Part VII. The Center of the Ring
As previously noted, the primary meaning of a ring composition occurs at its mid-turn or
“central place.” According to Douglas, a ring “condenses the whole burden of its message into the mid-turn” 1 and the central place is usually “the site of an impressive climax that focuses on the major crisis in the narrative.” 2
The mid-turn also needs to make correspondences with the prologue and with the ending so the “whole piece is densely interconnected.” 3 The center, then, integrates the whole and helps guide the interpretation of the work. “What has been seen through straight linear reading has to be read again with a fresh eye for the message that is in the mid-turn.” 4
Revenge of the Sith is clearly the centerpiece of the six-part Star Wars saga, in that it constitutes several major turning points: Anakin turns to the dark side and becomes Darth Vader; the Republic turns into the Galactic Empire; and Padme gives birth to twins Luke and Leia (both of whom take their turn in the spotlight in the following trilogy).
In addition, the end of Sith is the point where the ring turns and reverses itself back towards the beginning. It would appear, then, that Anakin and Obi-Wan’s fateful duel on the volcano planet Mustafar and Anakin’s later confinement to the famous black life-support suit amount to the center of the ring. That is, after all, the heart of the story, the central life-or-death crisis of the entire saga.
And this part of the ring does holds significant meaning. It is the Ordeal stage or Belly of the Whale of the Hero’s Journey. It is the mystical Dark Night of the Soul. It is Jung’s Night Sea Journey into the unconscious. Or, put simply, this is the moment in which Anakin, having plunged into the depths of Darkness, touches bottom (at the ring’s lowest point) and undergoes a richly symbolic death.
Padme’s dying words to Obi-Wan (“There’s good in him [Anakin]. I know. I know there is … still …”) also help connect the middle of the ring to both the beginning and the end. Her words not only harken back to the innocent little boy in Episode 1 who “knows nothing of greed,” but also anticipate Luke’s identical plea to Obi-Wan in Jedi (“There’s still good in him”) as well as Vader’s ultimate transformation and rebirth (the ascent back into Light, at the ring’s highest point).
Now, we could certainly stop here and say that Star Wars conforms to all seven of Douglas’s ring requirements, but I would argue that there’s one scene in particular that represents the real center of the ring and that it definitely needs to be discussed.
Naturally enough, the scene occurs in the final minutes of the film.
The Unification of Opposites
Aboard a blockade runner in a conference room, Yoda, Obi-Wan, and Bail Organa discuss the fate of the newborn twins. After it’s decided that Leia will be adopted by Organa and Luke will be sent to his family on Tatooine, Bail exits the room. Yoda turns to Obi-Wan:
YODA: Master Kenobi, wait a moment. In your solitude on Tatooine, training I have for you.
YODA: An old friend has learned the path to immortality. One who has returned from the netherworld of the Force. Your old Master …
YODA: How to commune with him. I will teach you. 5
Although the scene is short, and mainly exposition, it does tie some narrative loose ends together in a fairly satisfying way. In addition, the mention of Qui-Gon Jinn clearly connects the scene to the beginning of the ring. And, as Lucas notes, “there’s a hint of how Obi-Wan had learned to give up his physical being and become one with the Force [in A New Hope].” 6 So, the scene also connects to the end of the ring by helping to explain how Anakin becomes one with the Force and appears as a “Force ghost” at the conclusion of Jedi (presumably, he learns the path to immortality from Obi-Wan, Yoda, and/or Qui-Gon).
But above all, though, the scene reveals that Star Wars carries with it the classical mythological motif of immortality.
As you might already know, the quest for eternal life (and conquering humanity’s greatest fear—death) has fascinated mankind since our earliest moments. It pervades mythology, religion, and literature, appearing in stories from all cultures and time periods, as far back as the Epic of Gilgamesh, some 4,000 years ago.
It should come as no surprise that immortality also plays a vital role in Daoism. To ancient Daoist sages, the highest goal was “to transcend even death through the transmutation of one’s physicality into the immortal spirit” 7 and thus, merge with the infinite and eternal Dao (more on the Dao in a bit). It was believed that immortality could be achieved through various methods, such as physical exercises and magical elixirs or pills. And one of the methods was a meditation and exercise discipline known as “Qigong” (pronounced “chee gung”).
