Commentary: The Rural Spirit of Star Wars
You just might be rural when home is a galaxy far, far away. Here’s to the farm boys turned Jedi, the “backwater planets” and the Force within us all.
This December the latest Star Wars movie arrives in theaters. The new entry, The Rise of Skywalker, concludes the now nine-film saga that started all the way back in 1977’s original iteration. While the film is sure to make a boatload of money at the box office, you can also count on it dividing the fandom over countless matters big and small, as they bring impassioned debates about the long-awaited finale to a Facebook feed or holiday gathering near you.
But however this story ends, here’s one thing we here at the Daily Yonder think can’t be disputed: there is a rural spirit at the core of Star Wars. And as the world finds itself awash in Star Wars mania, we wanted to take this opportunity to celebrate and reflect on that, the essential rurality of a galaxy far, far away.
Across the Stars – Rural Settings…
A simple look at the scenery in most of the Star Wars movies begins to make the case. Tatooine, Hoth, Dagobah, Endor and, more recently, Jakku and Ahch-To. Each of these iconic series locales is patently rural. They’re frontier settlements, farmsteads, distant refuges and, in the character’s own words, “backwater planets.” I for one can’t hear the indelible John Williams theme for “the Force” without immediately picturing young farm boy Luke, set against the sprawling horizon and twin suns of Tatooine (and for the record, that theme’s first prominent appearance was in the track “Binary Sunset”).
… And Rural Influences
But this goes far beyond how the movies look and sound and carries through to how they feel. Star Wars has always been a pop cultural chimera. While we may be inclined today to file it simply under the banner of “science fiction,” this galaxy first emerged as a diverse mishmash of genre influences. The story immediately positions us in “a long time ago…” but we never know for sure when that means. We see amazing technologies – droids with intelligence and personality plus aircraft capable of rapid hyperspace travel – while also being immersed in more rudimentary lifestyles throughout. The world often feels pastoral, hardscrabble and, as many fans have noted, covered in a certain soot and grime.
This is illustrative of how the series was pulling from old westerns and samurai stories. You’ll see those two especially in play once more on the other shiny new Star Wars property, The Mandalorian. But it also had notes of Arthurian legend and fantasy, old war stories, and pulp adventures and space serials. Take note, most of these influences bring some distinct rural-ness of their own. Today, the series has become so dominant and ever-present that it exists almost as a genre unto itself. One can stake a claim that something feels like Star Wars. But when we look back at those various original influences, it’s no wonder that achieving that feat means, more often than not, telling a story that feels pretty rural.
Rebellions Are Built on Hope – and Small Beginnings
Let’s keep going, because it’s not just about genre and aesthetics, but also the themes explored. Star Wars is the prototypical “Hero’s Journey.” And that journey is made richer and more compelling thanks to its rural start. We are swept up by Luke’s call to adventure and eventual triumph because we see his small beginnings, from Tosche Station to Beggar’s Canyon. We cheer for all of our heroes because they are the typical underdog, a humble rebellion that operates at a human scale, with personal relationships at the fore. Contrast that with the Empire, which operates on a galactic scale, concerned chiefly with its power to control, and destroy, entire planets.
In this central conflict, the aforementioned rural locales serve many narrative functions. They are escapes for rebels on the run. They are places of pivotal battles, fought in partnership with native populations, including Wookiees and Ewoks. And they are refuges and hideaways for old Jedi, like Obi Wan, Yoda and Luke. In our own world, we can find many different meanings in that. It can speak to the struggles of rural people for survival and prosperity, facing big, systemic challenges. With regard to the old Jedi masters and their use of the Force, it can offer an allusion to rural people’s relationship with the land and our natural resources; and more recently, in both the films and our own world, it shows places where wisdom is sought, and trauma is held and reconciled.
The Force Is with Us
In any case, throughout the years Star Wars has inspired countless fans spanning multiple generations. It has become an indispensable part of our pop cultural landscape. All the while, through its sights, sounds and themes, it’s been showing us how rural people, places and stories are pretty inspiring and indispensable too, here at home and in a galaxy far, far away.
Adam B. Giorgi is the director of digital strategy at the Center for Rural Strategies, which publishes the Daily Yonder. He previously worked in political reporting at NBC News and strategic communications for the administration of former Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton. He holds a master’s degree in public policy from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.