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Dalhousie professor uses Star Wars to promote lost form of poetry

Stanford-educated poet and scholar Jack Mitchell aims to generate interest in ancient literature through his new book, 'The Odysseey of Star Wars: An Epic Poem'
Odyssey of Star Wars_Jack
Jack Mitchell, author of 'The Odyssey of Star Wars'

A Dalhousie University professor has taken the popular Star Wars franchise and reframed the saga using the ancient literary form of epic poetry.

In the newly-published book The Odyssey of Star Wars: An Epic Poem, Jack Mitchell has interwoven the various storylines of filmmaker George Lucas’s wildly popular original movie trilogy (Episodes IV, V and VI) into an 8,000 line poem comparable to such classic works as Homer’s The Odyssey or Paradise Lost by 17th century English poet John Milton.

“I’ve been studying epic poetry my whole life,” says Mitchell, an associate professor in Dalhousie’s Department of Classics. “And yet it never dawned on me that the key thing was that everybody knew the stories in ancient Greece, and if I wanted to connect that to people today, it would be much easier to do the same thing and use a myth that they already knew.”

Epic poems are lengthy, narrative works that generally detail extraordinary feats and adventures of its mostly heroic characters, primarily set in an era beyond the range of living memory. An ancient form of literature, epic poetry is assumed to stretch back as far as 2100 BC (when The Epic of Gilgamesh is thought to have been written).

“There was kind of a tradition of telling historical poems in ancient Greece and ancient Rome too,” notes Mitchell, who adds that his aim was to originally write an epic poem dedicated to Acadian history until he uncovered the potential in drawing from Star Wars.

“It was much better to choose a myth that (people) already knew,” says Mitchell.

The idea to create an epic poem using the Star Wars saga came naturally enough for the Dalhousie faculty member. A native of Sackville, New Brunswick, Mitchell has studied and experimented with epic poetry for years. 

In fact, he even worked on a poetry project in which he adapted the historic account of the 1759 Battle at the Plains of Abraham into an hour-long iambic octameter epic poem.

“I kind of didn’t know what to do as my next project once I settled into Dalhousie,” notes Mitchell, adding that it wasn’t until one of his young sons showed an interest in watching Star Wars that the idea began to take shape.

Initially reluctant to expose the then 5-year-old to the films, he introduced him to the Star Wars saga by reading him a children’s adaptation of the science fiction franchise instead.

“Shortly afterwards he got to watch the movies too, but as I was reading him this book version of it, he really latched on to it,” recalls Mitchell. “I thought here’s a kid who has not seen the movies, loves the storytelling — why don’t I just try and see if this would work as a poem.”

He scratched out a couple meters which led to a few more and before Mitchell knew it, he had found the original trilogy had adapted seamlessly into an epic poem.

“I thought I would just initially tell the first film, and then I came to the end of that and it seemed like a natural thing to pursue the story of (Darth) Vader all the way to his redemption by Luke at the end of the third film — episode six,” says Mitchell. “That’s what kind of defined the scope for me, but I also enjoyed from the very beginning — folding in all the back story.”

Mitchell recently celebrated The Odyssey of Star Wars: An Epic Poem on March 21 with a special book launch at Dalhousie University’s Ondaatje Theatre, where dozens of attendees gathered and enthusiastically honoured Mitchell’s book — many in costume as their favourite Star Wars character.

“I’m determined to get an entire generation hooked, as it were, on narrative poetry, and I think for that purpose a familiar story was key,” says Mitchell about using Star Wars as a catalyst to reviving the ancient form of literature. “They can appreciate the retelling as an art form, so the more narrative poetry I can get people to read, whether my own or other people’s, that’s the basic idea.”

For more information on The Odyssey of Star Wars, visit Jack Mitchell’s website.

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