Saturday, March 31, 2018

Shakespeare's Second Best Lampshade.

I said:

It will be remembered that Alan Dean Foster (nodding at Frank Herbert, I am sure) inserts a little quote from Princess Leia into his Star Wars novelization right after he introduces us to the Journal of the Whills. “They were in the wrong place at the wrong time: naturally they became heroes." Foster is obliquely acknowledging how heavily the Star Wars saga relies on coincidence. But everything Leia says is completely wrong. Luke and Han and the Droids were marked out as heroes from the very beginning. That is why the Plot made very sure that they were always in exactly the right place at exactly the right time.

Mike said:

I think this is a rare case where you are exactly wrong. Subsequent episodes have overwritten our perception of the original film, but looking at that film as a film -- a single, self-contained drama -- Leia's/Foster's analysis is not only spot on, it also precisely captures what's so magical about that film. There is nothing about Luke, Han, Chewie, R2D2 or C3PO that marks them out as suitable for a grand adventure. The only characters on our side with any kind of power are Ben and Leia; but he is decades past his prime, and she spends most of the film in captivity.


No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be an heroine.
Northanger Abbey

So: the Duchess's drunken uncle and her melancholy jester decide to play a prank on the puritanical steward.

The plan is to convince him, the steward, that she, the duchess is head over heals in love with him; and then convince her, the duchess, that he, the steward, is demon-possessed. As you do.

The prank depends on the steward being unbelievably vain (which he is) and the duchess being unbelievably stupid (which she isn't). It also depends on it suddenly turning out that the duchess and her chambermaid happen to have indistinguishable handwriting.

This is a bit of a stretch even by Shakespeare's standards: so just as the steward is swallowing the forged love-letter hook, line and sinker, a bit part player chips in with the famous words "If this were played upon the stage, I could condemn it as improbable fiction."

The TV Tropes website calls this kind of thing "lamp-shading", and Shakespeare is very fond of it. It isn't exactly breaking the fourth wall: Fabian doesn't know he's in a play, and he can't see the audience. If a real person had just negotiated Malvolio into such a successful heffalump trap, there is no reason at all why they wouldn't say "I’d never believe it if I saw it in a play!” I don't think it is quite true to say that Shakespeare is apologizing to the audience for the stream of plot devices he has just subjected them to. I don't think Shakespeare's audiences expected plays to be realistic: they went to the theater to see the surprising and the preposterous. I think that what Shakespeare is really doing is reminding us that everything in the play except this plot device is perfectly realistic, or at least asking us to pretend that it is. "This isn't just a story" he is saying "And these aren't just fairy tale characters. They are people just like you and me. This kind of thing doesn't happen to them every day. They are as surprised by it as you would be."

So: when Princess Leia (in the novelization of Star Wars) says "They were in the wrong place at the wrong time: naturally they became heroes" is she simply engaging in Shakespearean lamp-shading? Is she pretty much just saying "Luke Skywalker wasn't a hero; he was just a person who this stuff happened to. He felt as out of his depth on the Death Star as you would have done. I know it's all very far fetched and unlikely, but suspend your disbelief and enjoy yourself…."

It is, almost inevitably, more complicated than that.


If we are going to talk about Star Wars -- and indeed, if we are ever going to stop talking about Star Wars -- we have to keep three things very separate in our heads:

1: Star Wars, a stand-alone art-house movie from 1977 which made it very, very big.

2: The Star Wars Trilogy, a science fiction epic consisting of a slightly revised version of Star Wars plus The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and The Return of the Jedi (1983).

3: The Star Wars Saga, a six part epic consisting of substantially revised versions of the Star Wars Trilogy and three more films -- The Phantom Menace (1999), Attack of the Clones (2003) and The Revenge of the Sith (2005).

It is easy to forget that these are not at all the same thing; to assume that things we only found out in 2005 were already true in 1977. I just re-read the Dark Empire comic books, and was forcibly reminded that in 1995 there were no such things as Sith or Padawans, and no such planet as Coruscant.

Alan Dean Foster's book is definitely a novelization of Star Wars, not of Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. Darth Vader (first name: Darth; second name Vader) is merely a treacherous Jedi, one of a number of Dark Lords, not necessarily a pivotal persona in the galaxy. Luke Skywalker's father is still anonymous; he was a friend of Ben Kenobi and notable mainly as a star pilot. The only thing Ben says about Luke's heritage is that he is  "quite a good pilot".

