Putting a Ring on Star Wars by Dom Nardi
In the DVD documentary “The Beginning: Making Episode I,” George Lucas famously described the relationship between the Original Trilogy and the Prequel Trilogy as “like poetry. Every stanza kind of rhymes with the last one.” In the audio commentary to The Phantom Menace, he adds, “You just take a concept and just interpret it differently visually.” There are many obvious parallels between the Prequels and Original Trilogy, particularly in how Luke and Anakin Skywalker both face similar choices at similar points in their lives. But what does it mean for the two trilogies to rhyme? And what effect does the rhyming have on the story, if any?
Last year, writer Mike Klimo explained Lucas’ “rhyming” in a popular blog post called “Star Wars Ring Theory.” According to Klimo, Lucas used an ancient literary device called “ring composition” in which the second half of the story mirrors the first half in reverse order. In other words, the end circles back to the beginning (like a ring). Thus, Return of the Jedi echoes The Phantom Menace, The Empire Strikes Back echoes Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope are paired in the middle. In poetry, this would be denoted as an ABC C’B’A’ rhyming scheme (see diagram), but the movies rhyme ideas instead of sounds. In comparing the films, Klimo shows how numerous plot points, visual cues, and themes follow this pattern–far too many to be mere coincidence.
Perhaps the most important—and controversial—paring is Attack of the Clones and The Empire Strikes Back. There are many parallels between the two films—the romance, the bounty hunters, the asteroid fields, the interlacing between different narrative arcs—but at their core both feature large ground battles in which the government invades an insurgent base. In AOTC, the Republic invades the Separatist base on Geonosis, whereas in ESB the Empire invades the Rebel base on Hoth. The latter takes place near the beginning of ESB, whereas the former takes place near the end of AOTC, which matches the reverse parallel structure of ring composition. Klimo notes other parallels as well. In both cases, the government forces attack from right-to-left, a direction typically associated with villains in cinematography (traditionally, heroes move from left-to-right). Both the Republic and Empire use walkers. Meanwhile, we see the Separatists and Rebels hiding in underground command centers and issuing orders to evacuate.
The rhyming structure also serves to highlight the differences between the two situations. One of the most notable points of contrast is the color scheme on the two planets. The ice planet Hoth has a bright blue sky and white snow, whereas Geonosis has a cloudy orange sky with reddish soil. Again, this seems deliberate. The stark colors on Hoth seem to convey the moral clarity of the Rebellion’s struggle against the Empire, whereas the muddy colors on Geonosis indicate the moral ambiguity of the Republic’s preemptive strike.* As film scholar David Begor notes, “the Republic is the aggressor in the final battle, not the Separatists.” Even though Obi-Wan, Anakin, and Padme are the protagonists of the film, the Geonosians did catch them illegally spying on their sovereign territory and had every legal right to execute them.
* Recall that ESB uses an orange color scheme for Cloud City, where Lando Calrissian betrays Han Solo and Darth Vader reveals that he is Luke’s father. Again, orange indicates morally ambiguity.
Another key difference between the films is the role of the Jedi. In the Battle of Hoth, Luke Skywalker, one of the last Jedi, leads the fight to delay the Imperial AT-ATs and allow the Rebels to evacuate Echo Base. It is noteworthy that he fights to defend his friends, not attack the enemy, because later in ESB Yoda tells him that a Jedi should use the Force only for “defense, never for attack.” However, when paired AOTC, this produces a sort of cognitive dissonance because the Jedi do in fact use the Force to attack the Separatists. Despite Master Mace Windu’s claim that the Jedi are “keepers of the peace, not soldiers,” the Jedi all too easily become part of the military-industrial complex (the Clone Troopers even call them “generals”). Yoda himself goes to Kamino to bring the Clone Army to Geonosis.
The rhyming between AOTC and ESB undermines what we thought we knew about the Jedi. Before 2002, viewers believed Yoda as representing the best of Jedi wisdom and serenity; afterwards, Yoda comes across as a flawed and tragic warlord. Yoda’s lessons to Luke on Dagobah take on a whole new meaning; Yoda didn’t tell Luke how the Jedi actually behaved before the Dark Times, but rather how the Jedi ought to have behaved. Ironically, just as Luke sees his face in Vader’s mask after he fails Yoda’s test, on Geonosis Yoda resembles Darth Vader in how he leads the white-armored troops into the enemy base (see photos). The message is clear: Palpatine coopted and tainted the Jedi, convincing them to launch an aggressive invasion just as his Empire would over 25 years later.
Visually, Lucas’ rhyming technique sets up some fascinating parallels, but the comparisons don’t always work the story because of problems with the characters and plotting. The rhyming paints the Republic’s invasion of Geonosis as morally ambiguous, but the actual fighting also doesn’t raise any troubling moral issues. It isn’t like the Vietnam War (one of Lucas’ inspirations for the Star Wars saga) with large civilian casualties and unclear political goals. The Separatist army is composed entirely of droids, so the Jedi do not kill a single living being (so far as we can tell). If anything, the Jedi come across as self-sacrificial because they risk their lives against overwhelming odds. Moreover, Separatist leaders aren’t noble freedom fighters; they come across as greedy, evil, and pathetic. They had been building an army in secret and planned to strike against the Republic. They even had plans for a Death Star. In that sense, the Republic’s moral position is nothing like the Empire’s at Hoth.
Earlier in Attack of the Clones, Dooku seemed poised to serve as a focal point for moral ambiguity. He abandoned the Jedi Order because the Senate had become too corrupt and unworthy of the Jedi. Jedi Master Ki-Adi Mundi believes Dooku to be an idealist incapable of assassination. When he interrogates Obi-Wan, Dooku even tells him the truth about a Sith Lord who controls the Senate (a reference to Chancellor Palpatine). This scene “rhymes” with the end of ESB, when Vader tells Luke the inconvenient truth about his father. In ESB, this revelation suggests the hero could succumb to the Dark Side and that the villain could be redeemed. Yet, in AOTC, Dooku’s statement doesn’t place his character in a similarly ambiguous position because later in the film we learn that he is Darth Sidious’ apprentice. In other words, Dooku is simply a villain.
Stylistically, Lucas’ use of internal rhyming and ring composition is nothing short of brilliant. The Prequel films echo the Original Trilogy. Attack of the Clones shows us that the Jedi did not always hold true to the principles Yoda enunciated in The Empire Strikes Back. However, the cognitive dissonance feels incomplete. The film clearly wants to contrast the moral ambiguity of the Republic with the moral clarity of the Rebellion, but it still sets up the Separatists as generic villains. The parallelism might have worked better if we had seen some admirable characters on the Separatist side (after all, the opening crawl of Revenge of the Sith refers to “heroes on both sides”) or even non-droid Separatists dying on Geonosis. Ultimately, the Jedi don’t come across as arrogant or hypocritical so much as dupes. They fell from their ideals because they fell into a trap Palpatine set for them, not because of an innate character flaw.
Dom Nardi is the Contributing Writer for Star Wars at Legendarium Media. He has worked as a political scientist and as a consultant throughout Southeast Asia. In addition, he has published articles about politics in Star Wars and Lord of the Rings. You can find more of his writing at NardiViews.