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Historical Place-Names in Star Wars

George Lucas is a history buff, and one of the more interesting observations one can make when studying his work is examining how that fact gets reflected in his films. Certain scenarios remind one of real-life events and persons--for instance, Palpatine's political rise, cobbled together out of elements taken from dictators like Adolph Hitler and corrupt politicians like Richard Nixon--and he was sure to give his own story a history, a back story and real sense of place. Studying his writing, however, one notices his unique language in names, be it planets, characters or creatures; sometimes mere gibberish designed for phonetic effect, but many times an indication of a student of history. Not all of these names correspond to the function of their real life counterparts, for it seems often he merely chooses them for their phonetic quality, but nonetheless Lucas' writing is embedded with references to history, to the names of places and people. This is not confined to the finished films: his personal notes, lists of names and planets and rough drafts are a treasure trove themselves. Here are a few I noticed.

The very first thing Lucas wrote was a list of names and planets, sometime around January of 1973, or earlier. These are abundant with a conflation of world rulers and tyrants, perhaps even American presidents. The first name is Emperor Ford Xerxes XII. Ford might not be related to president Gerald Ford, since he wasn't in office yet, and is perhaps more likely a reference to the American car company, given Lucas' fascination with automobiles. Xerxes, however, is an interesting choice: as ruler of ancient Persia, Xerxes amassed the greatest empire the world had ever seen. He is best known in western culture for his attempts to spread this empire into the Greek mainland, having already overtaken the Greek colonies on Asia Minor; the polis of Sparta, led by King Leonidas, was able to weaken Xerxes' army, as shown recently in the highly stylized 300 by Frank Miller, before an alliance of Greeks finally drove them out.

After following this elaborate name with some simpler ones--Thorpe, Roland, Monroe, Lars, for example--Lucas started combining them. Persian and Greek history now meet in the revision: we have Alexander Xerxes XII. Alexander the Great defeated Xerxes' successor, Darius, and inherited the empire that Xerxes forged, expanding it to even greater proportions. He is described by Lucas as being "Emperor of Decarte", which might be an allusion to Rene Descarte, the 17th century father of modern philosophy (who famously wrote "I think, therefore I am" or "cogito ergo sum"). Also on the list is Han Solo, leader of the Hubble people, probably taking the name from the space telescope. Anakin Starkiller and Luke Skywalker are rulers of "Bebers", which recalls the Berbers, a people originally native to ancient north Africa and the Nile valley.

The Journal of the Whills plot summary does not contain any explicit historical references, although the Jedi-Templers are meant to recall the Knights Templar. The treatment from May 1973 is generally barren as well, although it uses the name Skywalker for the main character (invented in aforementioned notes), which probably references Loki of Norse mythology (sometimes given the epithet "sky walker").

The rough draft names the troopers of the Empire as "stormtroopers", a clear reference to the Nazi Stormtroopers (Sturmabteilung) employed by the third reich. The first draft that followed would re-name the villain Valorum as Captain Dodona, to be transfered to the heroic General Dodona of the final film. Another reference to ancient Greece, Dodona is one of the oldest shrines in Greek history, reaching back into Mycenaean times. The site of Dodona was highly important in Greek religious life, and Zeus was worshipped there; in Homer's Iliad, Achilles prays to "Zeus, Lord of Dodona."

In draft two a new element is introduced--the Kaiber crystal. In Splinter of the Mind's Eye it appeared as the Kaiburr crystal. This name was probably inspired by the Khybur pass, a strategic passway through the mountain chain between Afghanistan and India that was often exploited in ancient warfare, especially by the Persians under King Darius I, and later Alexander the Great. The pass continued to play a role as a key military location into the 20th century, and is currently an area of conflict between the Taliban and Indian government.

The second draft also features a rebel outpost called Masassi. Perhaps a remnant of Lucas' days of junior college as an anthropology major, Masasi is an area of modern Tanzania that is known for its tribe of bushmen called the Maasai, who are famous as a subject of anthropological studies; Joseph Campbell has used their stories in his books, for example.

