Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Sir Luke Skywalker and the Jedi of the Round Table

Twas kind of a Star Wars Christmas here at the Mannions. The ten year old's favorite gift is his Lego Star Wars II game, which is, as far as he's concerned, the whole reason we got the new computer. Can't say he's been playing it nonstop, because we chased him up to bed sometime before midnight last night and I'm pretty sure he managed at least two hours sleep. At any rate he was at the computer when the rest of us woke up this morning.

The teenager asked only for books this Christmas. That's not all he found under the tree yesterday morning, but his books are pretty much all he's cared about. In addition to Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth and C.S. Lewis' The Silver Chair, the penultimate book in the Narnia series---old-timers, you have to adjust. Lewis' heirs rearranged the sequence so that The Magician's Nephew is now the first book and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is the second---which completes the teenager's set, and I don't know how he managed to get The Last Battle before The Silver Chair, Santa brought him Star Wars: The New Essential Guide to Alien Species, Star Wars: The New Essential Chronology, Star Wars: The Complete Visual Dictionary, and The Art of Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith.

Old Pop and Ma Mannion gave him The Making of Star Wars Episode III.

We're hoping this passes before any conventions come to town.

I've had a chance to browse through a few of his new books and it's given me a little more insight into what's called, in fan circles, The Expanded Universe. The Expanded Universe is the backstory to the movies that's been told, is being told, and will still be told a long time from now, in galaxies far, far away, the way new stories about Hercules and the Knights of the Round Table are still being told, in the comic books, novels, computer games, and cartoons officially sanctioned by George Lucas.

The story of the expanded universe reaches backwards in time several thousand years to the rise of the Sith and the coming together of the first Jedi Knights and forward in time to the adventures of Han and Leia's grown children. And reviewing it last night in the teenager's books I was bothered by the same thing that has bothered me before when I've checked into it.

The history of the Expanded Universe is a history of perpetual war.

Yes, I know the whole enterprise is called Star Wars. And yes, you could say that the history of the Expanded Universe is just mimicking the history of this planet, at least its history since human beings began writing down their part in it.

So I shouldn't be all that surprised.

But the core of the original movies is the tale of the last Jedi Knights, and now I am going to say something complimentary about George Lucas.

Lucas based his knights on the Knights of the Round Table. Luke is King Arthur. (Interestingly, but fittingly, in the Expanded Universe, it's Han and Leia who go on to rule over Camelot, while Luke becomes a version of Merlin. The Jedi don't want power, after all.) Obi-wan and then Yoda share the role of Merlin. That's always been obvious. The three prequels/sequels have underscored it.

And in the first three movies Lucas cared more about his main characters' stories as knight's tales than he did about their roles in the war that drives the plot. The war is only the background to the important stuff, which is why Lucas allows the war to be mainly fought and won by secondary and minor characters. Luke, Leia, and Han help save the day, but Lucas makes it clear that the rebellion itself doesn't need them. This is why Wedge Antilles, Luke's ace pilot pal, is an important character even though he appears only briefly in each of the original three movies. Wedge must be at least as good a pilot as Luke, but as far as we know he's not strong in the force nor is he a famous hero. He's one very good pilot among many. The Rebel Alliance has all the troops, all the Wedges, it needs to fight the war.

Which leaves Luke free to pursue his own ends.

Which he does.

As do the other two "knights" in the originals, Han and Darth Vader.

King Arthur fights his share of wars, but most of the tales of the Knights of the Round Table are not concerned with any epic battles and several of the most important tales---Arthur and the Sword in the Stone, Gawain and the Green Knight, Launcelot and the Cart, Perceval and the Fisher King, and the entire Grail Quest---don't even involve any combat. They are tales of individual derring-do, and usually the challenge to the knight whose tale is being told is moral or spiritual not physical.

That's how it is in Star Wars.

Han's challenge is to learn how to be a good man, worthy of a Princess' love.

Vader is walking himself backwards through his own life to re-confront the moment when he went over to the Dark Side.

And Luke has to learn who he truly is, face his own temptations, and establish himself as the greatest Jedi ever, which, as it turns out in the Expanded Universe, is a matter of his becoming less of a warrior than a teacher.

These are relatively simple tales and it's to George Lucas' credit that he kept his focus on telling them in his first two Star Wars movie, which is partly why A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back are so satisfying. They are triumphs of storytelling. The knights tales necessarily moved a little to the side in Return of the Jedi to make room for the wrapping of the war---and Lucas lost his head over the Ewoks and spent way too much time on them when he should have been telling another knight's tale, the tale of the redemption of another fallen knight, which he began to tell in The Empire Strikes Back. Billy Dee Williams, should have been given more to do than fly the Millenium Falcon into a blue screen, and Lando Calrisian should have died.

Lucas' obsession with creating the perfect special effects got the better of him in the recently completed prequels/sequels, and he needlessly complicated, and confused, his own story by caring about the politics behind the rise of the Empire and cluttered up the screen with too many epic battle scenes, but the simple knights' tales are still there.

In The Phantom Menace, Qui-gon Jinn searches for the Chosen One.

In Attack of the Clones, Obi-wan sets out to solve the mystery of who is trying to murder Padme, which reminds me that I promised Jaquandor that I would write a post about Obi-wan's career as the Jedi's top private detective.

And in Revenge of the Sith, Anakin faces and succumbs to temptation.

I can and, given time, probably will write posts about the mistakes I think Lucas made in the tellings of each of these simple knights tales, but for now I'd rather note that Lucas tried to stay true to his original conception all the way through all six movies.

The Star Wars movies are not about war. They are about individuals facing moral and spiritual challenges that come mainly from within themselves.

This is why I was dismayed that the Expanded Universe seems to be so much more concerned with wars and epics battles. All the many writers who have contributed to expanding the Expanded Universe have had before them George Lucas' example and they appear to be ignoring it, which, because Lucas has to approve all the "canonical" stories, means Lucas is ignoring his own example himself.

Of course, the teenagers' new books are all overviews and it's difficult to do a fair job of judging. It looks as though some of the novels, particularly the young readers series, are knights tales, adventure stories about individual derring-do and personal quests rather than war stories.

But it also looks as though some of the war stories are necessary to the telling of one knight's tale.

There are five top Jedi in the saga. Their stories dominate the movies and the Expanded Universe, and all but one of them have their personal legends defined by simple knights tales.

Yoda, Qui-gon, Obi-wan, and Luke.

Only one of them has his legend, and his entire adult career as a Jedi, defined by what he does as part of an army in wartime.

The first four are truly knights.

The fifth never gets to be anything but a mere warrior.

To understand how important this is, all you need to do is remember that the greatest knight of the Round Table, Galahad, never draws his sword in battle.

Which suggests that when he set out to tell his own story of a new Round Table, George Lucas knew exactly what he was doing with Anakin Skywalker.

There's probably more Star Wars geekiness to follow while I'm working up my review of a movie for actual grown-ups, Little Miss Sunshine.


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