MS 1133 (14th century)

In The Last Jedi, the idea of the book is fully suffused into the Star Wars universe.

What makes the use of books in The Last Jedi so exciting is that it solidifies the centrality of the book as a storytelling medium present in Star Wars lore from the beginning. After all, George Lucas took his main influences from books: world myths and legends written down over the centuries.

Lucas drew much of his inspiration from the work of Joseph Campbell on mythology, and Campbell in turn loved Star Wars for its mythic nature. As is said in the documentary Empire of Dreams: The Story of the Star Wars Trilogy: “Like such epics as The Odyssey, Beowulf, and the legend of King Arthur, Star Wars drew from a shared pool of mythic archetypes.” It’s no coincidence that many of these myths and legends come from the Middle Ages.

With mythology in mind, Lucas originally imagined Star Wars as a story “From the Adventures of Luke Starkiller as taken from the ‘Journal of the Whills'” (Laurent Bouzereau, Star Wars: The Annotated Screenplays, 3). In other words, the whole Star Wars saga rested in a type of bookish beginning. We’ve already had teasers about the so-called Whills in Rogue One. Before the release of The Last Jedi, speculation abounded that the book in the trailer might be connected with this “Journal of the Whills.”

[WARNING: SPOILERS exist beyond the image below! Read at your own risk and don’t say I didn’t warn you.]

George Lucas’s revised fourth draft of the script for Star Wars, from March 15, 1976, revised April 19, 1976, titled From the Adventures of Luke Starkiller as taken from the “Journal of the Whills”. Image from Lucasfilm Ltd. and 20th Century Fox

While rumors that The Last Jedi features this “Journal of the Whills” don’t quite hit the mark for what we see in the film, the books do turn out to be sacred Jedi texts. We learn fairly early on in the movie that Luke found and studied them in his hermit life on the island planet Ahch-To.

A good portion of the movie takes place this hidden island that holds the ruins of an ancient Jedi temple. One of the secrets of this site is a large tree containing the Jedi scriptures. This poses intriguing parallels with medieval monasteries filled with the sacred books of Christianity like the Bible and works of the early Fathers.

These sacred Jedi books are in many ways much like the Bible in the Middle Ages. Although bibles are now largely found in single bound volumes, this wasn’t the normal case before the modern period. Some large bibles did exist with the whole Bible contained within, but they were rare and special. Many of the specific biblical texts (like Psalms or Gospels) circulated on their own, conceptually part of a larger set of related books. Such a notion is fundamental to one of the most common medieval Latin terms for the Bible: bibliotheca, or library. The idea of this kind of collection also aligns with ideas about libraries and books in the Star Wars expanded universe.

Like the Bible, the Jedi scriptures from Ahch-To seem to form a canonical library of sacred codices about the Force. Books seen in The Last Jedi raise many questions about the Force, the Jedi, and the role of such scriptures in the ancient religion of the Star Wars galaxy. They may even solidify connections between medieval ideas of biblical typology and the cyclical nature of the Star Wars saga.

A brief moment in one of the final scenes of the movie teases that we might still learn more about these books. But some mysteries remain hidden until the future.

Until then, bibliophilic Star Wars fans will just have to wait for the dvd release of The Last Jedi so we can go back to the scenes featuring these books, hit pause, and examine them

 

 

Brandon W. Hawk is a medievalist at Rhode Island College who writes about the Middle Ages, biblical apocrypha, and intersections with pop culture. He tweets at @b_hawk and writes regularly on his own website.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Sander Kemperman

    January 17, 2018 at 11:34 pm

    Great article. One of my favourite aspects about the new Star Wars movies is how it portrays the themes and visuals of the Middle Ages. I hope to read more like this.

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