Gerry Canavan

the smartest kid on earth

Tolkien, THE FORCE AWAKENS, and the Sadness of Expanded Universes

with 41 comments

(some spoilers near the end of the post, though I try to be vague)

Not long after completing The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien briefly began work on a sequel called The New Shadow, set 100 to 150 years later during the reign of Aragorn’s son Eldarion. (The main link between the two stories is the minor character Beregond, the noble but disgraced soldier of Gondor whose son, Borlas, would have been a major character in The New Shadow.) The New Shadow reveals that the eucatastrophic fairy-tale ending of The Return of the King was extremely short-lived; with the Elves and the Wizards gone from Middle-earth, the Dwarves moving underground, and the Hobbits now isolated in what amounts to an enclave in the Shire, Men are quickly falling back into their old bad habits. In fact the Men of Gondor already seem to have forgotten much of the details of the War of the Ring, even though it remains in living memory: they seem not to remember, or take seriously, the fact that they once strode with gods and angels in a war against pure evil, and were victorious. Instead, children play at being Orcs for fun; the death of Elessar has been an occasion for political striving and reactionary plots; and even something like a secret death cult of devil-worshipping rebels seems to be spreading through the elites of Gondor.

Tolkien wrote 13 pages of it.

He later wrote:

I did begin a story placed about 100 years after the Downfall, but it proved both sinister and depressing. Since we are dealing with Men it is inevitable that we should be concerned with the most regrettable feature of their nature: their quick satiety with good. So that the people of Gondor in times of peace, justice and prosperity, would become discontented and restless — while the dynasts descended from Aragorn would become just kings and governors — like Denethor or worse. I found that even so early there was an outcrop of revolutionary plots, about a centre of secret Satanistic religion; while Gondorian boys were playing at being Orcs and going around doing damage. I could have written a ‘thriller’ about the plot and its discovery and overthrow — but it would have been just that. Not worth doing.

Instead, Tolkien turned his attention back to the imaginative project that had more or less defined his life: The Silmarillion, begun between 1914 and 1917, which he tinkered with on and off until his death in 1973. The Silmarillion has always marked, I think, the grey line between being a casual Tolkien fan and becoming a Tolkien enthusiast — a path that then leads one even further into Christopher Tolkien’s twelve-volume History of Middle-Earth and the discovery of Tolkien’s own very elaborate (and somewhat fannish) self-commentary on his legendarium alongside many multiple alternate drafts of the narratives that form the barely glimpsed mythological background of The Lord of the Rings. 

The Silmarillion is nominally a prequel — ostensibly it is the Elvish legends that Bilbo translated and appended to the Red Book while he was retired in Rivendell — but the published version of the book includes a two-page summary of the War of the Ring that culminates in a brief, New-Shadow-style glimpse past Aragorn’s reign. We are reminded of the sapling of the White Tree that Aragorn and Gandalf find in the mountains near Gondor, which Aragorn plants in Minas Tirith as a symbol of his reign, and told that “while it still grew there the Elder Days were not wholly forgotten in the hearts of the Kings.” While it still grew there — which is to say, it doesn’t grow there anymore.

I don’t know that I would call this material “sinister,” but I taught The Silmarillion this semester after having tried and failed to read it as a child, and I think it would certainly be fair to call it “depressing.” What looks, in The Lord of the Rings, like a fairy-tale about how good and decent folk are able to do the impossible and defeat evil (with just a little bit of help from the divine, here and there) becomes in The Silmarillion and The New Shadow and Tolkien’s pseudo-theological commentary only the briefest, most temporary respite from a nightmare history in which things always turn out wrong, millennia after millennia after millennia. In fact Arda, the planet on which the continent of Middle-earth rests, is a cursed and fallen place, infused with evil and wickedness at its material core, and the only thing to do is raze the place and start over, as Eru Ilúvatar will at long last at the very end of time. To study Tolkien beyond Lord of the Rings is to come to a keen understanding of how tragic this history actually is, how Return of the King looks like a happy ending mostly because that’s where Tolkien (quite deliberately and self-consciously) decided to stop writing. But the Fourth Age was no better than the Third, and likely quite worse, and on and on through the degenerative millennia that bring us to the end of the Sixth Age and the beginning of the Seventh with the fall of the Third Reich and the development of the atom bomb.

