Morality Is Always Simple in Fantasy

I find contemplating the morality of any story a fascinating exercise. Narratives have always been a powerful form in shaping how we understand the world – from the genres of fantastical myths and legends to that of modern documentaries and journalism – and morality, naturally, plays a key role.

However, the question about which story, Star Wars or Lord of the Rings, is more morally complex seemed rather trite to me at first. It sounded not unlike the kind of arguments my fellow students and I would have in college about who got less sleep during the week; a spitting contest where the point is to win nothing but a sense of empty self-satisfaction. After all, does it really matter if one is more morally complex than the other? Is the achievement of good writing the equivalent to spinning a tale of complex morality?

In addressing that latter question, however, I find an interest in the comparison of the two fantasy[1] tales. The sum of my argument is as follows: Star Wars and Lord of the Rings are more similar than not in the simplicity of the moral structure in which they weave their tales, and it is that very simplicity that has given them the charm that has captured the love of so many viewers and readers[2].

Follow button - email

The basic premise of Star Wars and Lord of the Rings is that there is a good side and an evil side. There is the Rebel Alliance against the Galactic Empire; there are the free peoples of Middle Earth (elves, dwarves, humans, ents, etc.) and there is Sauron and his armies. There is no gray area. Among both sides, there is a common understanding that does not need to be spoken about who is good and who is evil.

In Star Wars, this is perhaps exemplified best by the interaction with the Ewoks during Episode VI – despite the pitiful amount of communication that was exchanged between C-3PO and the fuzzy residents of Endor, the entire population of Ewoks was suddenly willing to risk everything to help destroy the shield generator, the function of which could not possibly have been understood by such a primitive species. It certainly wasn’t the understanding of intergalactic politics or the tactical feasibility of the Rebels’ plans that convinced them to assist – it was the simple recognition (despite an initial misunderstanding over an Endor baboon) that both Ewoks and Rebels were “good guys”.

While there are even more examples present in Lord of the Rings, a good illustration is the changed relationship between the Ents and Saruman. At some point in the Two Towers, Treebeard remarks that Saruman has lost his love for the forest – a remark that is clearly meant to symbolize Saruman’s fall from grace. A love for nature and beauty is evident in all races considered morally good in the Lord of the Rings. Hobbits of the Shire love gardening, the elves of Rivendell and Lothlorien spend their power tending to the preservation of nature, and the men of Minas Tirith take the White Tree of Numenor as their symbol. While the dwarven race is not explored much in the main story of the Lord of the Rings, one of the things Gimli insists upon is that Legolas accompany him to see the Glittering Caves beneath Helms Deep (unfortunately not mentioned in the movies) which affirms the dwarven race as a “good” one. There is little question that those who represent the morally good side of Middle Earth value nature, beauty, honor, integrity, and sacrifice, while those who represent the morally evil side are completely opposite[3].

Interestingly enough, both Star Wars and Lord of the Rings present a similar exception to this moral congruity. Darth Vader and Gollum both act as examples of redemption and therefore do add an element of grey. Because they begin on the side of evil while being slowly drawn to the side of good (though Gollum never quite completes that journey), they allow of the possibility that the barriers between good and evil are not complete opaque in their respective series.

Still, the overall simplicity of the Star Wars and Lord of the Rings is crucial to what the stories are and therefore I would make the claim that neither is more complex morally than the other. The simple framework of good versus evil is necessary for both of them to fully explore the themes and wonders of the worlds that they inhabit without being bogged down by the confusion and misdirection that moral complexity can often lead to.

This is, of course, merely scratching the surface of exploring the morality that is present in these two timeless tales. However, I have found that the question of which one is more morally complex is indeed an interesting proposition; in exploring a resolution to this challenge, it has acted as a reminder to me of what makes these stories so great to begin with.

Back button

[1] Though Star Wars takes place in space and in the future (despite the claim that it is “a long time ago”), the story of the original trilogy fits more of a fantasy genre than a science fiction genre.

[2] The one caveat to this is the later additions to the Star Wars universe outside the original trilogy which has made the morality of Star Wars actually quite complex (e.g. Episodes I, II, II, extended universe books, games, etc.). Good examples of this are Kreia from Knights of the Old Republic II or Darth Caedus (somewhat of a parallel to Leto Atreides II from God Emperor of Dune)

[3] This point may be made even clearer by presenting a contemporary opposing example from the fantasy genre: A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin – in here, it is wholly unclear in how to navigate the moral complexities of this tale. While at first it seems like the story will fall under the paradigm of Starks being good and Lannisters being bad, it quickly becomes clear that it is impossible to make such a blanket statement as the thoughts and motivations of individual characters are explored further.

Comments are closed.