In case you hadn’t noticed, I have a pretty strong interest in royalty and in politics. My passion is shared by my old friend, Bria LaVorgna. Bria and I have decided to co-write a piece on monarchy in Star Wars, presented alternatingly on the sites we write for: Eleven-ThirtyEight and Tosche Station. We think that the close connection Star Wars has to monarchy is pretty unusual and worth examining in detail. We’ll start out with a brief survey of monarchy in Star Wars, before moving on to an examination of how monarchy works on three prominent Star Wars planets.
(Programming note: I’ll update this intro post with links to each piece on Tosche Station and Eleven-ThirtyEight as they go up this week. Look for a new piece each day from now through Thursday!)
Part II: A New Naboo (Tosche Station)
Part III: The Hapans Strike Back (Eleven-ThirtyEight)
Unusually among science fiction franchises, Star Wars has a strong attachment to monarchy. This is partly due to the nature of Star Wars as space opera rather than pure science fiction, but it’s not really a genre issue. Monarchy is part of the DNA of Star Wars and always has been. Initially, Princess Leia served as the princess figure in the fairy tale conception of Star Wars (one of many inspirations for Star Wars, including myth, serial adventures, etc.) and Leia proves in the very first film that she’s not merely a damsel in distress. But fairy tale inspirations only get us part of the way — monarchy is a persistent and pervasive part of Star Wars, reflected in the Naboo of the prequel trilogy, Hapes of the Expanded Universe, and a myriad of monarchies in the Clone Wars. In fact, The Clone Wars made such a use of monarchies that worlds that the EU had established as democracies (Mon Calamari) ended up becoming monarchies. George Lucas had a pretty direct hand in The Clone Wars, and he obviously crafted the story of the saga, so monarchy is just a part of his political conception of Star Wars. But the question is — why? Why does a story about the struggle between light and dark, between democracy and tyranny, feature monarchies so centrally?
Old Republic of Monarchies
The answer might lie in the Old Republic — the real Old Republic, seen in the intro matter to the original Star Wars From the Adventures of Luke Skywalker. This piece, notionally from the “Journal of the Whills,” relates an idyllic Old Republic that represented the golden age of democracy, freedom, justice, and all things good. The tone of this intro piece is grand, solemn, nostalgic, every bit like the introduction of an old fairy tale or legend. Lucas drew from all sorts of literary and folklore origins when he framed the story of Star Wars, and the Arthurian tones of this golden age government come across pretty strongly. Here, we think, is part of why the Old Republic features so many monarchies and why we’re supposed to think of them as a good thing.
The monarchies of Star Wars are distinctly not modern. This sounds like a strange thing to say, given that they’re in space but these monarchies aren’t structured along modern lines. Modern governments have an increasing shift in power away from singular rulers — whether they’re ancient feudal monarchies or tribal/family leaders — towards the sovereignty of the ruled. It is no longer acceptable to say that sovereignty is appurtenant to the ancestral ruler or landowner, even in places where the monarch is still technically a sovereign who reigns over his or her subjects. Modern constitutional monarchies are delicate things, resting on a theory that is only tolerated so long as the “subjects” feel affections for royalty they see as serving their best interests or at least not offending their interests too dramatically. We recognize that this trend isn’t inevitable or the final evolution of a political society, but it was the result we landed on and it is where our political society has evolved to. So we might expect a futuristic society, especially an idealized republic, to reflect the best that our idea of politics and society might eventually aspire to.
But it’s not just the setting of Star Wars that takes place a long long time ago, but its political theory as well. Idealized queens and princesses fight on behalf of their people, and enjoy the unwavering support of their subjects in a way uncommon even during the Second World War. WWII is a fitting data point because so much of the film saga is sourced in that conflict — the fall of the Republic, the rise of the Empire, and the dogfights all draw heavily from WWII. One might see echoes of the wartime British monarchy, who inspired their people and helped hold their society together, but the sort of political power held by the monarchs of Star Wars is far beyond even the glittered heydey of 19th century colonial monarchies. There are few prime ministers and parliaments to stymie a monarch (though it’s not unheard of: see Mandalore in The Clone Wars).
