Transformers and Fantasy: A Retrospective

Transformers: The Last Knight opens in less than two weeks. To celebrate I’ll be examining the connective tissue between the Transformers brand and the fantasy genre.


The Legacy of Star Wars

Transformers appears to be a work of science-fiction on the surface. Robots, space battles, and assorted advanced technologies far beyond what we’re capable of on present-day Earth are staples of the science-fiction genre.
That genre classification falls apart the closer you look, however. A better classification would be “science-fantasy.” What is science-fantasy? Well look no further than Star Wars. It’s true that Star Wars was not the first work to take place in the genre we now know as “science-fantasy.” Flash Gordon stands out as a particularly notable early example.
Star Wars, though, brought the discussion of science-fiction vs science-fantasy to the forefront. Before we understand Transformers’ connection to the fantasy genre we have to understand Star Wars. We have to understand how it redefined how we view speculative fiction as a whole.

Luke Skywalker’s Many Faces

Joseph Campbell’s The Hero of a Thousand Faces influence on George Lucas cannot be overstated. Key elements of fantasy literature inspired Luke Skywalker’s quest to defeat the Galactic Empire. Skywalker was conceived as a fantasy, not science-fiction, archetype. He follows in the footsteps of Moses, Beowulf, King Arthur, and Bilbo Baggins.
Skywalker engages in the classic fantasy story setup. An old and wise wizard pulls Luke from his mundane life and thrusts him into a world of adventure. He finds himself dragged into a conflict that includes a heavy emphasis on sword play despite its outwardly advanced science-fiction setting. It also includes wizards, father-son conflict, and two warring factions of knights who harness divine powers. The science-fiction aspects of Star Wars are only skin deep. The meat of the story is fantasy.

Setting vs Window Dressing

Space-based science fiction has always included faster than light travel. It exists in the Star Wars saga as well. Despite that no film ever makes mention of how FTL travel works. It simply doesn’t matter, because the science-fiction elements of the story are window dressing and nothing more. FTL travel is a means to an end. A way to move the story from point A to point B. Compare this with the science-fiction franchise Star Trek, which will often dedicate entire subplot of an episode to how the warp drive functions within the show’s universe.
The actual science is central to the story in science-fiction. In science-fantasy it is merely the setting of the saga. Star Wars was the first franchise to place a fantasy epic in a science-fiction setting and have it capture the public’s imagination.

Early Transformers and Science-Fantasy

The Transformers franchise has long had roots in the fantasy genre despite its robot and space adventure trappings. I’m not even talking about Generation 1’s season two’s episode A Decepticon in King Arthur’s Court. We must make allowances for the stock trappings of 1980s animation tropes.

King Arthur, Luke Skywalker, and Optimus Prime

Still, the relatively unsophisticated Generation 1 cartoon did offer us the first glimpses of Transformers as science-fantasy. Season two’s episode War Dawn offered us the first attempt to flush out Optimus Prime’s backstory. In the episode we see that Orion Pax was living a dull if not stable life as a dock worker. The Autobot-Decepticon conflict arrives at his doorstep unexpectedly.
The old, wise Autobot Alpha Trion serves as his sage and mentor in the early part of his quest. Merlin guided Arthur and Obi Wan Kenobi guided Luke. Optimus follows in that tradition. An old and wise sage plays a key role in the start of his journey.

The Chosen One and the MacGuffin

1986’s The Transformers: The Movie drew a lot on Star Wars. The Transformers mythos gained an influx of fantasy elements. The Matrix of Leadership specifically introduced two key fantasy concepts. The first is the obvious. The heroic nature of the hero plays into their ability to wield the Matrix. This places it in the company of Moses’ staff, Beowulf’s Hrunting, Arthur’s Excalibur, and Bilbo’s ring. This also ties into the second element. The idea of a chosen one and the worthiness of them to lead.

Cursed Talismans

Woe be those who are not worthy, however. The Matrix also acts like other mythic talismans when the unworthy gain possession of it. The Ark of the Covenant from Jewish mythology cursed the Philistines when they captured it. The Matrix follows that tradition by cursing the Decepticon Scourge when he steals it from its rightful barer, Rodimus Prime. The effects the two acts of dispossession have are even similar. The Philistines stole the ark and were cursed with tumours and hemorrhoids. The Matrix deformed Scourge, leaving him lumpy and sickly looking.

The Spark and the Soul

It would be unfair to read into the Generation 1 show any further. 1980s animation, specifically the kind used to advertise a toy line, was often light on detail. I only wanted to touch on specific story points that I felt warranted mentioning.
More sophisticated storytelling emerged in the 1990s. Bob Forward and Larry DiTillio worked to make the the Transformers: Beast Wars cartoon both an enjoyable children’s program and a vehicle for sophisticated storytelling. Optimus Primal follows the path of his ancestor Optimus Prime by starting out as a nobody only to end up as perhaps the most important Cybertronian in history.
Beast Wars also introduced the concept of the spark. The concept has remained with the franchise since. Its presence in the Transformers mythos is what ties the franchise to fantasy literature perhaps more than anything else.
The idea of the human soul is very old. It can be traced back almost as far as human writing can be traced. Its presence in fantasy literature has often been used as a means to explore the concepts of divine fate and the role otherworldly forces play in the quests of the story’s heroes.
The spark was introduced in Beast Wars as the soul of a Cybertronian. Cybertronians are ultimately mechanical beings, and yet the spark was treated as more than a simple mechanical component. It was held up as a metaphysical embodiment of everything a Cybetronian individual was.

