Two Camelots: On The High Republic’s Lofty Aspirations

In Star Wars, it feels like democracies are always corrupt and republics always fall. It’s been a perverse message in a franchise about light and dark, freedom and oppression. From the Expanded Universe to the prequel trilogy to the sequel trilogy, we see that senators and politicians are untrustworthy and democratic systems are unequipped to survive. Always our plucky heroes defeat the big bad enemy through force and firepower. It felt absurd by the late EU, where the message seemed to be that only soldiers got it done: rely not on elected governments, but on the military. One of the reasons why democratic republics seem doomed to fail in Star Wars is that we’ve never really seen them in their heyday, only in their rough early days or their corrupt final days.

We’ve known since the original A New Hope novelization that there was an “Old Republic of legend” which “throve and grew” “under the wise rule of the Senate and the protection of the Jedi Knights”. In the film, Obi-Wan Kenobi called the Jedi the “guardians of peace and justice”. The 1997 Technical Journal of the Imperial Forces struck an even more idyllic note, calling the Old Republic “a community that had always served its citizenry well and faithfully”, where the “common rule by the Senate served the people wisely and well” and where “planets […] could turn to their neighbors for help” when facing natural disasters or uprisings. But whenever stories took us to the distant past, whether in the EU’s Tales of the Jedi¸ Knights of the Old Republic, or the still-ongoing The Old Republic, the government we saw was never as the legends described. Until now.

The intent of The High Republic initiative is to showcase a “hopeful, optimistic time, when the Jedi are good and noble”, according to Lucasfilm Creative Director Michael Siglain. In the launch stream for the project, Light of the Jedi author Charles Soule described the idea of two Camelots: the Arthurian Round Table of heroic knights of peace and justice, and the Kennedyesque political Camelot of Chancellor Lina Soh’s Galactic Republic. The two Camelots are the perfect pillars to describe the Arthurian Old Republic we’ve heard about since 1977, so it’s no surprise that these are among the main creative focuses of The High Republic.

I want to take a look at the two books that launched The High Republic initiative this week: Soule’s Light of the Jedi and Justina Ireland’s A Test of Courage to see how they frame the two Camelots defining the era. Do we finally get a functional galactic democracy? Does the Republic of legend feel convincing, with serious challenges, flaws, and blind spots it rises to overcome? Are the heroic Jedi as aspirational and inspirational as they are meant to be? Do they still fit with what we know of the Jedi? And finally – since The High Republic era takes place just a few centuries preceding the prequel era — what seeds might be planted for the end of this era of idealism? My short answer is – yes, I think that Soule and Ireland pull off a convincing launch into an era of aspirational idealism that’s a breath of fresh air in Star Wars while still laying the seeds of interesting challenges that I hope the series ends up wrestling with.

Chancellor Soh’s Republic of Great Works

The most promising thing I read about this era’s Republic wasn’t the promotional material that promised to finally show us the Republic of legend, but a simple quote in a article about ships. The article introduced the aesthetic design of The High Republic as essentially the predecessor of the prequel era, where The Phantom Menace showed us the tail end of an art-for-art’s-sake handcrafted design philosophy (just imagine everything Naboo, from their fighter craft to their guns). I loved that idea in the prequels, and it’s one of the most exciting things about The High Republic to me: that idea of stylized elegance so very different from the lived-in-future aesthetic of Star Wars that we all know and love. But questions of style weren’t what struck my attention: rather, it was how that style spoke to the substance of the storytelling.

In that article, Pablo Hidalgo described the design of Chancellor Soh’s Starlight Beacon: a gleaming space station in the Outer Rim whose upper half resembles the spires of the Jedi Temple on Coruscant, while the lower half is the industrial foundation that keeps the station running. Hidalgo said, “those who are allied to the ideals of the Republic can look at it as an inspiration example of balance, of working together. Those against the Republic can get riled by what they see as a statement of class and divisions.” This was the single most exciting bit of promotional material I’d read before the launch of The High Republic – it told me that perhaps the Republic wouldn’t be magically perfect; that the aspirational part might be that while it did struggle and face challenges, the people of the Republic might come together to address them. That it would always be an imperfect, flawed project, but one worth improving upon.

That’s the gist I got from Soule’s Light of the Jedi, too. Early on, characters would think to themselves that “the system worked” and every third character would chant the slogan “we are all the Republic.” At first, I wondered if they were trying a bit too hard to convince us of the Republic’s merits, especially since we’d never seen a properly functional one before. But as I read on, I realized that the characters themselves saw the Republic as a work in progress, and that’s when the whole thing clicked for me.

Chancellor Lina Soh

We’re told that Chancellor Lina Soh – who’s probably my favorite character in The High Republic so far – is the leading voice behind this idealistic era. “We are all the Republic” is her slogan, and the Great Works are her plan to marshal the galaxy’s resources for a common purpose. But it seems to me that it’s a new, fragile state. The book mentions offhand that just a few centuries prior, the galaxy was a darker place. And we know where it ends up a few centuries later. Bringing the Outer Rim into the embrace of the Republic is her plan, though Justina Ireland’s Senator Ghirra Starros is also an adamant believer that the people of the galaxy are stronger together. Logically, Soh’s plans must have substantial political and economic support to achieve the aims she wants.

