A Real Lightsaber

8 December 2015 James Shepherd

A Real Lightsaber

I watched the original Star Wars trilogy at six years old, wide-eyed. They took some time to un-widen. I now consider myself something of a lapsed obsessive.

I read Star Wars books. I played the games. I committed a very-long-for-a-nine-year-old weekend to building a podracer out of cardboard. I knew the name of Chewbacca’s home planet, the ship model of the Millennium Falcon – I even liked Jar Jar Binks. For those not in the know: literally no one likes Jar Jar Binks.

The enduring appeal of Star Wars has been much discussed. However odd it may seem to those not in its thrall, there is a cultural force, a fervour generally reserved for religion, hallowed family stories and conspiracy theories.

For me, just the title conjures a stream of old images. The strongest one – lightsabers.

There were duels with my father in our carport at night, the swords glowing green, red and very, very plastic. Knuckles were fair targets. Hero versus Villain; Dark versus Light. We’d switch who was who between rounds.

Before that, my brother and I proudly displayed our new toys to our dad, fresh from the packaging. We didn’t seem to be very aware that he was in a hospital bed at the time, Mum’s hand on his shoulder, at risk of losing his foot to gangrene. “That’s nice Dad – look, they make sound effects. Vrrrruuum.”

Later, there was the careful bundling of our lightsabers into a cardboard box, when our parents divorced and we all moved again – this time into more than one house. It was amicable and for the best. But nonetheless a constellation shifting; planets changing course.

That same box of Star Wars toys, once proudly displayed at Cub Scouts for a merit badge, were put in a room, occasionally opened to sift through, and eventually relegated to my mother’s garage. We rediscovered it years later – along with a horrifyingly melted rubber hand puppet of Jar Jar Binks. For who knows what reason, I did not throw it out.

It seems the hand of Star Wars has a powerful grip.

Like many children, I watched these films and was drawn in by the shining swords and the escapist, energetic fantasy of being a space fighter pilot in some far-flung world, using a mystical power to battle a clearly drawn enemy. But there is a darkness undercutting that heroism, a muddying of the Good versus Evil paradigm. Darth Vader has connections to our hero. He makes choices that are far from villainous. Our hero is tempted by dark impulses. He grapples with anger, with impatience, with the danger of becoming the things he hates. He loses loved ones, his clarity, his hand.

As we get older, the world gets larger and smaller all at once. The childhood toys that we held onto may well end up spending more and more time in a dusty old box. The pure escapism wears off. Our eyes become harder to widen, and our heroic fantasies turn into snatches of memory, while our favourite childhood movie replays on TV.

It hasn’t died in me, though. Not yet. There is a deep nostalgia shaken loose simply by the sound of that music, the rumblings of ship engines and a quip from Harrison Ford. Sometimes I feel like there is still a child swinging a lightsaber in the back of my mind, fighting heroically for good, hurtling over distant planets in a starfighter, giddy in the excitement of that noble purpose and the pure, clear joy of spaceships.

But beside him fights a grown man, struggling with the dark forces around him and in himself – learning slowly when to use the sword and when to leave it in the cardboard box.

The enduring power of Star Wars is that it shows us both of these sides. It allows us to escape into another – more exciting, loftier – world. Then, once safely there, lets us look at ourselves in all our confusing light and dark, and perhaps work out a little of what we’re fighting for. I’m not sure this excuses the eventual arrival of Jar Jar Binks. Mind you, I do still have that puppet.

» James Shepherd is a Sydney-based writer and filmmaker – who also works in advertising sales for The Big Issue.

This article first appeared in Ed#499 of The Big Issue.