UCL’s Star Wars Class #8: Ewoks, Gungans, Geonosians and the Noble Savage

The Star Wars Hexalogy features plenty of diverse and interesting societies and species that all try to make their way in the Galaxy. The Republic Senate embodies this diversity probably more than any other institution in the Galaxy. Yet a crucial role is played by a particular group of species and some of the most decisive moment in the two trilogies. Let us look at the Ewoks, the Gungans and the Geonosians in a little more detail.

Before we enter into an exploration of the role of these specific species in Hobbits_Shirethe Star Wars saga I want to briefly look at the role in the epic Lord of the Rings played by the Hobbits. The Hobbits have two key characteristics regarding to the role that they play within that mythology. First of all Hobbits are in a, not primarily negative, way ‘ordinary people’! Much of the mythological message regarding heroism and the ability to influence events of the grand global scale involves this ‘ordinary’ or ‘little’ people aspect.

In addition to this aspect there is a second characteristic that if often identified with the first without further thought, which is the Hobbit’s passion ‘ for everything that grows’. Hobbits have a deep commitment to Nature and to the organic, nourishing and fertile component of their world. They share a deep caring for everything that lives. Not the caring of the ‘city-human’ who sees nature as a place of peace and romantic contemplation, but the caring of a farmer who knows that her sustenance and survival depend on living in a careful if sometimes precarious balance with Nature. When Frodo and Sam converge toward destroying the Ring and defeating Sauron, they do so because of both of these characteristics. Frodo’s loss of the ability to remember the taste of the products of farmer effort reflects how far he has become alienated from those roots just before his fall into a desire to take the Ring for himself.

Ewoks

In Return of the Jedi Lucas introduced a new species to the Star Warsewoks1 universe that attracted significant criticism at that time. The Ewoks are given many ‘cuddly’ aspects in their appearance even though they almost exclusively appear to us as warriors albeit with primitive weaponry. During the Battle of Endor it turns out that this apparent primitive technological status pf the Ewoks does not diminish their impact in battle as they compensate for it by being very keen in exploiting the natural resources offered by their environment for the Art of War. Another way of putting this is to recognise that the Ewoks are capable defenders of their home exactly because they have found this good equilibrium with their environment. They organically live within their environment on the Sanctuary Moon. It is not called a Sanctuary Moon for nothing.

Now one point of rejection of the Ewoks for quite a few Original Trilogy fans was the improbability of thesestar-wars-episode-iii-revenge-of-the-sith-20050511060114413 primitive bears with their stone-age technology to represent anything like a threat for the Empire’s vastly superior technological forces. But the point here is not that your suspension of disbelief should be stretched beyond breaking point, the point is that a mythological point is being made and not a ‘realistic’ one. Just like Darth Vader says to the Imperial Officers that the technological terror they have constructed pales next to the Power of the Force, so do the Ewoks represent that no technology will allow the Empire to succeed in going against the organic way in which the Galaxy will ultimately develop. Technology may grant one a considerable amount of power, but not the power to go against the deepest forces of Nature.  This is true, in the Star Wars galaxy for ‘The Force’ as the Jedi see it, but also for ‘Living Nature’ as the Ewoks experience it.

The heroic actions of the Ewoks come in Episode VI after Yoda has enlightened us in Episode V about the direct connection between The Force and Life. Star Wars ‘theology’ does not categorically separate between the Divine and the Natural. It merely indicates that both carry a dual character, there is Dark and Light in the use of The Force, equally there is a duality in the organic and close-to-Nature society of the Ewoks. Let us not forget that before they heroically come to the rescue of Leia, Hand and their band of Rebels, they had them listed on the menu for Dinner.

The Imperial defeat against the Ewoks not only results from the rotj_ewoks_fighting_cheeringunderestimation of the effect on the battlefield of the Ewok’s embeddedness in their natural environment. What Return of the Jedi does not explicitly show us, but what we can infer, is that the Empire obviously didn’t even consciously take notice of the Ewoks. Viewed from the balcony of the Imperial Palace, the Ewoks just seem to be such an insignificant part in the Galaxy that they are not even worth of the Emperor’s slightest attention. He does worry about the Rebels and their machines of war and he plots and ploys against them. But he never even gave a single thought to the potential of the Ewoks.  That is where the ultimate reason for the Empire’s defeat lies … ‘they never saw it coming’! The Empire fails to read the patterns in the Force as much as it fails to read the patterns of Life.

Gungans

As discussed in the class about Star Wars story-telling, the Ring Theory pairing of Return of the Jedi is with The Phantom Menace.Gungans Episode I also contains a non-human species that interferes in an armed conflict in a decisive manner. The Gungans proudly declare that they are willing to do their part in the Battle of Naboo, while acknowledging the great risk of losses to their side. Like with the Ewoks, we are left in no doubt that the Gungans are great warriors although Padme Amidala does not immediately reach out to them in her plight. Like with the Ewoks, the Gungans are not immediately enamoured by the Jedi intruders into their world. Like with the lone Ewok Wicket, it is the lone Gungan Jar Jar that initially picks up that contact.

