I think the first coherent thought I had after I first saw the book was one of surprise. Next came an instant of incredulity, like I couldn't believe anyone would ever think of taking these characters and putting them in an actual ink and paper book. I noticed it there on the shelf, yet I moved on and never even gave it another thought until quite a while later. The next time I saw it was on the shelf of a used bookstore (this one still thankfully around) and it must have been sometime after the release of Episode 1, because this time I bought it, brought it home on impulse, and dived right in. I can't say it's a decision I regret.
How it got up there on a shelf in the first place is almost as big a fluke as the first film's release back in 77. By about 1986 the original trilogy had left an impact on both Hollywood, and American culture in general. This was best seen in the slew of Sci-Fi and Fantasy movies, such as Raider of the Lost Ark, E.T., Back to the Future, and Labyrinth, that were green-lit in wake of Return of the Jedi. The irony is, that while this re-orientation of the industry toward a more genre centric, family friendly model of storytelling was the result of the efforts of Kurtz and the Lucases, the fire of the franchise
"It was clear to us that simply revisiting that past would be of marginal interest. It was too early for a
nostalgia play and, frankly, not very stimulating. We needed to give the fans something new, something that appealed to a more mature sensibility. And, we reasoned, because Star Wars is all about story, the natural ground to explore was books - books that could expand the story, starting with the characters and situations so vividly established in the films and taking them to places never before imagined (HTTE20A, xiii - xiv)".
Timothy Zahn was the author contacted by Lucas's company with possibility of writing first continuation novel set in the SW universe. By his own account, he more than just a little intimidated.
"At issue was the fact that this offer was very much a two-edged sword. I had the chance to jump-start my career in a way I could never have anticipated or even hoped. I also had the chance to fail spectacularly in front of a potential audience of millions.
"Because I was going to have to write Star Wars. Not something science-fictiony or space-operatic with the name Star Wars on it. I was going to have to write Star Wars. I would somehow have to capture the scope and feel of the universe; the faces and voices of the main characters; the ebb and flow and rhythm of the movies. The readers had to hear Mark Hamill's and Carrie Fischer's and Harrison Ford's voices inside my quotation marks. The people flipping through those pages needed to be able to hear John Williams's music in the backs of their heads.
"If I couldn't do that, or at least get close, it wouldn't be Star Wars. It would be An Adventure of Two Guys named Han and Luke. And that would be a waste of everybody's time.
"There was more. Not only did I have to get the feel of the universe right, I also had to come up with a story - a three-book-long story, in fact - that wasn't simply a rehash of what George had already done. I would have to age the movie characters believably, and create new characters that would fit seamlessly into the mix (xviii - xix)".
The irony is the net result of all those misgivings was more than a one-off. Together, Zahn's three book series helped launch was is now fondly remembered as the Expanded Universe, a collection of novel, comics, and audiobooks detailing the rest of the lives of everyone's favorite, space-faring power-trio. While I can't say every entry was a gem, part of the glory of the EU was that it always managed to have something for everyone. If you didn't have the stomach for a multi-book story, you could help yourself to a neat stand-alone novel about the history of the Millennium Falcon.
It was Zahn, however, who kicked started the whole venture onto the printed page. In what follows, I've been making use of the author's handy annotations from the 20the anniversary edition of Heir to the Empire, the first book the series. I also want to highlight the work of one fan who seems to have go quite a way towards looking at the underlying structure of all three novels. With that in mind, I'd like to take a closer look at a trilogy I think serves as a worthy successor to the one started way back in 1977.
A New Threat.
At an early point in the proceedings, one of the characters observes, "His recent nightmares and poor sleep were probably nothing more than the stresses of...struggling to turn a military-oriented rebellion into a civilian based government (21)". Not long after another reflects that getting the band back together will be,"Just exactly like old times (64)". It turns out the idea of "old times" or the "old days" is sort of a recurrent motif throughout the books. In a way, that shouldn't be too much of a surprise. This is an element that helps to mark off the beginning of the book trilogy. In the beginning, our heroes find themselves caught in something of a rut. After a whirlwind adventure, life has managed to catch up with them in a daily grind of politics and the need to establish some form of order for not one, but several societies all in one go. To be fair, this is nothing more or less that what anyone with a bit of commonsense could have expected as a reward. War is always a messy business at the best of times, even after you've managed to make yourself the victor. After initial euphoria has worn off, there's still the question of how to re-establish that elusive quality sometimes referred to as a normal life; whatever that's supposed to mean.
