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The Star Wars Heresies: Interpreting the Themes, Symbols and Philosophies of Episodes I, II and III [Kindle Edition]

Paul F. McDonald
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)

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Book Description

Despite the insatiable public appetite for all things Star Wars, the more analytical side of the saga is all too often ignored. This book offers a new way of seeing George Lucas' space opera--particularly the prequel trilogy, a series never given a fair chance because of constant comparisons to the iconic originals.
In the classic style of Joseph Campbell, the trilogy is viewed through the lens of myth and metaphor, revealing a body of work not only worthy of scholarly study but perhaps destined to find therein its home. A wide variety of philosophical and mythological themes are presented and expounded upon, drawing from a rich source of scholars, thinkers, writers, and poets from East and West alike. Heretical or not, the Star Wars prequels are a surprisingly rich source of insight into the saga--as well as the human drama--as a whole.

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Product details

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 905 KB
  • Print Length: 224 pages
  • Publisher: McFarland (3 Sept. 2013)
  • Sold by: Amazon Media EU S.à r.l.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B00F8K8IKG
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
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  • Word Wise: Not Enabled
  • Enhanced Typesetting: Enabled
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #903,793 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Fantastic book 16 Oct. 2014
By Matt
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
I was starting to think it was just me who saw something deeper in the Star Wars prequels! This really should be the final word about their inherent quality, and should be required reading for anybody wishing to comment on the subject. A brilliant, enlightening and undeniable expose of just how much depth there really is in these misunderstood classics.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.8 out of 5 stars  12 reviews
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars great for fans who want to understand the Prequels 2 Oct. 2013
By Enjolras - Published on
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
In addition to Star Wars, I am also a fan of The Lord of the Rings and have been impressed with the high-quality academic discussion of the themes and imagery in Tolkien's legendarium available through The Tolkien Professor podcast and the Mythgard Institute. Part of the reason I created Poli-Sci Jedi was because I felt that the Star Wars saga deserves that same level of critical attention. With a few exceptions (including Star Wars and History), there's a remarkable dearth of literary criticism of the movies.

Paul F. McDonald, librarian and consummate Star Wars fan, took matters into his own hands with his new book, The Star Wars Heresies. The book's mission is to expose the deeper mythological themes embedded within the Prequel Trilogy.

There are of course other books about Star Wars and philosophy (e.g., Star Wars and Philosophy: More Powerful than You Can Possibly Imagine) and myth (e.g., Star Wars: The Magic of Myth), but The Star Wars Heresies still brings enough new material to the table to make it feel fresh. First, The Star Wars Heresies focuses only on the Prequels. Mentions are made to the Original Trilogy, Clone Wars, and Expended Universe - particularly the recent Darth Plagueis novel - but only to the extent they illustrate a particular point. Given that the Prequels are regarded by some as the black sheep in the Star Wars family, it's easy for authors to zero in on the Original Trilogy, especially the ever-quotable Yoda. Fortunately, by excluding its more popular cousin, McDonald is able to engage in a much closer analysis of the Prequel story.

Second, many other works only point out parallels to Joseph Campbell's "hero's journey" or Buddhism, but McDonald goes beyond those sources. He draws upon impressive range of real-world mythological and religious traditions, including obscure Chinese legends and linguistic translations of the names of key characters (it turns out Qui-Gon Jinn's name foreshadows his role at the end of Revenge of the Sith). The Star Wars Heresies can't be categorized quite so cleanly as about philosophy, religion, mythology, or politics because it draws upon all of these fields.
This book is definitely a must-read for fans of the Prequels. McDonald engages in a "close reading" of the films to find parallels between mythological patterns and the Prequels. However, this isn't like a high school English class that analyzes a book to death and takes all of the fun out of it. McDonald uses his analysis in order to allow readers to gain a deeper appreciation for the Prequels and where they fit within the broader scheme of human mythology. There are many subtle moments in the movies that fans might overlook but are actually imbued with deep significance.

For example, when Anakin uses the Force to give Padmé a piece of fruit in Attack of the Clones, that can actually be seen as a reverse on the biblical Genesis story in which a female, Eve, tempts a male, Adam, with the fruit of knowledge. McDonald continues along these lines to argue that Anakin's entire trajectory has echoes of Genesis as he is forced to confront knowledge of death and loss. Ironically, Anakin also attempts to tempt his Eve near the end of Revenge of the Sith when he says they could rule the galaxy together, but Padmé sticks to her ideals. Of course, unlike Adam, Anakin makes a Faustian pact with the Devil - Emperor Palpatine - for Darth Plagueis' power over death (the biblical Tree of Life).

