Both Lucas and Tolkien in their stories explore how goodness is tempted by the nature of evil, but only Star Wars unlocks through its plot how goodness can triumph over it.
Last month’s update on the casting for the new J.J. Abrams-directed Star Wars movie confirms for me as a fan of both George Lucas’s universe and Lord of the Rings, the last 13 years have been a great time to be alive. While the sagas differ in having science-fiction and fantasy settings, they share the genius of being successful, contemporary myth. Both Star Wars and Lord of the Rings take place in the past, both sets of protagonists go through hero’s journeys, and both stories nurture the imagination as moral tales.
J.R.R. Tolkien was of course a master myth-maker, but Lucas was a devotee of the late great twentieth century mythologist, Joseph Campbell, author of The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Star Wars embodies Campbell’s ideas, as a post-1977 addition of the book’s front cover featured Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker suggests. Campbell once said that Lucas was the best student he never had, and I think that Lucas actually spun a myth with more moral complexity than Tolkien did.
Star Wars and Lord of the Rings have a common message about the power of evil, but Star Wars portrays with more subtlety what it takes to overcome the subtlety of evil’s works.
A common message in Star Wars and Lord of the Rings is that evil invites conflict with itself on its own terms, but cannot be defeated on its own terms. Lucas portrays this in Star Wars as Anakin Skywalker accepting the galactic conflict Palpatine engineers to undermine the Jedi, and Tolkien portrays this in Lord of the Rings as the recurring temptation to defeat Sauron by appropriating his Ring against him. But attempting to destroy evil by mirroring its power only replaces one dark lord with another. In the culmination of both stories, evil is overcome only by finding a third way out that renounces its terms: throwing down the lightsaber, throwing away the Ring. Defeating evil means renouncing the conflict it invites. For both Lucas and Tolkien, overcoming evil with good means laying down the sword in some way.
However, more than Lord of the Rings, Star Wars unpacks the implications of this message by portraying the psychological subtlety by which evil works in a way that centralizes redemption through compassion. In Star Wars, evil works with subtlety and power through—to use a concept from French philosopher Réne Girard—mimetic conflict, the attraction to respond to evil by mirroring its posture, even in an attempt to defeat it. Evil extends a psychological invitation to imitate itself, and through imitation, to propagate itself. Both Lucas and Tolkien in their stories explore how goodness is tempted by this nature of evil, but only Star Wars unlocks through its plot how goodness can triumph over evil’s mimetic conflict: through a compassion that transcends it. Lord of the Rings, on the other hand, is ambivalent about how goodness triumphs over evil: at times the story suggests compassion, but its climax suggests that compassion ultimately fails to redeem, and its plot structure fails to convincingly transcend a Zoroastrian conflict between good and evil.
Star Wars’ moral dimensions make mercy the climax of the story, whereas mercy fails to redeem evil in the climax of Lord of the Rings.
Tolkien posits an absolute conflict of good against evil. The climax of Lord of the Rings is thus an apocalyptic battle between good and evil arrayed against each other at the valley before Mt. Doom in a last battle for the world —echoing Zoroastrian themes from The Apocalypse of St. John. It’s total war of absolute poles where each side is out to eradicate the other. There is a simple dualism to the whole thing. And so Tolkien’s climax by story necessity is the eradication of evil through uncorrupted goodness (ultimately Sam).
Star Wars reflects a more profound moral universe than this through the character of Darth Vader: evil is ultimately not located in a side to be eradicated, but in a person to be healed. The truly evil forces in this understanding are not characters in a human sense. They are much more like the abstract “principalities and powers” that are our true enemies, according to St. Paul. Sauron doesn’t have a body and Palpatine’s body is disfigured as to be monstrous. These are truly evil forces in both stories that perpetuate conflict and death among humanity, a Satanic role.
But as for characters infected by evil and most in need of redemption in both stories, Darth Vader and Gollum, the stories lead them to very different fates. Luke’s compassion redeems Vader back to Anakin Skywalker, but Frodo’s compassion—for all its promise in redeeming Gollum back to Smeagol—fails. Gollum chooses evil, despite the mercy shown him. Thus, in Lord of the Rings, there is no climax in the redemption of a lost soul through mercy, only the apocalyptic battle of good and evil.
Star Wars suggests a way out of the absolutized war of good and evil personified: a compassion for the other side that transcends what was the conflict, breaking the hold of evil on a lost soul.
How does Lucas portray this mythic feat? Let’s unpack the story. The climactic battle of Star Wars is ultimately not about the fight between Rebel and Imperial forces, spaceships zipping, and guns blazing. The climactic battle is a contest for Luke Skywalker’s soul. The Emperor wants his soul. And he wants it in the same way he got Anakin Skywalker’s, his father.