That’s where our antagonists come in, the Nihil. I won’t spoil what they’re about, except to quote promotional material which describe them as a group of people who believe in nothing. Or more precisely, they do not believe in the vision that the Republic is presenting for the Outer Rim and resent their intrusion into the region, seeing it as a form of control. I have to wonder if the Nihil are alone in feeling this way about the Republic. Soh’s Starlight Beacon is a massive symbol: part hospital, part Jedi temple, part peacekeeping force, part neutral mediation center, and part cultural exchange center. In her idealism, Soh believes that it’ll bring the Rim and the Republic together – but I have to wonder if some in the Rim feel like it’s power projection or colonialism. The Kennedy comparison is instructive: his administration may have been mythologized as “Camelot”, but it was also the height of the Cold War, and American policy in Cuba and Vietnam come to mind. Will we see a similar darker edge to how the Republic’s self-professed idealism impacts the Rim?

I believe that the idea of good intentions going awry or being misinterpreted, and how to deal with those challenges, would be a perfect topic for this series to tackle. The Republic doesn’t have much of a military, but it does have a peacekeeping fleet supported by treaty-worlds primarily in the Core, as well as the assistance of the Jedi. Chancellor Soh’s efforts could look a lot like the rich, fancy Core Worlds moving into the Rim to take their people and resources. Similarly, we know the Republic will eventually fall prey to the interests of corporate money and selfish politicians. I hope to see the beginnings of that in The High Republic eventually, and I would also like to see how Chancellor Soh’s Republic deals with these issues (or if they are pushed under the carpet for another day).

The Guardians of Peace and Justice

The Jedi are an essential part of The High Republic, possibly even the main part. Jedi protagonists abound in Soule’s Light of the Jedi and in Ireland’s A Test of Courage. They’re different from the Jedi of the prequel era – they’re not stuck in their ivory tower, but rather they’re placed among the people of the galaxy. Regular people know and recognize them – in Courage, teenage Jedi Knight Vernestra Rwoh is a bit of a local celebrity. That’s not to say that the Jedi are completely unlike the Jedi we know: we see several who counsel peace and non-intervention.

Concept art of Vernestra Rwoh

Indeed, even when the more active Jedi get involved we see an awareness of the toll violence can take on a Jedi’s spirit. Use of the Force is plentiful in piloting, but the Jedi’s Vector starfighters require that a lightsaber be inserted into fighter’s console before the weapons systems will function; the idea being that taking life must be a thoughtful, considered act and not done in haste. That was the real question that I had about Jedi in this era: how to square their heroism with what we know of the Force, and the dangers of aggression.

While wise and powerful Jedi Masters are present throughout Light of the Jedi, from the wonderous young Jedi Master Avar Kriss to the experienced and kindly Porter Engle (two of my other standout favorite characters), younger padawans and knights remain the audience’s best way to learn about the Jedi of this era. Soule’s Bell Zettifar and Ireland’s Vernestra Rwoh and Imri Cantaros are learning the ropes of being a Jedi and their lessons are useful introductions to what’s new and what’s the same for the Jedi. Bell’s one of many point-of-view characters in Light, while Vernestra and Imri are the main Jedi characters in Courage (along with two equally fun non-Jedi, all learning about themselves through the course of the book). One of my favorite things about the Jedi in The High Republic is that they’re all individuals – they each visualize the Force in a different way, and they each have their own journey and challenges. It would be so easy for Jedi to be samey-same, but they’re not.

The Jedi of this era are active and involved with the galaxy, and that presents great challenges. It’s refreshing to see them engaged and helping people, but on the other hand I couldn’t help but be reminded of superheroes who decide what’s right and impose that on others. The Jedi believe they are following the will of the Force, and all is as the Force wills it: but I imagine that perhaps not everyone agrees with that. The Jedi’s involvement with politics and the Republic is an issue too – they may not have Jedi generals like in the Clone Wars, but they have their own cruiser (the Ataraxia, an excellent Greek name), fighter craft, and the ability to run Republic task forces when needed. That sort of intermingling in government by an unaccountable religious order has got to rub some people the wrong way. The Jedi may be aspirational and heroic, but not everyone may agree with their choices. Seeds have been planted for discontent – and I hope the role of the Jedi is something that The High Republic actively engages with.

A very promising start

I’ve spoken much more about The High Republic era as a whole than about the two particular launch novels, and that’s on purpose. I think the era has a lot of potential but a lot of risk – and the launch was key to showing how the project would look moving forward. I think Soule and Ireland started The High Republic off with a running start, showing us what the idealized Republic and Jedi look like while leaving room for future exploration of potential pitfalls and challenges. It’s very refreshing to finally see an aspirational and hopeful Republic committed to collective action for the common good, especially living in an era where such collective action is both sorely needed and hard to come by – we could use a few Great Works of our own. I hope to see more exploration of the good things the Republic and Jedi have to offer – and see some engagement with the challenges and pitfalls that come with them. I especially want to see more of what Hidalgo’s comment about Starlight Beacon’s underbelly hinted at: that even a Republic of legend has its blind spots and its fair criticisms. Hopefully we can get that without undermining or erasing the refreshing idealism of The High Republic. Star Wars can do both.

We know how this story ends, but only sort of. The Phantom Menace takes place only a couple centuries after this period. We see that film as the beginning of the fall of the Republic, but it’s important to remember what boundless faith Padmé had in it then. If the golden age of the Republic wasn’t that far off, that makes a lot of sense. We know what happens to the Republic and the Jedi — but we have no idea how they got there, and there’s a lot of room for great stories there.

To get a better sense of the two Camelots I’m talking about, and just for an enjoyable read, please check out Charles Soule’s Light of the Jedi and Justina Ireland’s A Test of Courage. There’s a lot in both books that I haven’t even touched upon, with fun new characters and story beats that might surprise.

Special thanks to Del Rey and Disney-Lucasfilm Press for providing a copy of Light of the Jedi and A Test of Courage for review purposes.