“Luke, you’re going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.”
– Obi-Wan Kenobi, Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi
A few friends and I recently entered into a debate over whether or not Doctor Manhattan or Jean Grey would “win in a fight.”[i] The debate was simple and spirited – that special flavor of conversation that occurs when three friends debate who among them would die first in The Hunger Games. It seems natural that we often pit our favorite heroes and characters against one another: Optimus Prime vs. Neo. Reepicheep vs. Matthias the Warrior. Batman vs. Iron Man. Gandalf vs. Magneto (I suspect Sir Ian McKellen would be thrilled with the latter).
So though this question of moral complexity isn’t in the category of two fantasies pitted against one another in physical combat, the prompt reminds me of those wonderfully silly (and yet sincere) conversations which we love. While we await the third Hobbit film from Peter Jackson and the seventh Star Wars film from J.J. Abrams, we ask this question: which universe is more morally complex? The Lord of the Rings, or Star Wars?
Simplicity vs. Complexity
It seems easier to think of moral complexity in terms of her antecedent – moral simplicity: do no harm, do not murder, love your neighbor as yourself, and the like. These are simple axioms most of us agree with. When we read or watch The Lord of the Rings, we feel this simplicity – the good and the evil. Moral absolution flows from the story. When we watch Star Wars, we see complexity – an ambiguous moral universe. Certainly we feel the Light Side and the Dark Side, but in the end, they are two sides of the same metaphysical substance. Moral relativism flows from the saga. Indeed, “only a Sith deals in absolutes.” Star Wars wins the duel over moral complexity, but it is a duel won with a red lightsaber.
That isn’t to suggest that there isn’t much we can learn morally from Star Wars. The series celebrates protection of life, friendship, selflessness, and love. Anakin shows us reconciliation. Luke chooses the light. There is much we can take away from the cryptic Eastern wisdom of Yoda and Obi-Wan. To suggest otherwise is certainly not my goal.
Rather, I’m suggesting that morality is far more simple and absolute in Tolkien’s epic. There isn’t a lot of grey (unless you’re Gandalf). The simplicity of light and shadow in Tolkien’s text is far clearer than the Light and Dark of Lucas’ saga. In this way, The Lord of the Rings is like Caravaggio – high contrast, drama, and tenebrous lighting as symbols for morality’s definition and simplicity. Star Wars is more akin to Rothko or Pollock – color, chaos, and complexity. We can even see this in the color palettes chosen for the prequel films. In defense of the original Star Wars trilogy, the palettes are beautifully simple. The arguable apex of Star Wars cinema, Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, greets us with dark blues and haunting orange-reds – hues that foreshadow and illuminate the climactic confrontation between Luke and Darth Vader. But as we move to the prequel trilogy, our eyes are overtaken by CGI glitter and glow. Everything becomes a tasteless hodgepodge of color under the Tatooine twin suns.
These contrasts make sense given Tolkien and Lucas’ respective authorships. The Lord of the Rings was written within one family. Star Wars was written within a community. Middle-Earth is one world. Star Wars hosts hundreds. It follows that the latter would be far more relative and far more complex than the former. Star Wars has to weave a moral framework through the culture and beliefs of countless planets and uncharted systems across a galaxy far, far away. The Lord of the Rings creates a moral framework rooted in tradition and Scripture, sculpted from Tolkien’s own experience of war and the simple pleasures of family. The Lord of the Rings is neo-platonic Christian philosophy[i] infused into myth. Star Wars is, at best, poetic pantheism dipped in Buddhism.
PRIDE VS. POWER
Both epics have villains forged in volcanoes, whether they be in Morder or Mustafar, but their central evils are different. Melkor weaves his own proud tune into the song of Middle-Earth’s Creation, the Ainulindalë in The Silmarillion. He wants his own song to be heard – his own line sung. This first pride echoes through the ages when the One Ring individually tempts Sam, Frodo, Gandalf, Bilbo, Sméagol, Boromir, Denethor, and Galadriel. The temptation changes for every temptee, but the One Ring always brings temptation – and it tempts our pride.
The primary evil in Lucas’ saga is a lust for power. “If you only knew the power of the Dark Side!” is balanced against “Control, control, you must learn control!” Power is balanced against control. The Force both controls and can be controlled. It both grants power and is power – but unlike the One Ring, it is a neutral power. The Force can be used for good or for evil. It depends on how one uses it. The One Ring acts independently of motive. It can’t be used for good – it always corrupts. It is always evil. It wants to get back to its master. It will always tempt toward that end – toward corruption, obsession, and misery. The Force has no true, singular master – there are masters of good and masters of evil that bend the Force to their will – some to guard peace and justice across the galaxy, others for power and control across the galaxy.
