In October of 2007, in honor of Star Wars‘ 30th anniversary, the space shuttle Discovery carried into space a prop representing the franchise’s success; not a Jar Jar Binks tongue lollipop, but the lightsaber used by Mark Hamill in 1983’s Return of the Jedi, an icon rich in symbolism. Without its young hero and his lightsaber, Star Wars might have been just another Flash Gordon or Buck Rogers, a tall glass of pulp filled with blasters and space ships, robots and aliens, lacking the central, mythic story arc that made it so memorable.
This was nearly the case.
“When Lucas first thought up the lightsaber, it didn’t mean anything,” said Michael Kaminski, author of the Secret History of Star Wars. “Flash Gordon used steel swords, and Errol Flynn always dueled with swords in his films, and Lucas was basically emulating this – to give it a futuristic twist, he turned steel swords into laser swords.”
In 2004’s Birth of the Lightsaber, George Lucas repeatedly refers to lightsabers as laser swords, and in notes from 1973, he refers to the weapons as “lazer swords” and “thundersabers,” the latter calling to mind Thundarr the Barbarian’s Sun Sword and Thundercat Lion-O’s Sword of Omens. These early lightsabers were common sidearms, not exclusive to Jedi. In one draft, every stormtrooper carries a “lazersword,” and in another Han Solo himself – who scoffs at their use in Star Wars – ignites his lightsaber as he charges after a dozen stormtroopers.
It’s easy to imagine what this sort of movie would look like – Lucas has shown it to us. In the original trilogy there were a total of four lightsabers (Obi-Wan’s, Vader’s, Anakin’s and Luke’s), and every duel involved a symbolic duo – light against dark. But consider the prequels: Darth Maul fights two Jedi; Dooku fights Anakin, Obi-Wan and Yoda; Grievous wields four lightsabers against Obi-Wan; and in the Star Wars Universe’s lowest moment, an entire stadium full of Jedi wields a 64-pack of Crayola lightsabers against an army of CGI. Flash Gordon looks positively epic by comparison.
Fortunately, there was a moment when lightsabers escaped pulp and touched the mythic – January 14, 1976.
“In the fourth draft, Lucas had Ben hand [Luke] his father’s lightsaber for practical script purposes, to demonstrate to the audience what it actually was and how it worked,” said Kaminski. “So now the saber was a sort of family heirloom that is passed down, like Excalibur.”
The legend of King Arthur begins when he pulls his father Uther Pendragon’s sword (not Excalibur) out of a stone where Merlin had stuck it for safekeeping. After learning his destiny and becoming king, Arthur breaks the sword in a battle against King Pellinore and replaces with a new magic sword called Excalibur, given to him by the Lady of the Lake.
This same mythic journey plays out in the 13th Century Icelandic Völsunga Saga, which inspired both Wagner’s “Ring Cycle” and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Odin plunges a magic sword called Notung into a tree, only to have his great-great-grandson Siegmund pull the sword out; Odin soon shatters the sword, speeding Siegmund’s death. Later, Siegmund’s son Siegfried retrieves the sword’s pieces and has them reforged, using the weapon to slay the dragon Fafnir and shatter Odin’s spear.
It’s not very hard to swap Luke, Vader, Obi-Wan and lightsabers into their respective roles above; the “young boy with a magic weapon” story is one of the defining myths of Western civilization. Luke is Arthur is Sigmund is Frodo is Harry Potter. It’s an archetype that has become part of our collective unconscious.
“I don’t think Lucas sat down and schemed up this brilliant symbolism; it just sort of evolved naturally through the process of writing,” said Kaminski.
The idea of a blade made of laser light was not original to Star Wars. Edmond Hamilton, the husband of Leigh Brackett (who wrote the first draft of The Empire Strikes Back), used laser swords in 1933’s Kaldar, Planet of Antares, and Asimov employed a similar instrument in his Foundation series (which notably chronicles the fall of a Galactic Empire). The Star Wars Origins website lists several other likely progenitors, including devices from Lucky Starr, Star Trek, and Space: 1999. Author Kristen Brennan says that Luke’s lightsaber is memorable not because it was original, but because of the number of archetypal masks associated with it.
“It’s a gift from his mentor, who passed it along from his father, which Luke uses to fight his father, which his father destroys, so he builds a new one, which he ultimately refuses to use against his father,” says Brennan. “These are all important mythic steps.”
“Swords are a symbolic statement of man’s journey in life; they can symbolize his past as well as his future,” said Jeffrey Parks of Parks Sabers, whose company still produces over 750 replica lightsabers every year. He added that metal-bladed swords in particular are “symbolic of man’s past … they represent the power and responsibility man has over nature and society.”
Of course, lightsabers look nothing like the cruciform broadswords of the medieval era, so often associated with Arthur. A more accurate comparison would be to the saber itself, one of the three weapons of modern fencing and the only one in which the edge of the blade is used to score a hit. Like lightsabers, sabers were once in common use, but are now merely symbols of a bygone era, “an elegant weapon for a more civilized time.”
Lightsabers have also been associated with katanas, most recently in the game No More Heroes wherein protagonist Travis Touchdown wields a “beam katana.” Yet the lightsaber is obviously not a katana, which has a sizeable tsuba, curved blade and single cutting edge. A more accurate comparison would be to the shinai, the bamboo practice weapon used in kendo.
Also worth considering is the Roman spatha, a two-foot-long cavalry sword with a straight blade and a stunted guard resembling a lightsaber handle. If King Arthur was real, Excalibur was likely a spatha, especially if Arthur was Roman (as the recent film King Arthur depicts him).
Whatever its shape, Excalibur was no ordinary sword; it was magical, and glowed “as bright as thirty torches.” It was also notably unique; as with Diablo II‘s Lightsabre, an “Elite Unique Phase Blade,” Excalibur acquired value because of its rarity. However, it is not the only magical glowing sword ever wielded by a hero: Joyeuse changed color “thirty times a day”; Tyrfing “shone and gleamed like fire”; Caladbolg “made a circle like an arc of rainbow when swung”; Tolkien’s Glamdring, Orcrist and Sting glowed blue, and Anduril shone “like a sudden flame.” Even Amber‘s Grayswandir is described as “renewing its eyetricking, shapeshifting stretch, acquiring a glow of its own.”
Why does a lightsaber glow? One answer is that lightsabers are powered by a diatium power cell surrounded by a power field conductor and vortex ring that channel energy through crystals towards an energy gate that converts the energy into a refined arc wave flowing out of a positively charged central lens and then back down to a negatively charged outer ring as it passes through cycling gyroscopic field energizers.
The other answer is somehow more satisfying: Lightsabers are simply magical swords in the Clarkian sense, technology that’s so advanced it’s indistinguishable from magic. Mythically and symbolically, lightsabers represent Man at his best, according to Jeffrey Parks: “Conceptual, Unlimited, Unstoppable, Elegant, Noble, Refined, Efficient.”
“Swords will always represent the hope in the mental struggle of what man is and what he will become; man’s future, unlimited potential,” said Parks. “Lightsabers represent the power and responsibility over the future inner man.”
In other words, lightsabers are indeed an elegant weapon for a more civilized time – not long ago, in a galaxy far, far away, but yet to come in our own world. May the Force be with us.
Michael Fiegel is a freelance writer and game designer, and the creator of Ninja Burger. He is currently designing a totally awesome game with Turpitude Design. He used to own all the original Kenner Star Wars toys, but broke every last one.