I’ve written a lot about the history and politics of Star Wars, and I’ve noted that a lot of times specific historical and political parallels are used to make a point while other times they’re used to enhance plausibility in storytelling. Bria and I don’t specifically think that Lucas set out to make a political point about monarchy or to advocate monarchism when he filled Star Wars with monarchies. We think, instead, that monarchs and monarchy allows for an exploration of various themes about people or societies because the person of the monarch allows for such a dynamic scope of action. The perfect monarchy is about as easily realized as the perfect democracy: both are idealized aspects of a vanished past. This is why the Old Republic can feature so many kings and queens: because their characteristics and their societies are as mythical as the legendary Old Republic itself. These monarchs are heirs to that legacy just as the senators and Jedi are: and the prequels launched us into the time period where such things were ending. But as Princess Leia of Alderaan proved: their values do live on, and that’s why these futuristic but fantastical monarchies are important to Star Wars.
The Galactic Emperor and His Court
Anybody who knows me knows I could probably write an entire article on the Imperial Court (witness the name of my section on this site, after all). But I’ll spare everyone an in-depth analysis and just note that the Empire forms an opposite side of this coin. The Emperor is the evil overlord of fantasy, the dark wizard, etc. but he’s also the corrupt politician, as well as the the Caesar, Napoleon, or Hitler. He plays many roles, but I think his court shows the dark side of monarchy.
The Imperial Court is mostly explored in the EU, through West End Games, the X-Wing books, and their ilk and features in the new canon via the Tarkin novel. The Imperial administrative apparatus includes the worst of colonial governments (via the mofference), despotic regimes (the Emperor and his personal thugs), and administratively sophisticated monarchies (the Imperial Court and its governing apparatus).
The monarchy of the Empire is the exact opposite of the monarchies of the Old Republic. It’s detached (indeed, the Emperor spends most of his time in seclusion), unresponsive (the mofference was given control precisely to remove the people’s channel to the government, the Senate), and schemes for its own ends (the Imperial Advisors are supposedly wise viziers and mandarins… but spend all their time playing power games against each other instead of governing). Oddly, this government seems more suited to an interstellar government than the personal monarchies of the Old Republic, presumably because its bureaucratic nature reminds us of real-world empires which undertook governance of far-flung realms (the courts of the Persian, Roman, and Chinese empires come to mind — these are not accidental, since we can definitely see aspects of all three in the Galactic Empire).
But I’ll leave it at that for now. If there’s demand, I’m definitely willing to undertake an article analyzing the court and government of the Galactic Empire. Suffice to say though, it’s the BAD kind of monarchy and we understand why it’s there as an antagonist. But the sheer contrast with the good monarchies of the Old Republic might help show why they’re there — the monarchies of the Old Republic aren’t really better because they’re different from the Empire, but because they’re led by good people. That’s what makes them interesting — along with the fact that no two monarchies in SW are quite the same, they’ve got variety in a way that’s not seen in most fantasy monarchies and certainly difficult to see in a democracy.
The rest of this series is going to be a dialogue between Bria and I, and let’s have a small flavor of that by starting us off with a discussion on monarchies in general!
Jay: So, we’ve talked a little bit about why Star Wars is full of monarchies. It’s part fairy tale, part idealized politics — but let’s start off with a brief mention of why *we* are so interested in monarchies. You’re up, Bria.
Bria: Because I too want to wear a pretty dress and a crown. Or wait, that probably wasn’t the answer you were looking for, was it?
Jay: You stole my answer! Minus the part about the dress that is. They’re robes, dangit, robes!
Bria: It’s okay. We all secretly want a pretty dress. While those are definitely both things that would be cool to have, I think what interests me most in monarchies when it comes to Star Wars is that we got characters like Leia and Padmé. Star Wars breaks the norms so often and it definitely did by giving us two characters who were royalty and who kicked ass and the types of societies behind them fascinate me. What about you?
