Starwars, Castaneda, and the Force
In 1960, an anthropology student named Carlos Castaneda was to meet an individual who would change his life forever. This individual was named Don Juan Matus, and their association was to be documented over the course of many books. Don Juan was revealed to be a sorcerer (also referred to as seer, man of knowledge, shaman), and took Castaneda under his tutelage and on an incredible journey - sometimes humorous, often perilous. Castaneda and his books became famous worldwide, though there were eventual questions as to the veracity of the stories told in the books. Could his experiences be real, did Don Juan even exist etc, etc ... ?
Regardless of those questions however, the purpose of this piece is to demonstrate the influence of Carlos Castaneda’s books on the Star Wars saga.
A DEFINITE INFLUENCE:
To begin with, we can be certain that George Lucas read Castaneda, and cited him as an influence. In Garry Jenkins Empire Building we are told that Lucas:
"...in his search for fantasy, read Grimm’s fairy tales and CS Lewis’ Narnia Chronicles, JRR Tolkien and Frazier’s Golden Bough. He also read Greek, Islamic and Indian mythology and the works of modern mythologists like Carlos Castaneda and Joseph Campbell" (Empire Building, page 38).
Castaneda receives a further name check, and this is a more specific confirmation of his influence:
"Lucas had by now simplified the mysticism in his script. Obi-Wan Kenobi would be a guardian of the wisdom of the Jedi knights and the force, a mysterious power "that binds the universe together". Lucas had found the inspiration for the idea in a story in Carlos Castaneda’s Tales Of Power, in which a Mexican Indian mystic, Don Juan, described a "life force" (Empire Building, page 62).
With that connection made, there are a couple of points to take into account. Essentially, the connections between Star Wars and Castaneda’s books are background, veiled ones. There are some overt correlations to be found in dialogue, but for the most part the influence is only seen as part of the whole. There is still a great deal to explore though, so let’s plough on.
BASIC COMMONALITIES, CLEAR DIFFERENCES:
The first commonality to mention is specific to the individual - namely that of the Sorcerer/Jedi. I should point out that sorcerer, for the purposes of this piece, is an almost entirely interchangeable term with Jedi knight - with one important distinction - there is no order of sorcerers, as such, in Castaneda’s books. They are not a formal organization working for anyone or toward any purpose, except that of their own personal quest for knowledge. The Jedi of the original trilogy are a marginally better analogy to the sorcerers of Castaneda’s world, in that they are on the fringes. It’s also necessary to make note of the lesser moral polarity as found in Castaneda. The good side/bad side division is nowhere near as pronounced. We do find great dangers to the aspirant sorcerer, but they do not rest on a fall to a dark side per se (though evil sorcerers are mentioned). With those exceptions clarified, I’ll try to show where the influence of Castaneda on Star Wars seems strongest.
YODA, THE SHAMAN
"The idea of using another person, perhaps an alien, for Luke to play off of came up during story meetings. George Lucas and Leigh Brackett thought that the alien could be an Indian desert type, very childlike even though he’s an old man" (Annotated Screenplays, page 167)
The above passage, which gives us the earliest concept for Luke’s new teacher in The Empire Strikes Back, is about the clearest indicator that Castaneda’s teacher, Don Juan Matus, was to provide the basic blueprint for the greatest of all Jedi Masters, Yoda. Further though, the reference to the old man with childlike qualities also shows that Lucas intended to imbue this new Jedi master with character traits similar to those of Don Juan. In addition to this childlike aspect of both characters we also have their immense power, and awe-inspiring, magical abilities to take into account. Of interest also, is that "Lucas and Brackett had lengthy discussions about Luke’s training with Yoda and decided to turn the lessons into proverbs and commandments," (Annotated Screenplays, page 181) – again, very reminiscent of the lessons which Castaneda receives from Don Juan, and of their parable-like retelling in the books themselves.
Another idea, which did not make it on to screen, was to show Yoda "...during the training...always smoking from his gimer stick, a short little twig with three branches at the far end." (Annotated Screenplays, page 183). This may allude to the shaman’s ingestion of psychotropic plants as an aid in their quest. (No surprise though, that we never see Yoda actually smoking, given the implications – Star Wars being a family oriented franchise).
In The Empire Strikes Back, we see Luke Skywalker’s Jedi training begin for real. He is introduced to new ideas, and compelled to abandon those he had previously clung to. He is subjected to great exertions, both physical and psychological. It is a perpetual test/evaluation of the student by the Master.
What we witness in this training is the destruction (of sorts) of Luke Skywalker – as Yoda says, "you must unlearn what you have learned." It is not possible to gain access to the larger world of the Jedi/sorcerer still holding on to one’s old ideas. Just as Luke is subjected to this breaking down of the old self, so is Castaneda under Don Juan’s tutelage. A few comparisons:
"Do or do not...there is NO try."