The trouble is normal and normative are starting to sound like hollow terms to the old trio. True, the Empire still exists, yet it's been driven back to outer reaches of the galaxy, far from any central planet or system. In fact, at the time this first book was released, there hadn't been anything like a major act of terrorism since, perhaps, the destruction of one single planet by the first Death Star. The galaxy's main concern these days is with just scraping by. There's about as much call for a Jedi as their is for any needless waste of hard-earned income. As a result, each of our heroes is on a slow road to losing contact with the reasons they got into this endeavor in the first place. They find themselves faced with the same predicament as that old Billy Idol song. "When there's nothing to lose, and there's nothing to prove, well, I'm dancing with myself". About the only thing any of them have to look forward to it the birth of Leia's twins.
Then one day the demands of politics and happenstance means each member of the old band find themselves sharing a mission of diplomacy together. Everything seems duller than dishwater, until Leia and her twins are almost taken captive. It's a sort of cruel form of wake-up call, but at least it does job of giving each character the necessary shake that sends them out of their collective daze and sets them somewhere back on the right track.
The whole thing sounds too unconventional to be convincing. Maybe it is. Perhaps that's it's main strength. If you can't take a threat seriously, all you can do is ignore it. It doesn't change the fact that Thrawn is good at getting the results he wants. Right now, what he wants the most is to wipe the New Republic off the map. To do that, one of the elements he needs is the unborn twins of Leia Organa Solo.
It's easy to see how Zahn's novel could translate to at least some kind of visual medium. A lot of it has to do with the way he composes and structures his narrative. The opening segments read a lot like the old Hollywood sequel cliche that dictates the characters must always start from a minus status in order to preserve the stereotypical adventure film format. This format itself seems to be something of a degeneration of the kind of Romantic principles Northrop Frye discusses at length in his study "The Secular Scripture". Regardless of origin, what makes Zahn's handling of this cliche stand out is the way he is able to subvert it.
It's true the characters start out at a low point. However, Zahn is smart enough to realize starting at zero doesn't have to mean resetting everything's back to zero. It may possible that a different writer might have chosen such a tactic. Zahn instead chooses to write straight through and past this potential roadblock by embracing the creative challenge the proposed sequel presents him. This confidence shows on the page by the deliberate and casual way the plot sneaks up on the main characters. While the trio try to remain on a nominal sort of alert, they are still caught by surprise when the first attack sequence occurs in the story. Indeed, Luke has a hard time figuring out just what his assailants even want him to do, and has to think on his feet in order to get both himself and his friends out of a jam. That's a level of inventiveness that has become all too rare in an era when basic story beats are used as an excuse for phoning the plot in.
In addition, another of Zahn's gifts as a writer was his ability to take a pre-established secondary world and expand on the cast of characters in a way that was satisfying on a dramatic level. This is most obvious in Zahn's introduction of the figure who was, in effect, the trilogy's new breakout star: Mara Jade. The remarkable thing is how difficult it's been to get a read on just what the original 90s audience must have thought about her when she appeared. Going by current trends, however, she seems to be a very popular figure, along with Grand Admiral Thrawn. Because of this, I'm forced to conclude that she was more or less well received overall.
What makes this character work in particular is how she is another study in a tension of opposites. She is both a prisoner and victim of her past as a girl brought up and raised to be the Emperor's highest placed assassin. In that regard, it sort of makes sense to see her as a victim of abuse. The irony is that Mara is a prisoner who can't quite grasp the nature of her prison. A fish has no say in the atmosphere it breathes, or the current it follows. Mara believes she has less freedom than a fish, yet she has trouble recognizing that only fetters she has left are the one's she decides to create for herself. The saddest part of her character arc is that while the Emperor was abusive towards her, she believes he gave her life something like a purpose.
