Jedi Anchorites and Early Ireland

I went to see the new Star Wars film on my birthday. I feel now that the movie has been out for a few weeks that I could discuss the striking final scene. This final scene is also of great interest to any one wants to understand and appreciate the early Irish subtext of the final scene and how this may play out in the future.

Spoilers Ahead

Once Rey has Luke’s Father’s lightsabre and has the map to where he has gone into hiding after Kylo Ren, his former student, has turned to the dark side and killed Luke’s fledgeling Jedi Academy, she goes to meet the Jedi anchorite himself. She goes to Skellig Michael, which is a site of an early Irish monastery. This shows a striking understanding of the role of the mystic and the anchorite in early Ireland and the scene evokes this to great effect.

One of the most interesting features of early Irish Christianity is its embrace of late Antique forms of retiring from civil life into a more contemplative one. For instance, Kildare begins with the form kil- which originally comes from Latin cella or monastic cell (see cell). The pervasiveness of this element in place names in Ireland is an instance of just how powerful monastic style of Christianity was on early Irish thought and society. Although, one must be careful as many of the main monasteries in Ireland were very much involved in the daily lives of the dynasts around them (see Transformation of the Irish Church in the Twelfth Century, Marie Therese Flanagan, pp. 118-168). For instance, many abbots of powerful monastic houses were appointed by powerful secular families in the area of the monastery. However, for the early period (600 to 800AD), we have a set of hermits who exhibit clearly some Jedi-like attributes.

One of the most famous of these, of course, is St. Columba, who went into exile on Iona after causing a great battle over a book which he copied from his master, which is something his biographer, Adomnán, seems to miss out but it could be a legend to cover up the actual events which led to the battle. While on the other hand Luke goes into a hermit lifestyle after his failure with Ben Solo, the going into exile after a great personal tragedy is the same. However, unlike Luke who does not want to be found before the Force sends Rey to him, St. Columba collected followers and performed miracles (see Life of St Columba, Adomnán of Iona, ed. Richard Sharpe; also there is a great new edition here).

More Luke-like in this sense is the founder of one of the most influential monasteries of early Ireland, Cóemgen of Glendalough. Here, according to his hagiographer, he lived a life very close to nature and would often times spend years alone in the wilderness in deep contemplation and prayer and who went on to found the monastery of Glendalough. Although, again caution is necessary because much of the nature poetry so often found in early Irish literature has been, possibly wrongly, attributed to hermit figures like Cóemgen (see The Origin of Irish Nature Poetry and, as counterpoint see, ‘Early Irish “nature” Poetry”, Donnchadh Ó Corráin in Sages, Saints and Storyteller: Celtic Studies in Honor of Professor James Carney, Donnchadh Ó Corráin, Liam Breatnach and Kim McCone eds; also Blackbirds, cuckoos and infixed pronouns: another context for early Irish nature poetry, Patrick Ford in Celtic connections: proceedings of the Tenth International Congress Of Celtic Studies: volume one, language, literature, history, culture / edited by Ronald Black, William Gillies and Roibeard Ó Maolalaigh). Other instances of this can been found in Conversing with angels and ancients, Joseph F Nagy.

While the above are only two of the many instances of hermit saints with mystical powers, there are many more to be found in the early Irish literary corpus. J. J. Abrams uses this background (physical, historical, and mystical) to great effect when he uses Skellig Michael to highlight Luke’s journey from Return to the Jedi to the end of The Force Awakens. The austere conditions of the islands reflect the deep spiritual and mystical training that Luke will need to face Ben Solo (Kylo Ren) and rebuild the Jedi order (and fulfil his destiny to refound a great monastic order) with Rey and possibly Finn who is another great allusion to early Irish literature, which I will leave to someone more qualified than myself in matters Finn in the next two movies. Just to anticipate a bit on Finn. Fionn mac Cumhaill was a great warrior but always on the fringes of society much like Finn in the movie if you see Finn go from deep inside the First Order to an outsider as part of the Resistance. To delve into this more, see The wisdom of the outlaw : the boyhood deeds of Finn in Gaelic narrative tradition by Joseph F Nagy.

With the above in mind, the final scene works within the context of early Irish Christianity. It shows how, while Star Wars is usually interpreted within the Buddhist context, it can also be interpreted within an early Irish Christian context. J. J. Abrams reminds us that we do not need to look outside the Western tradition to find The Force.

With that, I am very much looking forward to the next two instalments.

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user-pic Celticist, Computer Scientist, Nerd, sometimes a poet…