Gary Kurtz describes this line as being "...a very Zen concept," so a comparison with Castaneda is obviously not going to be exclusive – however, this is reflective of the practice found in Castaneda’s books of being impeccable. Essentially, these two phrases are saying the same thing – that the Jedi or man of knowledge does not have the luxury of second-guessing themselves. A man of knowledge is guided by death, in that each moment is considered as the last. Therefore any action must be absolute and carried out impeccably. It would appear that this attitude translates across to the Jedi also.
Again, comparisons are not Castaneda specific, but as one of the most enigmatic parts of any Star Wars movie, the trial at the tree warrants comment.
When Luke Skywalker descends into the mystical tree, he encounters the entity that those on a mystical quest call chapel perilous, I believe – a description of which can be found in Robert Anton Wilson’s classic book Cosmic Trigger I:
"...One eventually faces a crossroads of mythic proportions (called Chapel Perilous in the trade)…once you are inside it, there doesn’t seem to be any way to ever get out again, until you discover that it has been brought into existence by thought and does not exist outside thought. Everything you fear is waiting with slavering jaws in Chapel Perilous, but if you are armed with the wand of intuition, the cup of valor, you will find there (the Legends say) the medicine of Metals, the Elixir of Life, the Philosopher’s Stone, True Wisdom and Perfect Happiness." (Cosmic Trigger I, page 6)
This Chapel Perilous (or dark night of the soul) is a minefield for the aspirant sorcerer/Jedi – everything rests on one’s psychological or spiritual (call it what you will) condition. All that is necessary for success or failure is contained within the self, and this again is where the notion of being impeccable or "do or do not, there is no try" rears it’s head. Precision is a must. When Luke Skywalker asks Yoda what awaits him, and Yoda says, "Only what you take with you," we can see without doubt that Luke’s test is a metaphysical one, far more dangerous than the mere physical. His very soul is at stake, and by the end of the scene we are in no doubt that infinite capacities reside within him (the lesson being, by extension, that these capacities are within us all).
With specific reference to Castaneda, it should be noted that his books are replete with such psychological (and physical) tests, and that they evoke the same harsh awakening in Castaneda as we see experienced by Luke. The reader is left in no doubt that these tests are essential tools in the destruction of the old self.
GAINING AN ALLY, AND THE TRIALS
"For my ally is the Force. And a powerful ally it is." Yoda
"Only a fully trained Jedi Knight with the Force as his ally will conquer Vader and his Emperor." – Yoda
"Fear is my ally." – Darth Maul
On the face of it, the above quotes would seem to be quite straightforward – the use of the word Ally signifying nothing more than a weapon in one’s arsenal. Yet, here again, we are seeing Lucas quote from Castaneda, and in a way that provides the word with a greater meaning than would first appear to be the case. It also bears directly on Obi-Wan Kenobi’s assertion in The Phantom Menace that "I am ready to face the trials."
As mentioned in the prior section, tests and trials are commonplace in the quest for knowledge: a pre-requisite in fact. One such trial occurs when the aspirant sorcerer has accumulated enough personal power to meet the entity referred to as the ally. This encounter cannot be avoided – it is a mandatory, transitional event. Allies are essentially shapeless and featureless forms – all differing and quite terrifying. The aspirant must confront the ally, grab onto and overcome it. If this is done successfully, the individual has an ally – which essentially is a great step forward in the quest for knowledge. A scene, which comes from the first draft of The Empire Strikes Back refers to this idea I believe (though it has clearly been skewed from it’s original context to fit better into a Star Wars one):
"...Minch (Yoda) tells Luke that facing Vader is the real test for him. Luke concentrates, and suddenly two shapes rise from the swamp: one looks like Vader, and the other one is smaller, featureless but reminiscent of Luke. In ghostly voices they talk to each other. Vader says he wants Luke as an ally." (Annotated Screenplays, pages 182, 183).
The confrontation with the ally seems to be quite an illusory concept – Don Genaro Flores (another man of knowledge) describes his own encounter thus:
"It was a powerful jolt…never would I have imagined it was going to be like that…after I grabbed it we began to spin. The ally made me twirl, but I didn’t let go. We spun through the air with such speed and force that I couldn’t see anymore. Everything was foggy. The spinning went on and on. Suddenly I felt that I was standing on the ground again. I looked at myself. The ally had not killed me. I was in one piece. I was myself! I knew that I had succeeded. At long last I had an ally. I jumped up and down with delight. What a feeling! What a feeling it was!"
One thing, which becomes clear from reading Castaneda’s books, is that descriptions of events such as the one above have more impact when you allow yourself to consider them in an abstract way, rather than as literal, conventionally verifiable events. Unless Lucas chooses to further elaborate on these trials in the coming films, it appears he is employing a similar tactic – an ambiguous, personal encounter on the quest, faced alone and of great importance. (Perhaps we will come to regard Luke’s confrontation with Vader as an example of facing the trials).
