Part VI. Closing the Ring
Let’s recap: According to the rules outlined in Mary Douglas’s book, Thinking in Circles, a ring composition needs an introductory section, a split into two halves, parallel sections, indicators to mark individual sections, a mid-turn where the central meaning of the work is placed, rings within rings, and closure at two levels: structural and thematic.
And here’s what we’ve learned so far: The Phantom Menace functions as an exposition or prologue. The six-film series is divided into two parallel halves: the prequel trilogy and the original trilogy. Menace corresponds to Jedi, Clones corresponds to Empire, and Sith corresponds to A New Hope, making the overall pattern ABC C’B’A’. In other words, after Sith the sequence stops, turns around, and reversing the order of the films, circles back to the beginning—making an inverted parallel with the first half. Lastly, we’ve learned that the larger ring structure includes two smaller rings.
That leaves a couple of rules left to tackle. First, let’s go over closing the ring.
“The minimum criterion for a ring composition,” Douglas writes, “is for the ending to join up with the beginning,” and that structurally the “linking up of starting point and end creates an envelope that contains everything between the opening phrases and the conclusion.” 1
Based on the correspondences between Menace and Jedi, we now know that the films are inextricably related to each other and together frame the series with a beginning and end in parallel. However, we also know that of the three pairs of corresponding films, only Menace and Jedi are not “mirror opposites,” so to speak. Why is that?
Well, it turns out that Lucas is using another ancient literary device, which often accompanies ring composition, to close the ring. The device is known as an “inclusion” (or the Latin inclusio). 2
Essentially another form of parallelism, an inclusion is “the narrative device common in biblical texts in which a detail is repeated at the beginning and the end of a narrative unit in order to ‘bracket off’ the unit and give it a sense of closure and structural integrity.” 3 So, Menace and Jedi form an inclusion that brackets off the six-film saga as a single, unified whole and brings us right back to where we started, thus closing the loop.
Inclusion also serves a thematic function. That’s because the main theme is expressed at both the beginning and end of the story—allowing the author to basically introduce and conclude a main point. Everything in-between the “brackets,” then, should be read in light of that theme.
The thematic role of an inclusion is key because a ring composition has to close on more than just a structural level. Says Douglas: “Most importantly, there also has to be thematic correspondence … [the ending] brings matters to a close by distributing their just deserts to the characters or by reconciling them by fulfilling curses or promises, making prophecies come true, pointing out that the original mission has been accomplished or harmony restored.” 4
Of course, we learn in Menace that Qui-Gon detects a “vergence” 5 in the Force around Anakin and believes that he is the chosen one of an ancient Jedi prophecy, destined to destroy the Sith and bring balance to the Force.
But by the end of Sith, the prophecy certainly appears in doubt. As Anakin lay dying on Mustafar, Obi-Wan cries, “You were the chosen one! It was said that you would destroy the Sith, not join them. Bring balance to the force, not leave it in darkness.”
Perhaps Yoda was right when he said, “A prophecy that misread might have been,” and Anakin is not the chosen one. Or maybe, the prophecy wouldn’t be fulfilled how or when the Jedi thought it would be.
As we all know, though, the end of Sith is not the end of Anakin. His journey ultimately merges with his son’s in a final confrontation before the Emperor at the climax of Return of the Jedi.
When Darth Vader senses Luke’s feelings for his sister and threatens to turn her to the dark side, Luke screams in anger and attacks Vader in a frenzy of hate, knocking the Dark Lord to his knees and cutting his hand off. The Emperor urges Luke to finish Vader.
Luke looks at his father’s mechanical hand, then to his own mechanical, black-gloved hand, and realizes how much he his becoming like his father—overrun by fear, anger, and hate. If he kills Vader, he’ll turn to the dark side and take Vader’s place at the Emperor’s side. But, as Obi-Wan told him, killing Vader is the only way to destroy the Empire.
