Signum U. Symposium: Beasts and Rogue One

Last month, I was pleased to take part in a Signum U./Mythgard Institute-sponsored symposium to discuss the two hottest fantasy films of the holiday season, and their various and sundry implications: Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Also taking part were friends of this site Katherine Sas and Kelly Orazi (whom you’ll remember from their brilliant essays in Harry Potter For Nerds 2), Curtis Weyant (who is one of my own, personal go-to Star Wars nerds), Brenton Dickieson, Mythgard faculty member and author of the brilliant blog A Pilgrim in Narnia, and of course our moderator, Sørina Higgins. It proved a lively, lengthy and interesting discussion, especially after our host ended the “official” program, and the remaining panelists, having too much fun to hang up, chatted on unreservedly. Please enjoy, and feel free to add your own thoughts on these two films, and our nerdy discussion of same, in the comments.

You can follow Emily Strand on Facebook and Twitter (@ekcstrand).

How Fantasy Tyrants Rise to Power, Part II: Emperor Palpatine

Palp_trustmeI don’t hate the Star Wars Prequel films. In fact, I’ve likely watched Episodes I, II and III more than I’ve watched the original films and certainly enjoyed them as much. There, I’ve said it: I love the Prequels. Roll the comment thread vitriol.

Hatred for the Prequel trilogy in Star Wars fandom fascinates me, though. It’s a fait accompli in intelligent circles – a last acceptable sweeping condemnation. “Those terrible Prequel films,” one academic friend recently called them in passing, as if The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith were one dysfunctional organ within the Star Wars body, threatening the health of the whole and subject to removal without a second opinion. Yet their removal would leave us with a Star Wars that looks like Darth Maul at the end of The Phantom Menace: sliced in half. Like it or not, the Prequels are an essential part of Star Wars story-telling.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not uncritical. The Prequels’ use of ethnic stereotypes to portray characters meant to be “exotically other” (think Newt Gunray, Jar-Jar Binks and Watto) is distractingly offensive, even if it wasn’t meant that way. And sure, Lucas went overboard on the CGI effects. And yep, there was bad acting (flanked by very, very good acting) as well as bad directing.

But there is one criticism of the Prequels I’ll always push back on: their focus on politics. Many fans felt bored or overwhelmed by the films’ heavy political narrative. Whereas the original Star Wars film’s opening crawl tantalized us with “rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base”, and princesses “racingepisode-1-crawl_228ffc5a home,” having stolen “secret plans,” The Phantom Menace’s opening crawl speaks of “turmoil,” “taxation,” “blockades” and endless “debates.” It was a change of tone many fans didn’t favor. Though politics may not be as exciting or sexy as rebel spaceships racing around, still we must attend to the politics of the Prequels, for it is these films’ source of power. Although the Prequels ostensibly tell the story of Anakin Skywalker’s downfall, they also tell of the rise of one of fantasy’s greatest tyrants: Emperor Palpatine, aka Darth Sidious. Palpatine’s rise is not violent at first. In the Prequels, his is a politically-maneuvered ascent, which uses the fear and insecurity of the people and the crushing bureaucracy of democratic rule to establish absolute tyranny.

1999’s The Phantom Menace begins with a game – not the one Chewie and Threepio play on the Millennium Falcon, but a bigger, much darker game, played by the Sith Lord Darth Sidious. He has pitted the greedy Trade Federation against the Galactic Senate – of which he himself is a member – in order to seed division and fear in the galaxy. Filmically, the “menace” of The Phantom Menace was Jar-Jar, but narratively it is Sidious, whose back-to-back holographic appearances in the film’s opening scenes – first as Sidious, then as Senator Palpatine – slip us a clue to the riddle of the film’s title.

At Sidious’ command, the Trade Federation’s droid army invades peaceful Naboo, attempting to hold Queen Amidala hostage, terrorizing her people until she will sign a treaty which legitimizes their occupation. Young Obi-Wan’s instincts serve him well when he has “a bad feeling about this”. Qui-Gon too senses that something more sinister lurks behind the scenes, citing the lack of logic in the julius-caesar-4.jpetFederation’s stunt. So why does Trade Federation Viceroy Nute Gunray listen to Sidious, agreeing to perform his dirty work? In Star Wars and History, Tony Keen avers Sidious’ pseudo-religious position as a Sith Lord gives him political authority over the Federation, just as the title or chief priest, or pontifex maximus, gave Octavian political clout in Imperial Rome (132). This correlation is corroborated by Sidious’ introduction of his Sith apprentice, Darth Maul, a demonic figure who carries out their plans while intimidating the Federation into submission.

