Early 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
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
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
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
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.
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
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."