It's not that big of a surprise as it might seem. If a person was born and raised in a prison, then it is at least a possibility that, no matter how harsh their conditions, that person will grow up treating their captivity as the natural order of things. If you take away that person's shackles, you may have proven that their sense of order was false. However, it is also possible that without a well developed sense of perspective, that freed prisoner will find herself in a personal crisis involving a world that no longer seems to hold any possible kind of order. The usual fate for this way of thinking is not what you'd call the pleasant kind. This is where the interesting part about Mara's character comes in. Despite what could be a lifetime of abuse, she somehow manages to never let it damage or define who she is. Because of this ability to fight back against her upbringing, she is able to grow and change in a layered and nuanced way. It is perhaps this change that accounts for her popularity more than any things else.
There has to be more to what gives any possible story a potential canonical status than the addition of a new character. In the previous post I laid out my general qualifications that I would be using when it comes to determining which sequels can manage to make the passing grade as worthy follow-ups to the original trilogy. Pretty much all of the criteria featured in that earlier article was drawn from the words and work of other artists and critics. If there's any connecting thread between the thought of all the authors chosen, then it has to be that each one of them has made use of ideas and concepts drawn more or less from the Romantic Tradition in English literature.
In that regard, I suppose it's a question of whether a case can be made for the OT and certain aspects of the EU to count as a form of latter day Romantic fiction. I don't mean Romantic in the erotic sense of that term. Rather it's an open matter of whether the films and certain number of books qualify as belonging to a much older genre of Epic Romance. In other words, are there thematic aspects in the EU material that makes them bear a thematic relation to works like the Mort d'Artur or Gilgamesh? If it is possible to demonstrate the presence of even one single element, say a textual theme, trope, or narrative device, then there may also exist at least the possibility for some kind canonicity.
Underlying Structures and Themes.
A short while back I ran across an essay on this particular trilogy. The author's name is Valerie Erzahlerin, and what her essay stand out to me was the surprising depth of her literary skills. The word depth is perhaps the most appropriate term to apply to her work. What she reveals is a layered approach form of criticism that is able to unpack a number of hidden levels in Zahn's three books that sort of made me sit up and take notice. She claims that all fiction is made up of three narrative layers:
"There are three levels - the allegory, the relational, and the surface level.
"The most important part of the Anagogical structure is the allegory. This forms the core of a story's structure. The questions asked by each act and the dialectical character spines form the chunk of the argument the storyteller is trying to make. No character is what they seem until the allegory can be drawn out of them...All stories have allegory at their heart.
"The next level is relational. Aristotle, in Poetics, once brilliantly labeled the most pleasurable part of consuming a story is deciphering the human nature of the characters. We tell stories to understand human nature better. While the arguments in the allegory can be about anything, the relational levels deal with how those concepts interact. Those most well known examples I can point to are those found in Greek mythology, where the deities personified many different elements from forces of nature, to behaviors, to the embodiment of ideas, and their relationships likewise personified the way those concepts interact.
"Finally, there is the surface level. We often call this the text of the story. It covers what happens at face value. As crucial as the subtext and invisible story is, the surface text is not to be forgotten. It is all the creator can be sure their audience will engage with. It acts as a bait and hook. The audience may not even realize the deeper context their subconscious is engaging with the story, but they cannot experience any of it if they are not engaged with the text first (web)".
It was the phrase anagogical that jumped out at me. Ms. Erzahlerin makes mention of critic Angus Fletcher, in particular his literary study, Allegory. If that is where she picked up the word then it's, as they say, "most impressive". I'd read about Anagogy in a book as well, but it wasn't Fletcher's. Instead, I'm referring to Northrop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism. Like Erzahlerin, Frye sees stories as containing hidden layers to their narratives. The only difference is that where Erzahlerin lists just three levels, Frye marks it down as four: the Literal, the Formal, the Archetypal, and the Anagogic.