Keen points out another important link between Star Wars and Imperial Rome; just as Julius Caesar galactic-senate-history-2_19cf71d1stacked the Roman Senate with his own partisans (129), Palpatine carefully establishes his dictatorship while leaving the appearance of democracy. But it is a democracy that, he suggests, no longer works the way it should. “There is no civility, only politics,” he tells Queen Amidala. “The bureaucrats are in charge now.” (The Phantom Menace, chapter 27) He subtly persuades Amidala not to rely on the Senatorial process, but to vote “no confidence” against Chancellor Valorum, insisting on the need for stronger leadership and trusting to his own magnetism to do the rest. Thus Senator Palpatine becomes Chancellor Palpatine.

pg-35-napoleon-1-dea-gettyThen, in Attack of the Clones, Chancellor Palpatine continues to play on the corruption and bureaucracy that hinder the Galactic Senate’s effectiveness. As war looms, the Chancellor requests and receives special powers, meant to be temporary, like the temporary title of dictator which Julius Caesar sought, attained and only lost when assassinated. These powers enable Palpatine to create an army for the Republic, and fear of the Separatist threat moves the Senatorial vote in Palpatine’s favor. Keen points out the cue Lucas took here from the rise of Napoleon, whose “elevation to the position of emperor was also approved by a large majority of French citizens in a referendum vote.” (Star Wars and History, 139)

In addition to Imperial Rome and Napoleonic France, Hitler’s establishment of Nazi Germany also informs Palpatine’s rise to power. Keen notices that like Hitler, Palpatine uses deep ideological divisions in society and government to his advantage, and when an economic crisis throws the government into gridlock, the brutal dictator’s party gains power through persuasion. And in Revenge of the Sith, a flash point of crisis – the attempt on the Chancellor’s life by Jedi Mace Windu – gives Palpatine the authority to destroy his only remaining rival for power: the Jedi Order. This echoes “the mysterious fire which Hitlerburned down the Reichstag building on the evening of February 27,” (Keen, 143) which allowed Hitler to claim that the government itself was in danger, just as Palpatine cites “a plot of the Jedi to overthrow the Senate,” (Revenge of the Sith) and declares himself leader of the first Galactic Empire, “for a safe and secure society”. Cue Padmé Amidala’s most iconic line: “So this is how liberty dies – with thunderous applause.” It is significant that the final lightsaber battle between Yoda and Palpatine takes places in the halls of government. Why not smash them up? Democratic structures will no longer be needed in Palpatine’s new Galactic Empire.

In Star Wars as in history, unchecked fear among the populace and the crushing inertia of bureaucracy in times of crisis create political climates wherein societies willfully surrender democratic structures in favor of a swift, authoritative action by a strong individual. In Star Wars as in history, this is how tyrants rise. This disturbing political thread of the Prequel films may have bored audiences, but when taken seriously, it should deeply interest us instead. And it should make those who feel secure in their democratic societies rather uncomfortable. Who knows? Maybe this difficult truth about our precarious freedom is part of why audiences turned their thumbs down on the Prequels.

jarjar1I predict that as we continue to deepen our examination of those films, mining their narrative and symbolic richness instead of scoffing at their surface-level flaws, appreciation for the Star Wars Prequels will grow. What do you think? Please share your comments below. If you do, however, please be nice to Jar-Jar. It’s really not his fault.

Follow Emily Strand on Facebook and Twitter (@ekcstrand). Also, you can catch up on Part I of this series, on the rise of Lord Voldemort, here.

Why Leia Matters, Part I: Origins and Influences

Carrie_Fisher_2013She was charming, witty, funny and bright. She was unfailingly candid and brave. Though I didn’t know her personally, I’ve missed Carrie Fisher every day since the heart attack that resulted in her death on December 27, 2016. Fisher’s passing has Star Wars fans reflecting on the princess from a galaxy far, far away, whom Fisher brought to life so unforgettably here on Earth. Here at Hogwarts Professor, we’d like to pay tribute to Carrie Fisher by examining the origins and trajectories of the character of Princess Leia in a two-part, collaborative series. This week, I’ll look what may have influenced and informed the character of Princess Leia, and next week, Elizabeth Baird Hardy will examine the effect Leia has had on subsequent works, especially with regard to one of Leia’s most significant literary descendants, Hermione Granger.

Dynamic and refreshing characters like Leia are often the product of a diverse array of source material. Leia’s origins seem to be two-fold. On one hand, she evolved from the female side-kick characters of early twentieth-century space fantasy, and on the other hand, she seems inspired by real-life women who made daring contributions to war efforts and resistance movements in history.

In How Star Wars Conquered the Universe, Chris Taylor says the long line of Leia’s literary antecedents 250px-Princess_of_Mars_large.jpehggoes back to Dejah Thoris. Thoris was the titular character in A Princess of Mars, the first title in Edgar Rice Burrough’s 1912 pulp space fantasy stories starring adventurer-hero John Carter. Taylor reports that despite Dejah’s near-constant need to be rescued by Carter in these stories, “the eponymous princess of the first book is a scientist, an explorer, a negotiator,” and eventually, “a sexual icon.” (Taylor, 5) Taylor also notes that Dejah might seem to today’s audiences like nothing more than a damsel in distress, but by pre-suffrage American standards, she was a progressive female character.

On the other side of women scoring the right to vote, in 1928, pulp fiction and comics audiences met Wilma Deering, space fantasy hero Buck Roger’s more capable counterpart. Wilma, Taylor reports, could build a radio out of spare parts and wore dresses only when forced. The capable female sidekick character in space fantasy seems, by the time of Buck Rogers, to have established itself as something audiences expect from this burgeoning sub-genre.