The Emperor controls the galaxy through the Dark Side of the Force by making partisans of the Jedi, those who should have guarded the galaxy’s transcendent order. As Episodes I through III reveal, the Jedi were always the guardians of order precisely because they did not enter the political conflicts of the Old Republic and become partisans for a side. They were supposed to be partisans for the whole. The order they guarded was the galaxy’s harmony, cooperation, and well-being for the good of all. But the Jedi fell in two ways:
1) They became agents of the state by too closely identifying with the political structure of the Old Republic. In so doing, they lost their ability to transcend the political conflicts of their day. The Jedi should have maintained their place as guardians of a transcendent order, but instead they became guardians of the Old Republic. And the Old Republic in bringing peace and prosperity for so long became a victim of its own success, like the Roman Empire—it came to symbolize an absolute order of the universe rather than an ultimately contingent, human project.
2) Palpatine exploited this vulnerability to engineer the fall of the Jedi by introducing a polarizing political conflict in the Old Republic, threatening its downfall and forcing the Jedi to take sides. Palpatine goaded the Jedi into using the Force for a partisan cause. At that point, Palpatine had won half his battle. In a few steps, the Jedi would split over using the Force to defeat enemies they believed were obstructing their righteous purposes, which is the precipice to the Dark Side. That is how Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader.
Episodes IV through VI are about a new generation of heroes struggling against now Emperor Palpatine and his system, but without truly understanding the dimensions of the conflict. The Emperor’s dominion is more psychic than material, but the Rebels can only fight ship to ship. Material victories like the destruction of the first Death Star prove reversible. In The Empire Strikes Back, Luke tries to defeat Vader by mirroring him in physical combat, but crumbles under Vader’s psychological assault. The situation is truly desperate because Luke rejects what Yoda knows to be the only way to defeat the Emperor: giving up on the Rebel Alliance, the cause of which is the Old Republic.
Yoda: Luke, you musn’t go. You must complete the training.
Luke: And sacrifice Han and Leia?!
Yoda: If you honor what they fight for…… yes.
Yoda’s saying is difficult and Luke isn’t ready to hear it, which is why he flies off unprepared to Cloud City and is beaten. Yoda’s message is that Luke must withdraw from the side of his faction and re-enter the war as a Jedi. To defeat evil, Luke can’t pursue the conflict with the Emperor the way the Rebels have, as a faction in an absolute war, but only as a Jedi fighting as a guardian of the whole.
The good must fight redemptively, with compassion for its enemies.
By Return of the Jedi, Luke finally understands that to defeat Palpatine he must undermine Palpatine’s original project: making partisans of the Jedi. Only a restoration of the genuine order of harmony, cooperation, and well-being in the galaxy can end the Emperor’s destructive conflict. But that genuine order can only be restored by someone fighting for it according to its own principles. Only a penitent knight can pass.
Yoda’s dying counsel in Return of the Jedi is that Luke must accept this final showdown. The power of the Emperor is mysteriously bound up in his tyranny over Anakin Skywalker; so to defeat the Emperor, Luke must confront his father. But in confronting his father, Luke must not become his father. A defender of the whole can see the good in fallen people on the opposite side of a conflict, even in the most fallen man in the galaxy, Darth Vader. It’s this kind of redemptive combat, where the object isn’t to kill the body but to save the soul–but only as this kind–that the Light is stronger than the Dark Side.
This entails transcending Palpatine’s absolutized conflict within the galaxy, and Palpatine knows this. That’s why in the climactic scenes in Return of the Jedi, the Emperor tries to goad Luke back into fighting for his faction (his friends, the Rebel cause) with fear, hatred, and aggression. And it is a real temptation because Luke really does fear for and love his friends.
The point when the Emperor is shrieking for Luke to kill Vader is when Luke knows that he will fall himself, and take his place at the Emperor’s side, perpetuating the cycle that seduced Anakin Skywalker. And so Luke lays down his sword. Luke refusing to kill his father is the climax of the story. Choosing compassion for an enemy over revenge is how Luke saves his soul from the Emperor, and brings about the return of the Jedi. The mimetic conflict, the power of evil, is over.
In Star Wars, seeing the other side as evil to be crushed is the first step to your own slavery to hate, fear, and aggression.
One moral of Lucas’s myth is that the beginning of evil isn’t a maniacal desire to conquer the world, but an absolutist pursuit of a cause you believe is righteous, which destroys your capacity for compassion. Transcending the dimensions of the regular conflicts around us to have compassion on our enemy means we cannot absolutize the conflicts raging around us. But Lord of the Rings doesn’t give the narrative space for any characters to transcend their conflicts in this way. The equivalent to Vader’s redemption in Lord of the Rings would have been Frodo redeeming the Ringwraiths, the mortal men who Sauron seduced with rings of power.
Moving from narrative analysis to theology: Christians resist absolute evil in this world not by identifying it with people, but with the non-human forces at work in the world. People who fall into absolutist conflicts are the objects of God’s compassion, and ours insofar as we imitate Christ. Refusing to join in the perpetuation of conflicts and subverting both sides is the role of the peacemaker, whom Jesus calls “blessed” because they are the “sons of God.” Christ’s own ministry subverted the conflicts of his environment by showing boundary-breaking compassion on the constructed absolutes of his day.
But redemption in the Christian narrative is from a man who transcends the dimensions of our world’s conflicts, and rescues us with an act of mercy. That redemption he modeled looks a lot like laying down the sword and renouncing the terms of conflict in the world. Because in the end, that was the way of true peacemaking.