It can be tough summarizing an essay topic as densely packed as Ms. Erzahlerin's, however the gist of her argument is that Zahn's novels each demonstrate an understanding of narrative techniques and practices, some of which may date as far back as Aristotle's day. I'm inclined to treat this as more than just a bit of moonshine. If she were saying all this in isolation, that would be one thing. However, she mentions the work of Angus Fletcher. There is also the additional corroboration of Northrop Frye with is theories of Modes and Symbols. And perhaps a final support can be provided from the work of an obscure, yet helpful source. I am speaking here of The Survival of the Pagan Gods, by Jean Seznec. It's a pretty obscure bit of scholarship, very much in the vein of Campbell and Frye. The important part, for our purpose, is to note that Seznec seems to have gone the farthest in tracing the probable historical development of Erzahlerin's four layered approach to literary criticism. For instance, Seznec notes at the very start of his book how the ancient Greeks originated what could be one of the earliest critical methods for understanding the nature of myths.
"It is by no means easy," observes Fontenelle in L'Histoire des oracles, "to know how the pagan peoples looked upon their own religion". In fact, they found themselves in a dilemma from the moment they first began to reason about their beliefs; for "the myth really possesses its full significance only in those epochs when man still believes himself to be living in a divine world, with no distinct notion of natural laws; but long before the end of paganism, this first naivete had disappeared." Indeed, the effort of modern mythographers, since early in the nineteenth century, has been to recover the primitive mentality by way of philology and anthropology, and to recapture the intuitions of the earliest periods.
"The ancients, however, in their inability to "investigate the origins of their own culture, to learn how their legends were formed and what may have been their earliest meaning," evolved contradictory theories in order to render them intelligible - theories which are brought face to face, for example, in Cicero's De natura deorum. In essence, these may be reduced to three: (1) the myths are a more or less distorted account of historical facts, in which characters are mere men who have been raised to the rank of the immortals; or (2) they express the union or conflict of the elementary powers which which constitute the universe, the gods then being cosmic symbols; or, (3) they are merely the expression in fable of moral and philosophical ideas, in which case the gods are allegories (4)".
For Seznec, the Fourfold Method is laid out in terms of four traditions: Historical (11), Physical (37), Moral (84, and Encyclopedic (122). If Seznec is correct, then what we have is the start of a form of literary interpretation which had the miraculous luck to survive the falls of Troy, Athens, and Rome in order to go on to influence the likes of S.T. Coleridge and William Blake, the latter of whom went on to have a great deal of influence on Northrop Frye. As fascinating a look back at all this literary theory may be, however, there's still the problem of what does any of it have to do with three Star Wars books?
I said that if any traces of Romantic literary theory could be found in Zahn's work, then there was at least the potential that the trilogy could be considered canonical. If Erzahlerin is correct that Zahn has tapped into a particular creative well from which to mine his material, and that material is dependent on certain kinds of symbolic forms and narrative structures, then it isn't too far outside the realm of possibility that some form of Inspiration was going on upstairs not long after Zahn was first commissioned to pen the first book in the sequence.
My basic take on Valerie's thesis is one of cautious endorsement. There are passages where she is able to discern how the layered structure is able to determine, for instance, the trajectory for Luke's character arc that sounds pretty spot on to me. She is also able to take this approach and apply it (with success in my opinion) to figures like Thrawn and Leia as well. In addition, the most important point in her article is the multi-layer allegorical approach to reading. That is a legitimate critical tool for both writers and readers, and it is as old as the Greco-Roman ages. In fact, it's because of the antiquity of this interpretive reading method that I'm surprised anyone even remembers it today.
As for her claim that all stories are a form of philosophical argument? Well, I'm of two minds on that. On the one hand, I'm willing to admit that a lot of the themes contained in works of fiction may very well revolve around ethical ideas and concepts. It is even possible that these themes are what make a lot of the best works of fiction stand out from the rest of the pack. On the other hand, even Ms. Erzahlerin points out that an audience can always tune out if it feels it's being lectured to. I say this even after arriving at the conclusion that the main theme of the Thrawn books is, in essence, "the moral of the tale".
The conundrum seems to be that audiences don't like being lectured to, yet a lot of the best stories have their grounding in some sort of ethical basis that gives them their value. Does this suggest the possibility of a middle ground, one where it's possible for the moral to have a story and not get in the way at the same time?