In this version of the story, Luke Skywalker is no-one of consequence. The arc of Star Wars is spoiled if he is. Ben teaches him the meaning of the Force while he is practicing lightsaber fighting on the Millennium Falcon. He saves the universe 45 minutes later because he remembers and puts into practice what Ben taught him. Luke destroys the Death Star because he trusts his feelings, trusts the Force and trusts Ben Kenobi – not because he inherited superpowers from his dad.

So: is he a hero?

Well, the word hero has a number of different meanings. To a tabloid subeditor, anyone who has served in the armed forces in any capacity is by definition a war hero. Anyone who has done anything brave, whether saving a cat from a tree or going up a tall mountain by the difficult route could be said to have been heroic. If I admire a sportsman or a singer, I might say that they are my hero. For Wagner, hero is pretty much a job description: Siegfried is “the young hero” before he has done anything particularly brave. Joseph Campbell overloaded the word with Jungian symbolism and Freudian baggage, but a lot of the time, "hero" doesn't mean anything more than "the main character in a story."

So: the nub of the gist is that there is nothing heroic about Luke Skywalker, and nothing marks him out as a hero at the beginning of the story.

That is to say:

Having been explicitly told that Star Wars is a fairy tale, we would naturally assume that an orphan of mysterious parentage, living with a wicked, or at any rate indifferent uncle in a remote location is going to be a secondary and unimportant person in the story. We are, on our first viewing of Star Wars, surprised when Luke ends up taking center stage. After all, it comes as a surprise to us in the actual fairy tales when the plain, adopted and ill-treated sister gets to go to the big party and marries the prince: we naturally assumed the story was going to be about one of her older, prettier and more legitimate stepsisters. We are absolutely astonished when the Wart pulls the sword out of the stone: we assumed that big brother Kay was going to be king of England and kid brother Arthur was in there for comic relief. Even in the Good Book we all take it for granted that the singing shepherd is only in their for local colour; we very naturally assume that Samuel is going to pick one of the more impressive older brothers as King of the Jews.

Because that's how stories work.

Very ordinary people are sometimes thrust center stage by dumb luck. Some are born great; some achieve greatness; some have greatness thrust upon them. Shakespeare said that. It's part of the letter that causes Malvolio to make such a prat of himself. You never planned to be a disability rights campaigner, but you were sort of forced into the role when the steamroller ran over your legs. You'd planned to spend the next five years racing pigeons, but you were 19 and it was 1942 and you kind of just found yourself helping to save the world from Hitler. Those nice kids in America are in the public eye because they happened to be in school on the day when one of their classmates blew a fuse. If the terrible thing hadn't happened we'd never have heard of them. 

None of which is to denigrate the accidental hero. No-one chooses to live in dangerous times. All we have to do is to decide what to do with the time which is given us. (I think Shakespeare said that, too.)

So by all means scrub out the idea that Luke had special powers because of his lineage; by all means scrub out the idea that Daddy was anything more than one Jedi Knight among many; and definitely scrub out the idea that Ben Kenobi is on Tatooine specifically in order to watch over the Chosen One. That still doesn't give us Luke Skywalker the accidental hero; Luke Skywalker who just happened to be in the shopping center when the bomb went off. Rather the contrary. A huge series of massively unlikely coincidences conspire to put him in the pilot's seat above Yavin at the precise moment when the entire future of the galaxy is hanging on one single proton torpedo. The more ordinary Luke Skywalker is, the more it looks as if the Galaxy, the Force or the Plot are fudging things to put him in that driving seat.

