Find a Way or Make One: Thrawn, Star Wars, and History

“Elementary, my dear Pellaeon!”
Incidentally, Cumberbatch is on my short-list of actors who would make a great Thrawn. Hugo Weaving takes the cake, however.

Grand Admiral Thrawn, of Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire trilogy, was one of the most brilliant opponents ever faced by the New Republic. He outmaneuvered the heroes deftly, often defying impossible odds to accomplish stunning victories over the heroes. At the time of his death, Grand Admiral Thrawn had the New Republic on its knees. In a letter to a fan, Zahn described the blue menace as a composite of several figures: the fictional detective Sherlock Holmes, as well as several historical military figures: Hannibal Barca, Robert E. Lee, and Erwin Rommel, among others. Thrawn’s deductive abilities are almost certainly drawn from Conan Doyle’s famous detective, Sherlock Holmes. Holmes is able to assemble an accurate picture of how a crime occurred through deductive abilities, impeccable observation skills, and the aid of his trusty compatriot Dr. James Watson, who serves as the narrator in the Holmes stories. One of Thrawn’s signature traits is his ability to deduce his opponents’ actions before they even begin said actions, through a thorough understanding of psychology, an encyclopedic knowledge of military tactics, and the understanding of alien mindsets through the study of alien art. He even has his own Watson, in the form of Captain Gilad Pellaeon, captain of the Star Destroyer Chimaera and later Grand Admiral of the Imperial Remnant.
Read More

The Best of the Worst—Awesome Stuff in Atrocious EU

Man oh man, the Bantam era. Not having discovered Star Wars until the Special Editions in 1997, I spent the next couple years racing through dozens of already-published novels before catching up to the “present” right around when the New Jedi Order started. As such, those first fifteen years after Return of the Jedi are kind of a blur for me; though I at least had the advantage of reading them mostly in chronological order. I don’t really remember the stories of that era, for the most part, as much as certain distinct moments—Han crashing the Falcon on Kessel. Bib Fortuna’s brain in a jar. Leia hiding from Thrawn on Honoghr. Anakin on Centerpoint Station. Jaina in her cell.

Cell? What cell? Why, on Hethrir’s worldcraft, of course, in The Crystal Star.

Having abducted all three Solo brats just prior to the opening of the novel (which was admirably in media res of him if nothing else), Hethrir, leader of the Empire Reborn cult, steals away to his worldcraft, which is a spaceship that’s also kind of a planet and…eh, it’s not important. Jacen and Jaina, all of five years old at this point, are locked in separate cells with a bunch of other kids at something of a reeducation camp designed to teach toddlers—the only people who could possibly buy Hethrir’s argument—how great Emperor At least the cover art was pretty in those days.Palpatine was and how thrilled they should all be that Hethrir is bringing evil back. The twins aren’t buying it, of course, and soon enough they lead an exodus with the help of a friendly dragon (no, really).

It’s fairly standard young-reader pablum, really; told well enough, but nothing especially clever or original. Except for one thing.

Hethrir is using the Force to dampen, and monitor, Jacen and Jaina’s still-burgeoning powers; Jaina describes it in her internal monologue as a heavy, wet blanket covering them and preventing them from exerting themselves to escape. So one night in her cell, Jaina starts to experiment—she reaches out to a single air molecule floating in the room. Wiggles it around. Hethrir doesn’t notice. She adds a few more, tries rubbing them together—a light appears! Hethrir still doesn’t notice.
Read More

Luminous Beings Are We: Bodhisattvas and Force Ghosts

“Twilight is upon me, and soon night must fall.”

