The following article is Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker Spoiler-free.
In the several weeks leading up to the release of the newest Star Wars film, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, the term “Skywalker Saga” has spread across the internet. Star Wars has long been referred to as a ‘saga.’ There has been a special emphasis on this installment being its conclusion. The idea of Star Wars as a ‘saga’ in the original sense of the word, an Old Norse prose history, has not received nearly as much attention as it might. What makes Star Wars a saga? And what does the end of that saga say about our changing relationship with stories?
Surprisingly, ‘saga’ is not a term commonly applied to Star Wars’ most closely related contemporaries. The Avengers, perhaps the closest kin to Star Wars in terms of scale, is more commonly referred to as a “cinematic universe.” Although one sometimes speaks of the “wizarding world,” Harry Potter never seemed to land a descriptor equivalent to ‘saga’ even after the 2016 and 2018 Fantastic Beasts films. Star Trek, Star Wars’ classic rival, could be called a saga (as a quick internet search can prove) but this does not feel quite appropriate for the sprawling tendrils of that franchise. English speakers seem to prefer the term ‘epic’ for Lord of the Rings despite the direct influence which the original Norse sagas had on the content and style of that work. Perhaps this is a coincidence or quirk of popular culture, or perhaps there is something distinctly saga-like about Star Wars.
The term ‘saga’ most likely entered the English lexicon via 17th– and 18th-century scholars studying the sögur (sing. saga) of the Old Norse world. This category includes a wide range of stories from medieval Iceland and Norway. There are King’s Sagas, Saint’s Sagas, Legendary Sagas (in one medieval source referred to as ‘Lying Sagas’), Contemporary Sagas, and an ever-changing list of other sub-categories. Fundamentally, sagas are distinct from epic court poetry (although sagas often featured fragments of court poetry to support the prose narrative). It is most likely that the sagas were performed to groups for the entertainment of nobles and commoners alike. The term saga itself is related to the verb segja meaning “to say” or “to tell.” This suggests that they were preserved orally, sometimes for several centuries, before being written by historians in the 13th-century.
Interestingly, many of the sagas, the so-called “Sagas of the Icelanders,” star more-or-less regular Icelanders and Norwegians. Kings, saints, and other ‘important’ figures are relegated to supporting roles. Admittedly, these ‘regular’ people were, like Luke Skywalker or Frodo Baggins, taken on extraordinary journeys. In one story, for example, Auðen of the Westfjords journeys across Iceland and Norway, repeatedly losing all of his money, in order to gift his pet polar bear to the king of Denmark. Yet, with the exception of this bizarre mission, Auðen appears to be no more than a regular Icelander worried about his ailing mother.
Sagas frequently feature the supernatural. Shapeshifters, ghosts, and cursed rings are all elements to be found in the Norse sagas. In the Saga of King Olaf Tryggvason of Norway, the King rests from his Christianizing mission to listen to stories told by the Norse god Oðinn, disguised as an old man.
These general qualities of sagas already hint at Star Wars-esque entertainment. They are popular stories told about a regular farmer from a desolate land who takes part in exceptional events that are tinged with hints of the supernatural. Of course, many stories follow a similar structure and are not called sagas. Let us consider a specific example to demonstrate how Star Wars, in particular, fits comfortably in the saga genre.
Take the classic saga of Egill, Skallagrim’s son. In it, Kveldulf (possibly a werewolf, certainly a supernatural berserker) and his son Skallagrim flee the conquering King Harold of Norway to become founding settlers of Iceland. Skallagrim’s son, Egill, is born and demonstrates an equally striking temper and level of physical and poetic prowess. By age three, he composes his first court poetry, a task requiring immense skill, out of spite for not being invited to a party. By age seven, he had murdered his first victim with an axe over a dispute in their play. By age 12, he was strong enough to beat most full-grown men in athletic competitions.
As a young adult, he insisted on joining his older brother on his travels across the North Atlantic. In his travels, Egill repeatedly worsens his family’s feud with the Norwegian King Eirik. He joins King Aethelstan of England’s army in a decisive defeat of the King of Scotland. He is later captured by ex-King Eirik, escaping execution via a wager regarding his poetic abilities. By the end of the saga, Egill lives into his old age, long enough to see one of his sons die in a shipwreck and the other become increasingly enmeshed in feuds over land and cattle.
Although lacking in some of the narrative focus that modern readers have become accustomed to, Egill’s Saga contains many of the same elements as Star Wars: narrow escapes, epic battles, political intrigue, cross-generational family conflict, supernatural lineages which provide the hero with exceptional abilities, and adventures which take one to diverse locations across the world. One can imagine replacing Kveldulf, Skallagrim, and Egill with Darth Vader, Luke, and Ben Skywalker and a similar story would emerge. In contrast, Star Trek and The Avengers tell the story of organizations that, although at times familial, lack the personal and multi-generational dynamics of such dynastic struggles.
Sagas are not only entertainment, but histories. If stories tell us about people to admire (or hate), histories tell us about ourselves. In the 13th-century contemporary sagas, Egill is confidently described as the ancestor of the Sturlungs, the family who included many of the most important figures of 12th– and 13th-century Icelandic history. Egill’s fame continued to have an impact on the identity of his family and Icelanders as a whole.
Similarly, Star Wars has always claimed to be history from “a long time ago…” While no one claims literal heritage to the Skywalker family, generations have grown up imaging themselves as Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia. This is a two-way relationship; Star Wars is linked to our generations’ concerns. Our parents’ Star Wars told the story of good triumphing over evil and the redemption of Darth Vader. This generation’s Star Wars, on the other hand, asks how one moves beyond the inheritance of the past. When the past failed to eliminate evil in our world, do we reject it? As Luke and Ben Skywalker suggested in 2017’s The Last Jedi, do we let the past die, killing it if we need to?
Although extended narratives, even sagas must come to an end. After 2018’s Solo: a Star Wars Story was released, Joshua Rothman wrote in The New Yorker that Star Wars was becoming a genre instead of a story, an aesthetic instead of a saga. With the conclusion of the Skywalker Saga this year, simultaneous with the launch of The Mandolorian television show and the promise of several other Star Wars projects to come, Rothaman’s prediction seems on the verge of coming true. This will create a Star Wars mainstream much more like The Avengers universe or, even, the complicated expanse of Star Trek. Of course, this may not be bad necessarily. But something is lost with the abandonment of the saga form. Sagas have always been stories to build a culture around. Our culture has grown around the Skywalkers. What will happen when Star Wars grows past them?