On Friday, Disney and Lucasfilm took the entertainment world by storm. On what normally is a holiday of consumerism in North America, Star Wars fans were given their very first official look at footage from Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens in the form of a short teaser trailer that played in select theaters on Black Friday.
Focusing on new characters and familiar starships, the 88-second Star Wars 7 teaser had us feeling happily nostalgic even if some fans took issue with certain design decisions highlighted in the sizzle reel (read our analysis here). And no, we’re not talking about the soccer ball droid that was actually a homage to an idea from original concept artist Ralph McQuarrie; we’re talking about that unique new lightsaber that polarized fans and spawned endless memes in just a matter of hours.
Note: the below discussion is an in-depth discussion and breakdown of what we know about the lightsaber and is in response to questions, comments and requests from readers about it since it was trending on Friday. If you’re not ready to get geeky with Star Wars with us on this topic, this post isn’t for you.
The original Star Wars trilogy kept things simple on the melee weapon front. The Jedi used green and blue single-blade weapons, and the Sith used red lightsabers. The color is determined by a crystal inside the blade hilt and the construction of the ancient weapon is an important step on any force-sensitive trainee’s journey to becoming a Jedi Knight or Sith warrior. There’s endless lore in the video games, books and other expanded universe multimedia (which is officially not canon) for future Star Wars films to pull ideas from on that front.
“This is the weapon of a Jedi Knight. Not as clumsy or random as a blaster. A more elegant weapon for a more civilized age.”
— Obi Wan Kenobi, Star Wars: A New Hope
Then George Lucas returned to the director’s chair for the controversial and less-beloved Star Wars prequel trilogy, where there was an effort to add some more flavor to lightsabers and how they were used. Duels became less about confrontations and character development and more about flashy spins and an increased amount of blades. We met Darth Maul in Episode I – The Phantom Menace who uniquely used a dual-bladed red saber. In Episode II – Attack of the Clones, we got our first glimpse at a purple-bladed electrum (gold-plated) lightsaber, an addition to the saga’s lore that only occurred because star Samuel L. Jackson asked George for a unique weapon color so he could see his character, Master Jedi Mace Windu, stand out on the crowded battlefield. New villain, Count Dooku (a.k.a. Darth Tyrannus) also used a slightly different version of the traditional lightsaber, with a curved hilt.
Then in Episode III – Revenge of the Sith, we met the mostly robotic General Grievous who literally used four different lightsabers, one for each of his arms. The evolution of these duels became about quantity of weapons and flashiness over the quality. Just look at how Grievous uses them like a lawnmower…
And these were just the live-action, mainline films. The comics, animated Clone Wars series, video games, and novels added a wide array of lightsaber-esque weapons, including every color you can think of. There are even lightsaber-styled whips. One of these odd designs that most Star Wars fans probably haven’t heard of is the crossguard lightsaber and it just made an appearance in the Star Wars: Episode 7 trailer, earning mixed responses.
Reactions range from it simply looking cool, to it being weird, to some thinking it’s just plain dumb or not practical. This is where we get nerdy and geeky about the design, how it could/couldn’t work, and what it may mean for the plot of The Force Awakens.
A lot of the complaints and cynicism stem from the belief that this is just some Hollywood “it looks cool” thought process and that having these side-angled extra blades would just put the user at risk of cutting themselves. The movies haven’t shown a weapon like this before so why now? To sell more merchandise, right? Well, that’s probably a big part of it too but anyone familiar with swordplay or medieval weaponry will understand that the simple cross-like design here is that of a crossguard, a perpendicular section of metal that intersects where a standard real-world sword handle and blade meet. This concept became a staple of sword design a thousand years ago for the simple reason of protecting the user’s hands. Those little parts that stick out are also known as quillons and in the above still from the Star Wars 7 trailer, you can see the film’s lightsaber equivalent – These mini-sabers are small by even Yoda’s standard.