I’ve been thinking about The New Shadow since it became clear that The Force Awakens would be borrowing from the Expanded Universe the notion that the Battle of Endor at the end of Return of the Jedi did not mark a full or permanent victory for the Rebel Alliance. The Force Awakens is The New Shadow, sinister and depressing, except they decided to go ahead and do it anyway. I joked in the link post earlier this morning that you can tell who read the EU novels and who didn’t based on whether your reaction to The Force Awakens is sadness — but the events of The Force Awakens, as sad as they are, are really only the tip of the iceberg in terms of how horribly Luke, Leia, and Han are punished in the EU novels, over and over, as everything they attempt to build turns to ash and the galaxy repeatedly falls into chaos, war, and catastrophe. In the farthest reaches of the EU universe, the Star Wars Legacy comics, set around 140 years or so after the Battle of Yavin, Luke’s descendent Cade Skywalker wanders a Galaxy that is again in war, as it always is, with a resurgent Empire again ruled by Sith masters — and when one casts oneself into the mists of time in the other direction (in material like the Knights of the Old Republic games, set thousands of years before A New Hope) one finds more or less the same basic story of genocidal total war playing out there too. Star Wars has always been, in the EU at least, a universe more or less without hope, that only looked hopeful to casual fans because they were looking too closely at just a very slender part of it.

This is why, while I can certainly understand the impulse to complain about The Force Awakens as derivative, I really think this is more repetition with a difference than mere or base or stupid repetition. One Death Star is a horror; two Death Stars and one Starkiller Base and whatever horrific murder innovation the First Order will come up with for Episode 9 is something more like the inexorable logic of history, grinding us all to dust. Likewise, it’s true that The Force Awakens hits many of the same story beats as the Original Trilogy, but almost always in ways that are worse: the death of Obi-Wan was sad but mysterious, suggestive of a world beyond death which the Jedi could access, while the death of The Force Awakens‘s version of Obi-Wan is not only brutally material but visceral, and permanent, as far as we have any reason to believe right now. The loss of Alderaan is sad, but the loss of what appears to be the entire institutional apparatus of the resurgent Republic is unthinkably devastating; aside from the loss of life it would take decades for the Galaxy to recover from such an event, even if they weren’t having to fight off the First Order while doing it. The film is extremely vague about the relationship between the Republic and “the Resistance,” but it appears to be a proxy guerrilla war against the First Order fought inside their own territory, secretly funded by the Republic — and prosecuted by Leia, Akbar, Nien Nunb, and all our heroes from the first movies, whose lives are now revealed as permanently deformed by a forever war they can never put down or escape. (If you want to ask me where Lando is, I think he said “good enough” after Endor and walked away, and that sort of makes me hope they never find him, never drag him back into it.) It’s horrible to lose a parent to addiction, or to mental illness, or to ordinary everyday cruelty, however you want to allegorize Vader’s betrayal of his children — but how much worse would it be to lose a child to it, how much worse would such a thing taint every aspect of your life and poison all your joy.

That Star Wars implies a world of sorrow belied by the spectacle of Jedi‘s happy ending isn’t a surprise to me — I told you, I read the EU books — but I can see why it’s a surprise to someone whose last memory of these people is smiles, a fireworks display, hugs, and a picnic. Return of the Jedi never asked us what we thought would happen when those people woke up the next morning and the Empire still had 90% of its guns, ships, territory, generals, and soldiers, ready to descend into vicious, scorched-earth fanaticism as they slid into defeat; it just wasn’t that kind of story. The Force Awakens is that kind of story, and I find that interesting enough to be excited about 8 and 9, to see where they try to take this story now that it turns out fairy-tales aren’t real and that deeply entrenched totalitarian systems don’t have exhaust ports, trench runs, or single points of failure. So I think the emerging critical consensus that The Force Awakens infantilizes its audience by re-presenting us with the same images we all saw as children is actually deeply wrong: The Force Awakens condemns Luke, Leia, and Han to actually live inside history, rather than transcend it, and it condemns us too.

