Although we know that the Star Wars universe takes place “a long time ago,” the way that scholars have tended to think about that world has instead focused on the “far, far away” part of that famous introductory crawl. So, historians haven’t had a lot to say about the series. When they do, they can see parallels in the storytelling elements that seem to have been taken from the way past societies told stories. Or, scholars focus on moments from the past that inspired George Lucas’ story through the first 6 films – the Empire as Nazi Germany, the connections between the samurai and Jedi, etc. – such as in the 2012 book Star Wars and History.
But a new project from the Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies at the University of Pennsylvania has taken a slightly different approach. What about those ancient Jedi texts? What about the books?
In a series of conversations, curator Dot Porter and Prof. Brandon Hawk (Rhode Island College) talk about Star Wars: The Last Jedi and the small library of ancient Jedi texts that Luke Skywalker collected on his remote island. In doing so, these scholars help us think about what other manuscripts from “a long time ago” can tell us about both this fictional universe and our own real past.
Warning: Spoilers for Star Wars: The Last Jedi ahead.
Although Hawk had written before about the echoes of the medieval world (the “medievalism”) he saw in The Last Jedi, he told me over email that he and Porter were both struck by the imagery of the books in the movie, especially when they make their first appearance to Rey as she explores Luke Skywalker’s lonely island. Porter said that this shot in the film “made me think about how they represent a culture in Star Wars we haven’t seen before – manuscript culture – and how those books also gave me a new way to think about manuscript culture on earth.” As they mention in their first video, there are no books in the Star Wars universe. And that’s kind of weird.
That “weirdness” led them to investigate and they found that the book The Art of Star Wars: The Last Jedi had a bit more detail of what was inside those Jedi texts (the video below shows some of those pages). That’s what made them think about the parallels between Luke’s Jedi hideout and the Middle Ages, parallels they’ll continue to discuss in videos released every few weeks until the next film appears at the end of 2019.
These videos, filled with the rich medieval treasures of the University of Pennsylvania’s library, remind us that, in the same way an AT-AT or X-Wing is, books are a technology. We tend to forget that in the 21st century, given how pervasive they are. But in the Middle Ages, before mechanical reproduction, they required a lot of time, energy, money, and skill to put together. That means that they only contained “important” things – not necessarily things we today might consider important, but things that they considered important. So, scholars of the Middle Ages pay a lot of attention now to how medieval books are put together, meaning not just what a specific text says and why it was written, but what else was in the individual codex, what it was read with, how it circulated.
This works the same in Star Wars universe.
In The Last Jedi, Luke is clear that the books pre-date the Empire, pre-date the Republic, going back instead the very beginnings of the Jedi (whenever that was). And in the movie, he deeply values the books, then doesn’t, then does again. Rey, however, is thoroughly entranced by them. Although we can’t, of course, read the script on the books’ spines or in their pages, by the way they’re designed – because they look like a medieval manuscript – we can tell that they’re old, they’re valuable, they’re important. In other words, the way they visually connect us to the Middle Ages tells us as an audience that they likely contain an ancient wisdom, waiting to be discovered. In other words, that seemingly throwaway shot with the ancient Jedi texts safely aboard the Millennium Falcon might mean that those books are the most important clue as to what will happen in Episode IX.