There is one character in Star Wars we rarely ever discuss. As a result the question whether it will make a return appearance in The Rise of Skywalker is rarely asked. And yet … the character’s name is frequently the first one on our lips even when we don’t like sand. Let us explore its arc, its role and its possible part in Episode IX.
A place as a character: Tatooine and The Shire
It might seem odd to you at first that I would want to discuss Tatooine, or the name of its real-world counterpart in out world تطاوين as a character. So let me illustrate how a place can really be a character by taking perhaps the most famousest of places that fulfils such a role: The Shire.
In J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings the place called The Shire is far more than just the place where the story starts and where our heroes live initially. The place where we meet our heroes first often has, when a story is well-written, a special significance. The Shire very much defines the normal state of the world in The Lord of the Rings, definitely for the Hobbits that drive the story forward. Things in the extraordinary world of Middle Earth beyond the boundaries of The Shire are always compared and gauged relative to the lived experience of The Shire. The Shire is very much defined in contrast to the rest of the world of Middle Earth, in a very real way the Shire is defined as the opposite of what a story is supposed to do: change, evolve and push our characters along. The Shire on the other hand, is a place of constancy, predictability where every adventure is frowned upon as it makes you late for dinner.
But the Shire is so much more than that. Throughout the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, the Shire provides motivation for our central characters. It is they place they want to return to. The desire of Sam and Frodo to return to the little rivers, forests and meadows of the Shire is an important sub-plot of the entire trilogy but also an important sub-text that allows us to understand better what is going on inside of our characters. In that crucial scene on Mount Doom where Frodo’s upcoming failure to resist the Ring is foreshadowed, the symptom that is used to show us this is the fact that Frodo can no longer recall the basic joys of Shire life: food, water, good company, quiet and peace.
So the Shire plays a crucial role in guiding our sentient characters and heroes on their journey. But is it really a character in its own right? Perhaps not as much in the films by Peter Jackson, but more so in Tolkien’s text. For in the final chapters of The Lord of the Rings the Shire has succumbed to Saruman’s temptations and has been twisted out of shape and form. So in the book our heroes need to reconquer and reconstruct their homeland, cleanse it from the evil of Saruman. Something that never entirely works for Frodo, unlike Sam, as he too has been fundamentally changed by his experiences of the War of the Ring. The Shire is a dynamic entity in the story, has an arc of its own and interacts with different characters differently.
Tatooine as a character
At first sight Tatooine might seem to play a much less significant role. Yet, every time a sand-planet appears in a trailer of a Star Wars film the common first response of Star Wars fans is: are they going back to Tatooine? When a place elicits such a response then it must have made a deeper impression on the readers and viewers than just being a location where a story starts.
Tatooine appears in A New Hope, Return of the Jedi, The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. It is a place which bookends the Original and Prequel Trilogies however in neither of these cases is it a place to which our heroes seek to return. In fact, Luke Skywalker pretty much describes it as the place he wants to get away from. Yet, it does share that characteristic with the Shire of being a place far away from the events of the world. In the first episode of both trilogies however the events in the Galaxy also intrude into the life of a Skywalker on Tatooine. Whether it is the touch-down of Queen Amidala’s starship or the landing of the escape-pod carrying C-3PO and R2-D2, in both cases it is the outside world reaching deep into the desert-heart of Tatooine to touch the life of our main characters.
Tatooine also affects our main characters in both trilogies and is even called upon by them to describe what goes on inside of them. Anakin’s seemingly throw-away remark about the coarseness of sand, and how much he hates it, is far more telling about what goes on inside of him than many viewers give the line credit for. When he speaks those words he not only emphasizes what he sees as a main difference between Naboo and Tatooine, or between Padme and himself, rather he confirms, even if resentfully, how anchored he is in that world of rough, coarse sand that gets everywhere. And sure enough, like sand in the gears of a machine, it are the key representatives of this coarseness, the Sand-people, who by abducting and effectively killing his mother ultimately bring Anakin’s heroes journey to a grinding halt.
Where the Shire is the place where Frodo yearns to return only to find out that he can never really return there because he himself has changed, Tatooine is the place the Skywalkers hope to abandon and leave but fail to do so as it always pulls them back in and is almost embodied within them. Perhaps the only reason why Vader prefers to live amongst the pain of Mustafar is in the hope to forget about the far greater pain that is associated with Tatooine. And yet it is Tatooine from which his only hope will emerge in the second act, in the Original Trilogy.
Tatooine and The Rise of Skywalker
In the Sequel Trilogy the writers have been either extremely hesitant to bring in the character of Tatooine or they perhaps also did not know how to handle this character’s powerful presence within their story. Instead The Force Awakens presents us with Jakku.
Jakku is a sand-planet that is in many ways similar to Tatooine visually as well as in its role as a place where the events of the galaxy have no hold. Interestingly it initially is presented as a place where Rey wants to return … until we learn that this is not because of the planet itself but because she is waiting there for someone. Jakku is not a character, it hasn’t left noticeable traces on Rey, it doesn’t influence her path as that happens on other planets and primarily through people rather than through geography. Other than in providing a location for certain events, Jakku is immaterial to the story of Rey and to the story of the Skywalkers.
The Rise of Skywalker will present us with yet another sand-planet, Pasaana. But from what I have seen an dread so far it is essentially a repeat-Jakku. A planet that is chosen with its sandy and isolated characteristics to invoke some of Tatooine‘s spirit but that plays no other role other than providing a location for certain events.
As a result the sand-planets of the Sequel Trilogy remain nothing more but reminders of Tatooine. They remind us that Tatooine, the place that started it all from Anakin’s immaculate conception, through Shmi’s death, through being host and home to Luke and by being the place where Luke reveals himself the Jedi he is when rescuing his best friend and defeating his family’s arch-slaver enemy, is lurking in the background as an unresolved enigma of which we have not yet realized its true role and impact on the story of the Skywalkers. But will we in the Rise of Skywalker?
There is much discussion in the fan-community on whether or not a force-ghost Anakin will appear in Episode IX. I would argue there is a degree of confusion in the fan community whether the 9-episode is about Luke or about Anakin. Some of this confusion also seems to be present in the minds of those who tell the Sequel Trilogy stories. The writers and Lucasfilm story-group seem to struggle how to handle Anakin as much as they seem to struggle how to understand and deal with Tatooine.
So will we get some kind of resolution in The Rise of Skywalker about why Tatooine is so important to the Skywalker saga? I personally doubt it because it seems to me that the current generation of writers lack the skill and insight of a Tolkien to properly do so. I would be considerably more confident that a Dave Filoni could do so. His inclusion of that other desolate planet, Lothal, from Star Wars: Rebels into the canon as well as his treatment of Tatooine in the episodes surrounding the resolution of Maul’s arc in Star Wars speak volumes. With Maul literally referring to Tatooine as the place where it all began and with the end of his arc there Filoni stapled another piece of evidence to the list concerning the narrative centrality of Tatooine.
My best would be that JJ Abrams does not know what to do with Tatooine and will treat it as just another Jakku, i.e. ignore it in The Rise of Skywalker. But Ewan McGregor will not be able to avoid Tatooine when he directs his Obi Wan mini-series. If after a tea with Pablo Hidalgo and Dave Filoni, McGregor would get a free hand to explore the question of Why Tatooine? through Ben Kenobi’s presence there then perhaps his series will finally allow us to see in full why this sandy planet far away from the events of the galaxy is so crucial to the overall story of the Star Wars saga.