41 Responses

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  1. I predict, incidentally, that this is the solution to what appears to be the “Mary-Sueism” governing Rey and to a lesser extent Kylo Ren in the film. I still think the Force “awakens” in Episode 7 because the Force is currently chaotic and uncontrolled — and what looks like bad writing that leaves Rey and Ren looking massively overpowered compared to characters from the other movies is in fact a plot point about what happens when the Force isn’t being tended and is left on its own. I think the Force, in the absence of human attention, is actually dangerous, like an ungrounded electrical current. I think the punchline of this whole thing is that Luke has to restart the Jedi Order whether he wants to or not — because, as Tolkien would have known, the Force needs a gardener.


    December 23, 2015 at 9:02 am

    • Massively overpowered?

      Compared to the fight between Anakin and Obi-Wan or the one between Sidious and Yoda, they appear absolutely weak! They can only use their force influence on normal, non-force users. When it comes to a fight, they basically bash each other’s heads in. They can’t move objects while fighting with lightsabers nor use force push, lightning etc. How is any action of them overpowered?


      Are you pissed that a woman is the hero? Or would you say that Anakin winning the pod race and subsequently destroying the droid command ship was also “Mary-Sueism”? What about Luke destroying the death star? We never saw how some youngster from a backwater planet learned to pilot a fighter. Really, it’s completely “Mary-Sue”-inconceivable how a whiny farm boy could become the hero of the rebellion. The force was strong with him, you say? Or was it his penis that gave him those abilities?


      December 24, 2015 at 3:44 pm

      • Look, I love Rey. (See my other post — I cried both times I watched the movie, beginning with the scene in the snow where she gets the lightsaber.) I love that this is my daughter’s Star Wars and that she gets to see herself as the chosen one.

        I used “Mary Sue” as a shorthand, perhaps inadvisedly, to name what does appear to be an issue with the film: that Kylo and especially Ren both seem to have an affinity for Force powers, as novices, that goes beyond even what well-trained characters could do in other movies. From Kylo stopping the bolt in midair and invasive mind-reading to Rey’s ability to do all sorts of Jedi tricks without having received any training whatsoever, something seems to be up with the Force. All Luke could do when he started was hit a million-to-one shot with his targeting computer off…


        December 24, 2015 at 4:40 pm

      • Anakin’s performance throughout Episode I is massive Mary Sueism, as has been noted in plenty of places over the decade since Episode I came out.

        Rey is less of a Mary Sue, but still is one — though all Jedi characters have a broad range of skills (in addition to their force powers), there seems to be absolutely nothing in the movie that Rey isn’t amazing at. She’s a pilot, she’s an engineer, she’s a medic, she fights and wins a lightsaber duel with no training (not even a clear idea of what the Force is!) against a man who trained under Luke Skywalker AND leader Snoke, and everyone on her team absolutely loves her. It’s been pointed out elsewhere that Finn, though allegedly her co-star, doesn’t really do ANYTHING she couldn’t have done (better) on her own — and the same goes for Han Solo, come to think of it. They’re just little moons in loose orbit around Planet Rey. And that’s the *definition* of “Mary Sue.”

        Anakin had this, of course, in a big way. Luke didn’t: the only things he does with the Force in prior to training with Yoda are (1) make one good shot against the Death Star, and (2) just baaaaarely force-pulling a lightsaber to him in the wampa cavern. His first saber duel comes after his training with Yoda… and he STILL loses to Darth Vader. Really badly. He’s a good pilot and that’s it; he’s never much of a Force-user and notably LOSES his battle with the Emperor and has to be rescued by Darth Vader.

        It’s absurd — insane, actually — to accuse the author of penis-based bias here. Rey is a bit of a Mary Sue. She’s still a lot of fun, and hopefully they can give her allies more to do in Episode 8.


