Sunday, May 22, 2005

We'll Always Have Mustafar

This weekend, the world will finally learn why Anakin Skywalker, a promising young Jedi Knight, turned to the Dark Side to become Darth Vader, Dark Lord of the Sith and the world's most famous heavy breather. The fans will tell you how much they care about learning why Anakin turned. Baloney. They all want to see the no fewer than 4 lightsaber duels, culminating in the 20 minute brawl for it all between Hayden (Ain't-I-All-Broody) Christiansen and Ewan (Esquire-won't-stop-talking-about-my-tallywhacker) McGregor.

And that is one of the great fascinations of Star Wars: the lightsaber. One El Paso, TX fan made her hometown paper's frontpage costumed as one of the signature Jedi weapons. Who didn't give in to the lure of fandom the moment Mark Hamill first awkwardly brandished the funky flashlight with clumsy abandon in 1977? Even the painfully slow, tentative, paddy-cake of a duel between Darth Vader and Alec Guinness' version of Obi-Wan Kenobi didn't diminish public enthusiasm.

Every culture has it's version of the magic sword. There must be something hardwired into the collective soul of humanity. Certainly, at one level, there is uncomfortably obvious symbolism in the Fruedian statement Old Ben made in the first Star Wars: "Your father's lightsaber." Swords are potent symbols of manhood. Witness the sophomoric giggles sure to ensue after the simple observation: "Mace Windu has a purple lightsaber."

But there is more. Through the centuries the sword has accumulated other connotations. Peter S. Beagle remarked through a character in one of his lesser books that it is impossible for anyone to pick up a sword without invoking chivalry and honor, and many other outmoded concepts. Every culture has legends of magic weapons. Everyone is familiar with the two swords of Arthurian legend, the Sword in the Stone, and Excalibur. But Charlemagne, Roland, Rodrigo Diaz, and Barbarossa all had named swords. Despite the bloodshed associated with his sack of Jerusalem in the First Crusade, Godfrey of Bouillion's sword is still kept as a minor relic in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. On the opposing side, Saladin's scimitar was said to be so sharp that it could effortlessly cleave a silk scarf floating on the wind.

Perhaps nowhere did the sword achieve higher status than in Japan, where the sword was considered to be the very soul of the samurai warrior. The warrior's whole existence was devoted to serving his liege with the same sharp efficiency with which his own sword served him. Swordsmiths were regarded as priests who touched the gods when they created their works of art. Each smith was considered to pass something of himself into the blades he created. Masamune's swords had a reputation for bringing justice and righteousness to the hand that wielded them. Muramasa, on the otherhand, created malicious weapons that killed without equal. So tainted were these swords, that they were not allowed into the presence of the Tokugawa Shoguns. (It didn't help that Muramasa's swords figured in several accidents and a few attempts on their lives.)

Surpisingly, the pinnacle of the Japanese swordsman's art was to do without the sword. One level of this can be seen in Miyamoto Musashi's choice of a wooden practice sword (called a bokken) for many of his duels to the death. The Yagyu family gained prominence after demonstrating to the first Tokugawa shogun their catalog of empty-hand techniques when facing a sword-wielding opponent. And finally there is the story of Bokuden.

Bokuden was probably the greatest swordsman Japan ever produced, and several schools of swordsmanship trace their lines back to his students. He became proficient by traveling the countryside and testing his skills in friendly bouts with swordmasters.

On one of these trips, he happened to be on a boat with several other passengers. The story goes that a young tough began to quarrel with another passenger, one who was not part of the warrior caste. Bokuden politely asked the young man to stop harrassing the passenger. The tough grew indignant that some "old man" was ordering him around. Then the tough noticed Bokuden's swords and publically challenged him to a duel. Bokuden tried to talk the young man out of the idea, but the tough wouldn't have it. His honor had been slighted, he claimed, and he would have satisfaction.

Finally, Bokuden agreed to the fight. However, he asked that the tough agree not to fight on the boat because it might accidentally injure one of the other passengers who had nothing to do with their arguement. Bokuden pointed out a small island perfectly sized for the two men to fight. The tough agreed and the boat was steered toward the island.

As they approached, the tough asked Bokuden what school of swordsmanship he followed. "Why the School of No Sword," answered Bokuden. "I've never heard of that school," said the tough as he jumped down onto the sandbar from the deck. Bokuden grabbed a staff and pushed the boat away from the island and smiled at the tough as the boat drifted beyond his reach. "See?" said Bokuden, "No sword."

Can't you just see Yoda doing that?

1 comment:

Matt said...

I'm sorry. What's "Star Wars"?