I’ve been reading my colleague Craig Williamson’s splendid new translation of Beowulf, the first time I’ve re-read this poem since college. Coming across Craig’s fun discussion of compound words and “kennings” in Anglo-Saxon poetry (pp. 8-9; kennings are 2-word metaphorical descriptions of important things or concepts), a thought occurred to me: could one of the sources of inspiration for the lightsabers in Star Wars have been the Old English epic poem?
I’ve never seen a mention of Beowulf as a source by Lucas, but of course he has acknowledged Joseph Campbell’s Hero With A Thousand Faces and J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings as inspirations. Both might very well have led Lucas to read Beowulf, for it was a powerful source for both Campbell and Tolkien. Beowulf has sometimes mentioned as a literary precedent for Star Wars, but when it is it’s usually by stressing such general things as the heroic quest, the battle between good and evil, etc. Here’s another general plot parallel: Beowulf gives the hero’s special sword a name, Hrunting, and stresses that all heroes fight with a particular, individual style. Beowulf’s sword is given to him by another to honor Beowulf’s worth as a warrior, yet in Beowulf’s climatic fight with Grendel’s Mother Hrunting is not strong enough to kill the monster. Such details have parallels with Lucas’ epic, which tried to give each lightsaber fighter a particular choreography, a distinctive style—for more on this, see the Wikipedia page on lightsabers below, especially the section on Choreography—and in Luke’s climactic battle with Darth Vader he too realizes he can’t defeat Darth solely by using his most trusted weapon. As far as I can remember, though, Luke or other figures good and bad don’t name their lightsabers, though all the weaponry have distinctive features that individualize them. Can anyone think of a named lightsaber in Star Wars?
But what about Lucas’ idea of the lightsaber itself? Could that too have a source in a world long ago and far away?
Consider the famous kenning the poem uses for Beowulf’s sword: hilde-leoma, “battle-light.” In all of Old English literature, this hilde-leoma kenning occurs only in Beowulf, in two places. The first is in line 1143 in the original (l. 1146 in the Williamson translation; the OE dictionary translates it as “battle-light” and Williamson renders this as “flashing sword”). The second occurs in l. 2583 (2582 in the Williamson translation, where it’s rendered as “battle-flames”). In this second instance, the kenning is of special interest because it describes both Beowulf’s sword and the dragon’s fire, which of course is its main weapon! This kenning honors something fairly literal, of course: the flash of light on a fast-moving sword-blade. But Beowulf is clearly battling the powers of darkness in the poem, standing for the light and the best of humanity, and so “light” here takes on much more than just a literal meaning—and it is a light that is linked via the compound metaphor to battling darkness.
Aside from Beowulf as a possible literary source of inspiration for Lucas, there are of course many more contemporary instances of powerful weapons involving beams of light etc. in twentieth century sf lore. For a good survey of these with some fun pictures, see the “Star Wars Origins” website on lightsabers below. But my hunch is the Lucas lightsaber has some very old origins as well.
PS: Thanks to Craig for some suggestions re this post. He’s not responsible for my daffy ideas, of course!
Craig Williamson, “Beowulf” and Other Old English Poems (Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 2011).
Andy Orchard, A Critical Companion to “Beowulf” (New York: D.S. Brewer, 2005).
Joseph Bosworth and T. Northcote Toller. 1898. An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary. Rev. and Rpt. London: Oxford UP, 1972.
“Star Wars Origins” website, on the lightsaber. http://moongadget.com/origins/lightsabers.html
Wikipedia Page on the Lightsaber http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lightsaber