        December 28, 2015 at 6:59 pm

      • Everyone claiming Rey has too much affinity for the force is ignoring two things:

        1) Rey has spent her life in Yoda-like self-abnegation: she already has learned the lessons Luke took two movies to learn.
        2) The title of the film. It’s fairly clear that an Awakening is something more than just another Jedi learning about the force. Vader didn’t sense Luke until they were close to each other, and Luke never felt anything like Rey did when she touched the lightsaber.

        People have already commented that TFA does something with Kylo Ren that the prequels tried and failed to do with Anakin Skywalker. I’d extend that: they also succeed where the prequels failed with the concept of a “vergence” in the Force. Not that I think Rey has no parents, but it’s clear she’s something more than what Luke was. The Force is in a panic as there were almost no Jedi left – at the time of ANH there were at least two living Jedi + Luke and Leia. Things were even more dire during TFA. Without Rey, Ren would have found Luke and the Dark Side would have WON.

        Also, Mary Sues are a stand in for the author. Due you really think Kasdan wants to be Rey?


        December 28, 2015 at 8:13 pm

  2. The other post I wrote on TFA is here, incidentally. It has a bit more optimism in it, because I was seeing it through my daughter’s eyes:

    I was saying on Twitter that 7,8,9 will have a happy ending, too, at least until another twenty years go by (if that) and they decide to do 10, 11, 12. My vision of the future of the Star Wars franchise now is a lot like the end of THE PRINCESS BRIDE, where the story ends happily because the grandfather never reads the last sentence.


    December 23, 2015 at 11:14 am

  3. G, your final comment about it’s not being infantalism that drives the box office ‘kid again’ feeling, but actually being forced to mirror our historical ’empires&republics’ (if that’s what SW8&9 are up to next) is exactly what the franchise ought to say….
    we don’t feel like youthful, per se again, but we feel so self-consciously the weight of parenting legacies themselves.
    What of the growth, what lasts in Rey, of the struggle….(will Luke become a surrogate father-Yoda to his new disciple???) &, Leia the baby boomer; a replacement to come for Han the father returned veteran (surely a tribute to Han Ford); and so on…


    December 23, 2015 at 10:15 pm

  4. Best thing I’ve read on TFA. Chappeaux!

    Stephen Frug

    December 24, 2015 at 8:33 am

  5. Hi Gerry — read your piece. So many of the plot dictates in Star Wars are actually just the result of the fundamental social structures and authoritarian physics inherent in the assumptions. I write on the empathetic development of societies and how they structure sentience — you can read my analysis at:

    Chuck Pezeshki

    December 24, 2015 at 11:21 am

  6. Thanks for the cool essay. The only thing I’d add, as an antidote to despair, is Tolkien’s depiction of Eru Iluvatar as saying that even Melkor’s discord made the glory of Eru all the greater – a Miltonic argument, and a Catholic one too, but it does suffuse the Nothern grimness of The Silmarillion with a bit of light.

    Scott Ruplin

    December 24, 2015 at 12:08 pm

    • We spent a lot of time thinking about those passages! Arda Remade includes all the heroism and nobility and self-sacrifice that was only possible after the corruption of the world. There’s a tiny element of “fortunate fall” here, though it’s very tiny (especially as Christopher Tolkien edited out some of the biggest examples….).


      December 24, 2015 at 12:43 pm

      • In 87 I was an English major at UW Madison, and we made a pilgrimage to see the Tolkien manuscripts at Marquette. Lucky you to teach there! Back then the curator let us actually touch the pages! The Book of Mazarbul! And Christopher T came and gave a talk and signed our books too.


        December 25, 2015 at 10:42 am

  7. I’m not sure what point of view you’re trying to express about Tolkien (or Star Wars, either). Are you saying that it’s a good thing Tolkien didn’t undercut the ending of The Lord of the Rings by finishing or publishing The New Shadow? But then you point out that The Silmarillion frames the larger story similarly; do you think it was a bad idea too for the same reason? But you seem to recognize that the sorrow of The Silmarillion is a truer expression of Tolkien’s heart than The Lord of the Rings, a rather misleading book when viewed on its own (but not one whose ending is devoid of sorrow, either). You don’t seem to think Tolkien should have been false to himself and peddled faked-up jollity.

