Contains mild spoilers for those who haven’t seen The Force Awakens.
Star Wars is many things to many people: nostalgia-tinted staple of childhood memory, space opera extraordinaire, modern day merchandising behemoth. For every starry-eyed fan, there is probably a giddy scholar feasting on the many historical ingredients that make up Star Wars’ intergalactic soup. At the start of each film we are told where we will be going – not only “a galaxy far away”, but specifically “a long time ago”.
Star Wars is truly a fusion of global myths, legends and history – literary tropes borrowed from classical antiquity, medieval heroic sagas, Eastern philosophies, and 20th-century wars – all repackaged for modern audiences. The latest instalment of the franchise has taken this to full medieval Meta.
The climactic scene of The Force Awakens is situated on a distant island on a distant planet, supposedly the site of the mystical remains of the First Jedi Temple. These scenes were actually filmed on the visually stunning World Heritage Site of Skellig Michael: an unearthly pinnacle of rock jutting out of the Atlantic Ocean, seven miles off the western Irish coast.
Far from being just a backdrop to Star Wars fiction, Skellig is home to the very real archaeological remains of a Medieval Christian hermitage. When the fictional characters walk among Skellig’s ruins we are, literally and figuratively, fusing the religious past and the fictional spiritual future. Here, the stone remains of medieval Irish Christian asceticism stands in for mystical Jedi hermeticism.
Early Irish Christian religious devotion led them to seek salvation through solitude on the ocean at the fringes of their world, much as their religious forebears had taken to a hermit life in the deserts of the Middle East. In early Medieval terms, Ireland was literally the end of the Earth; truly an island far, far away, beyond which there was nothing. As among the westernmost points, Skellig Michael was one of Christianity’s farthest outposts, a flickering light burning at the world’s end.
For centuries medieval pilgrims came to experience the sublime solitude, to follow in the footsteps of mythical saints who, in Medieval Irish sagas, undertook spectacular adventures into the unknown. These often involved monsters, strange other worlds, and spiritual battles between the dark side and the light.
In Irish imagination, Skellig has always been a mystical place apart that involves flights (and fights) of fancy. A 7th century historical reference depicts it as a place of refuge for fleeing kings. A 9th century annal entry details the impressive feat involved in the kidnapping of its probable abbot by Viking raiders. And a 12th century literary medieval blockbuster depicts a stone font which miraculously filled with communion wine for mass.
Even as late as the 18th and 19th centuries, already long abandoned and in ruins, Skellig continued to occupy a quasi-mythical reputation. Following British adoption of the Gregorian calendar in 1752, locals deemed that it was a place literally removed from normal space and time – 11 days out of sync – allowing clergy to marry couples among its rocky crags during the otherwise prohibited period of abstinence during Lent.
The archaeological remains seen today date from the 11th and 12th centuries, when journeys of religious pilgrimage and penance on Skellig was at its zenith. Ironically, the stone beehive huts, churches, crosses and penitential stations dotted across the island, despite popular portrayals, were not the products of isolated hermits (like Luke Skywalker) withdrawing from the world. Instead they were a conscious effort by medieval ecclesiastical authorities to provide pilgrims with a mystical experience.
Even the associated Michael element of its name is in fact an apparent reboot of the island’s brand and identity, a re-dedication by the church to the eponymous saint designed to increase its appeal to wider audiences. In a way Skellig was a medieval version of a Disney theme park, providing for a growing appetite for dramatic and theatrical pilgrimage. In a time when the popular power – and profits – offered by saints’ tombs and relics echoed throughout Europe, Skellig offered a unique religious experience that traded on a re-constructed portrayal of a past, early Medieval golden age.
Despite the separation of centuries, from both a medieval perspective and to our modern eyes, the choice of Skellig for The Force Awakens is strangely appropriate. As part of a modern cinematic extravaganza, Skellig’s archaeology, splendid isolation and startling appearance is again harnessed to astound and to empty pockets, once more considered a destination out of this world.
The hooded figure of the mysterious Jedi monk, withdrawn from the rest of the universe, standing aloof against an infinite ocean, is not that far removed from what Medieval pilgrims were hoping to see for themselves on Skellig. I’d even wager he would have fitted right in.
This article was first published on The Conversation.