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Symbiosis 101

  By Dedalus (Paul)

Boss Nass, who initially did not understand his position in a symbiont circle with the NabooEarly in The Phantom Menace, Obi-Wan tells Boss Nass, "You and the Naboo form a symbiont circle. What happens to one of you will affect the other. You must understand this." This line perhaps best encapsulates the entire arch of The Phantom Menace (TPM), if not the whole Star Wars (SW) saga. Symbiotic relationships, which Qui-Gon Jinn defines for his young ward Anakin Skywalker as "life forms living together for ultimate advantage," are an underlying theme of the movie. The interconnectedness of all things is perhaps the definitive idea behind the Force, that mystical energy field which binds the galaxy together.

The concept of symbiosis unfolds in TPM and is woven into the story on many levels. It works on a microcosmic level as well as a macrocosmic one, not to mention myriad ones in between. But its denseness is merely a hint of how important it is to this film as well as the entire epic.

Obi-Wan makes the statement quoted above early on when he and his Jedi master Qui-Gon have befriended the Naboo alien Jar Jar Binks and have journeyed with him to the underwater city where his fellow Gungans live. Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan both petition the leader, Boss Nass, to help warn the Naboo people of an invading droid army. Boss Nass refuses, unable to see the link between his people and the Naboo. Even at this early stage, Obi-Wan's protests are relevant on several levels.

The circle also has symbolic import in TPM. As Obi-Wan describes a symbiotic relationship to the Gungans, he uses the metaphor of a circle to describe it. According to the Swiss psychologist Carl Jung, who spent half a lifetime studying mythic archetypes in the dreams of his patients, the circle is the most common symbol in all mythology. Circles often represent ideas of wholeness and unity, precisely those ideas Obi-Wan is trying to convey. Plato even said that the soul was a circle, a concept I believe St. Thomas Aquinas adopted later. There are literal circles in TPM as well. Probably the best is that of the Jedi Council Room in Temple on the planet Corsucant. The members not only sit in a circle, but circles within circles are evident in the designs on the floor. This is likely a nod to the knights of the Round Table (there are twelve Jedi Council members just as there are twelve medieval knights) and the Arthurian lore Lucas adores, and it echoes the same message of equality and symbiosis. This is the world of the Jedi, the world from which Obi-Wan was born. And in an indirect way, circles show up elsewhere throughout the film, from the Jewel of Zenda which Queen Amidala wears on one of her elaborate headdresses, to the spherical Senate chamber and floating, oval platforms, to the circular domes of the architecture in Theed.

Symbiosis doesn't directly relate to unity, but it does correspond with the idea of interconnection. Coming from the Greek word "symbioun" which means "to live together," symbiosis has become a biological term. In science, it is defined as the interdependence of two organisms, normally of different species. It is also known as mutualism, and the opposite of it is parasitism. An example of symbiosis in nature is the relationship of various green algae with the freshwater cnidarian polyp "chlorophydra viidissima." The algae, which are found in the endoderm cells of the polyp, receive shelter and wastes, and provide oxygen and food in return. A similar relationship is that between the algae and the fungus that comprise lichens. This will be important to keep in mind when the "midi-chlorians" of Episode One are discussed.

But let us start at the top and work our way down.

Starting at the galactic level, there is the Force, particularly considering the new duality Lucas has created in it. In TPM, Lucas has developed two seemingly exclusive sides to the Force. There is a "living Force," which centers around the present, as well as the Jedi abilities of telekinesis and telepathy. The other is the "unifying Force," a greater cosmic power which involves destiny as well as the future. There has been much debate over which is the best and whether or not the two can work in tandem. I very much believe the latter. The two can and must work in harmony, so our first example of symbiosis is presented. One does not prohibit the other any more than the present can prohibit the future. On the contrary, one leads to the other, the living Force being like the river that leads to the sea of the unifying Force. They compliment each other, one attuned to the minutiae of the SW galaxy, the other to the infinite reaches of space. The metaphor of a great cosmic lake has often been employed to visualize the Force. Well, I think of the living Force as the "ripples" in it, and the unifying Force as the apprehension of those "ripples." Both sides rely and benefit from the other. They combine to create, in Native American terms, the "web of life" in the SW galaxy.

