Tuesday, October 1, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: Star Wars Heresies

In addition to Star Wars, I am also a fan of The Lord of the Rings and have been impressed with the high-quality academic discussion of the themes and imagery in Tolkien's legendarium available through The Tolkien Professor podcast and the Mythgard Institute. Part of the reason I created Poli-Sci Jedi was because I felt that the Star Wars saga deserves that same level of critical attention. With a few exceptions (including Star Wars and History), there's a remarkable dearth of literary criticism of the movies.
Anakin as baby Jesus? (Star Wars Heresies)

Paul F. McDonald, librarian and consummate Star Wars fan, took matters into his own hands with his new book, The Star Wars Heresies. The book's mission is to expose the deeper mythological themes embedded within the Prequel Trilogy.

There are of course other books about Star Wars and philosophy (e.g., Star Wars and Philosophy: More Powerful than You Can Possibly Imagine) and myth (e.g., Star Wars: The Magic of Myth), but The Star Wars Heresies still brings enough new material to the table to make it feel fresh. First, The Star Wars Heresies focuses only on the Prequels. Mentions are made to the Original Trilogy, Clone Wars, and Expended Universe - particularly the recent Darth Plagueis novel - but only to the extent they illustrate a particular point. Given that the Prequels are regarded by some as the black sheep in the Star Wars family, it's easy for authors to zero in on the Original Trilogy, especially the ever-quotable Yoda. Fortunately, by excluding its more popular cousin, McDonald is able to engage in a much closer analysis of the Prequel story.

Second, many other works only point out parallels to Joseph Campbell's "hero's journey" or Buddhism, but McDonald goes beyond those sources. He draws upon impressive range of real-world mythological and religious traditions, including obscure Chinese legends and linguistic translations of the names of key characters (it turns out Qui-Gon Jinn's name foreshadows his role at the end of Revenge of the Sith). The Star Wars Heresies can't be categorized quite so cleanly as about philosophy, religion, mythology, or politics because it draws upon all of these fields.

This book is definitely a must-read for fans of the Prequels. McDonald engages in a "close reading" of the films to find parallels between mythological patterns and the Prequels. However, this isn't like a high school English class that analyzes a book to death and takes all of the fun out of it. McDonald uses his analysis in order to allow readers to gain a deeper appreciation for the Prequels and where they fit within the broader scheme of human mythology. There are many subtle moments in the movies that fans might overlook but are actually imbued with deep significance.

For example, when Anakin uses the Force to give Padmé a piece of fruit in Attack of the Clones, that can actually be seen as a reverse on the biblical Genesis story in which a female, Eve, tempts a male, Adam, with the fruit of knowledge. McDonald continues along these lines to argue that Anakin's entire trajectory has echoes of Genesis as he is forced to confront knowledge of death and loss. Ironically, Anakin also attempts to tempt his Eve near the end of Revenge of the Sith when he says they could rule the galaxy together, but Padmé sticks to her ideals. Of course, unlike Adam, Anakin makes a Faustian pact with the Devil - Emperor Palpatine - for Darth Plagueis' power over death (the biblical Tree of Life).
Qi Gong Jinn (Wookieepedia)

I also think The Star Wars Heresies might even convince some Star Wars fans who did not like the Prequels that the movies have more depth than is commonly believed. Indeed, one of the most useful aspects of this book is that McDonald addresses many of the criticisms leveled at the film and shows how what might seem like sloppy dialogue or writing actually has deeper roots in mythology. For example, many fans have bemoaned Padmé's death at the end of Revenge of the Sith. However, McDonald shows that there is a history of females dying from stress or lovesickness in earthbound myths, including the famous romance between Guinevere and Lancelot. Even Jar Jar Binks receives a fair hearing as McDonald discusses the tradition of finding wisdom in absurd bumblers.

Having said that, the book does not cover the cinematography of the movies. McDonald largely passes over issues such as the acting, special effects, and editing of the films. For some fans these issues, more so than the underlying story, are what drag the Prequels down. I believe McDonald chose correctly in limiting his focus to the story. McDonald does discuss aspects of the cinematography when particularly relevant, such as the use of lighting to provide subtle clues about the story. For example, seeing the Jedi Temple at dawn in The Phantom Menace hints viewers to the fact that this is the twilight of the Republic. Nonetheless, I would have liked a bit more of this type of analysis. After all, the execution of a story is often as important as the contents of the story, if not more so. Perhaps for McDonald's next book.

On a smaller note, the book is organized by movie and then by character, which allows the reader to skip to chapters or movies of interest. While I read the entire book, I appreciate the fact that I could go back and read all of the chapters about Palpatine for instance.

Overall, The Star Wars Heresies is a very worthwhile addition to any Star Wars library. This is the type of in-depth discussion and analysis that I wish the Star Wars blu-ray commentary tracks would engage in (personally, I think we're all a bit tired of hearing how difficult it was to use CGI to create Coruscant). While I was aware of some of the parallels between the Prequels and real-world mythology before reading The Star Wars Heresies, I know that I won't view the Prequel Trilogy the quite same way again next time I watch it. I hope this book marks a new beginning for serious Star Wars scholarship.

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