On one hand, that sort of makes sense. On the other, it sort of doesn’t. As you can tell from the imagery, the light emitter sticks out a few inches before the laser quillion begins on each side, meaning that the little emitters would simply be lopped off if an opponent’s lightsaber were to slide down the main blade. Of course, that brings into question whether or not lightsabers even function that way. From what we’ve seen in the films to date, lightsaber on lightsaber contact results in a bouncing/clashing effect or they lock in position depending on speed and angle of contact. They never slide.
So, perhaps it’s more of an offensive design – for that is the way of the Sith. And we can potentially expect an entirely new fighting style to go along with this specific blade. As for the danger to the user, as sword expert Skallagrim points out in the video below, anyone using this weapon will ideally be intimately well-versed with handling it. Then again, certified master bladesmith Kevin Cashen tells The Washington Post that this crossguard design “would be very bad to have around your hand.” He continues, explaining that this hilt design “would just take you apart if you started to do a lot of complex spinning.”
Depending on what elements from the Expanded Universe Star Wars: Episodes 7-9 (and spinoffs) plan to draw from, there could even be a simpler explanation for the placement of the emitters. Perhaps the material that the hilt is made out of is actually lightsaber resistant. There are actually several (albeit rare) materials that fit the bill in the lore, including Mandalorian Iron and for the Clone Wars fans out there, Zillo Beast scales. Of course, that would bring into question why Darth Maul’s lightsaber hilt wasn’t constructed of any such metal when Obi-Wan cut his weapon in two. And the vast majority of viewers will not be familiar with these elements.
The Verge editor T.C. Sottek came up with a simple, sensible solution to this need by the creators to add a crossguard lightsaber to the movies, one that address the vulnerability from the design we see in the trailer, and one that pays a little bit more tribute to a similar design in the Star Wars Expanded Universe. Take a look:
2/ better solution would be to offset + angle the crossguard so the energy blades sit flush in a "V" shape. pic.twitter.com/F1k9QK8JlE— tc (@chillmage) November 28, 2014
3/ check this shit out pic.twitter.com/ShZIxaKdZX— tc (@chillmage) November 28, 2014
The crossguard lightsaber, or the “fork” lightsaber, is not new to Star Wars 7. A Jedi General known as Roblio Darté was the first character depicted with a forked lightsaber in the Star Wars: Purge and Star Wars: Republic comic books. His blade was blue and featured a similar hilt, although only on one side and angled at 45 degrees.
There’s also this alien dude (specifically, a member of the Gran species) who wielded the same or similar blade:
Remember, all of this discussion and debate is based on mere seconds from a teaser trailer that is entirely without context. We haven’t even addressed the blade itself. Note the fiery, less focused energy emitting from the hilt. That could be a stylistic upgrade on the special effects front. Or it could be emphasizing that this particular weapon is an ancient one, an old school lightsaber built with a lesser quality crystal. That may play into some fan theories of who the dark, hooded figure wielding this lightsaber is. Here’s a previously leaked image of the villain and lightsaber which we now know is real:
There’s also lore in the expanded universe to support the idea that Sith found a way to make synthetic lightsaber crystal. These dark side of the force powered crystals were potentially more powerful and customizable but far less stable, again playing to the idea that for the Sith, offensiveness takes priority.
Could the crossguard lightsaber’s user in the first Star Wars: Episode VII trailer be a force sensitive who discovered the old weapon? An ancient Jedi reawakened? Something else entirely? Does the new lightsaber design work for you and could it have some interesting plot relevance or would J.J. Abrams and co. be better off keeping things simple? Is Episode VII going to explore the construction of lightsabers?
Update: Stephen Colbert solved it:
Update 2: John from Iron Door Studio in Atlanta has some brilliant ideas for how the crossguard saber is a very offensive weapon:
Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens is directed by J.J. Abrams and stars Gwendoline Christie, Lupita Nyong’o, John Boyega, Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson, and Max von Sydow alongside original stars Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, Anthony Daniels, Peter Mayhew, and Kenny Baker.
Follow Rob on Twitter @rob_keyes.