Working our way down, one of the biggest events in TPM is the invasion of the planet Naboo. Orchestrated by the Sith lord Darth Sidious, the Trade Federation becomes the aggressor when they blockade Naboo in order to end the Galactic Senate's imposed taxes on formerly free trade routes. Though mostly self sufficient, the human culture on Naboo had grown dependent on the protection provided by the Republic. And obviously, since the entire dispute centered around trade routes, trade, presumably exporting and importing, was very important in regards to Naboo's relationship with the larger galaxy. And trade is certainly a metaphor for symbiosis. The give and take, the reciprocity of trade, is ended by the invasion. Therefore, the central antagonistic act of the film is the destruction of the symbiotic relationship between Naboo and the greater whole of the Republic. This is visibly demonstrated by the flickering hologram of senator Palpatine which is cut short when communication is severed. The cowardly Trade Federation therefore becomes parasitic in this drama, feeding off the resources of Naboo's capitol city, Theed.

It is interesting to note, given Lucas' environmental awareness and tendency to link the SW heroes with nature, that one of the first things we see the Federation transports do as they are deployed is to begin knocking over trees. So, unlike the Naboo and especially the Gungans, the Federation has no symbiotic relationship with the natural order.

Gungans were the ones who initially failed to recognize the so-called "symbiont circle." There is a certain amount of irony in the film concerning the way that the Gungan underwater city of Otoh Gunga is laid out and constructed. Highly organic, it is made up of hydrostatic bubbles which link together to form a small aquatic civilization. It is a city built on interconnection, though its inhabitants obviously did not catch the symbolism.

It is my opinion that the attacking droid armies of the Trade Federation had such an easy time overrunning the minimal Naboo defenses and seizing the planet because the Naboo and the Gungans did not come together, even in a time of crisis. The contact between the two races was kept to a minimum. The "symbiont circle" Obi-Wan spoke of was an ideal that both failed to recognize. In the end, of course, the two societies realized this, came to an agreement, and triumphed over their adversaries. With their acknowledgement of interdependence, they succeeded and the natural order was restored. The so-called "globe of peace" at the celebration was symbolic of this, particularly with the passing of it from Queen Amidala of the Naboo to Boss Nass of the Gungans. This act of reciprocity is purposefully greeted from cheers by both the humans and the aliens to form one voice.

Breaking this theme down to a more personal level, another example of symbiosis in TPM and in entire saga is the interrelationships of all the characters. In a broad sense, all the main characters benefit in some way from that interaction, both in their own group and in the bigger base of the entire galaxy. This is evident in the original trilogy (OT) also. Luke Skywalker benefits from the wisdom of Obi-Wan Kenobi, and Obi-Wan benefits from the courage of Luke in ultimately redeeming his fallen student, Darth Vader. Han Solo frees Chewbacca from slavery, and Chewbacca in turn pledges his life and honor to Han. And this cycle continues to play out in TPM. For instance, the master-apprentice relationship between Qui-Gon Jinn and the young Obi-Wan no doubt has involved symbiosis at times. The mere teaching of Obi-Wan obviously benefits Qui-Gon just as it does Obi-Wan. It was Aristotle who said that teaching is learning twice. But more specifically, since the master was so in tune with the living Force and the apprentice had much more affinity for the unifying one, the reciprocity between the two would no doubt have been even greater than usual.

Perhaps the greatest expression of symbiosis, not only in SW but in our very lives, is family. Always important to the saga, the "family circle" seems to take on even more significance in TPM. Whether in father-son relationships or mother-son ones, family is crucial to the saga. And in these cases, love is an over-riding idea. And it is in love that perhaps that interconnection, that need for wholeness we are examining here, is best realized. It is certainly to be found between Shmi Skywalker and her son Anakin, even in the lowly adobe slave hovels on Tatooine. The exchange of love between the two is obvious in the farewell scene.