Valhalla and the Matrix: Dinobot’s Death

The sagas of the vikings were compiled by the medieval Icelandic historian Snorri Sturluson. Sturluson’s Prose Edda would go on to have a significant impact on the development of fantasy literature. J.R.R. Tolkien credited Sturluson’s work as a major influence on his own Lord of the Rings saga. Tolkien would go on to be credited as the father of “modern” fantasy literature.
Sturluson’s Prose Edda recounted the early sagas of the Nordic peoples. Among the themes present was the concept of Valhalla. The Norse sagas held that the soul of a noble and honourable warrior who died in battle would go to the hall of the gods. There he would be among his ancestors.
This concept carried over to Beast Wars. The reverence Cybertronians were shown to have for the spark was shown in the episode Code of Hero. The poet warrior Dinobot, another fantasy archetype, sacrifices his life to save a tribe of protohumans. Optimus Primal wishes Dinobot’s spark well on its journey to the Matrix as it ascends to the heavens. Dinobot died a death worthy of the warriors of any viking hero from the Scandinavian sagas.

Modern Transformers Fiction

It seems as if modern Transformers fiction has embraced the fantasy genre like never before. The live-action movies, FunPublications, the Aligned creative staffs, and IDW comics have shaped the mythos into its modern form over the last decade and a half. As the Transformers mythos has grown so too has the franchise’s fantasy trappings. Here I’ll talk about two mythological themes that have become prominent in recent years.

The Twelve Tribes of Israel

The Thirteen can be a divisive concept within the Transformers fandom. So much so that their mere introduction into the IDW continuity caused fits among segments of the readership. I am not here to defend or praise the Thirteen as a concept or argue what creative outlet handled them better or worst. I’m simply accepting that, for better or worse, they are now a constant within the franchise’s mythos.

The Thirteen are held to be the first thirteen Cybertronians. They were created by Primus to help defeat the Chaos Bringer, Unicron. That in and of itself is a backstory dripping with callbacks to primordial creation myths here on Earth. Let’s look beyond that though.
Each of the Thirteen served as a progenitor of a subset of Cybertronians. IDW would flesh the concept out further and claim that each of the Thirteen led a tribe of followers. Both concepts have roots in Biblical myth. The Twelve Tribes of Israel are said to be descendants of the Biblical Jacob’s twelve sons. IDW’s fiction establishes that at some point the majority of these thirteen tribes left Cybertron. This mirrors the historical fracturing of the Twelve Tribes of Israel Ten of them vanished from both the historical and Biblical record following the Babylonian Captivity.

King Arthur and Excalibur

Modern Transformers fiction has also introduced the Star Sabre. The sword was originally introduced in Transformers: Armada as a powerful sword made up of mini-cons. The concept has been expanded upon by FunPublication, Aligned, and IDW fiction to give us the modern version of the weapon. The mythos now holds the Star Sabre to be the weapon of Prima, the first Cybertronian and the first Prime. It’s said that the sword can snuff out stars and is generally held as the most powerful weapon in Cybertronian history.
This modern version of the Star Sabre was introduced to mainstream audiences via the Transformers: Prime cartoon in the episode Legacy. The sword was discovered embedded in a mountain by Megatron’s Decepitcons. Megatron realizes the importance of what he’s found. He attempts to remove the weapon, but can’t. Only a Prime may wield the Star Sabre. The episode ends with Optimus Prime drawing the weapon from the mountain and taking charge of its awesome power.

The symbolism is obvious. Transformers: The Last Knight is not the first case of Transformers specifically leaning into Arthurian lore. Just as the tyrant Vortigern is unworthy to wield Excalibur so is the tyrant Megatron unable to wield the Star Sabre. Optimus Prime, by virtue of his Primehood, is deemed worthy. As is Arthur as a result of the Pendragon bloodline.

The Movies and Onward

Transformers: Age of Extinction introduced the concept of knighthood into the live-action films. Though only briefly mentioned in AoE it figured heavily into Optimus Prime’s redesign and marketing. The theme has been carried over and amplified in Transformers: The Last Knight. The knightly aspects of the story have been expanded upon to include an actual in-story tie-in to the Arthurian legend as well as the presence of dragons. The marketing for the latest two films cannot be any more fantasy-esque in inspiration.

Whether or not the theme of knighthood continues on in the live-action films is a question only time will answer.
All I can tell you, dear reader, is that the latest film’s complete embrace of knightly themes, dragons, and the Arthurian legend is strangely natural for a franchise based on robots and sapce-based adventure. The franchise has always leaned into the fantasy genre, and likely will for years to come.
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