In my article on Vergere and Daoism, I discussed the concept of Li lines- the concept of following the natural path of one’s life, acting the role that one was born to play. From a Daoist perspective, free will exists, yet defiance of one’s Li line is seen as unnatural. Most pertinently to this discussion, the natural termination of a Li line occurs at death- indeed, the manner of one’s death may be an integral part of that Li line- as Ganner Rhysode so brilliantly demonstrated at the Well of the World Brain. If denying one’s Li line is unnatural, then it follows that defying the end of the line is similarly unnatural. The Jedi Path, which was written in the style of an in-universe Jedi text, explicitly describes death as the end of a Jedi’s life, when he or she is subsumed into the netherworld of the Force. In short, Jedi orthodoxy in the Rise of the Empire era viewed death as the end. Sith experiments to extend one’s life or cheat death were reviled by the Jedi- not just for the horrific means by which the Sith attempted these experiments, but also the selfishness it entailed. During this period prior to the Prequels, the Jedi Order by and large regarded tales of Whill Shamans being able to retain their identities after death as little more than fairy tales- at best “as metaphors for the Jedi Code’s final precept”.

“There is no death; There is the Force.”

However, the Jedi do not draw solely upon Daoist philosophy and theology. In designing and elaborating upon the Jedi, George Lucas and the rest of the writers who have contributed to Star Wars have drawn upon various Eastern religious traditions, including Buddhism. Within Buddhism exists the concept of the bodhisattva. Essentially, a bodhisattva is an individual who has attained enlightenment- achieved nirvana- yet has chosen to remain on earth and help others to achieve enlightenment. In other words, an ambition to become a Buddha, or at least a Buddha-like figure. It is a state of utter compassion for all life, and the product of a desire to help to bring about a better world even when one has found an escape from the cycle of samsara- the eternal cycle of life, death, and rebirth. The various schools of Buddhism recognize differing notions of what being a bodhisattva entails. For example, certain elements of Mahayana Buddhism recognize three distinct paths: king-like bodhisattvas, who become a buddha then guide others to enlightenment; boatman-like bodhisattvas, who wish to become buddhas alongside the rest of humanity; and shepherd-like bodhisattvas, who wish to delay their own enlightenment until the rest of humanity has achieved it. Various Buddhist traditions recognize a variety of bodhisattvas throughout history, ranging from mythical figures and Buddhist kings to semi-historical scholars such as Shantideva. So, where am I going with this discussion of the luminous beings of Buddhism?

In A New Hope, Obi-Wan Kenobi sacrifices himself to give the intrepid protagonists a chance to escape the Death Star. As Vader attempts to establish that he is now, in fact, the master, Obi-Wan’s body disappears, shocking the Sith Lord. He then goes on to provide guidance to Luke (and briefly possess Leia during Splinter of the Mind’s Eye), appearing in the form of a Force Ghost. Just what becoming a Force Ghost entails wasn’t greatly elaborated upon until Matthew Stover penned his legendary novelization of Revenge of the Sith, and subsequent EU works elaborated upon it. Becoming a Force Ghost requires knowledge of a certain technique perfected by Whill shamans- a technique that can be passed on after death. It requires utter compassion for all life, and allows a Jedi to retain their identity after death, appearing as a luminous beingin the mortal world. Force Ghosts do not simply deny death for fun; they remain on the mortal plain in order to provide guidance to those who still dwell in the mortal coil.

Or to explain how they told the truth “from a certain point of view”.

In becoming a Force Ghost, a Jedi is making a choice to deny, for a time, his or her own eternal enlightenment, and the peace of death. He or she is choosing to temporarily forego a state of eternal rest and enlightenment in order to remain on the mortal plane and pass on knowledge to those who remain. In short, by becoming a Force Ghost, a Jedi is, on some level, choosing to act as a sort of bodhisattva. The Force Ghost does not easily fit into any of the three paths to bodhisattva-hood mentioned earlier, yet it does dovetail with elements of the first and last paths. To become a Force Ghost requires knowledge of the Whill techniques (which have never really been detailed)- in other words, a Force Ghost must have attained a certain quality of enlightenment. At the same time, a Force Ghost is delaying his or her entry into the netherworld for a time (or taking a vacation from it, in the case of Qui-Gon Jinn)- similar to the shepherd-like bodhisattva, who denies his own nascent buddhahood in order to enlighten the world first.

