Some weapons become more iconic than the fictional characters that use them. Others are a vital aspect of a character’s personality. In this column, we take a look at some of the greatest fictional weapons of all time.
Is there a series and a weapon more closely linked than Star Wars and the lightsaber? The weapon of the Jedi and Sith, the lightsaber is a deceptively simple concept that has created countless amazing moments in film and novels, inspiring fans the world to dream of a galaxy far, far away. The genesis of the idea is simple. What if there was a sword made out of a laser? Now put it in the hands of a galactic knight travelling through the cosmos and surrounded by rogues, villains, and characters of all kinds who would rather fire their blasters than swing a lightsaber.
What makes the lightsaber one of the greatest fictional weapons of all time is a potent combination of appearance, memorable battles, and an enormous sense of history imbued into the item. In fact, it’s one of the few pieces of Star Wars lore that was made better by the prequel series! Showing it in more forms and in its heyday of combat proves what an amazing weapon it can be, even in the context of enormous starships, legions of battle droids, and bounty hunters with more weapons than there are stars in the sky.
In the right hands, the lightsaber could take down the toughest bad guy in the galaxy. But this is a weapon of skill, not brute force. With countless variations and styles, the lightsaber is the ultimate in science fiction weapons, perfectly blending far flung future technology and medieval weaponry. This is, after all, a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.
An Elegant Weapon for a More Civilized Age
The lightsaber was part of George Lucas’ vision for Star Wars from the very beginning, even back when the protagonist was named Annikin Starkiller and Han Solo was a slimy alien. They are a deeply ingrained piece of the series’ mythology. During filming, Lucas had his actors and stuntmen battle using carbon rods so that they had real contact, with the metal poles later rotoscoped with glowing color. For sound, the hum of idling interlock motors in old movie projectors was recorded, then played back on loudspeakers, with a microphone moving back and forth to give it a pitch change and hum. It’s a startling low tech genesis to one of the greatest weapons ever seen on screen. But it worked like crazy.
What’s most interesting is that the lightsaber factored very little into the original Star Wars film. It’s more of a bridge to a grand journey, as its discussion by Luke and Obi Wan aids in the call to adventure and the lightsaber fight, while memorable, is rather underwhelming in the context of the entire series. But with lightsabers playing key roles in The Empire Strikes Back and The Return of the Jedi, the weapons were solidified as classic staples of the series.
The mythology of Star Wars states that sabers are powered by the same energy cells used in blasters, but refracted through a focusing crystal, which dictate the color, length, and energy of the blade. Most often, blue, green, and other light colored blades are used by Jedi, while darker variations, most often red, are used only by the Sith. It’s not a hard and fast rule. In fact, when there’s something innately cool when it’s broken, such as Mace Windu’s purple lightsaber in Episodes I, II, and III and Obi-Wan Kenobi’s impromptu use of a Sith blade in combat with Darth Maul and Savage Opress in Star Wars: The Clone Wars.
While the lightsaber has been shown to cut through anything in the films besides another lightsaber blade, the Extended Universe has shown the existence of several lightsaber-resistant materials. These include the metallic compound phrik (used in electrostaffs), cortosis ore, results of Sith alchemy, and Mandalorian iron (guess Jango Fett didn’t have any of this around his neck during Episode II). Who knows if any of these will factor into future films, but they make the universe more interesting and varied. Just because the lightsaber is awesome doesn’t mean it has to be a trump card.
Lightsaber + Force = Awesomeness
While lightsabers can be wielded by anyone with hands, or really strong tentacles, they’re best used in the hands of a Jedi. By using the Force, a Jedi or Sith is able to harness energy, speed, and strength unheard of by normal people, as well as a greater sensitivity to incoming attacks. Only a Force user can deflect incoming laser fire with a saber, which is easily one of the weapon’s greatest features. It also comes in handy for not cutting yourself while swinging around an extremely deadly laser like a fool.