Like any true hero, Luke chooses a different path—his own path—and it’s one of compassion. He takes a moment to calm himself then throws his lightsaber aside, standing down for good.
Enraged, the Emperor assaults Luke with deadly barrage of lightning bolts from his fingertips. As Luke writhes on the floor in unbearable pain, he still sees the good in his father and pleads for his help. Then, just before the Emperor delivers a lethal blast of lightning to kill Luke, Vader has an epiphany and finally sees the tragic error of his ways. He turns and picks up the Emperor and throws him down the Death Star’s reactor shaft.
In the The Making of “Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith,” Lucas elaborates on this pivotal moment:
Children teach you compassion. They teach you to love unconditionally. Anakin can’t be redeemed for all the pain and suffering he’s caused. He doesn’t right the wrongs, but he stops the horror. The end of the saga is simply Anakin saying, I care about this person, regardless of what it means to me. I will throw away everything that I have, everything that I’ve grown to love—primarily the Emperor—and throw away my life, to save this person. And I’m doing it because he has faith in me; he loves me despite all the horrible things I’ve done. I broke his mother’s heart, but he still cares about me, and I can’t let that die. Anakin is very different in the end. The thing of it is: the prophecy was right. Anakin was the chosen one, and he does bring balance to the Force. He takes the ounce of good still left in him and destroys the Emperor out of compassion for his son. 6
Importantly, by returning to the saga’s overriding theme of balance and fulfilling the prophecy, Lucas fulfills the requirements to close the ring on a thematic level. So, to borrow a line from Darth Vader in A New Hope, “The circle is now complete.”
At this point, if we draw the ring composition as a circle, it might look something like this:
As we’ve seen, the circle consists of three pairs of corresponding films—or, from a certain point of view, three pairs of opposites. Two of the pairs (Clones/Empire and Sith/A New Hope) are designed as kind of mirror opposites, which helps create a sense of descending the circle to its lowest point before ascending it back to the beginning, in a kind of endless loop. And since the films in each pair are opposites, the trilogies themselves become opposites—all contained within a circle.
So, using practically every aspect of every frame of the six films, Lucas crafted a series of carefully arranged, “intricately corresponding parallelisms” that actually shape the structure of the saga like a circle, or ring. That in and of itself is a fairly amazing feat of cinematic storytelling. Equally impressive, though, is how form and content work together to deepen our understanding of the saga and help interpret the meaning at the center of the ring.
The Balancing of Opposites
To see how form and content work together to bring out the meaning of Star Wars, we’ll do a little exercise. First, let’s briefly consider the significance of the circle itself. Probably one of the oldest and most common symbols in human history, the circle can be found in virtually every culture and every era and carries extensive meaning. It often symbolizes, among other things, unity, wholeness, eternity (since it has no beginning and no end) and the eternal cycle of life, death, and rebirth.
In Jungian terms, “the circle is a symbol of the Self and indicates the end of the process of individuation, of striving towards a psychic wholeness and self-realization.” 7 And, interestingly, Joseph Campbell’s “Monomyth” or Hero’s Journey is a path commonly represented by a circle (with its three main stages being Departure, Initiation and Return).
Next, let’s look at something Lancashire points out in her essay on Episode 1. With its explicit emphasis on duality, she argues, Menace provides an “overarching metaphorical way” of reading the saga as a whole (which, by the way, was still unfinished at the time of her writing):
Episodes 4 – 6 have already presented to audiences the return/redemption of the hero (humankind) through his developed potential to become a Jedi:
(self-)knowledgeable, controlled, compassionate, and powerful through self-sacrifice. Episodes 1 – 3, repeating and varying 4 – 6, will apparently now show a contrasting mythic initiation failure/fall through the hero’s developed potential to become a Sith: aggressive, self-centered, and powerful above all through anger, hatred, and human fear of death. Jedi and Sith, an integrated Star Wars reading of Menace indicates, are in significant part the manifestations of human duality: the ever-present, never-extinct, opposing moral possibilities within every human individual and state. Individual human lives (and political systems) are not predetermined by “destiny” but are defined and redefined by difficult and continually recurring moral choices, and all of Star Wars to date—an old-fashioned epic saga of morally significant heroes and monsters—can thus in part be read as a densely packed, visually exhilarating, and narratively absorbing metaphor for the never-ending conflict between the evil and the good within us all. 8
Now, that’s probably one of the best analyses of the Star Wars saga you’ll find. But the bigger picture may just now be starting to unfold. Because if we put the symbol of the circle together with Lancashire’s insight, an image—perhaps the defining image of the saga—begins to take shape: A perfect circle divided into two equal but opposite halves—one light and one dark—that are deeply interconnected and eternally interact with one another to form a whole greater than either separate part.