The Gungans also live in close harmony with their environment.gungan2 As amphibians they are capable of living both on land as well as in water and interestingly they have recreated a land environment in their under-water cities, essentially living in bubbles. The Gungans too have a history of being ignored and it is made quite explicit that this is caused, most likely, by the Naboo considering them simply to stupid to take seriously. The scorn that Jar Jar attracts from many fans is apparently no different from the scorn the Gungans attract as a race from their fellow planetary inhabitants, the Naboo.

Gungan technology is imaged as being in close connection to their actual environments. Although they use equipment as advanced as shield-generators, these are transported by ‘beats-of-burden’ rather than by mechanized transport. The mechanized transport they possess, the Bongo’s, also very much assimilate the appearance of the fish and the water creatures that live in the same lakes and oceans. Deep in the Naboo forests the Gungans also preserves their Sanctuary, as the Ewok’s do in the forests of Endor’s moon. So the Gungans share plenty of similarities with the Ewoks which raises the question whether, mythologically, the Gungan role in the Battle of Naboo was just a dry-run of the Ewok’s decisive role in Return of the Jedi.

The Phantom Menace is a game of guises in which characters are constantly shape-shifting. star wars gungans 1This is evidently true for Padme Amidala who constantly shifts between her roles of Queen and handmaiden, misleading and manipulating as she goes. Evidently the same is true for the machinations of Senator Palpatine and his Sith alter Ego Darth Sidious. There is nothing equivalent in Return of the Jedi. There are people who says there was ‘nothing phantom’ about the menace in Episode I, but possibly they missed that everything in the Phantom Menace had a phantom quality about it … including the Gungans.

A point that is often missed by viewers and critics is the deliberate choice to make the Gungans an amphibian species. Amphibians are intrinsically ‘shape-shifting’ beings. In the early stage sof their lives they typically are close to fish in how they can interact with the watery environment, in the later stages of their lives they usually lose that ability somewhat and gain additional abilities which make the land and the air accessible to them. Amphibians are almost more defined by what they are not, fish or reptile, rather than by what they are. The menace in The Phantom Menace is not merely the Sith but very much that in the Galaxy many forces are operating who are not what they seem to be.

Where the Ewoks have no agenda and, in a sense, no allegiance the Gungans are different. The Gungans have an agenda as Episode kicks off, the agenda of not being bothered about the Naboo and whatever they bring upon them. A cold-blooded agenda that seems devoid of emotional attachment and that is happy to remain isolated within the safety of water. At the start of the Phantom Menace the Gungans, except for one, are ‘fish’. It are the searches of the Underwater villages by the Trade-Federation’s droid armies that bring out more reptilian aspects of the Gungans. Unlike the Ewoks, who engage is what is essentially a rescue operation for their new tribe-members of the Rebel Alliance, the Gungans engage in a diversion, a deceit of their enemy. The Gungans display the same intensity of heroism and willingness to sacrifice for a good cause as the Ewoks do. But where in the Battle of Endor we see actual displays of emotion by Ewoks for fallen comrades, or anger at their enemies, the Gungan Army seems to be executing it’s mission with a much more cold-blooded and cool-headed determination. Although Gungans and Ewoks share many qualities, including the qualities that ultimately seal the imperial defeat against the Ewoks, there are also differences that are in line with Episode I’s much more complicated and subtle plot of deceit and deception.

The Gungans are a much more complicated species in the Star Wars saga than the Ewoks. Maybe this is also why they received a name that is so similar to that unlikely and complicated character from Rudyard Kippling’s poem, and the 1939 film, ‘Gunga Din’. Gunga is a water-carrier whose errors expose his fellow soldiers to the grasp of a vicious death cult, but whose heroism in the end allows him to raise the alarm and call in reinforcements.

Geonosians

I have not come across articles that would discuss the Geonosians in this context. 9-4jpzmgThis insectoid species that figures prominently in Episode II does however share a great number of commonalities with both the Gungans and the Ewoks. There can be no doubt that the Geonossians too live in absolute equilibrium with the harsh and unforgiving environment of Geonosis. When we feel at least one step removed from Amphibians like the Gungans, there is no doubt we feel two ro more steps removed from the Geonossians. In the Saga they are painted in the alarming yellowish and orange colours, as well as in the brown & dark green tones that reveal what their underlying characteristic is: Geo Gnosis or “Earth Knowledge”.

We see the Ewoks and the Gungans interacting with humans in the Hexalogy, and in the case of the Gungans they even speak with one another (although the ability to speak does not make us think a Gungan is intelligent … probably one of the most offensive remarks made in the Star Wars Saga). We barely see any signs of communication with the Geonossians, except for the few words that Count Dooku exchanges with Poggle the Lesser. Episode II even goes as far as to suggest that it is the Geonossians where we must seek the true origins of the Death Star as the plans for it evidently move from Poggle’s possession to Dooku’s at the end of Attack of the Clones.