We can even hear a bit of this in Yoda’s voice. His witticisms and sayings enforce the action, rather than the agent: “Take you to him, I will.” “Do. Or do not.” Rather than starting with an absolute, we start with action and autonomy. That is the song that has been sung since Rome fell: actions in place of absolutes, in an attempt to weave moral meaning into life.[ii] Death to moral absolutes means morality rests in the relativity of our actions. But without absolutes, this rest is an illusion. Darth Vader’s “Search your feelings”, Obi-Wan’s “Stretch out with your feelings”, and Palpatine’s “Give in to your anger” are all based on the same logic (no wonder Luke was conflicted). Indeed, trusting our instincts and giving in to our feelings are our society’s moral script. This script may be elaborate and well-integrated, but in the end, the emperor still has no clothes: Palpatine is still a Sith lord.
The Force is the closest thing to “God” in Star Wars. The Lord of the Rings hints at its God, Eru, in the films, and his presence is a quiet strength in the lore, but there is no God in Star Wars. There is no Eru, Maleldil, or Emperor Beyond the Sea. God doesn’t exist. And as Dostoevski reminds us, “If God did not exist, everything would be permissible.”[iii] Everything being permissible is indeed the moral consequence of a Godless universe, and we see it played out between the Death Star and Dagobah.
PEACE VS. BALANCE
In the third book in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, a King returns. In the sixth film in the Star Wars saga, a Jedi returns. Whose return promises more? Which brings reconciliation, justice, and moral conclusion? Perhaps we could ask it this way: which return is morally simpler?
In Star Wars, the Jedi return to establish not so much peace, but balance. It is assumed that the scale will be tipped again. The Dark Side will eventually return. Evil will arise. Cue the reboots. This yin and yang of Star Wars is the Taoist answer to Tolkien’s mere Christianity.
In The Lord of the Rings, the King returns. The Shadow departs. The sad things come untrue. Laughter like music fills the air and there is lasting peace. The story comes to a close. It is simple, but it is complete. Indeed, as Tolkien writes, “The Evangelium has not abrogated legends; it has hallowed them, especially the “happy ending.””[iv]
The Lord of the Rings deals in absolutes, while Star Wars deals in the relative, and that creates a complexity that isn’t worth celebrating. We can celebrate Star Wars for its lightsaber duels, stunning space battles, and code of selflessness, but not for its moral complexity. Star Wars paints in shades of grey – or perhaps shades of blue, green, and red. The Lord of the Rings paints in shades of light and shadow.
Does this mean we can’t enjoy both series? Of course not. I will go to my grave deeply loving both – remaining loyal to both Solo and Sam. I await Episode VII and The Battle of the Five Armies with utter excitement, looking forward to the next evening when I can ask of friends, ‘who would win in a fight? Sauron, or Sidious? Legolas, or Luke? Aragorn, or Anakin?’ We have been given two epics that rise up to join the ranks of great fantasy, in which we can envision of both: “A long time ago…” Whether we’re in a galaxy far, far away, or in a hole in the ground, “story, fantasy, still go on, and should go on.”[v]
*A special thanks to my dear friends Sammy Rhodes, Brian Mesimer, and Thomas Sieberhagen for their helpful thoughts and critiques, as well as Kleve Granger, Eric Polley, and Tyler Hammett for letting me “waxeth wiser than [myself]; and that more by an hour’s discourse, than by a day’s meditation.”[vi]
[i] We eventually settled on Doctor Manhattan.
[i] Tolkien’s Metaphysics, lecture by Dr. Robert C. Koons, delivered spring 2013 at the University of South Carolina Euphradian Society
[ii] Francis Schaeffer, How Should We Then Live?
[iii] Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov
[iv] Tolkien, On Fairy Stories
[vi] Francis Bacon, On Friendship
My name is John Brewer Eberly, Jr., but most call me Brewer. I am currently finishing up my first year at the University of South Carolina School of Medicine. I wanted to be an artist before answering the call to medicine, and subsequently started “AHEM” with some good friends last semester: Ars, Humanitas, et Medicus – “Art, Humanities, and the Physician.” I hail from Greenville, South Carolina, call Columbia Presbyterian Church my home, and enjoy bouldering, bacon, beer, and philosophy. It would not be an exaggeration to say that I should probably be studying right now.