Qi is frequently translated as “life force” or the energy that flows through all things in the universe. It’s said to be created by the dynamic tension between Yin and Yang. Gong means “accomplishment” or “skill” that is cultivated through practice. So, together, Qigong means “cultivating life force energy.” And in case you hadn’t noticed, the name Qui-Gon looks awfully similar to Qigong and, as many others have pointed out elsewhere, is mostly likely a deliberate reference to it.
Today, Qigong refers to the set of practices that involve consciously moving Qi through the body to improve the mental, physical, and spiritual aspects of life. It’s still used to achieve immortality, albeit in a more spiritual sense.
For instance, Spiritual Qigong, one of the different kinds of the discipline, is concerned with entering the “Qigong state,” a focused awareness of existing in the present moment (bringing to mind Qui-Gon’s advice to Obi-Wan to “Keep your concentration here and now, where it belongs”). Through this psychological state of deep mindfulness the practitioner is said to become one with the Dao and attain a kind of enlightenment.
Now, at this point, with references to both the Yin Yang and Qigong, it would be easy to think that Daoism was the main religious inspiration behind Lucas’s modern myth. But the reality is that the films were heavily influenced by a multitude of religions, from both East and West, and have been interpreted from a wide variety of perspectives, including Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, Christian, New Age, and many others.
Rather, Star Wars has always aimed for something more universal than any one particular belief system. Lucas explains:
I see Star Wars as taking all the issues that religion represents and trying to distill them down into a more modern and easily accessible construct that people can grab onto—to accept the fact that there is a greater mystery out there … There’s a mixture of all kinds of mythology and religious beliefs that have been amalgamated into [Star Wars] and I have tried to take the ideas that seem to cut across the most cultures because I am fascinated by that. And I think that is one of the things I really got from Joe Campbell. What he was trying to do was find the common threads through the various mythologies, through the various religions. 8
And this is where things get really interesting. Because as Campbell might say, in Star Wars, as in many myths, immortality symbolizes an archetypal idea, one of the “common threads” that Lucas is referring to. It’s an ancient idea that actually runs through the mystical traditions of many of the world’s religions.
And it’s called the unification of opposites.
This needs a little bit of background so just bear with me for a moment. This will all make sense shortly (hopefully).
Generally speaking, the concept of the unification of opposites goes like this: we live in a world that is polarized into pairs of opposites. Right and wrong. Male and female. Self and other. Consciousness and unconsciousness. Life and death. Yet, a unity exists between the two contrasts, a fundamental unity that underlies all life. Duality, therefore, is merely an illusion. The opposites are simply manifestations of a basic oneness, two sides of the same reality.
Donna Brown of The Esoteric Quarterly, an online journal of philosophy, helps explain:
The ultimate nature of Reality is non-dual. However, life, as the average person perceives it, regardless of his or her religious affiliation or lack thereof, consists of fragmentation, dissonance and the absence of unity and cohesion. This is due, in part, to the fact that dualistic thinking is one of the primary processes engaging the mind. Dualistic thinking has its roots in the interaction and pull between Spirit and matter. From the interplay of these two fundamental polarities, all the many lesser dualities emerge. The opposites … lead to desire for one thing to the exclusion of the other and consequently to suffering and pain; to a life filled with turmoil, imbalance and conflict. 9
So, the path to peace, wholeness, and enlightenment (i.e., immortality), then, involves the realization of this dichotomy and going beyond it (usually involving some kind of “Third Way”), to where you awaken to a more expanded state of consciousness and see everything as part of a greater whole or “ultimate reality.” 10
Brown writes that:
We have to disidentify with our fixed mental conceptions of good and bad, right and wrong, pleasure and pain etc., so that we can engage in an inner alchemy of the opposites. This implies allowing ourselves to consciously embrace the dance of opposites so that we intuitively grasp a non-dual truth or paradox. Flexibility, detachment, self control and the ability to hold a position of mutual inclusion and inner balance regardless of fluctuations are all involved. By adopting a dynamic and holistic attitude the contraries begin to balance, interpenetrate and fuse into each other. 11
Unsurprisingly, there is perhaps no other symbol that expresses the idea of unifying opposites better than the Yin Yang.