The specific goals that Force Ghosts have had in mind have varied throughout the canon. Obi-Wan remained on the mortal plane for years to continue to instruct Luke Skywalker, the last hope of the Jedi. Whether it was to provide him with direct information (Zahn has Obi-Wan reveal a keycode to Luke in Allegiance), attempt to provide spiritual guidance to the young Jedi Knight, share military intelligence (warning Luke of the Ssi-Ruuk attack on Bakura), or justify misleading Luke about the true nature of Darth Vader, Obi-Wan was able to guide Luke up until the Thrawn crisis, seeing his pupil as the best hope for a galaxy ravaged by war and the Sith. Anakin Skywalker utilized the technique to seek his daughter’s forgiveness- forgiveness Leia would refuse him for decades. He arguably appeared to his descendant Cade to warn him of the perils of flirting with the dark side, although Cade’s altered state of mind at the time makes this appearance ambiguous. Luke Skywalker remained as a Force Ghost for an unknown duration (given that his death date has never been detailed), and spent much of that time providing advice to Cade Skywalker and urging him to clean up his life, regardless of how little Cade appreciated the help. Indeed, Cade was positively hounded by Skywalker ghosts- Luke, Anakin and Mara (depending on how drugged out Cade was), and Kol Skywalker all appeared to him at various points in his checkered career. Several other Jedi, such as Vergere, Arca Jeth, Qu Rahn, Yoda, and Halagad Ventor transcended their flesh upon death. The common thread between these ghosts is the desire to remain behind after one’s death in order to bring enlightenment, share wisdom, or make amends with those still among the living.

Luke Skywalker exhibiting an incredible amount of patience with his wayward great-great grandson.

In the end, a bodhisattva will eventually move on. Likewise, sooner or later a Force Ghost must bend to the will of the Force and move on to the great beyond. While they can influence the living, it is those in the mortal world who must make their choices and act upon them. a bodhisattva may guide one along the path of enlightenment, but it is the individual who must actual take those steps to achieve nirvana. Likewise, Luke Skywalker could try to steer Cade away from a path of self-destruction, and Obi-Wan Kenobi could try to warn Luke of the dangers of facing Darth Vader without completing his training, but in the end Cade and Luke had to make their own decisions. As Vergere put it:

“Choose, and act.”

The Pitch – Novels Humbly Requested by Eleven-ThirtyEight

Whatever one thinks of the Star Wars novels that have come out since Fate of the Jedi ended, one has to admit that their primary distinguishing feature is experimentation—in a little over a year we’ve gotten a western, an Ocean’s Eleven riff, a female-led Dawn of the Jedi story, and the first X-Wing book in thirteen years, among others. Now that no one—not even, it seems, LucasBooks’ Jennifer Heddle—is quite sure what’s going to become of the Expanded Universe in a couple years. It seems there’s never been a better time for the EU to just go for broke and see what works. To that end, the staff of Eleven-ThirtyEight humbly submits the following for your consideration.

Mike: X-Wing: Red Squadron

Seriously, now—how has this not happened already? In addition to being the perfect mix of fan-bait and movie tie-in, a book telling the origins of Red Squadron would be the perfect opportunity to sort out the myriad gaps and inconsistencies of this era and deliver a coherent history of the pilots who destroyed the Death Star.