Jay: Also pretty palaces, pretty spaceships, and even pretty blasters (Amidala’s ELG-3a is a thing of beauty). But yeah aside from the trappings, which are a big deal, I think it’s the role of royal characters in Star Wars that interests me the most. Obviously you’d expect royalty to be big movers ‘n’ shakers, but a lot of the characters we see are born with passion and a dedication to service along with their blueblooded status. I have a fondness for characters like that.
Bria: So obviously we’ll go more in-depth about this later, but the other thing that I find super neat about monarchies in Star Wars is how diverse they are. Just because a planet’s ruled by a Queen in that galaxy doesn’t mean that she came to her seat of power the same way.
Jay: And all queens aren’t the same, either. Some are figureheads, and some are absolute monarchs. I haven’t run the numbers, but it’s interesting that it seems like there are more queens than kings in Star Wars — or more princesses than princes. But more important than that perception is their roles in the story, and queens and princesses in Star Wars are among the strongest and most influential characters in the saga. It’s pretty great.
Bria: No, I think you’re right because I was just thinking about that. Kings do exist obviously but almost all of the ruling monarchs with an impact on the story are women. And if there’s a king, well, it’s probably because he successfully assassinated Queen Talia with the help of a rogue Jedi.
Jay: It’s an interesting reversal of historical and literary stereotypes, where you often hear of the good king and the evil queen. In Star Wars, it’s more often the reverse — consider the Galactic Emperor as the archetypal example of the evil monarch, while Princess Leia is the heroic royal fighting the good fight from the first Star Wars film onward.
Bria: Clearly there’s plenty to talk about here. In fact, I suspect we could write a thesis on just one of these planets’ monarchies…
Jay: How about we write a thesis on three planets? Well, that might bore anybody who’s not as into monarchy as we are… perhaps a rousing chat like this one would work better? Let’s go with a selection of the most prominent monarchies in Star Wars: Naboo, the Hapan Consortium, and Alderaan. As a bonus, they’re all pretty different so I think we’ll have a lot to talk about. We’ll be running the first part of this series — Naboo — on Tosche Station, and then alternating between Eleven-ThirtyEight and Tosche from then on. It’s our first cross-site collaboration and we hope you’ll have half as much fun as we’re having!
8 thoughts to “Tsar Wars: Once Upon a Time in a Galaxy Far Far Away”
Interesting – I can’t wait to see what you guys produce. Monarchy in Star Wars is definitely a huge part of creating the “feel” of the IP.
A minor point: You do set up an interesting (and problematic) division between the “modern” and the “not modern” when it comes to real world governance and monarchy. Your piece suggests that “modernity” is defined as “the sovereignty of the ruled,” making rule by a single family a tricky proposition. While there is a certain truth to this, it also represents a generalization of the experience of particular Western European monarchs (especially the British). In fact, in the last several decades there has been a major push by historians to re-examine modern monarchies other than the British one, and explore the various ways in which modernity and monarchical government interacted, especially in the lead-up to the First World War. The new historiography has tended to suggest that monarchy and modernity may not have been so incompatible, and that it was in fact the extreme trauma of the Great War that led to so many dynasties losing their power. Perhaps absent a catastrophic world war, monarchies might have found ways to adapt to modern concepts like nationalism and popular sovereignty.
If you’re interested in exploring non-British monarchies in the modern period, I’d recommend three books (or at least three book reviews).
Donald Quataert’s “The Ottoman Empire, 1700-1922” (http://www.amazon.com/Ottoman-1700-1922-Approaches-European-History/dp/0521547822/ref=pd_sim_14_1?ie=UTF8&refRID=0PA12AP3R2SJB283373Q) covers a large period of Ottoman history and chronicles Ottoman decline, but also tries to argue that the Empire remained a viable political institution until the outbreak of the First World War. You can find an okay review here (http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=7325).
Alan Sked’s “Decline and Fall of the Habsburg Empire”, 1815-1918,” (http://www.amazon.com/Decline-Habsburg-Empire-1815-1918-Edition/dp/0582356660) tells a similar story about the Habsburg Empire in the modern period. Sked is one of the biggest proponents that the Habsburg monarchy was in the process of reconciling nationalism and popular sovereignty to the rule of the dynasty, before the First World War intervened. Review here (http://www.jstor.org/stable/4546322?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents).