So, let’s look at the symbol again from this perspective.
The outer circle of the symbol represents Dao, 12 which is often translated as “the Way” or “the Path.” Dao is the Supreme Ultimate, the ineffable mystery of the cosmos, the source of all existence and that which unifies all.
Yin and Yang are said to have arisen out of the Dao in a transition from oneness into the field of opposites (duality). The two primal forces of Yin and Yang “wrap around each other in perfect balance, conveying the feeling of the opposites belonging together as one unified whole contained within the circle of eternity.” 13 Philosopher Alan Watts once put it this way: “The Yin-Yang principle is not, therefore, what we would ordinarily call a dualism but rather an explicit duality expressing an implicit unity.” 14
It’s also important to note that Jung had a great respect for the concept of Dao. He used it “to describe both the process and the goal of his psychology”: 15 the synthesis of unconscious and conscious elements or “becoming whole” (which includes bringing all the aspects of your shadow into the light). Jung wrote:
Unfortunately our Western mind, lacking all culture in this respect, has never yet devised a concept, nor even a name, for the union of opposites through the middle path, that most fundamental item of inward experience, which could respectably be set against the Chinese concept of Dao. It is at once the most individual fact and the most universal, the most legitimate fulfillment of the meaning of the individual’s life. 16
The Dao, or outer circle of the Yin Yang, then, signifies the “Third Way.” It is the “Middle Path” that lies between Yin and Yang, the path through which one unifies or transcends the conflict between opposites—where “the polarity between self and other begins to dissolve and where we are enfolded back into the Mind of the Dao, that primordial and ever-present Unity out of which the play of Yin and Yang originally emerges.” 17 This is where consciousness is transformed, where the true self is realized, and where immortality is ultimately achieved.
And bringing everything back full circle, one of the methods used to help practitioners of Daoism find and cultivate this Middle Path is the spiritual discipline of Qigong.
Okay, so now that we know a little more about the idea of unifying opposites, let’s revisit the end of Return of the Jedi one last time.
Darth Vader, moved by Luke’s faith and compassion, turns on the Emperor, and sacrifices himself to save his son. Through this heroic act he finds the balance within himself, resolving the conflict between the light and dark sides of the Force. And by restoring inner harmony, he also restores outer harmony to the galaxy. Thus, Anakin fulfills his destiny and brings balance to the Force. Symbolically speaking, Anakin has balanced all of the pairs of opposites.
Now, for Jung, when the tension between opposites can be held, a third possibility—a “transcendent function” or “reconciling third”—would emerge that is different from the two opposites, a completely unanticipated outcome that would unite the two and transcend them.
And this, Star Wars fans, is where the Cosmic Force comes in.
You’ll recall from earlier in this essay that the Cosmic Force exists beyond the Living Force (which itself comprises both the light and dark sides). The Cosmic Force is all-pervading and all-encompassing, meaning it’s in all things and all things are part of it. Put another way, it’s like the Dao. It serves as a unifying construct. (This most likely explains why outside of the six films, particularly in The Clone Wars television series, the concept of the Cosmic Force is explicitly referred to as the “Unifying Force.”) And like the Dao, the Cosmic Force symbolizes the primordial unity that underlies all existence. It resolves all duality.
So, just as the Chinese philosophy of Daoism provides a third way or middle path between the opposites in its notion of Dao, Star Wars provides a similar middle path between the light and dark sides of the Force in its notion of the Cosmic Force. (In fact, the Cosmic Force is also exemplified in the ring composition itself in much the same way as the Dao is exemplified in the outer circle of the Yin Yang.)
Likewise, just as Qigong is a technique used to become one with the Dao and achieve immortality, Qui-Gon discovers the technique used to merge with the Cosmic Force at will and retain consciousness, that is, attain eternal life.
