It appears, in my gusto to share the good word about a few of my favorite Sci-Fi/Fantasy messiah myths, that I neglected to spend enough time delving into the initial query of what makes a “Savior” - at least - in Geek Canon terms. I hope to rectify this today before we get into a few examples (and counterexamples) of the Messiahs of Geekery!
The word “messiah” is Hebrew in origin, with the closest literal translation reading “anointed one” or “anointed king”. It was used in ancient times to refer to kings and prophets of the Jewish culture, and eventually, it was connected to a prophecy that a great political leader will come rescue the world and reign over a paradisiacal, Messianic Age. This prophecy is what eventually led to the birth of Christianity.
In my previous article, I mentioned that “saving the world” is one of the main criteria for fulfilling the role of a “Messiah” (which I originally translated as “Savior”) - but perhaps a better criteria would involve “ruling the world” or, to be a bit more open-ended (and aligned with the Christian interpretation) “leading the people in a new and better way of life”.
I still believe the three exemplar from part 1 of this series, Kal-El (Superman), Neo (The Matrix), and Aang (Avatar: The Last Airbender) all qualify as messianic figures - each of them usher in a new age during their adventures. For Superman, his role in forming the Justice League leads humanity into a golden age of heroes. Neo brings an end to a cycle of war and devastation by offering himself as a willing sacrifice to the Machines, and paves the way for humanity to make a choice to live either in the Matrix, or in Zion. Aang, by ending a 100-year reign by the Fire Nation’s oppressive dominion, also goes on to bring his people (the Air Nomads) back from the brink of extinction..
Today, I’d like to focus on another criteria before diving back into Messiah mythos. Besides just being “world-savers” or “paradigm shifters” (roles that also are shared by mortal, less-than-Messianic-figures), I would like to talk today about Messianic figures as they relate to their role as a “bridge between worlds”.
In some senses, it is extremely explicit. Aang is called a bridge between the spirit world and the… other one. (Living? Mortal? Normal? We’re not given a stated name for the Non-spirit-world) . This is explored in greater depth in Legend of Korra, where the origin story of the Avatar’s role is recounted- the Avatar was originally a regular human who bonded his soul with the manifestation of light and peace (Raava). This bond has lasted through numerous reincarnations, and it is what grants the Avatar immense physical and spiritual power.
For Kal-El, being a bridge between worlds means holding a dual identity as both a nigh-unto-omnipotent alien, and a mild-mannered reporter. This duplicitous identity is important because it clearly demonstrates Superman’s vulnerabilities (and no, I’m not talking about Kryptonite) - Clark Kent has fears, frustrations, confusion - he’s not only human, he’s super human. He’s clumsy and a dunce at romance - things that make him relatable. The disguise is not merely a tool to hide his identity - it’s just as much a part of him as the tights and cape, if not more so. (I think there’s an interesting argument to be made about which one is the “real” Superman. I’m firmly in the “Clark Kent is the person, Superman is the disguise” camp). By being “of both worlds” Superman can embody our mortal foibles, as well as our potential for limitless greatness. This is a key factor in fulfilling his role as a Messianic figure.
For Neo - he ascends from an initiate to becoming “the One”. His powers begin by transcending the physical (well, digital) world.
So, hindsight being what it is, I’d like to set forth my list of criterion for what makes a mythological Messiah:
1) Possessing a degree of divinity - more than human, but nevertheless still connected to humanity.
2) Having an explicitly stated destiny or mission to save the world/galaxy/universe/etc
3) Shifting the existing (generally oppressive) paradigm, enabling a new, better future.
To accompany these new criteria, I’d like to set forward a few more examples of modern retellings of the archetype of the Messiah - but this time, I want to examine one particular version of the myth where things are a bit different from the biblical norm.
Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader
Now, justifiable prequel hate aside, Star War’s “Chosen One” is a pretty tried-and-true fit for the criteria presented above. Firstly, he obviously possesses some degree of divinity, being literally conceived by the mystical energy known as The Force- and our second and third criteria are both explicitly addressed in The Phantom Menace- where he is set before the Jedi Council. The wise Jedi Masters debate whether he is the true fulfillment of the “prophecy” about his coming - stating that he will one day bring balance to the Force. (Interestingly, we are never told the exact verbiage or circumstance of where this prophecy came from).
So, this virgin-birthed boy wonder comes from his humble desert origins on a quest to bring redemption to mankind balance to the Force. Seems good!
The twist, however, is that this story does not go on to claim our story’s destined savior does not go on to live a life devoid of failure. Sure, he’s a natural prodigy in lightsaber duels, piloting, and manipulating beautiful women the Force - but he’s plagued by impulsiveness, a disregard for the rules of his order, and arrogance.
