There are two primary domains in which the Star Wars franchise clearly emerges as more morally complex than The Lord of the Rings: the deconstruction (if only partial) of easy moral binaries, and the embrace of a non-teleological view of history. (By “moral binaries,” I mean the ability to categorize something as either right or wrong.)
Is evil something within us, or something outside?
Classifying Star Wars as a subversion of simple moral binaries may appear fundamentally counterintuitive, given the propensity of the Star Wars franchise to dichotomize the “light side” and “dark side” of the Force (plot elements frequently misdescribed as representing a “dualistic” view of life). This subversion, however, is integral to the emotional arc of the storyline.
In the Star Wars franchise, the Force is an energy field produced by all living beings, which only some genetically gifted actors may draw upon to pyrotechnic effect. Some choose to utilize such powers for destructive purposes, while others adopt a more “humanistic” model (if that term can be appropriately understood to refer to all sentient life forms).
The aggregate of one’s individual choices impacts one’s “alignment” with the Force, subsequently leading such an individual to employ his or her powers for benign or malign purposes. Importantly, this axiological shift can only occur based on internalized decisions: mere exposure to the “dark side” does not draw an individual to embrace that facet of the Force. Rather, a pattern of decisions made in the spirit of anger, hatred, and fear are responsible for tipping the balance.
In The Lord of the Rings, evil is often portrayed as an externalized manifestation of darkness, which invades and corrupts the otherwise noble of heart. The Ring itself is a semi-sentient construct that tempts and corrupts its bearer: perhaps it may be said to draw upon those negative tendencies already present, but its destructive effect predominantly comes from the pull which it exerts, externally, upon a carrier’s spirit.
This view of evil as something toxic, yet still fundamentally alien to the human essence, is mirrored elsewhere in Tolkien’s canon through the use of other symbolic talismans. In The Silmarillion, the magical Silmaril jewels typically exert a destructive effect on those who seek to possess them – an effect that may not be wholly attributed to the moral character of individuals. Accordingly, moral decision-making, in The Lord of the Rings, takes the form of a choice to reject that which is offered by external agents, rather than a choice to reject those aspects of one’s character which impel one towards the “dark side of the Force.”
A brief side note: the Star Wars franchise’s implicit willingness to pronounce a moral judgment on the “dark side of the Force” suggests at least an abstract ontological appreciation of “good and evil” that exist on a higher level. Regardless, in the realm of moral choices and consequences viewed within a limited human context, Star Wars clearly sets forth a more complex moral scheme.
This rejection of easy dichotomies is not limited to the realm of direct moral reasoning. In The Lord of the Rings, Technology is Bad, and Nature is Good (a philosophy linked to the teleological view of history present in The Lord of the Rings, which will be explored further on). This is posited, fairly unequivocally, as a principle which holds throughout much of Tolkien’s canon.
Star Wars, conversely, displays a reticence to pronounce such sweeping characterizations. As in the realms of internal moral decision-making and of the philosophy of the Force, one’s personal intention (in true Kantian fashion) implicates the defensibility of one’s actions in the realms of science, economics, politics, and romance. Technology in se is not a manifestation of moral corruption, but may be employed by evil-minded actors to destructive purposes.
Discussions of political developments take on a level of sophistication beyond “he was a good king, and ruled well,” to consider the unintended consequences of one’s actions. Ultimately, for a franchise often celebrated for its incorporation of traditional mythic archetypes, Star Wars does a great deal to retexture them.
Morality and History
Consideration now must turn to the question of history and its trajectory as depicted in each franchise.
Metaphysically, the Star Wars franchise appears to take a fairly agnostic stance towards the existence of Higher Purpose or Meaning (despite, as previously noted, the implicit embrace of broad moral absolutes that allow for the classification of “the dark side” as “evil”). The Lord of the Rings, on the other hand, unapologetically relies upon the direct involvement of Eru Ilúvatar and the Valar standins for God and the saints) in advancing the story.
Teleology, or the study of purpose in being, is the key issue here: do these respective franchises offer moral insights in the context of a broader understanding of history within existence?
The distinction between both franchises may be understood, in part, by considering the two franchises in light of both Eastern and Western philosophical traditions relating to history. In the Eastern understanding, history is fundamentally cyclical, characterized by eternal patterns of life and death and rebirth (cf. Star Wars). In the Western understanding, depending on one whether approaches the question from either a theistic or humanistic perspective, time and the universe are either unfolding according to the plan of God (cf. Tolkien), or hurtling inevitably towards entropic heat-death. In the Western view, time is commonly understood as linear; this presupposition does not necessarily hold in the Eastern schema.
The Star Wars franchise generally leans toward a cyclical understanding of universal patterns, in which the goal of Force-sensitive practitioners is “balance” between light and dark elements rather than final victory over such “darkness.” Both the light and dark sides of the Force, according to Star Wars, emanate from the behavior of life itself; accordingly, their interoperation must be understood holistically.
Conversely, in Tolkien’s cosmology, the “First Age of the World” culminated with the defeat of evil Morgoth by the intervention of the divine Valar. The “Second Age” ended with the destruction of the kingdom of Númenor by edict of Ilúvatar (God Himself). The “Third Age,” ended with the deus ex machina rescue of Sam and Frodo from the slopes of Mount Doom. (The Lord of the Rings, unfortunately, does not consider the theodicean ramifications of such intervention.) Additionally, since history is moving along a foreordained course, it is possible to make clear, objective moral judgments about the relative merits of past epochs. As previously mentioned, the movement away from Nature towards Technology/Industrialism is clearly treated by Tolkien as epitomizing the spiritual decline of the world: absent treating one’s view of history as contingent upon an external understanding of morality, such judgments are unsupportable.
Ultimately, moral complexity emerges from necessarily incomplete understandings of the coherence, universality, and applicability of moral standards. If such standards exist in se, the ground for debate is adjusted accordingly: the question shifts from one of moral ontology to one of moral epistemology. Uncertainty in the realm of moral ontology (a domain which exists prior to epistemological considerations) necessitates a more complex dynamic than one in which moral principles are held as intrinsically existing. Lacking the contextualization afforded by an affirmation of externalized objective moral standards, the Star Wars franchise must be more morally complex than Tolkien’s cosmology, though useful philosophical insights may be gleaned through reflection on both systems.
John Ehrett serves as senior editor at Conciliar Post, an online publication dedicated to cultivating meaningful dialogue across Christian traditions. He holds a J.D. from Yale Law School and a certificate in theology and ministry from Princeton Theological Seminary.