Richard Wortman’s “Scenarios of Power” (http://www.amazon.com/Scenarios-Power-Abdication-Institute-University/dp/0691123748) is a bit more out there. It examines how the Romanov dynasty employed court ceremony and mythic storytelling to help legitimate the dynasty throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. Wortman concludes that the Romanvos faced serious challenges due to more modern forms of identity, but that the real cause of the dynasty’s failure was the poor performance of Nicholas II in his assigned role of “father of the nation.” (That, and the First World War). Review here (https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=136).
Anyway, some food for thought. Can’t wait to see what you guys come up with on Star Wars monarchy.
Glad you enjoyed it! The second piece will be posted on Tosche Station, and I’ll edit the opening post to include a link to it (as well as tweeting about it).
You make excellent observations about monarchy and its compatibility with modernity. I actually agree with you, which is why I cautioned that we weren’t saying that the modern western liberal democracy wasn’t the only historical outcome, just the one we’d settled on. I actually did have the Habsburg monarchy specifically in mind here, as Otto Von Habsburg’s writing on the ability of the imperial and royal monarchy to maintain support among the Austro-Hungarian people after the war reminds us. I’ve also read a little about the pre-war attempts at navigating Slavic nationalism, and I’ve wondered about Czechs and Slovaks as well.
I have not read any extended treatments of the subject though, so I appreciate your recommendations. I’ll have to add them to my list, which also includes a biography of Archduke Otto that I’ve been hoping to get through. Too many books to read and too little time!
I suspect the ability of republics and constitutional monarchies to adapt to social, economic, and nationalist upheavals is really the truth of why they flourished. It’s not that Britain and France didn’t have their share of revolutionary threats (and the war brought them to the very brink, too) — they only just managed to whether it. But they imposed conditions that resulted in the upending of two German monarchies, which may very well have been a mistake that enabled fascism to rise (Churchill thought so, at any rate).
I also wonder what the fate of the Chinese monarchy or the Indian raj might’ve been had they not been so closely associated with giving in to the colonial powers. Granted, the Chinese situation has the additional complication of the Qing being a foreign dynasty…
Needless to say, such are the things that fascinate me.
“Too many books… too little time.” The story of my life 🙂
On the republics/constitutional monarchies versus the dynasties: The question is very much an open one; my intention was only to provoke further thought, not settle the question. As you might expect, Quaraert, Sked, and Wortmann all have their critics, too.
On the issue of adaptability and survivability, there remains a major chicken-in-egg problem. Did the institutional adaptability of Britain and France better allow them to redeploy resources to meet and overcome the major challenges of the 20th century? Or did the greater resources of Britain and France allow their institutions to flourish, while much poorer societies struggled and died? A number of scholars* have suggested that the success of liberal-democratic-capitalistic-constitutional government in the 20th century was largely due to the fact that the 20th century’s most powerful country (the United States, by far) was liberal-democratic-capitalistic-constitutionalist. Whether institutions or resources best explain the rise and fall of the great powers** is a tricky question to untangle.
On the issue of dynasty and imperialism: that’s a tougher one to sort out. The viability of non-European dynasties in the face of European imperialism is a fascinating question, but it usually gets caught up in the tremendous advantages in resources and technology that European imperial states enjoyed by the 19th century. There, too, the very idea of “modernity” and what it entails is even more contentious, given the longstanding narrative that modernity was imported to the rest of the world by European imperialism, and therefore may somehow be alien to African or Asian civilizations (a very contentious proposition all around). As someone who focuses primarily on American and Atlantic 20th century history, it’s a bit outside my area of study, but a fascinating question nonetheless.
*See, for example, Mark Mazower’s “The Dark Continent” (http://www.amazon.com/Dark-Continent-Europes-Twentieth-Century/dp/067975704X), which is mostly about the struggle of liberalism, fascism, and communism, but also has an interesting early account about the fall of monarchies and the making of constitutions.
**Because I can’t help myself: Paul Kennedy, “The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers” (http://www.amazon.com/The-Rise-Fall-Great-Powers/dp/0679720197)
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