Given this backdrop, when Anakin restores balance to the Force he is in a sense reaching a kind of dynamic equilibrium between the light and dark sides and the interplay of each within the other. As a result, a third, completely unanticipated possibility arises: use Qui-Gon’s technique to become one with the greater Cosmic Force and go beyond the never-ending conflict between the two forces. 18
In other words, Anakin treads the middle path between opposites—even life and death—by embracing both simultaneously, in a paradoxical union that transcends them. Anakin’s redeemed spirit, then, materializes to Luke alongside the spirits of Obi-Wan and Yoda during Jedi’s end celebration. The symbolism is clear: Anakin has reached a profound state of enlightenment.
From a mythological point of view, this represents a kind of “apotheosis” or divination of the hero. The old boundaries of Anakin’s self have been transcended and he’s “become a god with the divine ability to soar above the normal limits of death and see the broader view of the connectedness of all things.” 19
Joseph Campbell once put it this way:
You go past fear and desire, past the pairs of opposites … into transcendence. This is an essential experience of any mystical realization. You die to your flesh and are born into your spirit. You identify yourself with the consciousness and life of which your body is but the vehicle. You die to the vehicle and become identified in your consciousness with that of which the vehicle is the carrier. 20
In a truly heroic transformation of consciousness, Anakin has undergone a union with the ultimate mystery of existence and experienced eternity. He is “now fully part of the cosmos, dead to the old, limited vision of things and reborn into a new consciousness of connections.” 21
In Jungian terms, Anakin has become whole—a mature, fully developed human being whose “conscious and unconscious have learned to live at peace and complement one another.” 22 He’s come to a greater understanding and awareness of himself and the world around him (and his place in it). Thus, his True Self has emerged. (For Jung, the movement towards individual wholeness was also the remedy for the mass-mindedness discussed in Clones. “The salvation of the world,” wrote Jung, “consists in the salvation of the individual soul.” 23)
To the Daoist, Anakin has become “open to the totality of being” and “finally returned to the state of complete stillness in which they are one with the Dao.” 24 This is the moment when “the ‘individual self’ of the practitioner and the ‘world’ in which he moves are now in effortless, joyful union—and both are known as Dao. The dancer has become the Dance.” 25
Finally, the center of the ring—in its emphasis on immortality and the unification of opposites and through its connections to the beginning and end that “integrate the whole”—allows us to revise Lancashire’s earlier analysis and take it one step further.
Not only can Star Wars be read as “a metaphor for the never-ending conflict between the evil and the good within us all,” but it can now, at least in part, also be read as a metaphor for transcending inner duality to a state of divine knowledge and compassion by finding the “underlying unity inherent in all the pairs of opposites within us.” 26
Inside each and every one of us lies the path to immortality.
One last thought. In 2005, religious historian Karen Armstrong delivered the Ingersoll Lecture at Harvard Divinity School. It’s an annual lecture series on the subject of immortality. The following excerpt, which strongly echoes the views of Joseph Campbell, seems particularly fitting right now:
Like religion, myth addresses what is timeless in the human condition. It is also a program of action that tells us how to access the timeless or the eternal. And this, it seems to me, is how we should understand the notion of immortality, which has nothing to do with time. Immortality is not an endless succession of moments; it is not everlasting. It is not confined to a posthumous existence in the future. It is an eternal now … Religion is about transformation; by ritual and ethical practice we become fundamentally different. Religion is not about preparing for the beatific vision in Heaven; it is also about living a fully human life in this world. By becoming one with these paradigmatic figures, losing our flawed, everyday selves in their perfection, we too can become perfect and inhabit an eternal dimension even in this world of pain and death. Like any other religious truth, immortality must become a present reality. It is liberation from the constraints of time and space, and from the limitations of our narrow horizons. It involves a profound realization that the deepest core of our being is inseparable from what has been called God, nirvana, brahman, or the Dao. Immortality is not a matter of waiting for the next life, but in perfecting our humanity here and now. 27
George Lucas sold his Lucasfilm company, along with all the rights to Star Wars, to Disney in
2012—shortly after retiring from the business of making blockbusters to instead return to his roots and make “experimental films.” He has never spoken publicly about ring composition.
Mike Klimo is a veteran copywriter living in Cincinnati, Ohio. You can find him on Facebook and Google+. Or contact him directly at email@example.com.
All images in this essay are the property of the Lucasfilm Ltd. and are used without permission for academic purposes only.