Jawas, who appear in the second draft, perhaps derive their name from the Indonesian island of Java, which is also sometimes spelt Jawa, a major colonial site in the 16th century and famous for its volcanoes and ancient Buddhist ruins. More directly, the name may come from the archaeological site of ancient Jawa, a bronze- and iron-age city in Jordan that was occupied by the Biblical Ammonites peoples and re-discovered by archaeologists at least by the 1950s. References to ancient north Africa and the near east throughout these early written documents indicate that Lucas was perusing the history and geography of the regions, perhaps because he was attempting to locate a filming location for Utapau (Tatooine in the film), a desert planet that appears in his script (along with his reference to Bebers in his early lists, he also includes two desert planets then named Aquilae and Yoshiro, showing he had this environment in mind back then, even though it didn't immediately appear in the treatments). Other geographic regions appear throughout the drafts, such as the Tusken Raiders (third draft) from the Tuscany region of Italy and Cos Dashit (rough draft), which, though meant to be a pun, may have still drawn inspiration from the island of Cos (or Kos), known for its ruins from the ancient Greeks and for its roles in the various wars (from the mythical War of Troy to the wars against Persia). Antiles may also derive from the Antiles islands in the Caribbean.

In the fourth draft, Governor Hoedaak from the rough draft became Governor Tarkin, a cruel tyrant and chief villain of the film (the name Tarkin appeared in the rough draft as well). This, no doubt, was a reference to the tyrannical Tarquin, the King of ancient Rome. Tarquin the Elder and Tarquin the Proud are two separate kings in the books of ancient authors, but some modern historians suspect they may have been the same person. Tarquin the Proud was known in antiquity as a cruel dictator, who was eventually overthrown by a mob of rebels from his own kingdom in response to the raping of Lucretia by Tarquin's son. After he was forced into exile, the Republic of Rome was established, making him an important figure in ancient Roman history.

The fourth draft also makes an interesting change to Utapau, the desert planet--it became known as Tatooine. This change should be attributed to the filming location--by then, in pre-production, Lucas and Kurtz had selected Tunisia, and the city of Tatouine was located only a few miles from the filming sites.

The two films that follow have less historical place-names in them; this may be attributed to two factors, the first being that there are less places and people to be invented since the first film laid the groundwork, and the second being that Lucas only wrote small amounts of material (a treatment and two re-writes for Empire, and the first two drafts for Jedi). Lucas did, however, invent the name Hoth, as it appears in his Empire treatment, which may be a reference to Hermann Hoth, a famous German Colonel-General of World War II.

Return of the Jedi provides a few Bible references of note: first, the planet Had Abbadon that is a centre piece in his early drafts probably derives from Abaddon, appearing quite fearsomely in the apocalyptic Revelation of St John. The word "Abaddon" means "place of destruction" or "depths of hell" in Hebrew, and in the revelation seems to refer to a king of tormenting locusts and the angel of a bottomless pit. This imagry is appropriate, as the satanic Emperor dwells upon a lake of lava deep underneath the planet of Had Abaddon. The second reference is Endor: in the book of Joshua, there is a "witch of Endor" that King Saul pleas to conjure the spirits of the dead (Endor being a Canaanite village). These Biblical references are easily explained: in Icons: Intimate Portraits, Denise Worrell describes that Lucas kept a copy of Harpers Bible Dictionary on his desk when he was writing Jedi, a useful catalog for interesting names.

Strangely, it seems that the prequels are generally bereft of historical place-names; allusions to mythology are plentiful (such as Qui Gon Jinn, Jinn referring to an Arabic spirit, and Padme which is part of the Buddhist mantra), but there is surprisingly little to comment on. Most names not born out of myth are either recycled from previous drafts (Utapau, Jar Jar Binks), come out of other sources (Coruscant), already existed in previous films (Obi Wan Kenobi), are references to pop culture (Gungans, which probably are taken from Kipling's Gunga Din, Kamino, which is possibly referencing the Chevy El Camino, or Commander Cody, a 1950s serial of the same name), or are just made up or come out of serendipity (as R2-D2 and Wookiee both did). There are a few of note however. In Episode I, the planet Naboo is featured--possibly this name may have been derived by the Mesopotamian god Nabu. Later in the film Watoo refers to the hyperdrive as being "Nubian" in design--Nubia was the land south of ancient Upper Egypt, prized for it's gold and ivory and often the object of Egyptian military incursion; in fact, there were a number of Pharaohs who were Nubian. Another example of historical names that comes to mind is the prominent character of Nute Gunray: an amalgamation (and inversion) of Republicans Newt Gingrich and Ronald Reagen.

update: Bernd Doetzer has informed me that "Aldeberan" is actually a real-life star. Not historical, but interesting nonetheless.

12/27/09

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