  • Luke Skywalker who is no-one of any importance is living in an unimportant settlement on an unimportant planet. By sheer coincidence, the last Jedi Knight in the universe just happens to be living a few hours drive from his front door.
  • By sheer coincidence, the last Jedi Knight just happened to know both Luke's father and also his father's murderer.
  • A Top Rebel Agent comes to Luke's planet to recruit the Last Jedi Knight to the rebellion. By sheer coincidence, she just happens to be a pretty young woman of about Luke Skywalker's age.
  • The Imperials capture the Rebel Agent before she can get to the Last Jedi. By sheer coincidence, the Imperial Agent who captures her just happens to be the Last Jedi's former apprentice and the murderer of Luke's father.
  • The Rebel Agent hides a message to the Last Jedi in a robot. By sheer coincidence, the robot just happens to be picked up (in the middle of a desert) by used robot salesmen.
  • By sheer coincidence, the traders next stop-off point just happens to be Luke's entirely unimportant homestead in the middle of nowhere. (If the sandcrawler had gone somewhere else first, there would have been no story.)
  • By sheer coincidence, Luke's uncle just happens to be in the market for some new robots. (If he had had plenty of robots, or been skint, there would have been no story.)
  • Luke's Uncle wants to buy the Little Red Robot, but by sheer coincidence, it explodes a few seconds after he hands over the money, and Luke's Uncle takes the secret-message carrying Blue Robot instead. (This is such a stretch that at least two different bits of fan lore exist to explain it.)
Once Artoo Detoo is in Luke's Skywalker's possession, the plot develops reasonably naturally from the choices Luke makes: not too many more coincidences are needed to nudge him in the right direction. He takes out Artoo's restraining bolt because he wants to rescue the damsel in distress; he follows Artoo into the desert because of his recklessness and his bad relationship with his uncle; he volunteers to go with Ben to Alderaan because of his restlessness and wanderlust; he tries to rescue Leia from the Detention Block because he's in love with her hologram. It is however, important that, by sheer coincidence, Darth Vader just happens to choose exactly the right moment to blow up Leia's home planet. If he had delayed by even ten minutes the planet would have been intact when the Millennium Falcon arrived and the ending of Star Wars would have been much more like the ending of Rogue One. If he had lost patience with Leia ten minutes earlier, the Death Star would have been long gone by the time the Millennium Falcon arrived in the place where Alderaan used to be. The Princess would never have been rescued (boo), Obi-Wan would never have been killed (hooray) and the Millennium Falcon would not have accidentally revealed the location of the rebel base to Darth Vader.

None of this should be read as criticism of Star Wars. The film is a masterpiece of structure and form; really the only weak link is Leia's "they let us go.." moment at the end of the third act. Everyone manages to be the main character in their own story: to Luke, Leia is the damsel in distress who he travels half way across the galaxy to rescue; but to Leia, Luke is little more than an undersized country bumpkin who blunders in to her cell with no plan for getting out. Ben is an old warrior coming to the end of his tale; Luke simply the latest in a long line of young hotshots he has introduced to the Force. And Han Solo is a professional adventurer. Ten years down the line he'll be sitting in another bar on another planet boasting about that one time he rescued an actual princess from a battle-station the size of a small moon. But various plot magnets pull their stories together. Ben Kenobi pulls Leia and Artoo and Vader towards Tatooine; Leia pulls Luke and Ben and Han to the Death Star, and the Falcon leads everyone back to Yavin.

But the first half of the movie still takes a lot of swallowing. I suppose we could apply the Samwise Gamgee theory of narrative. As soon as he asks the question "Why do people in stories never turn back from their quests?" he can see that the answer is "Because the ones who did turn back never had stories written about them." So we might say "Luke Skywalker is the hero because he happens to be the person who Artoo Detoo fetched up with." Someone was bound to get the message eventually; the story might just as well have been "from the adventures of Wormie Starkiller" or "from the adventures of Camie Loneozner".

But I don't think that works for five minutes. Wormie's dad wasn't Ben Kenobi's best mate; and so far as we know he wasn't a hot pilot, certainly not hot enough to learn how to fly an X-Wing in no seconds flat. I think that The Plot is quite clearly at work; driving us to the moment when Luke Skywalker and The Guy Who Killed Luke Skywalker's Dad are chasing each other down the Death Star Trench. Luke has a personal stake in the battle between Obi-Wan and Obi-Wan's apprentice that no-one else in the galaxy could possibly have. 

So let's admit that Star Wars is massively driven by fate and coincidence and plot device. Alan Dean Foster could see this clearly; and he could also see that this was precisely what made the film so much fun. So he hung a lampshade on the very first page. 

"If this were written up as a movie novelization" says Princess Leia "You would condemn it as a bit of a stretch."