There might be a way. It involves how one chooses to look at the imagination. Is it an anarchic and uncontrollable force of nature that needs to be tamed as a far a possible for civilized behavior to take hold. Or, is it best thought of as a kind of natural ordering agent? In other words, what if the imagination is one of the ways the human mind has evolved in order to guarantee its own sense of stability, and hence its own protection and continued existence? Such a view would help account for the constant recurrence of of ethical themes in the majority of the best work mankind has produced throughout the ages, while also allowing room for the possibility of enjoying a work of art without the fear of being indoctrinated.
At least that is as close as I can get to a possible theoretical solution at this juncture, anyway. Either way it comes to the same thing. My basic take on morals in fiction is that they work best if they just come naturally along with the package, with little to no help from the author. I think morality is something that the imagination can handle all by itself without missing a beat.
This perspective allows for the creation and existence of layered meanings in works of fiction as an almost natural-by-product of the artistic process. If the imagination, and hence story demands it, there it will be. It is up to the discerning reader to uncover these hidden depths. The good news is that Valerie Erzahlerin seems to be a very perceptive reader.
As for what I think about the rest of Zahn's trilogy? Well, on the whole, I can't find anything to complain about. What I ran across as I turned the page always just seemed to work more often than not, letting each piece of the story come together to form a decent and coherent whole. The characters seemed to be who they were, and their adventures kept me glued to each chapter as they came along.
Luke, as Valerie points out, has to struggle to learn in a more "hit-the-ground-running" way compared to the film trilogy, where he always had some sort of mentor figure waiting in the wings. In Zahn's books, he's out on his own for the first time, and really feeling the pressure. The good news is that Zahn uses this set up to good effect, allowing the character to grow and learn in a way that is different from what both Luke and the audience have previously been used to. However, Zahn writes these moments in a way that manages to feel organic and natural to Luke's character. When he's reached the end of the trilogy, he's achieved his goals in a way that allows the flow of his steps toward the end to feel both natural and rewarding. Perhaps the smartest thing Zahn does, however, is to leave some issues unaddressed.
It's true Luke achieves his goals for this novel, yet there are still problems that he hasn't confronted, and that still wait in the wings. The biggest one is his own family legacy, and how does he manage to live it down, or outgrow it? This is something he expresses to Mara Jade in the last half pages of the third book in the series, The Last Command. It happens during a scene that only requires the right mood music to set the tone:
"Skywalker dropped his pack...sitting down beside her..."I was thinking about Leia's twins. Thinking about how I'm going to have to train them some day."
"You worried about when to start?"
He shook his head, "I'm worried about being able to do it at all."
"She shrugged. "What's to do? You teach them how to hear minds and move objects and use lightsabers. You did that with your sister, didn't you?"
"Yes," he agreed. "But that was when I thought that was all there was to it. It's really just the beginning...with that strength comes responsibility. How do I teach them that? How do I teach them wisdom and compassion and how not to abuse their power? (313, 315)".
It is moments like this that give a true illustration of character growth. It's perhaps fitting that this is a shared theme between Luke and his own sister. In her own way, Leia has to cope with the fact that she is, for both better and worse, the daughter of Darth Vader. A great part of this for her is realizing who she is, as opposed to who she wishes or maybe just wants, or thinks she needs to be. This is an interesting element in Leia's character progression. If you look just a bit closer, you realize she is always having her identity, her sense of self, both taken away and reformed into something different.
This sub-theme starts as far back as A New Hope where she sees her life as she's always known it obliterated right before her eyes. Later in ROTJ, we see her begin an acknowledgement that she's never really been who she thought she was by admitting she's known for a while that she and Luke are siblings. However, it is just the start of her character progression. Her initial impulse is pretty much the traditional "Refusal of the Call" in her desire to "run far away", not just from her dilemma, but from her own identity.
In the Thrawn trilogy this theme is picked back up as Leia finds herself having to win the trust of of another world that has been obliterated, at least in part, by her own family legacy. In these scenes we are shown how Leia slowly comes to terns with her own heritage, and this time, instead of wanting to run away, she starts to make the choices that demonstrate her ability to change things for the better. She even goes so far as to take a precedent set by dear old dad, and channel it in a positive direction. In this way, she has taken her first step in becoming the kind of knight she is meant to be.
