The two great mythologies of the last 60 years, Lord of The Rings/The Hobbit and the Star Wars Saga, both attempt to give insight into the origin and reason of existence of Evil. If there is any conclusion to be drawn from the way in which Evil is depicted, or hidden in plain sight, in these stories then it seems the conclusion that Evil is something your recognize when you see it, but that eludes a real definition. Many perceive Star Wars (and also Lord of the Rings) as a simply black-and-white tale of Good versus Evil, but it isn’t. In this post I want to have a closer look at some aspects of this.
In the vast ignorance of the World it festers and spreads
Surprised I am starting with a video-fragment from the Desolation of Smaug? Thranduil formulates beautifully how Evil emerges in our world. He expresses our deep worry that evil is an ever-present entity that hides in the shadows of all that we do not oversee and all that we do not know. Evil comes in darkness but even more in cloak and with a dagger. So it ever was, so it ever will be. In the Star Wars Legends this same theme is depicted in the life of Darth Plagueis the Wise. The legends novel with that same title tells a tale of how this Sith Lord, and his apprentice Darth Sidious, slowely emerge from the dark and shadowy underbelly of the Republic while hiding in plain sight. Darth Plaugueis is known in the Star Wars universe for his experimentation with the origins of life.
An ability some would consider to be … unnatural.
Meddling with Life
This skill of twisting life and lifeforms to become subservient to ones own goals and aims is a recognizable characteristic of evil. The Orc interrogated by Thranduil is itself an illustration of the result of such twisted experimentation by Sauron. And from our own history we know the instances that during the Second World War such practices were conducted by Imperial Japanese as well as Nazi German units. Yet both myths do not take the point of view that this meddling with life is principally a sign of Evil. Afterall, the Elves meddled with the life of Trees in order to make them sentient and able to communicate, which is recounted positively in Lord of the Rings. And Palpatine recounts Plagueis‘ motivation as similar to Anakin’s: the desire to keep people he cares about from dying. But on a much grander scale, the meddling with life that is the creation of the Clone Army is depicted neutrally in Star Wars. The point is made, through many carefully written episodes of the Clone Wars, that these Clones are human individuals with positive traits as honour, the ability to sacrifice but also the ability to think for themselves. Star Wars goes much further in that then Lord of the Rings. Where do you find an Orc with a human side to it? The distinction you find between the two probably deeply reflects a distinction in the mindset of the different creators of these myths. Orcs were Elves tortured into submission to an evil that was lurking in the shadows and with a state of mind that delighted in evil-doing. Clone Troopers were created for war in the shadows of the Republic but with a spirit that displays an aspiration to be fully individual and independent humans.
The Evil in the Good
The way Thranduil proceeds with his questioning of the Orc reveals one strain of Evil within him. His willingness to twist and break his word given to the Orc after he revealed the nature of the one he serves. But also Thranduil’s subsequent lockdown of his Kingdom showing no caring or compassion with the outside world that will succumb to the Evil he now knows to be waiting there. He allows it to fester exactly as he accuses the world of doing. This theme of the evil within the good you also find in Star Wars. For me one of the most poignant illustrations is Yoda
He lives in ‘the decadence of war’ according to his ‘dark self’. A dark-self that he has denied to exist all the way up to the end of the Clone Wars, that he does not consider worthy to interact with. Where Thranduil believes he can shut-out evil altogether by isolation and thus becomes an agent of evil himself, so Yoda believes evil can be fought in a war to keep it out of the Republic while it is exactly this that makes him an agent of darkness to. Yoda and Thranduil do not ‘fall into darkness’ like Anakin does, but unwittingly they allowed themselves to become instruments of evil’s ascendency. When Anakin falls however, he does so knowingly and that sets him apart is being in a totally different class.
The Good in the Evil
We know little of Darth Sidious’ intentions and in that sense he is not unlike Sauron. Both are driven, or even defined, by a will to dominate. Darth Plagueis is driven, in the legends, by a will to achieve eternal life, but merely for himself and his apprentice. Their evil is given no further explanation. In Lord of the Rings the inexplicable and one-sided evil of Sauron is balanced by the inexplicable and one-sided good of Aragorn, the messianic king. All that one might criticize in Aragorn, is his reluctance to meet the challenges of his mission. Hence half the story is about how he overcomes this reluctance. There is no need to worry about his killing of other beings in war, as these are typically Orcs and hence willing executers of evil and thus morally disposable within the frame of that myth. There is no evil within the good, possibly only hesitation (Theoden). Of course many characters are grey, or tip more to one or the other side. Many are seduced by the promise of reward (Saruman) or by a fatally flawed sense of doom (Denethor). But there are the shining examples of good (Aragorn) and innocence (the Hobbits). The closest in Lord of the Rings of ‘some good in an evil character’ is the film-depiction of Golumn. Corrupted as his spirit is by the ring, he has moments of ‘goodness’ and in the end his selfishness serves the good cause.
