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TFN Review: Star Wars And History

Posted By Eric on November 26, 2012

George Lucas did not set out merely to create great entertainment when he wrote the first script for what became Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. He wanted to teach the world. Through the immersive, instantly-graspable universe that unfolded in those pages and later onscreen, Lucas imparted to us lessons about the cyclical nature of history and the lessons that it offers for the future. Behind the laser blasts and attack runs were fundamental divides over the right form of government that once ripped apart many of Earth's oldest nations. Countless faces seen on Coruscant and elsewhere were merely masks concealing political motivations with real -- and sometimes devastating -- precedents.

In 2010, Lucas approached Janice Liedl, an associate professor of history at Laurentian University in Ontario, Canada, and Nancy Reagin, a professor of history and women's and gender studies at Pace University in New York, about producing a book in the style of their previous collaborations, which included Twilight and History, Harry Potter and History, and Star Trek and History. The result is the appropriately-named Star Wars and History, published by Wiley & Sons, that was released this month.

Last week, I spoke to co-author Janice Liedl about her personal Star Wars fandom and her experience researching the Star Wars universe for this book. I encourage you to check out our interview in addition to my review.

From the moment I wrote about it on TheForce.Net, I could not wait to receive a copy of the book and put together a review for TFN. As a college student, I am still in the middle of formal schooling about world history, international relations, and contemporary politics. That fact enhanced my enjoyment of this book, with many parallels seeming to jump from my class notes into its beautifully-designed pages. However, Star Wars and History is a great read no matter how long it's been since you were in college.

The book is divided into three parts, each of which contains three or four essays.

Part I is called "Only Imperial Stormtroopers Are So Precise" and focuses on "the wars in Star Wars." It features the following essays:

* Why Rebels Triumph: How "Insignificant" Rebellions Can Change History (by William J. Astore)
* "Part of the Rebel Alliance and a Traitor": Women in War and Resistance (by Janice Liedl and Nancy Reagin)
* Elegant Weapons for Civilized Ages: The Jedi and Warrior-Monks throughout History (by Terrance MacMullan)
* "A House Divided": The Causes and Costs of Civil War (by Paul Horvath and Mark Higbee)

Part II is called "Join Me, and Together We Can Rule the Galaxy as Father and Son" and delves into the political underpinnings of the saga. It includes these four essays:

* I, Sidious: Historical Dictators and Senator Palpatine's Rise to Power (by Tony Keen)
* Teen Queen: Padme Amidala and the Power of Royal Women (by Janice Liedl)
* "There's Always a Bigger Fish": Power, Politics, and the Rule of the Ruthless (by Kevin S. Decker)
* "Fear Is the Path to the Dark Side": Nuclear Weapons and the Death Star (by Lori Maguire)

Part III is called "Excuse Me, Sir, but That Artoo Unit Is in Prime Condition, a Real Bargain". It explores the saga's treatment of corporations, trade, economies, and social organization in these three essays:

* From Slavery to Freedom in a Galaxy Far, Far Away (by Paul Finkelman)
* "Greed Can Be a Powerful Ally": The Trade Federation, the East India Companies, and Chaotic Worlds of Trade (by Michael Laver)
* Coruscant, the Great Cities of Earth, and Beyond (by Katrina Gulliver)

There are several great things about this book that make it a must-buy for students of history and Star Wars fans alike. First of all, the artwork is incredible. Black-and-white images of the Prequels and even episodes of Star Wars: The Clone Wars fit right in alongside classic images of Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine. The editors selected photographs that help tell compelling stories about the characters who inhabit the Star Wars universe and the historical themes they represent. These images of movies and TV episodes are placed next to battlefield photographs from World War II, paintings from 19th century France, and war propaganda posters from 1940s Britain. At times, the photographs alone seem to tell half the story about the intersection between our world and the galaxy far, far away.

Sprinkled throughout the book are photo pages that explicitly link imagery from Star Wars with scenes out of Earth's history. This is where the book incorporates color pictures, and always to great effect. Below you can see what is probably my favorite two-page spread, "The Tools of Dictatorship."

