TCS Daily

Aristotle, Jedi Master

By Pejman Yousefzadeh - May 24, 2005 12:00 AM

My name is Pejman and I have a love-hate relationship with Star Wars. My (immensely geeky) critiques of the franchise are contained here and here in the event that anyone is interested in reading them. And yet, with the release of the last movie in the franchise, I come not to bury Star Wars but to praise it.

Part of the popular attraction to Star Wars has to do with the mystical aspect of the story (the Force, the Jedi Knights, the Sith, etc.). Part of it has to do with the special effects -- which have always been ahead of their times. Part of it probably revolves around the fact that while there are plot holes aplenty in the movies, the story itself is a grand and beautiful myth when viewed on a macro level; one we cannot help but be enchanted and taken with. And of course, the music is legendary. Composer John Williams has mastered completely the art of the Wagnerian leitmotif, and the recurring musical themes that occur throughout the films help bind the franchise together and aid immeasurably in the telling of the story.

But my praise of Star Wars has to do with another aspect of the franchise. The events of the Star Wars universe are precipitated in large part by the fall of Anakin Skywalker to the Dark Side of the Force, the renunciation of his identity and name, and his rebirth as Darth Vader, Dark Lord of the Sith. To be sure, the first two movies of the prequel trilogy have much to answer for in terms of telling a coherent story, acting, directing and dialogue. But when one takes a larger look at the story of Anakin Skywalker's fall, one sees a special genius at work in the creation of that story.

And no, the genius in question is not George Lucas. Lucas succeeded in following the rules and using the elements of classical tragedy to tell the story of how Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader. But those rules and elements were themselves laid down for posterity a long time ago, in a country relatively far away.

It was Aristotle in his Poetics (a very good translation of which can be found here) who discussed the construction of the tragic drama. Aristotle notes that the fortunes of the tragic hero must swing "from happiness to misery; and the cause of it must not lie in any depravity, but in some great error on his part. . ." (Emphasis mine). Tragic fear and pity, on the part of the audience, "may be aroused by the Spectacle . . . he who simply hears the account of [the tragedy] shall be filled with horror and pity at the incidents. . ." (Emphasis mine). Thus, the tragic hero must have a fatal flaw, or "some great error" that helps arouse "horror and pity" on the part of the audience.

Aristotle also reflects on "the deed of horror" that is done to the tragic hero, noting that one of the ways in which the deed could be done is through an act of malevolence on the part of the villain against the tragic hero. In matching up the tragic hero and the villain, Aristotle indicates that the poet must take care to make the villain's strengths appropriate to take advantage of the hero's tragic flaws.

When we use these guidelines, we see that in the Aristotelian universe, neither Romeo and Juliet, nor Hamlet really measure up to Aristotle's definition of a tragedy. The star-crossed lovers would have lived, and would have been happy together if only someone had told Romeo that his beloved was merely asleep, and not dead. No villain played upon some tragic flaw inherent in Romeo and Juliet in order to kill them. And while the deaths of the Prince of Denmark, his mother, his uncle and Laertes were shocking and bloody, they were not tragically pitiable in the manner that Aristotle describes because no real fatal flaw on the part of Hamlet was taken advantage of in luring him to his death. On the contrary, Hamlet knows precisely what he is getting into in agreeing to the duel with Laertes and instead of inspiring pity, his words abound with courage in facing danger:

        We defy augury, There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow, 
        If it be now, 'tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be 
        not now, yet it will come, The readiness is all. Since no man, of aught he 
        leaves, knows aught, what is't to leave betimes? Let be. (Act V, Scene ii).

Hamlet died a hero's death. The bloodshed there, and in Romeo and Juliet could be called calamitous, but it was not tragically pitiable. On the contrary, Hamlet's manifestation of courage and the words that speak to that courage are thrilling.

Aristotelian conventions are followed brilliantly in Othello, which is perhaps one of the finest tragedies ever written. Othello is noble and pure of thought, and believes others to be the same. Thus his incredibly misplaced and heartbreaking appellation of his unknown enemy as "honest Iago," when in fact, Iago is anything but honest. Being pure of thought, Othello is instantly shocked and enraged beyond measure at the merest hint that his beloved Desdemona might be making a cuckold out of him. And he instantly accepts Iago's story that Desdemona is unfaithful, leading to tragic consequences for the lady he loved, and for Othello, who upon realizing his grievous error, kills himself. While Othello is naive and noble, Iago is perfectly matched against him as unscrupulous and cunning to an unearthly degree. His plan to ensnare and destroy Othello is perfectly matched against Othello's flaws:

        The Moor is of a free and open nature, That thinks men honest that but 
        seem to be so, And will as tenderly be led by the nose As asses are. I 
        have't; it is engender'd: hell and night Must bring this monstrous birth to 
        the world's light. (Act I, Scene iii).

And the destruction of Othello occurs apace, exactly as Iago foresaw. The villain takes advantage of the flaw inherent in the tragic hero, and picks at it until it becomes a gaping and fatal wound.

So it is with Anakin Skywalker. He is a powerful Jedi with precocious skills, but also petulant, whiny, arrogant and impatient with his fellow Jedi. He lacks the patience and the maturity necessary to become a great and good Jedi Master -- one who can tell the difference between Light and Darkness and who possesses the strength to embrace the former and forsake the latter. In Attack of the Clones, Anakin loses his mother and then bemoans his failure to save her. When reminded that he is not all powerful, Anakin snaps "I should be! Someday, I will be," which indicates that a noble desire to gain power in order to save the people he loves could very well twist and corrupt him. Meanwhile, Chancellor Palpatine serves as the expert tragic villain. Attack of the Clones gives us the first glimpse of Palpatine's efforts to play to Anakin's ego, to assume the role of a father figure who assures Anakin that someday, he will grow into a Jedi Master even more powerful than Yoda. Without giving too much away, in Revenge of the Sith, Palpatine continues to play on Anakin's arrogance and growing dissatisfaction with the Jedi Order, as well as Anakin's fear of losing those he loves to convert the young Jedi Knight into a Sith Lord of vicious and horrifying proportions. In the end, Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader will "as tenderly be led by the nose As asses are," and thus ensures the destruction of his own self, as well as all that he held dear and sought to protect with the purest of hearts.

The appeal of George Lucas's opus goes beyond mere special effects. We might not feel and instinctive connection with the ancient Greek philosophers, but their thoughts on art and life affect us in many more ways than we give them credit for. And for those who wonder why it is that the storyline of the Star Wars franchise exercises so strong a hold on its fans, wonder no more. In the making of the Star Wars myth, a master even older than Yoda was at work.


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