“Any entity – no matter how many tentacles it has – has a soul” – Br. Guy J. Consolmagno, SJ, Research Astronomer, Vatican Observatory
No one who grew up teaching themselves Tengwar (Elvish writing, for the cultural Philistines out there) from the appendices of “The Return of the King” – and I know I’m not the only one – could ever deny the power of J.R.R. Tolkien’s rich imagination, evocative prose, and tales of heroism.
The world of The Lord of the Rings offers the reader an immersive experience in a imagined universe clearly grounded in the medieval world of which Tolkien was an esteemed scholar. In an Aristotelian sense, characters have a telos they are called to – Aragorn, the rightful heir of Gondor; Samwise Gamgee, fulfilling his pledge of companionship; each orc, pursuing its call to be the best minion of evil it can be. The social classes are clear and the moral order is set. In this duty-based framework, individuals have a stark choice between good and evil as they fulfill their roles as citizens, soldiers, or even burglars: “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
In the Star Wars galaxy, the language of queens, knights, and swordplay lends a sheen to the mythology that smacks of the Middle Ages. But the moral universe of “a galaxy far, far away” is one more democratic than responsibility-based; instead of an moral code based on an individual’s role in society, it offers a more philosophically-modern approach to ethics due to the open-ended nature of the social order. The son of a slave on Tatooine does not have the responsibility to be the best slave he can be; he is able to pursue his “destiny,” a watchword of the Star Wars films, but a motif not emphasized in Tolkien’s work.
Star Wars, with its greater biodiversity and technological advances, also mimics the moral confusion and complexity of our world in a way that hits home more so than does Frodo’s quest to destroy the Ring. No matter how many tentacles it has, a lifeform in Star Wars has the potential to pursue a career as a bounty hunter, co-pilot, or admiral and to pursue human (or alien) flourishing. The potential array of outcomes, and thus, the potential array of moral choices to make, are much wider in Star Wars, and more recognizable to a contemporary audience .
The chivalrous and classically moral schema of The Lord of the Rings is a universe that would speak deeply to an audience grounded in virtue-based ethics (and its far-richer narrative provides much deeper insight into the human experience). But Star Wars’ absence of an overarching individual moral framework provides us a less civilized approach at moral questions, and its complexity is well suited for the “period of civil war” our culture often finds itself in.
Patrick T. Brown studied political science and economics at the University of Notre Dame and works in communications for one of the nation’s largest networks of faith-based social service providers. He currently resides in central New Jersey, where his interests include current affairs, film, the single transferable vote system, and baseball.