In which universe do more characters have to make moral choices that matter?
What makes a morality complex? Let us define that in terms of what makes a character complex. Complex characters are not types; they are not perfectly evil, nor perfectly good. They make choices, often between right and wrong, their choices matter, and they experience real uncertainty or temptation in the choosing.
If we accept that the more complex moral universe will have more complex characters, and limit the universes of Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings to their original media, the question becomes this: in which universe do more characters have to make moral choices that matter?
In Star Wars there are only two moral dilemmas—Rebels or the Empire, Jedi or the Dark Side—which when broken down share the same foundational principles: selflessness or self-interest. It would seem that the entire galaxy would be forced to choose between the Rebels or the Empire, a moral and not just political choice because (whatever the Eastern inspirations for the Force) this is a Western movie filmed for a Western audience where the bad guys are dressed like Nazis—the fight is between good freedom and bad autocracy. But even with the line between good and evil drawn so clearly, this is not a choice that most people in the galaxy are required to make. On the rare occasion when the main characters step outside of a spaceship into a populated area, they encounter civilizations that either endeavor to stay out of the Rebel-Empire fight or are blissfully unaware of it. Most who serve the Empire have not chosen it; Stormtroopers are faceless automatons, incapable of hitting upon an original thought (or their targets), let alone making significant choices. Even a large number of the major characters make no real choice between the sides during the course of the three films, and leave us in no doubt as to where their allegiance will lie in the end. Only Han, Luke, Darth Vader, and Lando make a choice between the two sides of the war, and only Lando faces complicating factors. His decision is not so much between good and evil, but to determine which is the lesser evil: betraying his friend to the Empire or exposing his city to the Empire’s wrath? But the interest we can take in that choice is minimal; his decision happens off-screen, and its significance is mitigated as he starts backpedaling almost immediately and the wrongs he does Han, Luke, and Leia are all righted thirty minutes into The Return of the Jedi.
The true dramatic and moral centerpiece of the trilogy is the struggle over how Luke and Darth Vader will use the Force. Whatever the kooky creatures, spacefights, and love stories, these films are really all about Luke and Darth’s development. Will Luke become the Jedi he intends to be, or will he give himself over to the Dark Side? Will Darth become Anakin again? The fact that everything else is secondary to these two characters and their choices between Jedi and Dark Side is imaged for us when, at the end of the third film, the galactic battle between the Rebel and Imperial fleets is seen in miniature from the Emperor’s window while they debate Luke’s destiny. The father-son struggle with the Force and each other may make a compelling story, but this is another moral ground that is only for the few. Only those in whom the Force flows strongly must decide how they will use it (and not even all of them: Leia does not have to decide how to use her gift in the context of the original trilogy). We are given to believe that most of the population of the galaxy is not gifted in this way, or worse, is weak-minded and thus controllable. The fact that the central choice between the Jedi and the Dark Side is only a choice for a tiny portion of the Star Wars universe must inform our judgment of its moral complexity, and we must conclude that only the moral development and decisions of this small portion really matter.
In The Lord of the Rings, everyone’s choices matter, because everyone is corruptible and therefore can affect or be affected by the moral dilemma of the ring. Ringbearers are tasked not only with the burden of carrying the ring, but of resisting its will, and no matter their degree of success in that struggle part of them remains twisted and burdened forever. Those who come into contact with the Ringbearers or who know of the ring’s power must choose whether they will let it go or attempt to take it for themselves. Plenty of characters succeed in resisting this temptation when they are tried (and they all do consider it a trial), but it is clear that no member of any race can withstand its lure for long. The representative body of the fellowship, formed with the intention of traveling with Frodo to Mount Doom, survives only to the end of Book Two; yes, Uruk-hai intervene, but the implication of Boromir’s fall is that the same would eventually happen to all other men, elves, dwarves, and hobbits. There are outliers in this fallen universe—the ring has no power over the enigmatic Tom Bombadil, and Faramir is so convinced of the ring’s corrupting power and committed to his role as steward that he is not tempted when tried—but the fact that they (particularly Tom) are presented with the ring and can unequivocally reject it serves rather to complicate than simplify this world.
Moreover, the moral complexity of Middle Earth does not begin and end with the ring. Eowyn, Merry, and Pippin all must choose between following the commands of their lords (a societal virtue) or following the dictates of their consciences, requiring them to determine which is the greater good. Hope is a clear virtue in Middle Earth, and despair a clear sin, but the difficulty of the choice between them is real. Gandalf must remind the Fellowship to reject despair despite the poor odds of their quest’s success several times; Denethor sees the might of the forces of evil and concludes that the only course of action is to die. Tolkien shows that a good thing can be desired for the wrong reason (Eowyn’s love for Aragorn), and a bad thing for a good reason (Gandalf asserts that if he possessed the ring he would start out trying to use it for good). And in Middle Earth characters must also choose between dealing out justice or mercy, arguably two goods; it is Frodo’s choice between these two when he first meets Gollum that ultimately decides the fate of the ring.
If greater moral complexity calls for more moral decisions and imperfect people to make them, The Lord of the Rings, with its Middle Earth rich in conflicted characters and varied moral battlegrounds, must be considered a more morally complex universe than the singularly focused Star Wars.
Casey Rath is a five-year Washington, D.C. resident and currently works as an editor at Hart Research Associates. As a native Californian, she desperately misses the beach, real mountains, and good sourdough French bread, and as a former English major she will happily analyze any story with anyone, anytime, anywhere.