March 16, 2011

Chewbacca as a present-day berserker figure

All accounts that I've read on the mythology created in the Star Wars movies focus on the more or less universal features, such as the archetypal characters (the hero, the mentor, etc.), rites of passage, the role of both natural and supernatural forces in shaping the world, and so on.

Yet there's quite a bit that is very specifically from the Proto-Indo-European cultural heritage, although some quick googling doesn't turn up anything on this topic. It would not be very PC to point out that not only have Indo-European languages spread to dominate most of the world, but so has a lot of their narratives, obviously because it's more fascinating than drama-drained animism or sterile ancestor worship.*

To begin with one example, Chewbacca embodies the dual qualities of the warrior class in Proto-Indo-European society that made the average person grateful for, while also somewhat afraid of, their existence. On the one hand, the warrior can protect in-group members from outside threats, such as the Imperial stormtroopers, or even help out in a raid of an out-group in order to enrich ourselves, as he had been doing when he was smuggling with Han Solo. He never violates the warrior code by acting cowardly toward enemies or by deserting his allies. Rather, he is intensely loyal, showing real grief when Han must be locked out in the freezing cold overnight, as well as when he contemplates the loose skull of C-3PO after he's been blasted to pieces. And it's not just in the will-do factors where he excels -- you can count on his skills at shooting projectiles, navigating a course, and fixing whatever technical problem you've got (although it may take him a little while).

On the other hand, the warrior needs a certain level of, well, warrior-ness to get those jobs done. Thus, when we try to absorb him back into the normal world of the in-group, he may go a little haywire and harm some of the rest of us too, whether the political/priestly class or the producer class. He may not even be able to function socially on his own in an alien world of peace. Of all the protagonists, Chewbacca has the most difficult time keeping his short-fused rage from exploding, often howling and growling, nearly choking the life out of someone, or enjoying his reputation for ripping people's arms out of their sockets if he loses a chess game. Again it's only through the intervention of his socially well-integrated friends that his hair-trigger temper winds up not hurting anyone seriously.

Now, this figure showed up in lots of great movies made during the last wave of mythmaking -- Travis Bickle, Rambo, Ripley, Sarah Connor, Riggs, even Nancy from the Nightmare on Elm Street series. What makes Chewbacca stand out as an even purer example of the berserker, despite the emphasis on his order-preserving side, is that he's depicted as a wolf-man, with shades of a bear-man, both in his outward appearance and his vocalizations, a textbook case of the Proto-Indo-European link between young male warriors and wolves.

(This will be a continuing series that I'll add to whenever I get the time.)

* The other blockbuster mythological tradition has been the Near Eastern monotheistic religions, and they too were dreamed up by a bunch of rowdy pastoralists rather than a mellowed-out camp of hunter-gatherers or risk-averse full-time farmers.


  1. One problem with your thesis that the Proto-Indo-Europeans were the world's best mythmakers is that one of the great offshoots of this tradition - Hindu mythology, largely came to maturity after the Aryans settled in India and, presumably, assimilated into an agrarian society. The Vedic pantheon is significantly more sparse than the pantheon of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, for example.

  2. Off-topic, but what do you think of this guy?

  3. That old geezer is a class A dickhead. I don't give a shit how old or healthy he is, he uses his age and resources to browbeat others, usually hiding behind other peoples good manners.

    A Wookie is much preferable to that old turd.


  4. Turkic and Mongolian mythology doesn't seem very strong. I guess the influence of competing with the great religions stopped them developing further? Interesting that high violence horticulturalist/feuding hill people groups don't seem to produce very compelling mythologies either.

    Kikuchiyo, the most compelling character in "Seven Samurai" (1954, just before the beginning of your age of high violence) really fits the mold you describe (and in a film that's, on one level, all about the relationship between a warrior class and their society, which supports your idea).

  5. Interesting concept. I'd add Ethan Edwards from the Searchers as a berserker figure. In fact, the final scene from that movie, where he stands in the doorway and then turns away may be seen as a symbolic recognition of that fact.

    - Breeze

  6. A matter I find fascinating is how Indo-European religious beliefs mixed, mingled and merged with the indigenous beliefs. Indo-European mythology is almost always fantastic and grandiose, yet usually it only reaches its maturity from different culture to culture, and the indigenous beliefs breath fresh life into what the Indo-Europeans believed. What the indigenous Scandinavians, Pelasgians and Dravidians believed is no small matter, as the grandeur of the Aryans cross-pollinated with each culture magnificently, as well as differently from each other.

    Anyway, watch Der Ring Des Nibelungen.

  7. The 'ronso' Kimahri from Final Fantasy X fits this description perfectly, which is no surprise, since Chewbacca was likely Kimahri's inspiring character.

  8. Surprisingly, the term "running amok" is not from an IndoEuropean language, but rather Malay.

    InoEuropeans were not the only people who had psycho-mass-killing-warriors...


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