Anakin Skywalker is a good “what-if” version of what might have happened if Christ had succumbed to the temptations in the desert. For those geeks less familiar with New Testament scripture, the story is summed up as thus: at the beginning of his ministry, Christ journeyed into the desert to pray and fast. After 40 days and nights, the Devil appears and tempts Christ with three requests. The first - he asks for Jesus to turn stones into bread. After all, he hasn’t eaten in a long time! Jesus refuses, proving his dominance over his own human appetites. The second temptation the Devil asks Jesus to do is to test the limits of his angelic protectors by jumping off the pinnacle of the temple. Jesus again refuses, proving his humility and resistance to showing off his supernatural abilities. Finally, the Devil offers Jesus the entire world - domination over every earthly kingdom, if only he pledges fealty to Satan himself. Jesus refuses a third time.
Now, let’s juxtapose this with Anakin’s motivations and temptations. Anakin’s first temptation (and failure) away from his master is the ability to forsake his attachment and affection for Padme. We get an interesting line about the relationship between compassion (which Anakin calls “Unconditional Love”) and attachment (which is forbidden) - but Anakin refuses to resist his passions, instead, he justifies them and acts on them. This is again demonstrated by his need to rescue his mother, who has been kidnapped and tortured by a tribe of indigenous nomads called Tusken Raiders. While most people agree that saving another human being (not least of all your own mother!) from torture/pain/death is an inherently good thing - what Anakin fails to recognize is that his duty should take precedence over his emotions. This, again, is a direct correlation to a deep, instinctual affection - something the Messiah figure is supposed to set aside or overcome, but instead, Anakin fails, and prioritizes it (and in a way, himself) over the duty that has been laid out before him.
The closest Skywalkeresque parallel to Christ’s second temptation (Hurl yourself from the temple, prove that angels will save you) may be the pursuit of Zam Wessel. Anakin, trusting in his own abilities, leaps from a skycar and hurtles thousands of feet through crowded airspace, landing (of course) exactly on the speeder he was looking for. I hesitate to call this a blatant temptation - Anakin does it himself, with no prompting or enticements - but the literal example of throwing yourself from a high place and trusting your status as “the Chosen One” to save you seems to be a close fit.
If we consider this temptation more metaphorically - it’s really all about an abuse of the power and title of being the anointed one - the one with the destiny. Anakin repeatedly makes this mistake throughout his story - from ignoring directions (“Stay in that cockpit”) to blatantly whining about not being accepted into the Jedi Council. Anakin has a flair for the flashy and does not hesitate to use his powers to manipulate or intimidate. He fails the second temptation.
The final temptations is an offer from the devil - Serve me, and I will give you everything. This is most easily correlated to the role of Palpatine - a friend of Anakin’s, who offers a “pathway to many abilities, some even considered to be unnatural” in exchange for his service. Again, Anakin is motivated by what could easily (on the surface) be termed “benign intentions” - he is convinced that Padme will die in childbirth, and the Jedi refuse to help him learn to stop death (as death is part of the Way of the Force, and should not be a source of sorrow for one who has prioritized his duty over his attachments). Anakin, unlike Christ, does in fact vow allegiance to this dark power, and in a sense, gains dominion over the entire galaxy… But not before losing his reason for vowing allegiance in the first place. Ironic, isn’t it?
Now, at this point, you might be saying “Yeah, but ObiWade, Darth Vader really isn’t a Messiah figure at all. He’s pretty blatantly failed the three main tests he was supposed to undergo, and besides, he’s the bad guy in the Original Trilogy.”
Is he though? Don’t forget - it is Vader, not Luke, who defeats the Emperor, and thus brings balance to the Force. Luke, for all his bravery and self-sacrifice, coming to face the Emperor and Vader in the name of his duty as a Jedi - loses. Earlier in the series, the sage master Yoda claims that “Only a fully trained Jedi Knight, with the Force as his ally” has a chance at defeating the Emperor. Interestingly enough - Luke is not fully trained. Anakin, however, is.
Anakin fulfills his destiny by bringing balance to the Force. He disposes of the galaxy’s most powerful dark-side user, Palpatine, and sets up his son, Luke, to build it anew. We’re still figuring out exactly what happened next, but for his part in the story, Anakin gets a Messiah’s ending, complete with a resurrection from his “death” at the hands of Vader to his ethereal return, standing alongside his space-version-of-angel brethren, Obi-Wan and Yoda. He leaves the galaxy a better place, and defeated the ultimate evil of his time.
All this is to say - the exploration and subversion of a myth still relies on the same story beats that have been told for centuries. Whether the setting of the myth is ancient Mesopotamia or a galaxy far, far away - the forces of good and evil are often embodied and epitomized by larger-than-life characters who represent ultimate good, ultimate evil, and in the case of Vader, a combination of both. The line between spiritual and physical is crossed in figures who represent humanity’s best shot at redemption and enlightenment - and even though they may stumble, or even outright fall from their destined path - they wind up back in it, and the story resolves with hope and a new, brighter future.
Stay tuned for next time - where we examine another component of geek mythology - the maternal goddess. In the comments below- let me know which fictional characters you think of that embody the characteristics of ultimate motherhood!