Will J.J. Abrams’ sequels prove me right?
In attempting to contribute to this symposium, I ended up spending hours just trying to get my mind around the question. I love both Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings, although as far as the former goes I probably don’t qualify as a fan. I’ve seen the original trilogy many times, but the prequels hardly at all, and I’ve never read any of the novels.
The question itself contains some very complex definitional problems, as a good debate question should. For instance, those who appreciate sci-fi/fantasy are like 3rd-century Christians in that they are known to argue extensively about what constitutes the “canonical” expression of a particular story universe. It’s easy to answer this question with The Lord of the Rings, since the whole story came from the mind of one incredibly intelligent, meticulous, and obsessive writer. Clearly, LOTR “canon” is whatever J.R.R. Tolkien wrote, approved of, and published, as well as the material that J.R.R.’s son Christopher faithfully edited and published after his father’s death. Star Wars “canon” is more difficult to define because although George Lucas clearly invented the story, many others have contributed to it. Even the original screenplays were not all Lucas’s creation. In fact, one reason the first two prequel films are so badly-written may be because Lucas actually wrote them himself. Much of the depth and philosophical consistency of the Star Wars universe seems to come from the officially non-canonical novels of the expanded universe, even though they do not of course present a unified picture.
Second, what is “complex?” I think Casey Rath and Jonathan Bales define this perfectly in their entries—it all has to do with whether the story has complex moral agents as characters, who face complex moral dilemmas. But also, I think that in order to be “complex,” a story’s moral universe must also be consistent within itself—otherwise, difficult moral dilemmas would carry no weight. This is another strike against Star Wars, since the shape of its moral universe varies based on who is telling the story.
Nevertheless, one person who did not contribute to this symposium does very good work toward synthesizing the moral shape of the Star Wars universe, as told in the movies. The perceptive sci-fi critic Emily Asher-Perrin has been able to reconcile the comparatively straightforward moral world of the original trilogy with the murky and confusing one of the prequels, by considering the entire narrative arc as a story of the redemption of the Jedi Order. She observes that the Jedi Order of the prequels has become moribund and lost its authentic connection to the Force, becoming distrustful of healthy human emotions and blind to the advance of evil. Even in the original trilogy, Obi-Wan and Yoda retain some of these prejudices. Luke Skywalker, in Asher-Perrin’s reading, ends up restoring order to the galaxy through filial love, when he refuses to kill his father (as Nathan Hitchen also points out). Luke goes on (in the extended universe) to found a new Jedi order on a sounder, more humane basis.
If one is tempted to allegorize Star Wars (probably a bad idea) one might see connections between the Jedi Order of the prequels and Plato’s Republic, in which the future philosopher class is separated from their families at a young age so that their dedication to the good of the whole will not be corrupted by family ties. The Republic (ha ha) also prohibits its “force-sensitive” (if you will) philosopher class from marrying. That’s a pretty clear 1:1 correspondence with Star Wars.
I’m willing to bet that J.J. Abrams’ new movie proves Asher-Perrin right, as far as the movie story arc is concerned.
Peter Schellhase studied political philosophy at Patrick Henry College, and has worked in government and nonprofits. He lives with his wife in Leesburg, Va., and serves on the vestry of a local Episcopal Church.