On the surface, the morality of the Star Wars universe seems quite simple: light side versus dark side, good versus bad. Despite this powerfully employed motif, a surprising moral complexity lies beneath this simple façade. Lord of the Rings, however, is precisely the opposite of Star Wars: the richness of the world which Tolkien created would seem to indicate a complex moral system. Yet underlying this vast and detailed fantasy world is a relatively simple moral universe.
This counterintuitive conclusion can be reached by uncovering the worldviews each respective universe draws from. While Star Wars draws upon an eclectic mix of moral and philosophical systems, Lord of the Rings is essentially built on one moral system. The morality of the Star Wars saga was made more complex out of necessity in order to tie together its varied perspectives into a cohesive universe.
The diverse mixture of worldviews found in Star Wars results in a complex, multifaceted moral universe. There are hints of Christian morality — take Luke Skywalker’s self-sacrificial love for his friends, for instance — right alongside ties to eastern religion and the thought of non-Christian philosophers. The Jedi moral code is built on a backbone of eastern religion, notably Zen Buddhism and Taoism, while Yoda serves as the prototypical Zen master in the Star Wars universe. At the same time, Anakin Skywalker’s quest for power at all cost, exemplified in his brazen attempts to save Padmé, draws from the moral system developed in the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, specifically his concepts of the “will to power” and the Übermensch. These are only a few examples of the philosophical diversity present in Star Wars, but they demonstrate that the saga’s moral system is far from simple. Instead, the moral universe of Star Wars is formed from a constellation of distinct worldviews, each woven together through different elements of the story.
The same cannot be said for Lord of the Rings, which draws its morality primarily from Christianity. This can be seen by examining Tolkien’s views on fairy stories and by looking at various characters from Lord of the Rings. In his essay “On Fairy Stories,” Tolkien explains that writing fantasy is an artistic act of sub-creation, in which elements of the “Secondary World” are “made out of the Primary World,” and deal “mainly, with simple or fundamental things.” While Tolkien never intended for his epic to serve as a metaphor for Christianity, or even for it to be morally complex, he did intend for it to help us see “things as we are… meant to see them.” Christianity served as the Primary World material which Tolkien used to create the Secondary World of Middle Earth. We can see Tolkien’s Christian materials in characters such as Aragorn, a paragon of Christian virtue who displayed humility, wisdom, and self-control throughout the epic, or Sam, who displayed great courage and faithfulness as he accompanied Frodo to the heart of Mount Doom. These characters and others exemplify Christian morality and reveal the simple foundation on which Tolkien built the moral ecosystem of Middle Earth.
This is not to say that the Christian moral system latent in Lord of the Rings is not intricate in its own way. But its intricacy does not match the complexity needed to bind together the multifarious moral landscape of Star Wars. Nor is it to say that the moral complexity of Star Wars makes it in any way superior to Lord of the Rings. For the most important question is not which is more complex?, but rather, which is the better guide to the good, the true, and the beautiful?
Jeff Hart is an electrical and computer engineering graduate of F.W. Olin College currently working in the semiconductor industry. While an engineer by training, Jeff has a passion for teaching others how the Christian faith ties in to every part of life.