I’m referring, of course, to the classic Yin Yang symbol. As many of you may already know, the ancient Daoist concept wonderfully illustrates the duality of all things in nature and the perfect balance between opposites. And what’s really interesting is that Lucas has spoken in the past about a sort of dynamic interplay of opposites that exists in Star Wars. Here’s what he told The Los Angeles Times in 2002:
I wanted to have this mythological footing because I was basing the films on the idea that the Force has two sides, the good side, the evil side, and they both need to be there. Most religions are built on that, whether it’s called Yin and Yang, God and the devil—everything is built on the push-pull tension created by two sides of the equation. Right from the very beginning, that was the key issue in Star Wars. 9
And in 1999’s The Mythology of Star Wars with Bill Moyers, Lucas touched on the idea of opposites when he spoke about the light and dark sides of the force:
Those sides are designed around compassion and greed. The issue of greed, of getting things and owning things and having things and not being able to let go of things, is the opposite of compassion—of not thinking of yourself all the time. These are the two sides—the good force and the bad force. They’re the simplest parts of a complex cosmic construction. 10
Of course, there’s also the overall thematic design of the trilogies themselves. “The two [trilogies] will beat against each other,” Lucas says. “One’s the fall, one’s the redemption.” 11
Perhaps most revealing of all, though, is that Lucas even went so far as to include a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it image of the Yin Yang in Attack of the Clones:
Not coincidentally, the symbol appears at the script’s midpoint while Anakin meditates (and can you believe chapter 25/50 on the DVD and Blu-ray?).
Here’s some quick background for those unfamiliar with the ancient symbol: Yin and Yang represent the two opposite principles (or opposing forces) in nature. Yin (from the ancient Chinese character for “shady side of a hill”) is usually associated with qualities like darkness, female energy, the moon, descending, and the negative aspects in nature, among other things. Yang (from the character for “sunny side of a hill”) is usually associated with light, male energy, the sun, ascending, and the positive aspects in nature. The two forces are always interacting and always in flux.
Although Yin and Yang are opposites, they are, paradoxically, complementary. One cannot exist without the other, thus the two are interdependent. For example, light cannot exist without darkness and vice versa.
And since each half also contains a bit of its opposite or the essence of the other—represented by the small black circle within the white swirl, and a small white circle within the black swirl—the universe and everything in it is interconnected and there are no absolutes.
So, if we now look at the saga through the lens of this simple, yet powerful symbol, each trilogy becomes one half of the Yin Yang. The prequel trilogy represents Yin. The original trilogy represents Yang. And like the Yin Yang, these two seemingly opposing forces or trilogies (and the pairs of corresponding films between them) are actually complementary, interdependent opposites. Neither one can exist without the other.
