Saturday, July 08, 2006

Star Wars, Superman and Parallelism

It's always interesting to attempt to apply methods used for Biblical Studies on non-biblical texts. If nothing else, it provides us an occasion to explore our methodology in instances where we might not have as much invested in the answers, and hopefully precludes some of the ad hoc reasoning I think all of us can be guilty of when investigating areas in which we've already voiced opinions. So, hot on the heels of my last post regarding the ruby slippers and Q, I offer another look at the Wizard of Oz, this time with a focus on parallelism.

I have, on numerous occasions, expressed my disdain for parallelism in general. It has always seemed, to me, that a rough parallel in narrative without an accompanying parallel in application is insufficient grounds to conclude influence. Recent musings, however, have left me somewhat less convinced of this. I'll give two examples that I think indicate the nature of the problem.

The first is the many analogues between Star Wars and the Wizard of Oz. This is the one that has given me pause in my tendency to disregard parallels with differences in application. One could point to dozens of such influences (Obi-Wan disappears leaving only a robe the same way the Wicked Witch did, the Jawas as the Munchkins, C3P0 being disassembled as Scarecrow having his straw removed, and so on). Yet the two stories are fundamentally different: Star Wars is a story of the ultimate triumph of good over evil. The Wizard of Oz has that element, but it isn't what the story is about, rather it's about the ultimate realization that what we need is right with us: No matter how fantastic it may be over the rainbow, there's no place like home.

The analogue between the two here is much stronger in the book, where Oz is not a dream, but turning to that weakens the overall parallelism substantially--Star Wars draws on MGM's musical, not Baum's book.

Applying my normal approach here (which certainly isn't unique to me), the difference in the "moral" of the stories provides a nice analogy to differences in soteriology. It is precisely this sort of thing that might cause me to dismiss a suggested parallel. It is furthered by differences in more immediate application: Obi-Wan, for example, is not evil, while the Wicked Witch is what her name implies.

But applying this method gives me, I think, the wrong answer. Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill and countless critics are right: Star Wars was influenced by the Wizard of Oz, and the fact that it's not a simple retelling of it does nothing to negate that.

I've intentionally left one very clear parallel between the two out, because it's one that, taken on its own, points instead to a defense of my usual approach. Luke Skywalker, like Dorothy Gale, lived with his Aunt and Uncle on a farm. Now, while Lucas' depiction of Luke's home might be influenced by the sepia colored world of Dorothy's home in Kansas, I'm not sure that we can safely say the concept is, because rough analogue can be found in many places. Superman lived with adoptive parents on a farm. Spiderman likewise lived with his Aunt and Uncle, though here in a small town, rather than a farm.

We cannot, with a high degree of certainty, attribute the origin of Superman or Spiderman to the Wizard of Oz. Rather, it seems to be a tendency found across stories of heros: The hero lives with adoptive parents.

Drawing from these two examples we're left something of a conundrum: When is a parallel actual? I'd thought I had a reasonably good idea how to tell, but now I doubt that. So what substantiative grounds, other than individual tastes, can exist to determine it?

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