The book uses quotations and section titles to great effect. In the beginning of the fourth essay, "A House Divided: The Causes and Costs of Civil War," Palpatine's quote "I will not let this Republic that has stood for a thousand years be split in two" sits, visually juxtaposed, in front of a photograph of Anakin and Obi-Wan dueling on Mustafar (see below). The implications of this juxtaposition frame the textual analysis that follows. Readers will remember the dramatic connotations of the photos and quotes that open each chapter as they read the essays within it.

As for section titles, they provide thought-provoking narrative markers as readers progress through each chapter. Like the introductory quotes, the titles help frame the parallels that the essayists will draw out in their writing. You will instantly want to read any section that begins with a title like "Longer Ago, Farther Away" or "You Think a Princess and a Guy Like Me...?" A couple more examples of good section titles can be seen below.

As masters of history themselves, these essayists know of what they write. Their allusions to figures like Napoleon of France, Augustus of Rome, and, of course, Hitler of Germany are informed by years (and sometimes decades) of research and academic work. They also appear to be genuine fans of Star Wars, an important fact which makes for richer, more informed analysis of the saga. One of my favorite chapter was "A House Divided." Before reading that essay, I never realized how important it was to think of Abraham Lincoln when analyzing the fall of the Jedi Order and the rise of the Empire. As Paul Horvath and Mark Higbee wrote in their essay's section "'Have You Come to Free Us?': The Roots of Civil Wars," President Lincoln and the Jedi Order approached the issue of slavery in similar ways leading up to their greatest tests:

As the [Civil War] began, nobody in the Lincoln administration professed a desire for a war that attacked slavery; instead, Lincoln proclaimed that he would not touch the rights of slaveholders in the existing slave states. Similarly, the Jedi and the Republic were willing to turn a blind eye to the moral issue of slavery, at least in Anakin's day.

The quote that opened this section on slavery -- Anakin to Qui-Gon in Episode I: "Have you come to free us?" -- emphasized the similarities between the Lincoln White House's motivations in the Civil War and the Jedi Order's priorities in protecting the galaxy. Importantly, while the American conflict eventually became "a war to save the Union by destroying slavery," the Jedi Order never had the chance to heal the rifts between vast swaths of the galaxy that resulted from issues of regional governance, including slavery. This one analogy helped explain the parallels (and differences) between two prolonged conflicts and the political landscapes that each produced.

I could go on and on describing what I love about Star Wars and History, but I'll wrap up my review with one final piece of praise. The book handles the major political messages of the Prequel and Original Trilogies beautifully, analyzing the shift in perspective from one trilogy to the next in the context of who audiences are supposed to be rooting for. Whereas in the 1970s, public distrust of government and the prevalence of "counterculture" shaped the glorification of insurgency in the form of the Rebel Alliance, the Prequel Trilogy cast the "big-government" Republic in a favorable light and looked down upon the insurgent Separatists by casting them as the modern-day space-fantasy equivalent of the secessionist South. (The name "Confederacy of Independent Systems" is surely no accident.) Star Wars and History was well-positioned to address this shift in political narratives, which I consider to be one of Star Wars' most fundamental historical parallels, and it did so to great effect.

Whether or not you're a history buff, you will enjoy this book. It brings to light explanations for some of the most interesting things that George Lucas put into his movies, and some of those connections will surprise you, particularly if you're not already a student of history. I think it's important to understand why things are the way they are, because contrary to what some might think, it really is more fun to watch a movie if you understand the significance of certain themes that were previously pure entertainment to you. One of the major facets of this book that I did not discuss is the focus on the role of women in both war and peace. Liedl and Reagin's analysis of George Lucas' use of strong women like Leia and Padme encourages fans to think about those characters in a new light. At the end of the day, that kind of new perspective is one of the most compelling benefits of reading this book.

To learn more about Star Wars and History, visit the publisher's website. You can order the book here on Amazon. Also, be sure to check out my interview with co-author Janice Liedl.

Related Stories

November 26, 2012   TFN Interview: SW And History Co-Editor Janice Liedl
July 7, 2012   SW And History Available For Pre-Order
July 5, 2011   New Book Will Connect World History & SW

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