Perhaps most influential of all twentieth century space fantasies to Star Wars creator George Lucas was Flash Gordon. First a comic strip, then a film serial, Flash Gordon’s adventures delighted audiences with Carol_Hughes_1940the conventions of the space opera, and also pushed the genre’s boundaries, with story tie-ins to real-life threats to society in its plot lines and in the tyrant character Ming the Merciless. As Amy H. Sturgis points out in her graduate course on Star Wars, one of these space opera conventions is the sidekick heroine who is more than just a damsel in distress. In Flash Gordon, this heroine is Dale Arden: one less empowered than her predecessors Dejah and Wilma, but distinguished in her refusal to leave Flash’s side, even as it keeps her in the thick of the action. And although Dale Arden is an Earthling like Flash, the Gordon saga also contains an alien space princess called Aura who becomes an ally to the heroes. George Lucas seems to combine these tropes of the space princess and the capable female sidekick into the character of Princess Leia Organa.

The influence of these early space operas on the creation of Star Wars and the character of Leia in particular seems clear. Another overwhelming influence on George Lucas, born in 1944, was the second World War, and war in general. For another source of influence in the creation of Princess Leia as a character, we must look to the important roles remarkable women have played in war throughout history.

In Star Wars and History, Liedl and Reagin point to the classical goddess of Liberty, utilized to kindle the rebellion of the commonfolk against the ancien regime in the French Revolution. (43) Both Leia’s2-Leia-Ceremony dress and role in the medals ceremony on Yavin 4 seem to echo Liberty’s role as inspiring figurehead for the Rebellion. But Leia is more than a figurehead, and Liedl and Reagin suggest Leia may also take her origins in women resistance leaders like Constance Markievicz. Markievicz founded a nationalist paramilitary group for Irish teens to stand up to British rule, and as an officer in the Irish Citizen Army, marched into battle during the 1916 Easter Rising alongside her male counterparts. (47-48)

Of course, throughout much of history, women have been involved in war and resistance efforts in far less visible positions than Markievicz. In Nazi-occupied France, women used their mundane roles as mothers, wives, secretaries, etc. to conceal their efforts to combat the Nazis, much like Leia uses her role as a Senator to disguise her doings as Rebel courier and spy in A New Hope. In fact, women across Europe resisted the Nazis by using their relative invisibility, as compared to men, to take on a variety of important roles: “serving as couriers, even smuggling goods and people under the authorities’ watch.” (54) In the more egalitarian world of Star Wars, however, Leia’s sex doesn’t protect her from suspicion by the Empire when she is captured in A New Hope. But you’ll have that with an enemy – Darth Vader – who has the advantage of training in the Force on his side.

LeiaBoth literary and historical sources seem to have inspired Star Wars architect George Lucas in his creation of Princess Leia Organa of the Royal House of Alderaan. Next week, Elizabeth Baird Hardy will help us discover what Lucas himself may never have imagined: how his shirty space princess would inspire and inform new female fantasy and sci-fi icons to delight generations of fans. Stay tuned!

 

Follow Emily Strand on Facebook and Twitter (@ekcstrand), and share your own thoughts about Leia – or your tribute to that wonderful actress who brought her to life – in the comments.

Fantastic, Forceful Films: Common elements in Fantastic Beasts and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

rogue-one-jyn-ersa-geared-up(Some Rogue One spoilers below – clearly marked in ALL CAPS. Fantastic Beasts spoilers too, but seriously, people, you’ve had weeks …)

Ever since I learned to speak Star Wars at the Mythgard Institute a year ago, I’ve been eyeing the places where the Harry Potter and Star Wars franchises seem to intersect, and these places are many. So the fact that Warner Brothers and Disney Studios have, within a month, released film tie-ins to their beloved epics is no great shock. Neither is the fact that the films employ common elements and themes in seeking to delight long-time fans while enticing new ones. Let’s talk about four elements Fantastic Beasts and Rogue One share.

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Fantastic Beast Flashbacks: The Five Things We Want to Know about What Happened BEFORE Newt’s NY Adventure

Even though Fantastic Beasts slipped to number 2 on the Thanksgiving holiday box office (it’s hard to beat a Disney Princess with a boat and the Rock in her corner), it is still a bona fide hit.  Audiences are already clamoring for the next installment, eager to find out what happens next to Newt, his creatures, and his friends; however, some of the most exciting unanswered questions of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them don’t concern what happens next, but what happened before that case of critters took a bite out of the Big Apple.

One of the wonderful aspects of this new cinematic sojourn into the Wizarding World is its mystery. Unlike the previous eight Harry Potter films, this one is not working from a novel that has already laid out its plot and characters for us. Astute Potterphiles have, until now, not seen a film without knowing, at least generally, what to expect. As more of the story unfolds in upcoming installments, here are five thoughts on unanswered questions from the film that we hope to have unraveled in the future. Beware, there be dragons (and nifflers, and major spoilers) ahead.

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