March 2002: Use of Weapons

One of the chief distinctions between science fiction and fantasy, despite the fact that they're customarily lumped into the same category, is that while science fiction is typically forward-thinking, technophilic, and favorable toward science, fantasy is typically the opposite. There are, of course, exceptions; fantasy where magic works by a rational structure, for instance, or a science fiction yarn detailing science that's a little too hot for mere mortals to handle. Without detailing all of the rules, exceptions, possibilities, and so forth, I'll merely comment on an article I read recently that summed up the distinctions between these two genres quite nicely: science fiction plots are characterized by innovation, while fantasy plots are characterized by research. The quintessential setting for science fiction is the lab; the quintessential setting for fantasy is the library.

In many ways, fantasy's generally anti-technological bent can be placed squarely at the feet of J.R.R. Tolkien. Few other works of fantasy-including those which predate Tolkien, or were published roughly concurrently-are as specifically technopobic as is The Lord of the Rings. The reasons for this are obvious if you delve even a little into Tolkien's background, not to mention the time in which he lived and worked. (If you don't feel like delving into the many books available on Tolkien's life and work, the recent special from National Geographic is now out on video and DVD, and is reasonably comprehensive.) It is, therefore, ironic that in order to realize the spectacle that is The Lord of the Rings on film, the filmmakers not only had to wait over 50 years after the novel's publication, but had to take advantage of, and in some cases develop, the latest special-effects technology.

It would be facile-and inaccurate-to state that Tolkien's One Ring represents technology. Still, it is interesting that in Tolkien's Middle-Earth, a made thing-something made through metalwork, a major shift in humanity's technological progress-becomes a source of power and evil. In Tolkien's universe, even Sauron didn't start out as a lord of evil and cruelty. In other words, evil is not innate.

There's another saga with similar implications. It is, of course, Star Wars.

Did Lucas read Tolkien? Perhaps. He was certainly familiar with the mythological archetypes of the epic quest, thanks to Joseph Campbell, whose Hero with a Thousand Faces can be read as a primer for Frodo's journey as well as Luke Skywalker's. But while the enemy in Lord of the Rings is distant, remote, never confronted directly save in the destruction of the One Ring itself, the enemy in Star Wars is much more personal. In some ways, Darth Vader more closely resembles the wizard Saruman, who in his quest for personal power slips from the pinnacle of wizardly accomplishment and tries to contend with the enemy on the enemy's terms, in order to supplant him. As Rocky the Squirrel might say, that trick never works.

Still, the central relationship in Star Wars is different from the central relationship in Lord of the Rings. Star Wars turns on the relationship between Luke and Anakin, on their different views of the Force and their different responses to the lures of the dark side. This makes Vader/Anakin comprehensible in human terms; thus it's possible for Lucas to make prequels focusing on Anakin Skywalker without diminishing the villainy of Darth Vader. Can you imagine trying to do the same thing with Sauron, in any context other than, say, the mythical language of The Silmarillion? The central relationship of Lord of the Rings is that between Frodo and Sam, and the redemption of Gollum is tacked on, accidental, an afterthought, even though it's crucial to the destruction of the Ring.

This in turn makes for a different in how these two stories treat technology. Star Wars, obviously, is set in a technologically advanced society, yet at the same time there is an emphasis on eschewing technology for something more nebulous and remote. This emphasis is everywhere, from the Rebels' base in the middle of a lush jungle, to Yoda's home in the swamps, to the Ewoks' battle against the Empire with bows, rocks, and clubs (though here again, their most effective weapons are those requiring some technical sophistication: the rolling-log trap, for instance, or the two swinging tree trunks that crash together, destroying an AT-ST walker), to the highly personalized nature of each Jedi's lightsaber. A scene cut from Return of the Jedi shows Luke making his own lightsaber: hardly the same thing as going to a weapons dealer in Mos Eisley and picking up a spare blaster. Like its villain, Star Wars' technology exists close beside its mystical aspect.

Tolkien, on the other hand, presents a world which from the outset does not favor technology. We know that machines exist in Middle-Earth, that Saruman delights in them and enjoys making them work. This aspect of Saruman's personality is recognizable in the everyday world; anyone who enjoys tinkering, or who knows someone who does, has seen this tendency. In Middle-Earth, however, the tendency to tinker is extremely dangerous-perhaps even more so than in our own world. In a line of Gandalf and Saruman's argument that was cut from the movie, Gandalf observes that "He who breaks a thing to find out what it is has abandoned the path of reason." Of course, breaking a thing to discover its nature is a fundamental aspect of scientific research, an aspect at once necessary and troubling. In Tolkien's time, science had broken the atom, among other things, so his worry over humanity's curiosity concerning machines and how things work is perhaps understandable.

Still, what Tolkien and Lucas' stories have in common is their emphasis on human weakness. Whether it's science and technology or the Dark Side of the Force, these things do not, in and of themselves, cause evil. Living beings and their desires and fears are a crucial part of the equation; the lesson in both tales is that we bring our own evil with us. Saruman starts out as the most powerful and respected wizard of the age; Anakin Skywalker's potential is so great that Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn goes against the wishes of his own order to train him. Sauron, Gandalf tells us, was not originally evil; nor, as we see in The Phantom Menace, was Palpatine. The notion that we bring out the worst in ourselves is not a new one, of course, but fantasy stories, through their use of the mystical and the allegorical, can afford to state this bluntly, painting with broad strokes where other forms of fiction are required to be more restrained.

On the other hand, there remains a fundamental difference between Star Wars and Lord of the Rings. The One Ring can be destroyed; the Dark Side, presumably, cannot. There is much discussion of The Phantom Menace of balance, as though Lucas, in his maturity, has come to recognize the inevitability of human weakness. In the Chronicles of Prydain, a children's fantasy series by Lloyd Alexander that is based on Welsh myth, and which thus shares certain things in common with Tolkien, Prince Gwydion, an Aragorn-like figure, gives the new King Taran his last and most difficult lesson: "Evil conquered? You have learned much, but learn this last and hardest of lessons. You have conquered only the enchantments of evil. That was the easiest of your tasks, only a beginning, not an ending. Do you believe evil itself to be so quickly overcome? Not so long as men still hate and slay each other, when greed and anger goad them. Against these even a flaming sword cannot prevail."

Both Lord of the Rings and Star Wars carry a valuable lesson on the importance of doing what needs to be done. But they also both carry a subtler message: even when an evil is readily identified, the way to confront it may not be so readily apparent. Luke is determined to redeem his father, not kill him; in order to reach Mount Doom in the heart of Mordor, Frodo is required to put his trust in the treacherous creature Gollum, playing on Gollum's own fierce desire for the Ring. Likewise, in our own world, figuring out the right thing to do, and then doing it, isn't always easy. The guiding principle set forth by both Star Wars and Lord of the Rings is simply this: a victory over the enemy using the enemy's weapons is no victory at all, whether the weapon in question is the Dark Side or the One Ring. That, not technology, is the real danger.