The upshot of gaining one’s own ally is that there is no return to the world that the sorcerer once knew. This is important in comparing sorcerers/Jedi – it’s what separates them from others. They are not as everyone else because they are embarked on a solitary pursuit. Sorcerer & Jedi alike are both learning to expand their powers and knowledge while exerting complete control over themselves. It is a journey without end. There is a phrase found in Castaneda, which gives a good insight into this particular mindset – controlled folly.
Don Juan tells the story of how his son was killed (in an accident, as I remember it) – as he rushed over to the dying boy, he watched the last remnants of life flow from him, but rather than experience that moment as you or I would, he shifted his awareness so as not to be overrun by emotion.
Two instances in Star Wars would be relevant to the idea of this controlled folly, and both involve Obi Wan Kenobi. The first, when he watches his master killed by Darth Maul – he does not have the mastery or understanding of the Force, which allows him to see that this particular event is no more or less important than any other event; that all is equal in the flux. The second, in his ultimate encounter with Darth Vader, where he has complete serenity in the face of death – his mastery is great and his knowledge allows him the Star Wars equivalent of controlled folly.
This enigmatic piece of dialogue is a strong indicator of the Castaneda/Star Wars link. In fact, in Castaneda’s Tales Of Power, we find a chapter entitled the Secret of the Luminous Beings.
In The Empire Strikes Back the above line of dialogue demonstrates that Yoda understands the body to be merely an illusory husk - and not where the individual’s power resides. If we look at the luminous beings part specifically though (as originally found in Castaneda), the phrase takes on much more meaning – and gives great weight to Darth Vader’s assertion that "The ability to destroy a planet is insignificant next to the power of the Force."
A reference to this is found in Castaneda’s The Fire From Within (page 66) – "...seers make these statements because they see living creatures as they really are: luminous beings that look like bubbles of whitish light." I’ll expand on this in a moment, but there’s an important point to bring up first – when a seer uses the word see, it is not in the way you or I would. As Don Juan explains to Castaneda "When seers see, something explains everything...it’s a voice that tells them in their ear what’s what." This is akin, I believe, to Qui-Gon Jinn’s explanation of the midichlorians to Anakin Skywalker, that, "They continually speak to you, telling you the will of the Force."
What we do learn from Don Juan is the true state of the life form – the luminous being – a cocoon-like bubble of tentacles/filaments. Seeing this luminous being allows an adept sorcerer to know a great deal about an individual. In fact, it is this method by which Don Juan recognizes the necessity of taking Castaneda under his wing upon their first, fateful meeting. He sees in Castaneda that he has the possibility of becoming a man of knowledge, and from that he has no choice but to become his teacher*. Don Juan describes this in A Separate Reality (page 112):
"Sorcerers act towards people in accordance to the way they see their tentacles. Weak persons have very short, almost invisible fibres; strong persons have bright long ones. You can tell from the fibres if a person is healthy, or if he is sick, or if he is mean, or if he is kind, or treacherous. You can also tell from the fibres if a person can see."
*A Star Wars comparison here would be found in Qui-Gon recognizing Anakin’s Force potential and being compelled to bring him into the fold.
We know that the sorcerer must have accumulated enough personal power to actually see, and this, like gaining an ally is a necessity on the quest. Translating this across to Star Wars gives us some idea of Yoda’s true mastery of the Force – he would be considered a great sorcerer, without doubt a man of knowledge. When a seer has gained this power, they are capable of great feats, because they are aware of the illusory nature of matter and can utilize this knowledge. The luminous filaments are all connected in the flux, – so that leaping over a mountain, and returning as though attached by an elastic band, disappearing into thin air(see) or being in two places at once are all do-able feats (as insane as that sounds). In Star Wars parlance, the Force truly does surround us, bind us and penetrate us – absolute interconnection. As I mentioned at the beginning of this section, Darth Vader would seem justified in his grand claims of the Force’s power. A possible explanation, also, of the Force speed Qui-Gon & Obi-Wan display on the Trade Federation battleship – tapping into the Force to pull themselves out of harms way. Of course, this is a toned-down ability to the ones found in Castaneda (again, not really a great surprise).
A few direct quotes from Tales Of Power (pages 95-97) may help cement this connection:
"When we arrived at the rock ledge, you were imbued with power and you saw Genaro standing where other sorcerers stood… He himself was all power. Had you proceeded as you did earlier…you would have seen him as he really is, a luminous being."
"As long as you think you are a solid body you cannot conceive what I am talking about."
"The outer form is of no importance…don’t call it the body…these are the eight points on the fibres of a luminous being."
"...the fact that we are luminous beings…we are perceivers. We are an awareness; we are not objects; we have no solidity. We are boundless. The world of objects and solidity is a way of making our passage on earth convenient. It is only a description we created..."
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