“Oh but Andrew,” I can hear you saying “This is far too straightforward. Why do you assume that it is Luke Skywalker who Princess Leia is talking about. She doesn’t mention him by name. And there are other heroes in the story.”

That is a very good point. Ben Kenobi is one of the heroes; but he wasn’t in the wrong place at the wrong time – he was summoned by Princess Leia. And Princess Leia herself is one of the heroes, but she wasn’t in the wrong place at the wrong time either: she’d been sent on a really important mission by the Rebel Alliance. And Han Solo and Chewie were heroes, albeit mercenary heroes, and even they weren't really in the wrong place at the wrong time. They were adventurers by profession, in a tavern waiting for a patron to hire them.

So who else could the Princess be talking about?

Once you have asked the question, the answer is embarrassingly obvious. There is indeed an innocent bystander who gets drawn into the story entirely by accident and becomes the most pivotal character in the whole adventure. Princess Leia could have entrusted her secret message and her secret plans to any one of a dozen astromech droids on the blockade runner. Artoo Detoo just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

All stories are true. Of course Artoo Detoo is the hero of Star Wars. He's the one with the secret mission and the secret plans inside him. He's the one who brings Luke to Ben. He's with Luke on the X-Wing at the end. The very first line in the film is Threepio talking to him; the very last line is Threepio asking about his welfare. So why wouldn't Leia, looking back years after the events, remembering how she unwittingly involved two lowly robots in Galactic events, say "They were in the wrong place at the wrong time...naturally they became heroes."

This makes the ret-con which said that Artoo knew Leia’s mummy and Threepio was kit built by his daddy even less forgivable. But it does give the problematic ending of Star Wars a hitherto unnoticed irony. While the humans are awarding each other medals in an incredibly overdone awards ceremony with undisguised Nazi overtones, the actual heroes are looking on from the sidelines. Doing, I suppose, the robotic equivalent of smiling wryly. And Princess Leia is in on the joke.


Andrew Ducker said...

"Having been explicitly told that Star Wars is a fairy tale, we would naturally assume that an orphan of mysterious parentage, living with a wicked, or at any rate indifferent uncle in a remote location is going to be a secondary and unimportant person in the story"

I assume that this is satire.

"(I think Shakespeare said that, too.)"

And now you are _definitely_ trolling us.

As to your closing thesis, I assume you've read A New Sith:

Andrew Rilstone said...

Yes -- isn't that clear? If not I ought to panic and change it...

NickS said...

First time commenter (I found you from Mike's blog) let me first say how very much I have enjoyed this entire series of posts. Each one has been interesting, and it's been fascinating to read you continuing to mull over the films (and the franchise in general.

I might suggest that the simplest way to bridge the gap between Mike and your perspectives is to be a little be selective in interpreting the word "they" in the quote. I agree that the plot is strong with Luke and Ben (and Leia, though she wouldn't have been the subject of the quote anyways since it's attributed to her), but the description applies cleanly to almost everybody else (Han, Chewbacca, C3P0, R2 (who clearly had the "right stuff" all along, but also never intended to get into the adventure which ended up happening), even Wedge and the rest of Red Squadron). Most of those are secondary/minor characters in the movie but they all became heroes and legends by being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

NickS said...

Re-reading the post I see, embarrassingly, that I had skimmed the second half and missed that you anticipated my point. I do think you dismiss Han & Chewie too quickly for the sake of a good and humorous point. Not only would they not have described themselves as heroes, we are supposed to take his decision to return to the battle at the end of the movie as an important change in the character.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Welcome aboard, glad you find my witterings meaningful.

I think I am going to defend what I said about Han and Chewie. Roy Thomas and Brian Daley both spotted that Han Solo was the character in Star Wars who could most easily sustain spinoff stories -- he had clearly led, and would continue to lead, and adventurous life, rebellion or no rebellion. It is easy to imagine an alternate "Star Wars 2" in which Han is out pirating again and is persuaded to help Luke against his better nature. It is also easy to imagine a sequel without Han, in which Luke finds himself in a temporary alliances with some other rogue. I am far from sure that we are supposed to read the ending as a change in Solo's character. I think it is where he shows his true colours; he reveals (as we've always suspected) that he is that old B movie standard, the Rogue With The Heart Of Gold.

It is true if he hadn't met Luke that one time, he would never have been a decorated Hero of the Rebellion.