But there is also the metaphorical "family" that exists and will continue to grow between the lead characters like Anakin, Amidala, Jar Jar, Obi-Wan, etc. Yet there is still another figurative "family" in the SW galaxy, that one made up of Jedi Knights. In the TPM novelization, Terry Brooks develops this aspect very well. Potential Jedi are identified early in the Republic, and are taken from their biological families to live at the Jedi Temple. They are essentially adopted by the Jedi, and usually begin their training before they are one year old. Thus, in Lucas' world, spiritual families can be suitable replacements for natural ones. For example, Brooks consistently likens Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan's relationship to that of father and son. In the case of Anakin, who was apparently "fathered" by the Force, it is certainly appropriate that Qui-Gon, a man who has often been seen as a pure vessel for the Force, is his Jedi father figure. Anakin's physical mother is likewise replaced by his spiritual one, Padme/Amidala. I say spiritual because I view the two as soulmates, though in TPM, Padme is a more maternal figure than anything. In all these cases, there is, to use the poet William Wordsworth's phrase, an "ennobling interchange" that takes place.

For more specific character examples, we can look to Anakin, Amidala, and Jar Jar. Much of the second act of the movie takes place on Tatooine and revolves around Qui-Gon and the Queen attempting to get money to repair a ruined hyperdrive by sponsoring Anakin in the Boonta Eve Podrace. Using his mother's "the biggest problem in the universe is that no one helps each other" philosophy, Anakin risks his life in the podrace and eventually wins the reward money, selflessly turning it over to his new friends. Unknown to him, Qui-Gon has made a deal with his owner, Watto, to ensure his freedom if he wins the race. This is a quintessential example of symbiosis at work.

It is also interesting that, on pages 172-173 in the novel, Brooks does a nifty bit of foreshadowing by noting how Anakin is "slowly disappearing into the workings of his racer, becoming one with its engines, feeling the strain and tug on each rivet and screw ... there was only himself and the machine ... moment by moment, the symbiosis deepened, joining them." This speaks of his natural symbiosis with machines, but also nicely prophesizes his future life as Darth Vader.

Throughout the film, Amidala is continuously changing places with her loyal band of handmaidens in order to elude detection and escape her captors. They form their own symbiont circle. The Queen benefits by gaining more safety, and in that might live longer to better serve her people. The handmaidens have the same concern, and in their selfless, altruistic actions toward their Queen, they benefit by being able to contribute greatly to their society. Jar Jar benefits from Qui-Gon saving him from being "pune-ished" in Otoh Gunga. Then at the end of the film, he returns the favor by bringing the Naboo and the Gungans together, and they in turn win back their home. The "symbiont circle" is finally realized.

But perhaps the most basic, and at the same time the most concrete, example of symbiosis in TPM is in the introduction of a new element in the SW mythos the midi-chlorians. They are best described in a conversation between Qui-Gon and his young ward Anakin on a landing platform in the middle of Coruscant:

Anakin: I've been wondering ... what are midi-chlorians?
Qui-Gon: Midi-chlorians are a microscopic life form that resides within all living cells and communicate with the Force.
Anakin: They live inside me?
Qui-Gon: In your cells. We are symbionts with the midi-chlorians.
Anakin: Symbionts?
Qui-Gon: Life forms living together for mutual advantage. Without the midi-chlorians, life could not exist, and we would have no knowledge of the Force. They continually speak to you, telling you the will of the Force.

