From time to time, I will scroll past blog posts with sweeping titles like, “The Mandalorian is the Best Star Wars Since the Original Trilogy”. These articles will often rely on the rather dramatic claim that The Mandalorian captures some esoteric “spirit of Star Wars” which is, apparently, possessed by less than one third of the theatrical Star Wars films that have ever been produced. Such claims strike me as farcical, if not downright absurd, though to explain why, I will need to explain what the spirit of Star Wars really is.
Star Wars is such a full melting pot that its essence is difficult to distill. It is – for starters – a western, a samurai film, a war movie. Because it has knights, princesses, magic, and an elemental simplicity to its storytelling, the original film is often likened to a fairy tale. The Empire Strikes Back, though, with its murkiness and mysticism, deepens into something that more nearly approaches the register of a myth. It is a common complaint against the prequels that they lose the simplicity of the original trilogy, although it is really only the original 1977 film that is straightforward. The Lucas who conceived Empire (and the prequels) knows that a myth ought to have some obscurity to it.
In his preface to Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien expresses his distaste for allegory and his preference for “history, true or feigned.” Allegory seeks to convey a particular meaning in the guise of a story, while history tells the story for its own sake. The details of an allegory are constructed with an eye to what they represent; the details of history are chosen because they are real (or seem real).
Tolkien’s own work is, of course, one of the few wholly successful examples of “feigned history,” because nearly no one has the breadth of imagination – or, equally importantly, the patient attention to detail – to create an entire cosmos, as he did. Most books and films of this kind are closer to allegory. That is, they are not concerned with rigorous internal coherence, but with directly conveying more or less simple meanings. Think of, say, The Matrix: its core conceit is not really “believable” in the way Middle-Earth is believable, but this hardly matters. The power of The Matrix is bound up in the ideas it evokes more than the world it creates; it is, after all, a version of Plato’s allegory of the cave. As I do not share Tolkien’s disdain for allegory, this is not a complaint, though I would complain that the majority of such works, while operating in a roughly allegorical mode – at least, as distinct from “feigned history” – fall short of allegory. Marvel movies, for example, are popularly granted the status of “myth” because they have a kind of broad, easily grasped simplicity, but in fact, they stand for next to nothing. They have the simplicity of fairy tales without the meaning.
I bring all this up because the spirit of Star Wars is bound up in its unmatched (I might dare say unique) ability to function as both allegory and “feigned history.” Star Wars is a political story that concerns the rise and fall of republics and empires. The galaxy far, far away captures our imaginations in much the same way as Middle-Earth (although it is far less rigorously cohesive, and attempts to make it so are doomed to fail). However, despite its sweeping scale, Star Wars is also an intimate, interpersonal story that centers around three generations of one family – parents and children, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters. Finally, Star Wars is a spiritual story, and this dimension binds the others together. The large-scale political drama and small-scale familial drama mirror each other because both are expressions of a struggle between light and darkness that is playing out cosmically, across the entire galaxy, and internally, in the characters’ souls. Moreover, this spiritual drama is meant to reflect and teach us about the internal processes of our own souls. That is to say, Star Wars has what Tolkien might call a “historical” level, on which everything is to be accepted at face value as a more or less realistic depiction of events and persons, as well as an “allegorical” level, on which everything is to be moralistically interpreted as symbolic of internal, spiritual phenomena.
The original films concern a conflict between a dictatorial empire and an upstart rebellion, as well as a conflict between a tyrannical father and his son. The political drama and the familial drama are naturally and easily conflated: the father is the icon of the empire, the son the icon of the rebellion. Furthermore, the father and the empire are icons of darkness, and the son and the rebellion are icons of light. The films depict a plausible external struggle with a “historical” verisimilitude, but at the same time, they allegorically teach us about our internal struggle for freedom from the tyranny of passion and vice. This freedom is attained through enlightenment, as Luke learns to see spiritual truth by looking beyond the material world, and through discipline, as Luke trains to master himself and become a Jedi. Neither one of these things is ultimately sufficient, though: Luke only overcomes evil in the end by loving his enemy and laying down his weapon in faith.
In the prequel trilogy, one individual’s fall from grace mirrors the splintering of a family unit, which in turn mirrors the collapse of an entire society. The fatal unbalance and incoherence of Anakin’s polarized soul reflects the instability and division of the world in which he lives. He is torn in two by the Jedi, who seek enlightenment through discipline without love, and the Sith, who tempt him to secure the love he craves by seizing power. Anakin’s fear of loss drives him to become Darth Vader; the Republic’s fear of loss drives it to become the Empire. As the Republic falls apart, the Skywalker family is split: husband is divided from wife, father from children, brother from sister. The films warn us against the dual dangers of detached indifference and inordinate attachment. They teach us, as T.S. Eliot puts it, “to care and not to care.”
Across Lucas’ six films, Star Wars draws an ineffable connection between the battle that takes place in the world and the battle that takes place in our souls. It urges us to fight the evil outside, but not to forget the evil inside, and suggests that there is not so much of a difference between the two as we might like to think. Whenever Star Wars ceases to operate on both of these levels – whenever it fails to function as either history or allegory – it becomes dissatisfying. The sequel trilogy advances the saga’s allegorical drama while largely failing to build a coherent historical drama. The materialistic Sith and the world-denying Jedi continue to strain towards some kind of synthesis, and the story of the Skywalker family comes to a close, but the overarching military conflict between the Resistance and the First Order is sketched too vaguely to be persuasive.
The Mandalorian, however, has the opposite problem, which is even worse: it is mere Star Wars lore without any symbolic significance. The Mandalorian is not a political story. It takes place in a sort of vague no man’s land; at the galaxy-wide level, nothing is at stake. The Mandalorian is not really a story about family, either, although it gestures to the idea of surrogate fatherhood. Nor is it a spiritual story. Baby Yoda’s use of the Force is not accompanied by any sense of the numinous, the uncanny, nor does it prompt any kind of spiritual awakening for him. Baby Yoda is, after all, more of a prop than a character; he has no interior to investigate, no soul to explore. The Mandalorian teaches us nothing about ourselves, our souls. It only seeks to placate us with spectacle, and perhaps this accounts for its popularity. It is too shallow, too mediocre, to really offend anyone. The tragic tradeoff, of course, is that it cannot really stir anyone, either. It captures the spirit of Star Wars about as much as frosting captures the spirit of cake: it has the texture, but not the substance. It may look like much, but it hasn’t got it where it counts.