I also think The Star Wars Heresies might even convince some Star Wars fans who did not like the Prequels that the movies have more depth than is commonly believed. Indeed, one of the most useful aspects of this book is that McDonald addresses many of the criticisms leveled at the film and shows how what might seem like sloppy dialogue or writing actually has deeper roots in mythology. For example, many fans have bemoaned Padmé's death at the end of Revenge of the Sith. However, McDonald shows that there is a history of females dying from stress or lovesickness in earthbound myths, including the famous romance between Guinevere and Lancelot. Even Jar Jar Binks receives a fair hearing as McDonald discusses the tradition of finding wisdom in absurd bumblers.

Having said that, the book does not cover the cinematography of the movies. McDonald largely passes over issues such as the acting, special effects, and editing of the films. For some fans these issues, more so than the underlying story, are what drag the Prequels down. I believe McDonald chose correctly in limiting his focus to the story. McDonald does discuss aspects of the cinematography when particularly relevant, such as the use of lighting to provide subtle clues about the story. For example, seeing the Jedi Temple at dawn in The Phantom Menace hints viewers to the fact that this is the twilight of the Republic. Nonetheless, I would have liked a bit more of this type of analysis. After all, the execution of a story is often as important as the contents of the story, if not more so. Perhaps for McDonald's next book.

On a smaller note, the book is organized by movie and then by character, which allows the reader to skip to chapters or movies of interest. While I read the entire book, I appreciate the fact that I could go back and read all of the chapters about Palpatine for instance.

Overall, The Star Wars Heresies is a very worthwhile addition to any Star Wars library. This is the type of in-depth discussion and analysis that I wish the Star Wars blu-ray commentary tracks would engage in (personally, I think we're all a bit tired of hearing how difficult it was to use CGI to create Coruscant). While I was aware of some of the parallels between the Prequels and real-world mythology before reading The Star Wars Heresies, I know that I won't view the Prequel Trilogy the quite same way again next time I watch it. I hope this book marks a new beginning for serious Star Wars scholarship.
11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The prequels' best defense... 21 Oct. 2013
By Robert W. Berg - Published on
This idea of the Star Wars prequels being soulless, mechanical, uninspired messes that forever tarnished the legacy of George Lucas' original trilogy has become so prevalent among fandom that most people just take it as fact. An extremely vocal area of fandom has decreed them objectively bad films, and most people have basically complied without question. Under this reasoning, there is no point in attempting to examine them any more deeply or to even determine the exact reasons why one might have trouble accepting their contributions to Star Wars canon in the first place; again, they simply suck. Case closed.

Which is what makes Paul F. McDonald's "The Star Wars Heresies: Interpreting the Themes, Symbols and Philosophies of Episodes I, II and III" feel so revolutionary. Disregarding popular opinion-as Mark Twain once wrote, "Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to reform (or pause and reflect)."-McDonald boldly charges forth with his thesis that not only are these extremely good, even masterful films, but that much of what makes them great actually went over the heads of many viewers-both professional critics and average audience members alike-often due to their refusal to engage with them on anything more than a surface level of their B-movie space opera trappings, one of McDonald's most audacious and intriguing arguments being that the reason so many fans cried afoul that the prequels "ruined their childhoods" (the more uncouth among them said "raped") was that, in a manner of speaking, the films were designed to do so, or at least to deliberately subvert the more simplistic, mostly black-and-white universe of the original trilogy. People weren't prepared for an Old Republic and Jedi Knighthood that largely, unknowingly destroyed themselves, their internal rot being exacerbated and helped along by but not fully derived from a Sith Lord's machinations. In direct opposition to the Rebels vs. Empire of the original films, it becomes awfully complicated knowing who to root for when one sees proto-stormtroopers fighting alongside Yoda.

And while many people pay lip service to the Joseph Campbellian overtones in Lucas' writing, McDonald convincingly argues that these links aren't just set dressing but intrinsic to the makeup of the entire saga, as well as crucial to fully understanding the prequels and their narrative purpose. Handling each film one at a time, and lucidly walking the reader through each character arc one by one, he constructs a rock-solid reading of the films, drawing on his own vast knowledge of various world mythologies, Eastern philosophies, fairy tales, the Arthurian Legend, and more, revealing a saga worked out with such meticulous thematic, symbolic, and mythological consistency, presenting his argument with such clarity, and making so much sense in the process, that one almost forgets, while reading, that the films he's discussing are such hotly contested ones.