So, on the microscopic level, symbiosis exists as well. The Jedi are symbionts with the Force. Through it, they gain wisdom, enlightenment, and power. They develop incredible speed and reflexes, and use it to communicate with all forms of alien life. The Jedi, likewise, are symbionts with the Republic. They serve and protect it, chiefly as ambassadors in Episode One, and the Republic allows them respect and authority. Of course, the question remains, what does the Force itself benefit from all of this. We have been told that without midi-chlorians, which are the conduits of the Force, life could not exist. As many a biology expert has pointed out, midi-chlorians are notably similar to mitochondria, which have to do with cell division, which of course is the mechanism by which evolution occurs.

But as for the energy field of the Force itself ... much is taken from it, but what is given back? The only thing I can theorize is that the more the Force is used, the more it grows and expands. Various lines from the novelizations and things seem to back this up. When the Jedi are nearly extinct, some speak of the Force as a mere spark in the galaxy. Therefore, I propose that the Force becomes more powerful, and perhaps more dynamic, the more Jedi use it. So both truly exist together for mutual advantage.

Naturally, there is a counterpoint to all this. Namely the dark side. In Time magazine, Bill Moyers interviewed George Lucas, who told the story of the Sith lords. Thousands of years ago, a renegade cult of Jedi formed a new dark side faction called the Sith which was built on the central ideologies of fear and greed. They were so greedy that they all killed each other off in their own mad lust for power, except for one. He was a master, who took on an apprentice, then he died, and the apprentice became a master and found a new student, etc. There were only two for thousands of years, because if there were any more, they would try and kill the leader. This went on down to the Emperor and Darth Vader in the OT. They both fed off each other's power, and each wanted to kill the other and make Luke Skywalker his new apprentice. As Lucas said, "It's the antithesis of a symbiont relationship, in which if you do that, you become cancer, and you eventually kill the host, and everything dies." So Sith lords are basically metaphors for parasitism, in which one organism takes advantage of another for personal benefit and in turn damages the other. The Sith are the parasites of the Old Republic. This is certainly demonstrated by the Machiavellian Senator Palpatine, as he manipulates an invasion of his home system in order to speed up his own ascension to power. In this example, he feeds off Queen Amidala by suggesting she call for a "vote of no confidence" in Chancellor Valorum's leadership. This results in Palpatine's benefit and Amidala's (and the rest of the galaxy's) detriment. Parasitism.

It seems to me that the Dark Side of the Force is exactly that as well. Temporarily, it grants tremendous power and energy to those who use it. In the long run however, it nearly eats them alive, from the inside out. This is no more obvious than in ROTJ, when both the Emperor, as well as the unmasked Vader, are revealed to have grown into mere shells of humanity, with sickly pale skin, discolored eyes, and decaying bodies. The dark Side acts as a cancer, and it is no doubt that that is why Lucas chose it as the opposite for symbiosis.

At a press conference in New York City, Lucas was questioned about the midi-chlorians and their conception of Anakin. After talking for a moment on immaculate conceptions, he turned to mitochondria and the biology surrounding cell division:

"Life could not exist without it, and it's really a way of saying that we have hundreds of little creatures that live with us and without them, we'd all die. There wouldn't be any life. They are necessary for us, and we are necessary for them. And I'm using them in the metaphor to say that society is the same way: we must all get along with each other. And the planet is the same way: we must treat the other creatures on this planet with respect; otherwise, the planet will die."



Comments to:


Lichens - an easy to understand overview of these symbiotic life forms.

Symbiosis: Mycorrhizae and Lichens - Text of a university biology lecture

Philosophy of Symbiosis - online text of what seems to be an excellent book outlining political, biological, and social symbiosis by architect Kisho Kurokawa.

Mitochondria - A great place to learn more about these cellular powerhouses.

Arthuriana - Online journal of King Arthur studies

The Holy Grail - A history of Grail legends from The Catholic Encyclopedia

The Joseph Campbell Foundation Online - Infromation on Campbell's life and work

Joseph Campbell - Mythic Reflections - An interesting Campbell interview

The Qui-Gon Jinn FAQ - Frequently asked questions about Qui-Gon Jinn - a wealth of information