If they were really into the idea, the concept could even spawn two different books—one pre-Yavin, detailing the initial formation of Red Squadron from pieces of several other units of the early Rebellion (and incorporating the proto-Red Squadron from the X-Wing game that gave us Keyan Farlander, one of the few Yavin survivors), and one post-Yavin that tells of the “Rogue Flight” era, when Luke and Wedge, alongside Commander Narra (an important character who dates all the way back to the Empire radio drama yet has had few moments in the spotlight) rebuilt Red Squadron almost from the ground up and eventually evolved it into the Rogue Squadron seen on Hoth.
Read More

Mandalorians at the Gates: A Long Time Ago, Part 3

The mystique of the buckethead brigade has only grown since Boba Fett’s first appearances in the Holiday Special and The Empire Strikes Back. Their backstory- and the historical cultures upon which it draws- have grown only more convoluted over time, as various authors have accented, overwritten, or ignored the works of previous writers. However, certain historical influences can be sussed out from the turmoil. The Mongols, the early medieval Vikings, and the ancient Celts of Gaul (with a dash of modern Celtic flavor) have all played a role in building Star Wars’ most well-known warrior culture.

Mandaloriansclonewarsgloriousretcon
The panel from Marvel Star Wars that spawned one of my favorite retcons in the history of EU continuity.

First, a bit of background. Out of universe, the Mandalorians originated with Boba Fett and the background notes established by George Lucas in The Empire Strikes Back– according to Lucas, Fett wore the armor of the Mandalorians, a group of evil warriors exterminated by the Jedi during the Clone Wars. Marvel’s “Star Wars” comic line expanded on the armored menaces, giving them a home planet (Mandalore, later rendered as ”Manda’yaim” in Mando’a) and establishing that their warrior culture still existed post-Clone Wars. The Clone Wars adventures of the Mandalorians were explained (and were later brilliantly retconned by Abel Peña in his “History of the Mandalorians” article, creating Spar a.k.a. Mand’alor Gayiyli, or Mandalore the Resurrector), with the Mandalorians eventually aiding the nascent Republic. While the Marvel era was left somewhat to the wayside in the Bantam-era EU, the Mandalorians continued to be utilized by various authors. In particular, Tom Veitch and Kevin J. Anderson laid much of the groundwork for Mandalorian culture in Tales of the Jedi, depicting the early Taung as nomadic warriors and raiders from the Outer Rim. The Knights of the Old Republic mini-franchise further expounded upon early Mandalorian warrior culture, positioning them as something of a cultural bogeyman to the Roman-inspired Galactic Republic. Later, Karen Traviss added her own substantial interpretations to Mandalorian culture, bringing in further Celtic motifs and developing the framework for a Mandalorian language.

Mando_Wars_battle
Rohlan Dyre, of KOTOR comics fame, leading a diverse legion of troops into battle.

Generally speaking, the Mandalorians resemble various nomadic groups throughout history. They were driven from their original homeworld- Coruscant- and travelled from world to world, settling on planets such as Roon, Shogun, Basilisk, and Ordo before settling down in the Mandalore system circa 7000 BBY. One element in particular links them to the Mongols of the late Medieval period- their willingness and ability to effectively assimilate conquered groups and cultures into their ranks, whether using their technology, taking advantage of their knowledge of trade routes, or simply assimilating them into their ranks. The Mongols under Ghenghis Khan and his successors were able to utilize Chinese knowledge of gunpowder and siege equipment to conduct their military campaigns in Khwarizm, Mesopotamia, India, and the Russian steppes. They were further able to integrate far-flung regions into their (only briefly unified) empire, respecting freedom of religion, expanding trade routes, and providing military protection to the conquered (assuming one survived the initial military assault, naturally). Similarly, the Mandalorians were almost fanatical about incorporating groups who had survived their conquests. Upon settling in the Mandalore system, the ancient Taung (note: the name “Taung” comes from a young Australopithecus skull discovered in Taung, South Africa in 1924) immediately made war upon the native Mandallian Giants, who survived the buckethead onslaught and were subsequently incorporated into the Mandalorian war machine. Later in history, as the Taung themselves were gradually worn down by constant warfare, the Mandalorian culture became incredibly multiethnic, incorporating species as diverse as Rodians, Twi’leks, Herglics, and humans- humans would come to be the dominant species within the Mandalorian culture.

Brennus_mg_9724
He’s climbing on your Capitoline Hill, snatching your Eternal City up.