Star Wars on the other hand has made the central character of the myth someone who we are asked to believe is at times truly good, but also at times truly evil. The Gungans and the Ewoks, and in particular Jar Jar, are representatives of the malleable innocence that at times evil can manipulate to serve its ends. By the time the Ewoks enter the war, their fight is not with morally neutral droids but with humans and the Ewoks do not hesitate to eat our heroes for dinner nor to play drums on the heads of the ones they vanquished. None of these are all together good. Star Wars does have it’s singular representative of evil in the form of Darth Sidious, but there is no equivalent of him on the side of Good. Surely not Yoda or Kenobi and definitly not Anakin. As a result the Star Wars galaxy is out of balance.
Middle Earth does not need ‘balance’. With the presence of a singular evil and a singular good ultimate salvation comes from the Good defeating the Evil permanently. What Middle Earth needs is a victory of Good over Evil in a final battle. Not so in Star Wars however! In Star Wars there are no representatives of ultimate good. So the happy end of good defeating evil is not a narrative option in the mythology of Star Wars. That is why I would judge Lord of the Rings a 19th/20th century myth and Star Wars a 20th/21st century myth: the ultimate victory of good is unachievable in Star Wars because there is no force (pun intended) that represents it. The best the Star Wars galaxy can hope for is to keep a constant tab on the ongoing battle between Good and Evil that is going on inside each and every character. The only real exception to this internal struggle of opposing forces is Sidious. As long as Sidious is alive, or trains a true successor to his way of life, there is the conceivable option of an ultimate victory of evil.
The narrative of the Star Wars saga therefor focuses in on creating a balance by removing this ultimate evil. The internal struggle of sentient creatures in the Star Wars universe between the opposing forces of good and evil represents a deep property of life and of the Force itself. Life in the total darkness of ultimate evil is as unbearable as life in the total vacuum of pure good. When however a representative of that ultimate evil appears, in the form of Darth Plagueis’ apprentice Sidious, a balancing force also emerges in the form of Anakin Skywalker.
Many popular Good v.s. Evil stories stumble at this point. By introducing a representative of ‘pure good’ all that is ultimately achieved is the perpetual battle of the Good against the Bad. In those battles typically both sides commit crimes, destroy life and enter into morally bankrupt deals … but we the audience are expected to look away when the Good Guys do so and to justify the punishment of the Bad Guys for doing the same. Star Wars breaks radically with this ill-conceived tradition.
The Chosen One
Anakin Skywalker’s defining characteristic is that he is not, nor has claims on being, pure good, but quite opposite an extreme combination of good and evil. He sinks into the deepest depths of evil knowingly, which makes it all the more evil. Lucas’ stresses this point visually several times in the Prequels and more subtly in the Originals. When Anakin cries after murdering the Separatist leaders, it is clear he knows what he has done. When he shies away from telling Padme exactly what transpired in the Temple where he murdered younglings, it is clear he knows what he has done. When he goes into The Suit with his eyes returned to their non-Sith form, it is clear he still knows the difference between right and wrong. He goes on to do many wrongs any way, but he does so knowingly. Anakin Skywalker falls to a depth of evil which is so inconceivable for Yoda and Obi Wan that they cannot but believe that he has become ‘twisted’ and ‘consumed’. Essentially they believe Anakin to be the ultimate, irredeemable super-Orc.
But only because Anakin carries within himself the conflict that we are all internally exposed to, only because of that does his killing of Darth Sidious bring Balance. In the Star Wars outcome this balance is a good thing, it means that all beings have to face those internal choices, it means all beings have a chance of doing something about it. They are not the helpless victims in a never-ending ‘armed ballet’ in which the super-heroes and the super-baddies are the lethal dancers destroying the world around them. That is why he is the Chosen One, that is why it is Balance that he brings at the end of Return of the Jedi.