McDonald tackles all of the prequels' most controversial subjects, from Anakin and Padme's romance-which might at times seem stilted compared to the sort of screen romances we are used to but which, as he demonstrates, is extremely representative of the classic courtly romance tradition from which it derives-to Jar Jar Binks, whose-to many-irritating qualities are in keeping with the mythological role of the Fool and/or Trickster, to-perhaps best of all-the midichlorians, which he believes are likely the most misunderstood aspect of the entire saga. What makes his midichlorian defense so blazingly brilliant is how he proves that all of the evidence is right there in the film itself, if one pays close attention to the script's exact wording, and furthermore, how he then goes on to show how a proper reading of the midichlorians' literal and symbolic significance is crucial to understanding not only how the Force functions both literally and symbolically, but arguably how the entire Star Wars saga works. Many interpret the blending of science and mysticism to somehow strip the Force of its wonder, when it actually can make it more awe-inspiring, if looked at the right way.

And although primarily a book about the prequels, McDonald doesn't view these films in a vacuum but will often discuss the deliberate parallels between both trilogies, as well as view each character arc in the context of the entire series. Additionally, his exploration of the links between the assorted themes and symbols within the prequels themselves is impeccable:

"Early on [in Episode I], Anakin remarks that his worth as a slave is dependent on his ability to 'fix anything,' an attitude that will ultimately push him into trying to fix the entire galaxy. He confidently tells Qui-Gon that 'no one can kill a Jedi,' only to eventually hunt them down himself. He dreams of freeing slaves, but years later he becomes another one himself to the Sith. He promises Padme that the japor snippet he carved for her will bring 'good fortune, even as she clutches it in death. Perhaps most importantly, his mother Shmi tells him he must 'learn to let go,' a lesson he doesn't grasp until the end of his tragic life."

The saga of Anakin Skywalker is, first and foremost, a classical tragedy, and McDonald analyzes it as such, examining how Lucas begins his story as a Hero's Journey, albeit a hero who will eventually fall into the depths of villainy and the roots of whose undoing are apparent from the start in as simple a thing as his inability to not look back, but at the same time a villain the roots of whose ultimate reformation are also laid the very moment he turns to the Dark Side seemingly for good. Meanwhile, he also shows how metaphorically, Anakin and the entire Republic at large are going through the same process over the course of the Star Wars saga, the micro a reflection of the macro, and vice versa. As in the "rotten...state of" Denmark of Shakepeare's Hamlet, corruption at the heart of the "kingdom"'s rulers has both literally and figuratively rippled outwards, affecting everyone. The Republic had lost its way long before Palpatine took advantage of its weakness, as had the Jedi themselves.

Scholarly sound and just plain immensely entertaining to read, The Star Wars Heresies might be the greatest defense the prequels have ever received as works of art, as well as George Lucas as an artist. I have seen no anti-prequels argument composed with anything approaching the same level of intelligence, wit, generosity, knowledge of the entire Star Wars film series as it actually is and not as it's often perceived to be, patience in handling the opposing viewpoint, and awareness that at the end of the day, Star Wars is meant to be enjoyed. McDonald's enthusiasm for the series exudes off the page, and is truly refreshing, given modern online fandom's penchant for the pessimistic and the combative.

I could even imagine this book, if not fully converting the more open-minded among the naysayers, at least inspiring them to reevaluate their opinion or conceding that there might indeed be more to the prequels than they initially admitted or realized. For any "heretical" fan who loves the prequels but either has had trouble articulating why or lacks the patience or breadth of knowledge to convincingly go toe-to-toe with the majority of knee-jerk fandom opinion, look no further than this book, a phenomenal, expertly researched work of film and literary criticism from someone who truly, passionately cares about and whose whole life has been influenced by Lucas' galaxy far, far away.
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars If you buy only one Star Wars book this year (or any year), this is the one to get. 6 Dec. 2013
By Candy Wilder - Published on
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
If you buy only one Star Wars book this year (or any year), this is the one to get.


Simply this: No other Star Wars-related book, whether fiction, encyclopedia, or behind-the-scenes, comes closer to showing the beating heart of the Star Wars films. Author Paul F. McDonald presents a deep, yet accessible analysis of Episodes I-III that reflects both the heart and mind of George Lucas. Like the Prequel Trilogy itself, "The Star Wars Heresies: Interpreting the Themes, Symbols and Philosophies of Episodes I, II and III" is a seamless blend of the symbolic and the actual, the intellectual and emotional, the mythic and the practical. It is an in-depth, scholarly analysis of the legendary, philosophical, and semiotic roots that grew to form the story of Anakin Skywalker's transformation into Darth Vader.

While the naysayers whine about the prequels showing the heroes as flawed and the government even more so, McDonald exposes the cracked superstructure of the galaxy-wide Republic as well as the Chosen One, then reveals how the surrounding forces and events caused both to fall. With comparative examples quoted from classic works on mythology, Buddhism, Taoism, and ancient pantheons, he shows how the characters' stubborn refusal to learn lessons and accept change leads to dire consequences for all. This applies to everyone from Anakin to the Jedi Council to the Galactic Senate. If you are on the fence about the seemingly sudden conversion of Anakin to the Dark Side and the Republic into the Empire, this book clearly details how such a rapid shift was not only possible, but inevitable.