Perhaps one of the most inspired elements of Karen Traviss’s interpretation of Mandalorian history and culture was her utilization of general Celtic elements to color her spec-ops warriors. The Gauls- a Celtic culture that inhabited parts of modern-day France (the Celts themselves settled as far afield as the British Isles, Northern Italy [Gallia Cisalpina], Modern Spain, parts of the Balkans, and even central Turkey [the region known as Galatia draws its name from its former Celtic inhabitants]) were something of a cultural bogeyman to the Roman Republic, similar to the role played by the Persians in Hellenic culture and the Mandalorians in the Galactic Republic. The La Tene culture- a Gallic subculture located in Northern Italy- even sacked the city of Rome itself in 390 BCE, the last time that the city would be breached by a foreign enemy until the Sack of Rome in 410 CE. Not ones to be upstaged by their real-world inspirations, the Mandalorians participated in several battles at Coruscant, such as Ulic Qel-Droma’s raid during the Great Sith War and the sack of Coruscant at the end of the Great Galactic War under the command of Darth Malgus. Interestingly, the Romans were not absolutely averse to friendly interactions with the Gauls, despite their various wars with them- the late Roman Republic and early Empire adopted Gallic-style helmets, and often preferred to hire Gallic mercenaries rather than utilize their own native cavalry. Similarly, the Mandalorians inspired the armor of the Grand Army of the Republic, and the GAR itself was partially trained by (and cloned from) Mandalorian commandos.

Mandalorians_-_TEA

longship reconstruction

One last historical inspiration for Mandalorians can be found a bit farther north in Europe – the Vikings of Scandinavia. Much like the Mandalorians, the Vikings were perceived as a highly militaristic culture, the scourge of Western Europe. While recent archaeological evidence suggests that the Vikings also engaged in a great deal of long-distance trade, transmitting goods and ideas along the seas of Western Europe and the Volga and Dniepr Rivers, their reputation as successful raiders is nonetheless well-deserved. They were able to conduct long-distance raids through the use of their longships- vessels that could travel rivers, coastlines, and the open sea. The ancient Mandalorians were able to utilize their Basilisk War Droid to similar tactical effect, popping out of hyperspace astride fighter-sized technological terrors that could operate in deep space and in an atmosphere. While they at times menaced the Eastern Roman Empire, Viking mercenaries were eventually hired to form the Varangian Guard, an elite unit in the Eastern Roman military. By the 12th century, the makeup of the Varangian Guard had largely shifted from soldiers of Norse descent to men from the British Isles. While they were an almost existential menace in the Republic’s psyche, the Mandalorians were perfectly willing to work for Coruscant when it suited them. They were hired by both sides during the New Sith Wars, and as mentioned earlier trained the Republic’s army prior to the Clone Wars (which did not preclude the Mandalorians from fighting against those very clones- Mandalore the Resurrector’s 212 Supercommandos were almost entirely wiped out in an engagement with the Galactic Marines on Norval II). The aforementioned gradual shift in Mandalorian identity from a single species to a multi-species culture is also reminiscent in the make-up of the Varangian Guard.

While almost certainly unintentional, the way in which these historical cultures have been interpreted, reinterpreted, and rewritten mirrors the rather haphazard nature of Mandalorian continuity. The Vikings, who for years were seen as little more than raiders, have in recent decades been re-evaluated for their impact on trade throughout Europe and the Middle East. The Mongols have experienced a similar renaissance in Western historiography, in recognition of how their conquests aided in the exchange of scientific, social, economic, and military ideas between Europe and eastern Asia, as well as their ability to integrate a far-flung heterogeneous empire. The ancient Celts, of course, have been utilized as nationalistic symbols by their descendants in the British Isles and France- although the modern nation of France is more directly connected to the Franks than the Gauls. In a similar vein, the Mandalorians have gone from simple elite villains to a dynamic warrior culture who occasionally even get to play the hero.