As someone who has only seen the Star Wars movies, and never read any of the books, I feel obligated to limit my comparison to the films for both franchises. I am sure the books open up into a world of complexities not captured on the big screen, but that will have to wait for another time.
“No, no, there is no why. Nothing more will I teach you today. Clear your mind of questions.” – Master Yoda
“All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.” – Gandalf the Gray
Purpose is a difficult thing to define. I don’t mean the term itself, rather, I mean deducing the purpose of what happens in life. Is this world a purposeless assortment of happenings, as individuals just try to get by? Or do our actions matter, even if limited to a small scale? This idea is addressed in both the Star Wars film franchise and the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Comparisons between the two film series abound, even becoming the plot for an episode of Phineas & Ferb. The approaches are quite different, and ultimately I think Lord of the Rings offers a more robust answer to the complexities of a moral existence.
This is not to say the Star Wars is without moral complexity. The back and forth of Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader alone is enough to keep simplistic interpretations of the films’ morality at bay. The problem for Star Wars is not so much in the action of the story, but where those actions begin. For the Force, the heart is where the action starts. While Master Yoda tends to focus on fear, as in Episodes I and III where he counsels Anakin to avoid that particular emotion, the overall idea is to purge oneself of attachment. While the Jedi must feel the Force, they must also be removed mentally from everything else. In many ways, it is this anti-intellectualism that clouds the Jedi Council’s vision, hobbling them as they try to stay one step ahead of the Sith. One has to be careful not to take this too far, as the Jedi obviously strategize and consider the implications of their actions. Yoda’s words to Anakin, and later to his son Luke, are not meant to say, “stop thinking entirely.” Yoda is explaining to both Skywalkers where the source of their strength is, namely, the heart. The moral of Darth Vader’s tale is, in the end, to follow your heart (especially if it means throwing the Emperor down a shaft of the Deathstar).
But how does this line up with reality? With the Christianity that informed Tolkien’s own ideas? According to Jeremiah, “The heart is most devious and incurably sick.” For the Christian, the phrase, “follow your heart” is simply insufficient. We are sinful creatures, and that includes our hearts.
This is what truly separates Lord of the Rings from Star Wars in regards to this issue of moral complexity. For Gandalf, Frodo, and the rest, the heart is indeed a guide; it’s just not the only one. In fact, the heart is the first thing corrupted by the draw of the ring, often causing individuals to wholly abandon their reason altogether (as with Boromir in Fellowship). While both series hold fear as a common enemy to good in the films, Lord of the Rings provides an alternative: pity. Gandalf explains in one of the most critical moments of the first film.
“It was pity that stayed Bilbo’s hand. Many that live deserve death. Some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them, Frodo? Do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. Even the very wise cannot see all ends.”
This idea aligns much easier with Christianity, and the suggested way of living: in love. Jesus’ affirms that we are to be characterized by love, for God and our neighbors and our fellow Christians. While we may not think of pity as a form of love, it is hard to separate Bilbo’s love of life from his sparing of Gollum. This is where the head and the heart come together. Frodo, in his frustration whilst in Moria, knows intellectually that Gollum will be trouble, but Gandalf chastises such a brash thought. Unfortunately, Frodo goes to the other extreme in his trusting of Gollum, even losing his dear friend Samwise as a result. But Samwise comes back, for he is truly the exemplar.
In the character of Samwise, we find what we have always needed. He is both kind and firm. He thinks while listening to his heart. He forgives although he does not forget. Unlike the moral axis of Star Wars which hinges on the back and forth of Anakin, The Lord of the Rings is centered on Samwise, the stalwart companion marching first into the water (although he can’t swim) and then into Mount Doom (even though he cannot get rid of the ring himself). The redemption of Darth Vader reminds us to stay true to ourselves. The faithfulness of Samwise Gamgee reminds us to stay true to something other than ourselves.
In a world where feelings are king, we are all Darth Vaders, trying to desperately hold on to the things we fear to lose. But, in the place where head and heart meet, we can charge forth as Samwise Gamgee, fearless of losing anything but our way.