The book is separated into three parts, one per film. Each part contains chapters that examine a character or a circumstance within an archetypal framework, i.e. "The Master," "The Queen," "The Mother," etc. I found myself wanting a tarot deck based on the chapter titles alone! It is common knowledge that Lucas was a student of mythology, particularly with Joseph Campbell. Everyone talks about the "Hero's Journey" of the Original Trilogy, but far fewer delve into Lucas' rich, complex fusion of myth and history that, through the Prequels, forms the foundation of the Star Wars universe. McDonald makes this daunting task as easy as floating in an innertube and enjoying the sights as you drift down a lazy river.

Sure, other books can take you behind the scenes to show you how George Lucas put his films together. But "The Star Wars Heresies" does something more. Whether or not it was the author's intention, the book shows how Lucas thinks and how he feels. I could see the direct path from the accumulation of ancient lore and life experience to the expression of his deepest, most personal philosophies in Episodes I, II and III. I'm certain Lucas would agree: knowing why the films were made is at least as important, if not more so, as knowing how. If you want to truly know why Lucas made the Prequels, and why they matter, "The Star Wars Heresies" is a must-read.
4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Don't Just Sit There, Buy It! 25 Oct. 2013
By lazypadawan - Published on
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
You really do need to find a way to get your paws on "The Star Wars Heresies: Interpreting The Themes, Symbols, and Philosophies Of Episodes I, II and III." Yes, the paperback is expensive (though you can get it on Kindle for a lot less). But while I don't agree with every single point or source-there is after all more than one way of looking at something-I have to say it's a well thought-out examination of what's beneath the surface of the prequel trilogy. If you want the very best look at the first set of Star Wars films, hunt down "In A Faraway Galaxy" written by a group of fans and published by a vanity press in 1984. If you want the very best look at the entire prequel trilogy thus far, get this book.

McDonald organizes the book by film, and within each discussion of the film, breaks things down by the archetype a particular character represents. A variety of sources are brought into the discussion: Eps IV-VI, the expanded universe, Clone Wars, Buddhist writers, other books analyzing the saga, commentary from the cast and crew, and of course, commentary from Lucas himself. I've read more than a few books analyzing the Star Wars movies over the years and one thing that sets this book apart is its accessibility. Some books I've read were pretty good, but were definitely written by and for academics. Others have an agenda behind what they're writing and Star Wars serves as a way to get people in the door. But while it is a book that encourages you to think and therefore isn't a breezy read, it's not heavy or boring or off-putting to anyone without a PhD. I never get the impression that he's stretching or pulling stuff out of nowhere.

It appears the goal of the book is to take a literary approach as a way to help the reader better appreciate what Lucas did with the films. While it occasionally addresses common negative criticism of the films, the book spends most of the time giving readers a new way of looking at the movies or reminding them of how well everything works together. Part of the perception problem with these movies is that beginning with "The Power Of Myth" in 1987 and for years afterward, a lot had been written about the mythic underpinnings of the first batch of Star Wars films which helped validate them as something more than blockbuster special effects extravaganzas. But these underpinnings weren't really obvious to most filmgoers, including 90% of Star Wars fandom, and had to be explained. Since there weren't Cliffs Notes handed out to everyone when the prequels were released, the films lacking the OT's mythic sweep became a justification for not liking them. "The Star Wars Heresies" blows that notion out of the water.

Of course it might not register with someone who is just chasing a high from 35 years ago or someone who wants more uptwinkles on i09 or Kotaku. But it just might take an open mind and open it a bit further.
5.0 out of 5 stars The best analysis of the Star Wars prequels available 9 Jun. 2015
By Anthony Parisi - Published on
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I can't believe I didn't pick this up earlier. This is essential reading for any serious study of George Lucas and his work on the six Star Wars films. I initially feared this would be overreaching or speculative, but McDonald's approach is quite conservative and skillfully brings to light the mythological underpinnings and thematic intentionality of the prequel trilogy. It is very difficult to find attentive, charitable exposition of these three films but this book helpfully walks through every motif and the importance of these stories to the saga. This kind of scholarship is sorely needed for these misunderstood films.

McDonald's knowledge of comparative religion and Joseph Campbell is very robust and he more than makes the case for these readings with detailed examinations of mythological and literary influences. He manages to exposit the trilogy in all its complexity while remaining very accessible for casual readers. Although primarily focused on symbols and themes over cinematic craft, the result of this careful analysis ends up delivering some of the best film criticism available on Lucas. McDonald demonstrates how understanding the prequels is absolutely critical to interpreting the Star Wars saga as a whole.
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