The Jedi also prescribe to various stance and lightsaber techniques, each fitting for different types of battles and chosen based on how they blend with a Jedi’s personality. In the Expanded Universe, there are seven main forms of Lightsaber combat, each of which vary in there defensive, offensive, and dueling advantages. Of course, a Jedi must remain in control of his or her emotions, unlike the Sith, who wallow in anger and hate, resulting in an intense and aggressive form of lightsaber combat.
These forms have never really translated onto the big screen or been mentioned in film or television. Rather, stunt coordinators and animators have always worked to create visually interesting and exciting battles, which combine traditional saber dueling with as many real world ideas as needed.
Other great moves only possible with the force? Throwing your lightsaber to cut enemies in half from a distance and having the weapon safely return to your hand like a boomerang. It must take a lot of practice. But how do you practice when one wrong move means one less limb?
There are a few exceptions, of course, to the Force rule. General Grievous is the best example. Not Force sensitive in the slightest, the Separatist General made up for his lack of capabilities and overwhelming desire to have the skills of the Jedi and Sith through extreme technological upgrades. As a cyborg with extra limbs that can bend and twist in every direction possible, the General was able to go toe-to-toe with the best saber swingers in the galaxy, beating many of them and claiming their weapons as trophies. This also came in handy during General Grievous’ favorite dueling strategy – using four lightsabers at once to overwhelm his foes and turn himself into a whirlwind of glowing, multicolored death.
A Cavalcade of LightsaberVariations
As the Star Wars universe expanded beyond the original trilogy, the idea of more weapons utilizing lightsaber technology in different ways was explored more and more.
The greatest examples of a new spin on the classic is Darth Maul’s double-bladed lightsaber. With an extra-long handle, this weapon could emit blades from either side, with the most formidable use having both extended at the same time. Wielded in a far different manner than the typical blade, Maul was able to battle Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon Jinn at the same time, using unique methods of attack to counteract the duo and eventually kill Qui-Gon. Others have used a double-blade besides Maul, including Jedi Master Pon Krell in Star Wars: The Clone Ways. With four arms, he used two at once for a deadly effect.
Other variations on the saber include the shoto, a short-bladed version that is sometimes used in combination with a regular saber, and a curved handle version utilized by the Sith villain Count Dooku, allowing for a more elegant form of saber combat. More far flung versions include a lightsaber pike with a short blade and long handle to resemble a spear (it’s dumb) and a lightsaber tonfa, with a right angled hilt (also very dumb).
Beyond traditional sabers, overly large combatants have used lightclubs and more exotic fighters have used lightwhips, which are flexible and long, but weaker and lacking a proper defense. Of particular note is the Darksaber, an ancient lightsaber with a flat, pointed, black blade. This legendary weapon has been stolen and lost throughout the centuries, making its most notable appearance in Star Wars: The Clone Wars in the hands of Mandalorian terrorist Pre Vizsla until his untimely beheading by Darth Maul.
Influence Beyond a Galaxy Far, Far Away
In the almost 40 years since Star Wars first premiered, the lightsaber has become one of the most iconic pieces of film history. Its image and name evokes memories, ideas, and excitement. The sounds alone are enough to rouse fans. Each new entry into the Star Wars cannon brings new ideas concerning lightsabers, expanding their role and what may be possible with these brilliant weapons.
There is nothing else quite like a lightsaber fight. They’re a combination between the thrilling sword fights of classic Hollywood films and the intensity of modern movie making. When thrown into a sci-fi setting, there are even more exciting ideas at play. It seems as though any science fiction film, TV show, or book that includes a sword fight owes a debt of gratitude to Lucas and the world of Star Wars. They did it better than anyone else.
Where will Star Wars go in the coming years? What new and exciting lightsaber battles will unfold before the eyes of eager fans? With the coming years bringing multiple episodes and spinoffs, the Star Wars world is more alive than ever. And with it will come more memories of one of fiction’s most wondrous weapons.