- Mary Douglas, Thinking in Circles: An Essay on Ring Composition, Terry Lecture Series, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007), 58. ↩
- Ibid., 66. ↩
- Ibid., 37. ↩
- Ibid., 58. ↩
- Lucas, Sith. ↩
- George Lucas, “Audio Commentary,” Disc 1, Revenge of the Sith, DVD, directed by George Lucas (Beverly Hills, CA: Twentieth Century Fox, 2005). ↩
- Mantak Chia, The Inner Smile: Increasing Chi through the Cultivation of Joy, (Rochester, VT: Destiny Books, 2008), 15. ↩
- George Lucas, “The Mythology of Star Wars,” interview by Bill Moyers, PBS, June 18, 1999. ↩
- Donna M. Brown, “Duality and Non-Duality: Awakening to Unified Perspective,” The Esoteric Quarterly 6, no.1 (Spring 2010): 61, http://www.esotericquarterly.com/issues/EQ06/EQ0601/EQ060110-Whole.pdf. ↩
- Akhil Chandra, “The Golden Mean and the Pairs of Opposites.” The Times of India, May 5, 2004, http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/edit-page/THE-SPEAKING-TREEBRThe-Golden-Mean-and-Pairs-of-Opposites/articleshow/658970.cms? ↩
- Brown, “Duality,” 69. ↩
- It’s my understanding that the Dao can also be thought of as Wuji or “ultimate nothingness” which is often represented by an empty circle. ↩
- Leslie Temple-Thurston and Brad Laughlin, The Marriage of Spirit: Enlightened Living in Today’s World, (Santa Fe, NM: CoreLight Pub.: Distributed by Blessingway Books, 2000), eBook edition, 63. ↩
- Alan, Watts and Al Chung-liang Huang, Tao: The Watercourse Way, (New York: Pantheon Books, 1975), 26. ↩
- Stephen Karcher, “Jung, the Tao and the Classic of Change.” I Ching: Living Change (blog), http://www.ichinglivingchange.org/resource-library/01papers-room/jung-the-tao-and-the-classic-of-change.pdf. ↩
- C.G. Jung, Two Essays on Analytical Psychology, The Collected Works of C. G. Jung, 2d ed., translated by R.F.C. Hull, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1972), 205. Jung also wrote that “Individuation, or becoming whole, is neither a summum bonum [the highest good] nor a summum desideratum [chief desired], but the painful experience of the union of opposites (Jung, Archetypes, 382). ↩
- Brown, “Duality,” 69. ↩
- It came as a surprise to me to learn that Anakin’s physical body is said to have disappeared upon death. According to Wookieepedia, the Star Wars wiki, “It is explicitly stated in Champions of the Force and the Databank on the official site that the organic part of Anakin’s body disappeared, and that Luke just burned his suit and mechanical parts for ritualistic purposes” (Wookieepedia contributors, “Force Ghost”). ↩
- Christopher Vogler, The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, 3rd ed, (Studio City, CA: Michael Wiese Productions, 2007), 171. ↩
- Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers, The Power of Myth, (New York: Doubleday, 1988), 134. ↩
- Vogler, Writer’s Journey, 171. ↩
- C.G. Jung and Marie-Luise von Franz, Man and His Symbols, (New York: Dell Publishing, 1968), introduction, xi. ↩
- C.G. Jung, The Undiscovered Self: With Symbols and the Interpretation of Dreams, translated and revised by R.F.C. Hull, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011), eBook edition, 71. ↩
- Stephen Sawyer, “The Tao as a Path,” The Hanover Historical Review, Spring 1996, http://history.hanover.edu/hhr/hhr4-3.html. ↩
- Elizabeth Reninger, “Keeping The One, The Taoist Practice Of The Return To Embracing The One,” About.com, http://taoism.about.com/od/becomingataoist/a/Keeping-The-One.htm. ↩
- Temple-Thurston and Laughlin, Marriage of Spirit, 62. ↩
- Karen Armstrong, “Is Immortality Important? Religion is about inhabiting the eternal in the here and now,” Harvard Divinity Bulletin, Winter 2006, http://www.hds.harvard.edu/news-events/harvard-divinity-bulletin/articles/is-immortality-important. ↩