And After the King and the Jedi Return?

imagePerhaps the biggest complaint I’ve heard about Star Wars- The Force Awakens has to do with whether to call it a remake (because of a plethora of repetitive elements) or a sequel (which it most certainly is). The same could (and, in this case, should) be said for the prequels, which made regular nods to the original trilogy (but that’s a totally separate rant). SW-TFA had to do two things. First, it had to connect with the past (mainly through tropes but also through character and banter). Second, it had to push the story forward (which it did through new characters and relational configurations).  I think it did both quite well (not perfectly, but well).

The best thing I’ve seen written about Star Wars- The Force Awakens was written by Gerry Canavan, a reader of the “expanded universe” Star Wars books who also recently re-read Tolkien’s Silmarillion.  I found the essay because Ross Douthat tweeted about it.  If you’ve read this far into this post, click over to that short essay here and read it. It’s great stuff.

What do you do after the big story ends? And how do you handle the fact that change happens but that change is rarely, if ever, lasting? And how do you fight the urge to milk every story for what it’s worth? (Some would say that this has become a problem for J. K. Rowling and could become a problem for those involved with The Hunger Games franchise.). Turns out that Tolkien faced the similar dilemma when thinking about a “sequel” to the Lord of the Rings that he abandoned in order to work more on his “prequel” material. From the essay:

I don’t know that I would call this material “sinister,” but I taught The Silmarillion this semester after having tried and failed to read it as a child, and I think it would certainly be fair to call it “depressing.” What looks, in The Lord of the Rings, like a fairy-tale about how good and decent folk are able to do the impossible and defeat evil (with just a little bit of help from the divine, here and there) becomes in The Silmarillion and The New Shadow and Tolkien’s pseudo-theological commentary only the briefest, most temporary respite from a nightmare history in which things always turn out wrong, millennia after millennia after millennia. In fact Arda, the planet on which the continent of Middle-earth rests, is a cursed and fallen place, infused with evil and wickedness at its material core, and the only thing to do is raze the place and start over, as Eru Ilúvatar will at long last at the very end of time. To study Tolkien beyond Lord of the Rings is to come to a keen understanding of how tragic this history actually is, how Return of the King looks like a happy ending mostly because that’s where Tolkien (quite deliberately and self-consciously) decided to stop writing. But the Fourth Age was no better than the Third, and likely quite worse, and on and on through the degenerative millennia that bring us to the end of the Sixth Age and the beginning of the Seventh with the fall of the Third Reich and the development of the atom bomb.

I really like Gerry Canavan’s article. I just have one point of contention with it. I just finished my re-read of The Silmarillion recently (after starting it way earlier in the year). I don’t find it has depressing as Canavan. Which isn’t to say that the stories are hopeful, by any stretch of the imagination. They are masterful, for sure. And they are beautiful. And they are packed with wonderfully flawed characters. As beautiful and flawed as the best of us, really. And while some hope must be found in people, there is always the underlying hope in the final intervention from the God of the story, who wove the world with beautiful music and even made the song able to endure the discord of evil.  I don’t think that weakens the story by any stretch of the imagination.  It’s just not an easy story to live through (which is a big point in the last paragraph of Canavan’s essay).

I think one sign of SW-TFA‘s success is that it can pick up on strands from the previous story and still be hopeful. And it’s not a blind hopefulness, either. It is a hope for both the moment and for the long game (since “even the wise cannot see all ends”). I think it is clear from LOTR that the defeat of Sauron is not and cannot be the defeat of all evil. It is the defeat of a particularly powerful kind of evil.

There is, of course, a kind of eschatological significance for Christians in light of such stories.  It’s connected to the idea of “now and not yet” for the Kingdom of God.  Using N. T. Wright’s schemata of the biblical story as a five-act play (of which the Jesus-centric act four is the climax and the church-centric act five is the action-filled fall-out), we get a sense of living in a time period like those after the return of the king and the Jedi. It’s no easy place to be. And while it is a place full of struggle, it is not a place without meaning and hope. But it definitely makes a struggle for faithfulness (which makes us more Faramir than anyone else in the story, sort of).  We ought not be surprised, though, if themes from earlier in the story show up again. That is both the nature of story and the nature of the Story.  That’s why I’m as excited as Canavan seems to be about the possibilities of Episodes 8 and 9.  The story goes on . . .

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