There are moments in all of our lives that are pivotal in that they change how we see and understand the universe around us. Sometimes these moments are points of great personal tragedy or triumph, but just as easily they may present themselves as seemingly trivial events with unexpected repercussions. Usually these are moments of private clarity. Occasionally they are shared by an entire culture, or at the very least, a large portion of the overall population.
For a great many men and women of about my age, one of those life-changing moments arrived in the most unlikely of circumstances. We were children, sitting in a darkened movie theater, when suddenly the screen erupted in an explosive fanfare of light and music followed by words, golden-yellow and blocky, drifting up from the bottom of the screen and out into the depths of space.
I was 9-years-old when Star Wars premiered in May of 1977 and like most of my generation, the experience altered my perceptions and expectations of cinema from that moment onward.
My childhood understanding of “watching a movie” was that you were simply observing events as they unfolded in the screen. Obviously it was make-believe, but it was all happening up there on the screen for you to see, as if you were looking through a window, eyewitness to some newsworthy event.
With Star Wars, however, I began to realize that movies and books were really not all that different. Both were a means to an end, a way to tell a story. At that age I was already a voracious reader and watching those yellow paragraphs rolling up the screen, I knew that I was reading a prologue, there only to set the scene for what must come after. If someone had written a prologue, it stood to reason that there must be a storyteller.
In the case of Star Wars and the movies that followed in that franchise, the storyteller was, of course, George Lucas.
Recently we have learned that, someday soon, the storyteller will be the Walt Disney Corporation.
And yes, I am worried.
Over the years, I have come to believe that the truly great stories are bigger than the people who pass them along to us. Presentation, however, counts for a lot and a good storyteller will personalize a story, adding bits and pieces of themselves to it along the way. As much as I crave that moment of total immersion, when the storyteller seems to vanish, I have come to look for the telltale marks that each will leave in his or her work. Stories, I learned, change with their tellers and sometimes as the storyteller himself changes over time.
The story which George Lucas began telling us in 1977 was very different from what he had to share with us in 1999 because George himself had changed in the intervening decades. I cannot help but wonder what the people at Disney (a corporation driven by profits and with no personal attachment to the material) will have for us in 2015. I hope for the best and fear for the worst.
Stories change as different people tell them. Details added along the way can enrich the experience of hearing a good tale or cause unresolvable conflicts which tear the whole thing down.
This has been the primary criticism of older religions that were traditionally passed down orally rather than revealed to their followers through the written word. “If too many people are telling the story,” the argument goes,” it will undoubtedly change with them until you are left with something quite apart from what you began with.”
It’s a valid point. Valid that is if your only goal is uniformity of belief.
Of course, uniformity of belief is exactly the goal of most monotheistic belief systems. Holding themselves as the keepers of the one right way, it is only proper that they set their words down so that all may know the correct way to act and think and believe.
Never mind the fact that, with at least four different men writing in different times and places for different audiences, the Christian Gospels themselves contain four different versions of the same story. With four distinct versions of a man who’s life they choose to emulate, it is no wonder there is so much conflict among their sects.
And what about the stories that form the basis of my own faith tradition?
It is known that a large part of Pre-Christian Druidic tradition was concerned with the memorization of the lore, the mythological traditions of the ancient Celtic tribes. In Ireland, this oral tradition was disrupted by the spread of Christianity in the early centuries C.E. It is a strange irony that most of what we have left of the mythology of the Irish Celts was preserved by Christian monks who began collecting the stories rather haphazardly and setting them down on cowhide as early as the 7th Century.
What followed was a bumpy path as manuscripts were themselves set to memory, lost, recovered in fragments and passed further down only to be re-transcribed again in incomplete bits and pieces as late as the 14th or 15th centuries. What we are left with is a very mangled view of what was once a cohesive living tradition.
The job now, for those who wish to win back as much of that early tradition as possible, is to separate the story from the storyteller.
As thankful as we may be that the monks preserved the ancient lore at all, the lore did not pass through their hands and hearts untouched. Much in the way of Christian imagery and thinking was added along the way, by many authors, over many centuries. These additions must be examined and where possible extracted, if the earlier material is to shine through.
The goal is not to create a uniformity of belief with our ancestors. The mythology was meant to live and grow through the people who passed it down, but too many foreign ideas have been grafted on along the way. These burdensome changes do nothing to advance the story. By discovering how our ancestors understood the universe, we might better understand it ourselves, and without the added baggage of monotheistic filters.
To provide an example from what will be, for most, a more familiar topic:
Imagine the discovery of earlier Star Wars screenplays, written without the all too Christian redemptive elements included. Gone is the “virgin birth” and the scenes of Darth Vader being forgiven for his part in the murder of millions through the selfish act of saving his own son from death. How much more poignant is the story of Anakin Skywalker’s utter and complete fall before the eyes of his son Luke, already teetering on the edge of the dark side.
Yes, the version we’ve all seen countless times on our theater and television screens is much more familiar. Society conditions us to look for those elements, to expect them even. Remove those distracting elements of Christian influence from Lucas’ story and does it not seem both more meaningful and more true.
The stories we tell are shaped by those who tell them and the times in which they are told. When I tell the stories of my pagan ancestors, I will tell them as a modern day Pagan, living in a time when we are finally stripping away outmoded monotheistic influences in our search for a greater truth.