If there is any criticism to give, it is that nothing similar was done with the figure of Thrawn. It would have been interesting for instance, to have at least two possible scenes that could have expanded on his dramatic potential just the slightest bit. The first would be a moment when, as an audience, we catch him alone, and are treated to a catalogue of his own inner doubts. In Thrawn's case it would have to center around why he's chosen the fights he has, and how many lives he's willing to sacrifice to achieve his goals.
The opportunity such a scene would afford is that we'd get a closer look into that all important character motivation. In addition, the character's personality could be mapped out in a way that gives him his own identity in comparison with the villains that have come before. It makes sense that Thrawn would be different from either Vader or the Emperor. Perhaps his non-human status as a genuine alien life-form could have played a part in it. Maybe one dramatic path to go down would be to reveal that Thrawn was always acting out of a desire to bring some kind of genuine harmony between the different races and species. Then let the audience, if not the character, discover that he can never achieve this goal because of the requisite tragic flaw in his personality. This would line up with Erzahlerin's claim that the reason Thrawn in engaged in a constant study of art is because he is trying to understand other cultures without ever gaining the empathy necessary to truly walk a mile in someone else's shoes. You could tie this character flaw in by having Thrawn convinced that the only way justice for all can come about is through absolute obedience to Imperial authority, and let this conviction by the ultimate reason for his downfall.
This leads into the second possible scene that could have added weight and depth to the books' main villain. There is a sequence near the end of Dark Force Rising, the second volume in the series, where Luke and Thrawn are both on the same ship, and yet they never encounter one another. I think that was sort of a missed opportunity. You could have had a scene where Luke is lured and trapped in a room with the Grand Admiral, with the addition of the room being lined wall to ceiling with Ysalamiri. This would have given a chance for the two to square off and also elaborate on the villain's motivation as outlined above. In addition, there would have been potential to show just how formidable an opponent Thrawn could be by showing him able to hold his own against a Jedi. In essence, we are shown Thrawn as being a capable hand-to-hand combat soldier who proceeds to bounce the hero off the walls. It could even go further by having Thrawn plant a bit of a seed of self-conflict within Luke by having the Admiral needle him about his old man, and thus setting up a plot thread that would take one more, separate narrative to resolve.
We'll cover that one in a later post, however. For now, it's time to tie all these various threads together and see what they amount to in terms of any grand theme for the novels.
Conclusion: What's it all about, then?
In an earlier post, we uncovered some interesting thematic strands relating the original movie trilogy to various concepts and ideas drawn from Shakespearean drama. If Zahn's trilogy has any over-arching theme, then it could revolve around two seemingly interrelated questions. How do you make a good, or at least sustainable society? Also, how do you order yourself and your own affairs within that society? It is a question each of the main characters find themselves dealing with as they progress through the pages.
Luke and Leia have to struggle with their responsibilities to the New Republic, as well as their identities as Jedi. Thrawn is convinced he's the only one who knows how to order and entire galaxy, and hence he proceeds to ruin it all in the name of his goal. While Mara Jade is doing all she can to find out what kind of place at all she might have in a changed world. In each case, the resolution of these thematic trials involves each character learning or failing to learn the lesson that you can't have any kind of viable world to live in if you can't make yourself the kind of person who is willing or worthy of living in, and helping others through life.
In that regard, the main message Timothy Zahn seems to be working with can be expressed in a maxim: order in the self can sometimes lead to order in a society. If the theme sounds a bit trite in isolation, then the good news is Zahn is able to make it come alive on the page. If there's any reason for why his series of books are so well liked after all these years, then maybe that's the answer. I know it's as close as I can get to one, anyway.
All in all, the Thrawn trilogy holds up well as a successor to George Lucas's original masterpieces, and it really is a shame that we haven't seen something like an animated adaptation that would do these books justice, and introduce a worldwide audience to the Expanded Universe. Until the day when Star Wars fans can manage to get that lucky, these books should be kept around for the storytelling treat they can offer to both longtime devotees and a new initiates alike. It's a saga well worth picking up.
Up next is an introduction to a character I'm not sure is all that familiar to the majority of audiences out there. It's a shame if that's the case, because it turns out he has a story to tell us. With any luck, and a little bit of talent, it could be a tale worth telling. Tune in next time, if you want, to hear from the guy who really stole the Death Star plans. Till then, be seeing you!