    I’m also a little puzzled by your phrase describing Arda as “the planet on which the continent of Middle-earth rests.” You’ve divined the relationship between Arda and Middle-earth, which puzzles many people, but “the planet” sounds like it’s a different planet from ours. Yet at the end of the paragraph you show that you recognize that it is intended as our own past history, another point many have difficulty grasping. (Although you attribute to the Sixth and Seventh Ages a certainty not attributable to Tolkien, a fact which the source you link to acknowledges.)


    December 24, 2015 at 12:43 pm

    • I think Tolkien was conflicted about these things: he imagines a world governed by divine love but constantly collapsing into disaster. I think, from his statements about it, that he made a deliberate choice to end on the happy idea rather than to keep going and “taint” the end of ROTK.

      My speculation though is that the story of THE NEW SHADOW would ultimately have been a “happy” story about Eru Iluvater coming to Arda/Earth as Christ, which he hinted from time to time in his notes would be a necessary part of Middle-earth history. But that is really just speculative.


      December 24, 2015 at 12:52 pm

  8. Of all the commentaries, complaints and glorifying of the new SW movie, this is by far the best.

    Really, commentary on these movies falls into two forms: inside and outside. Outside commentary will say things like: “The war has to keep continuing because what else would you have a movie do ? If you want to keep the franchise going, you have to keep the conflict going.”

    Yours is the best of the “inside” comments: assuming the world of the movies is real and should be looked at as such. Bringing in Tolkien is quite logical (even though I hadn’t thought of it), since in some ways, SW may be an attempt at what LotR was trying: to create a living mythos.

    Your piece is well thought out and takes a deep and long look at what this movie means. As usual, many, even the most fanatic fans will say “But it’s just a movie.” when brought up to face thoughts like this. But that’s their loss.

    Well done. I’m going to make sure many of my friends see this.


    December 24, 2015 at 12:49 pm

    • While the internet could quibble about the details for an age, I agree with the spirit of the article. Well said, this is a reality many overlook, willingly or no. But I would go so far to say that this is also the story of own earth. Nazism is defeated and communism rose. The fall of the USSR left a Balkan war then a Middle East in chaos. Tolkien himself survived WWI just to send his sons off to WWII. Humanity is fighting the “long defeat” against itself, even as our heroes in LotR or in Star Wars. But just because a story is sad or full of loss, does not deprive it of worth. Without the struggle where would we see the small eucatastrophies with which we are given? Just because Minis Tirith falls a thousand years since, does it make the ride of the Rohirrim any less glorious? May it never be! However, from a literary standpoint, I appreciate that we are left with the Return of the King. I abhor the modern literary idea (see: Game of Thrones) that all must end in horror and death. Let us enjoy our hero’s triumphs for their own merit. Life is dark enough as it is, no need to encourage the literary cult of death.

      Zan Campbell

      December 24, 2015 at 11:13 pm

  9. I’m just wondering how much of what you complain of is not so much a reflection of the Universe, but a reflection of basic story structure. How many blockbusters have plots that go, essentially, “Once upon a time, they lived happily ever after?” (I tried that one on my kids, on a bedtime when I was feeling particularly tired. It didn’t fly.)
    That said, so far as the real world goes, there is always unequal distribution, always greed, misfortune, and flat out insanity. Material for those of us who write stories.


    December 25, 2015 at 7:56 am


  11. […] underlying problem: they tried so hard to explain that they killed the joy of the thing itself. The expanded universe is a really sad place. Action figures aren’t fun if you know the entire story, and have a script to perform; the point […]

  12. Gerry, I read your article when it was picked up by Salon and followed it over here.

    “Likewise, it’s true that The Force Awakens hits many of the same story beats as the Original Trilogy, but almost always in ways that are worse”

    Something that really surprised me during TFA is that there was on screen blood. The Original Trilogy has been criticized for the bloodlessness contributing to a world where the horrors of war are made abstract and cleaned up, but for some reason I haven’t seen any comments on this yet. From the moment the dying Storm trooper rubs his (or her) bloody hand over Finn’s mask to Kylo Ren beating his wound through the climactic fight with Rey, there’s blood and it isn’t just an aesthetic decision, it’s a plot point. I don’t know what kind of a long term affect this will have in the franchise. If the end result of Disney making Star Wars films as is to emphasize the pessimistic nature that history just repeats itself, this is a way to say that the film makers know what that means.