As we saw earlier, the films, like the Yin Yang, are deeply interconnected through almost every aspect of moviemaking. In a way, then, the trilogies interact with each other to form a “symbiont circle,” as Obi-Wan says in Menace. What happens to one affects the other with the whole being far greater than the sum of its parts. 12
In addition, at the heart of each trilogy, there is the seed of its opposite, a quality that’s powerfully embodied by the father-son relationship of Anakin and Luke. Author Mary Henderson made this very point in The Magic of Myth, the companion book to the Star Wars exhibit at the Smithsonian: “One [Darth Vader] personifies evil but carries within him the potential for redemption, while the other [Luke] personifies good but carries within the potential for evil. Beyond the struggle between them lies hope of their reconciliation through atonement. Like the Chinese Yin and Yang, each contains a drop of the other.” 13
Also, like the Chinese symbol, the interaction between trilogies seeks to establish and maintain a dynamic balance “in order to achieve harmony in nature, the stability of a society, and a long rule with eternal peace, as well as the health of individuals.” 14 So, whenever one force reaches its peak (at the end of Sith, for instance), it will naturally begin to transform into the opposite
From this perspective, then, Anakin’s heroic act of compassion (think of it as Yang energy) at the climax of Jedi repairs the state of imbalance that was caused by excess greed (or Yin energy). In other words, Anakin finds the balance within himself (and metaphorically within each of us)—thus bringing balance to the Force and peace and harmony to the galaxy. Light and dark, perhaps only temporarily, are in perfect balance, in a powerful reconciliation of opposites (this is also expressed rather notably through the reconciliation of father and son).
“What these films deal with,” says Lucas, “is the fact that we all have good and evil inside of us and that we can choose which way we want the balance to go.” 16
And with that being said, the stage is now set for the final part of the ring structure: the center.
Continued on next page
- Mary Douglas, Thinking in Circles: An Essay on Ring Composition, Terry Lecture Series, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007), 1. ↩
- The presence of an inclusion leads me to believe that Lucas’s use of ring composition was at least partly inspired by biblical Hebrew poetry, which is primarily characterized by parallelism—particularly chiasmus and inclusion, among others. ↩
- David Ulansey, “The Heavenly Veil Torn: Mark’s Cosmic ‘Inclusio,’”Journal of Biblical Literature 110, no. 1 (Spring 1991): 123. ↩
- Douglas, Thinking in Circles, 40. ↩
- “Vergence” is an interesting word choice—it refers to the movement of both eyes in opposite directions to maintain visual perception of an object. And as research has shown, “There is a natural symbiosis between vergence and vestibular responses. Deficits in vergence can lead to vertigo, disequilibrium, and postural instability” (Kapoula et al., “Vergence”). In other words, a loss of balance. ↩
- J. W. Rinzler, The Making of “Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith,” (New York: Del Rey Books, 2005), 221. ↩
- Nadia Julien, The Mammoth Book of Lost Symbols, (Philadelphia, PA: Running Press Book Publishers, 2012), ebook edition, 134. ↩
- Anne Lancashire, “The Phantom Menace: Repetition, Variation, Integration,” Film Criticism 24, no. 3 (March 2000): 37. ↩
- Hugh Hart, “Flaws in a Good Heart,”Los Angeles Times, January 20, 2002, http://articles.latimes.com/2002/jan/20/entertainment/ca-hart20. ↩
- George Lucas, “Of Myth and Men,” interview by Bill Moyers, Time, April 18, 1999: 90. ↩
- Rinzler, Making of “Sith,” 62. ↩
- Lancashire, as so often, hits the bullseye when she suggests that the Gungans and the Naboo perhaps represent “conciliatory and aggressive impulses, the conscious and the subconscious, or the ego and the id, that make up the whole of every man and must be recognized and brought into a proper balance. Only a new balancing of the Naboo and the Gungans finally brings peace to the attacked planet.”(Lancashire, “Menace,” 34) ↩
- Mary S. Henderson, “Star Wars”: The Magic of Myth, (New York: Bantam Books, 1997), 120. ↩
- Helaine Selin, Encyclopaedia of the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine in Non-Western Cultures. 2d ed., (Berlin [u.a.]: Springer, 2008), 1170. ↩
- Wikipedia contributors, “Yin and Yang,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yin_and_yang. ↩
- George Lucas, “The Mythology of Star Wars,” interview by Bill Moyers, PBS, June 18, 1999. ↩