Saturday 4 May 2013

May the Force of Greek Storytelling be With You!

Luke, Han & Leia

A long-lost brother and sister with a father who went to the moral Dark Side are reunited in young adulthood far from home. The youthful hero, on the threshold of initiation into warrior status, has a loyal male friend  who is also in danger. Their lives are threatened by an outlandish Emperor, but all three escape in the end, thus demonstrating the inherent superiority of their culture.

The plot of Star Wars: The Return of the Jedi (1983)? Yes and no. The person who invited the two-guys-and-a-gal-escape-from-an-exotic-location story, where the ‘gal’ has been held captive by a barbarous male ruler, was actually Euripides, tragedian of Athens, in about 414 BC. This is exactly the plot of his adventure drama Iphigenia in Tauris, in which Iphigenia, her newly recognised but long-lost brother Orestes and his best mate Pylades escape from the northern Black Sea after tricking King Thoas of the bloodthirsty Taurians.

Orestes, Pylades, Iphigenia
I have always loved Star Wars since the original 1977 release of the first instalment, which I watched the day I finished my ‘A’ Levels. I was absolutely delighted when my last child decided to be born on May the Fourth, the official 'Star Wars Day', and obligingly grew up to love Science Fiction. But the Greek dramatic ancestry of The Return of the Jedi makes it my favourite example.

'Peru', Trader Horn, and Nina
I am not alleging that George Lucas had studied Euripides in any depth, or at all. The plot type was introduced (demonstrably via a source who knew the Greek tragedy) to Hollywood in 1931, with MGM’s Trader Horn. A white woman (Nina), the longstanding captive of an African tribe, is rescued by her blood-brother and his comrade Peru. Trader Horn received a nomination for an Academy Award.  Today it makes an impact so excruciatingly racist that it is almost impossible to watch. But it was imitated in the Road to... films made by Paramount Pictures, starring Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, and Dorothy Lamour, which started with Road to Singapore in 1940. The intermediate step was constituted by the taste Trader Horn created for talkies like Paramount’s Jungle Princess (1936), in which Lamour played the sarong-clad titular heroine, discovered in a remote location by air-crash survivors.
Bing, Dorothy and Bob

I am delighted to have been invited to address the Science Fiction Foundation conference in Liverpool this summer. I haven’t decided yet whether to talk about the first ‘Voyage to the Moon’ story in world literature, Lucian’s True History, or the relationship between Star Trek and the Odyssey. It is too bad that The Myth Makers, a four-part Dr Who story I can dimly remember watching as a child, set during the Trojan Wars and broadcast in 1965, has been wiped from the archives. But while I decide what to talk about, May the Fourth Be with You anyway!


  1. Delighted to hear from Emmanuele Pezzani that "The Myth Makers" is, after all, available on the Internet. I am looking forward to my own form of time travel tonight as I go back to my childhood and land in the Tardis on the Plain of Troy!

  2. Very interesting, and as Lucas did study Anthropology at USC he may indeed have been exposed to this ancient source.

    That said, I still believe he made a dramatic error in making Darth Vader into Luke's father. Doing so limited the dramatic scope and vision of his story. Of course, it is George's story to tell in anyway he sees fit, but oh the lost possibilities ...

    And ... You maintain an excellent Blog -- thanks for the informative posts.