    A M B (@bonomoam)

    December 26, 2015 at 1:37 pm

    • That’s a really nice point. The bloody handprint on the white helmet is a really striking visual marker of difference here in a number of ways.


      December 26, 2015 at 1:41 pm

  13. I liked this essay more than I liked The Force Awakens! Not being a fan of the original Star Wars movies (except, to a modest extent, The Empire Strikes Back), to me the recycling of the plot elements of the first film was quite tiresome. (The callback to Han’s misuse of the term “parsec” as a measure of speed rather than distance was particularly grating. Is this mistake really something that people have affection for and want to hear repeated?) This essay salvages at least the possibility that this was an intentional comment on the depressing nature of historical cycles and not just the depressing result of an insatiable thirst for sequels and empty nostalgia.

    Janice Dawley

    December 27, 2015 at 2:04 pm

  14. If you think that the Lord of the Rings has a fairy tale ending, I fear you may be letting your memory of the movie bleed into the events of the book.


    December 28, 2015 at 5:17 am

  15. […] Tolkien Star Wars Mashup […]

  16. […] 5. Lawn signs for politicians seem to matter.  And the pessimism of The Force Awakens. […]

    Tuesday assorted links

    December 29, 2015 at 11:25 am

  17. […] Ross Douthat tweeted about it.  If you’ve read this far into this post, click over to that short essay here and read it. It’s great […]

  18. […] fascinating article about how Tolkein saw Middle Earth after Lord of the Rings, and the parallels found in Star Wars: […]

  19. […] Tolkien, The Force Awakens, and the Sadness of Expanded Universes […]

  20. […] “Tolkien, The Force Awakens, and the Sadness of Expanded Universes,” an astonishingly excellent post; if I had to draw one lesson it would be that every […]

  21. […] farce (PRL/PiS). Reddit pointed me recently in the direction of an excellent post by Gerry Canavan, Tolkien, THE FORCE AWAKENS, and the Sadness of Expanded Universes that discusses just that. I still think that [major spoiler, highlight to read] authors took the […]

  22. […] 5. Lawn signs for politicians seem to matter.  And the pessimism of The Force Awakens. […]

  23. […] find pointing this all out this helpful as a response to this attempt to compare the new Star Wars universe with Tolkien’s Legendarium. The claim is that, by showing us how history repeats itself, and how even the greatest victory is […]

  24. Reblogged this on the boethian acolyte and commented:
    I am, in a good natured way, somewhat jealous of this article – it’s beautifully written and captures something of the deeper structure of the Middle-earth and Star Wars mythos, the notes of sadness often missed both by critics and casual fans. It reminds me of the defenses of Tolkien raised by writers such as C.S. Lewis and W.H. Auden. Well done.


    January 11, 2016 at 8:41 pm

  25. […] like all good art, accurately reflect reality. So what exactly am I talking about then? Well this blog post got me thinking about the fact that The Force Awakens in many ways ruins the happy ending of The […]

  26. […] literature professor Gerry Canavan, whom I follow on Twitter, wrote a thoughtful essay in December about the unrelenting darkness that seems to envelop the universes of both The Lord of the Rings […]

  27. […] Gerry Canavan noted in an exceptionally astute reading of The Force Awakens, the recent spate of Star Wars films are significantly more pessimistic in […]

  28. […] professor of English at Marquette University. Salon re-published a piece Mr. Canavan posted at his personal blog that delved into fascinating and profound aspects of The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars and, by […]

  29. […] première version de cet essai est parue sur le blog de […]

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