So what is this? Here we see a species that is much grounded in their world,Geonosian_Drones that seems to fit the bill when it comes to species living in resonance with their environments, whose technology seems alien to us but feel almost organic to who they are. Yet not only do they seem to facilitate the rise of dissent and the emergence of the Empire rather to subvert it. However the Geonossians do not hand over the genocidal Death Star plans willingly, but under the impression of a large scale invasion of their planet by the Republic. One wonders whether it had been Dooku’s intent from the start to acquire the Death Star plans by forcing the Geonossians’ hand, using the Republic as an instrument to achieve it.

Nature-bound species from a Ring Theory perspective

The Prequel Trilogy represents the descent into darkness of the Hexalogy, with The Phantom Menace as an introductory exposition of the main issues and struggles involved by representing a ‘flawed’ way in which history should better not unfold. Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith then depict the fall and the deepest point, the nadir, of the story. The Original Trilogy then reverses the course of things and reveals that utlimate destiny takes its intended course. At the end of that intended course stand the unromantic yet ‘noble savages’ of the Ewok species.

The Ewoks truly are representing this unspoiled, naive yet loyal and positive energy in nature. In a critical scene they induct Han, Leia, Luke and the other Rebels into their tribe. Then when these Rebels come under assault from the Imperial Legion the Ewoks choose to let their tribal attachment to these new found friends reign and engage the Imperial Forces. This mirrors in a way what happens between Darth Vader, The Emperor and Luke high above the Forest Moon. It is the battle as it should have gone and the Empire, which willfully ignores these things, cannot counter this force of nature.

The Gungans in The Phantom Menace play a similar role yet also a different one. Their allegiance to the Naboo in the Battle of Naboo is more transactional though no less loyal and solid than the Ewok’s. But the Gungangs do not primarilly join the fight against the Trade Federation out of compassion or out of attachment. The Gungans are asked for help, they do not offer it  on their own initiative. Even in the battle itself they retain a sense of cold-bloodedness. The Ewoks are depicted as full of emotion, including the emotion of grief at the death in action of a fellow Ewok. The Gungans are never shown in these situations during The Phantom Menace, neither are there shots (in the films) of cuddly Gungan babies. It is tempting to conclude that the lack of attachment & genuine compassion is one of the elements why the Phantom Menace victory on the battle field is such a flawed one. It is telling that the Hexalogy depicts another species which seems to live in this similar ‘between Water and Air’ state: the Kaminoans. It is just a single shot in Attack of the Clones, where a Kaminoan flies out of the Water in to a rain-filled Air. But it is a telling shot about the amphibian duality, the seeming cold-bloodedness and the capacity to adapt both to life (Air) as well as to Death (Water) of this species.

But that brings us to the last of the species I discussed here. The nature-bound Geonosians have a highly symbolic role as well. geonosisThe Empire does not only snatch the Death Star plans from these creatures but in an almost literal sense it also takes up the Geonossian’s natural organization of society. Where with the Gungans and Ewoks we see individuality in how they look and act, for the Geonossians there is no such thing. There is a leader but the rest seem to be workers & soldiers, a facet we know all to well from socially organized insectoids on Earth such as ant, termites and bees. Yet though we know, by Episode II, that the Trade Federation are a threat and we see them engage in battles through out the Galaxy with their battle droids this is not (or definitely far less) true for the Geonossians. Like the Gungans and the Ewoks they only seem involved in combat when their own world is affected. They are in fact not so much of a threat unless when attacked.

I think Lucas deliberately wanted us to see that there is a ‘natural root’ even in the hiddeous shape & form of the Galactic Empire that crushes the Jedi and the Republic. The ‘natural’ root is not neccesarilly ‘good’. Rather it comes with exactly the kind of dark v.s. light duality that you find in The Force. The Geonossians represent that natural root with their anonymous & almost faceless population and their strict hierarchy. The Geonossians do not have the same impact on their battle as the Ewoks and Gungans on theirs. They do not lead the Separatists to victory, rather they share in a defeat that particularly hits them. The dark forces do not align with this ‘nature-bound’ people but they abuse them. It is tempting to see the same symptom here that underlies all of the Empire’s failings. Their tendency to dismiss and exploit the ‘natural’ and the ‘living’ ultimately leads to their failure.

Concluding remarks

There is a clear narrative in the Star Wars Hexalogy around the notions of ‘naturalnesss’ or ‘attachement-to-nature’ exemplified in particular species inhabiting the Galaxy far, far, away. In the The Phantom Menace expository run through the key elements of the ensuing galactic conflict the Gungans depict how such naturalness or balance between civilization and environment can be a decisive Force for good and for balance if the true intentions are revealed and are heartfelt. Yet this exposition is meant to reveal the danger lurking behind the constantly changing guises of protagonists as well as antagonists, the constantly changing affiliations of the protagonists and the dual character of that naturalness which can lack attachment, conviction and passion even when it has the qualities of innocence, honour, valour and persistence.

The introduction of the Geonosians as we step unto the path that leads downwards towards the cataclysm of Revenge of the Sith is a tale in which we are warned that not just the protagonists may derive a form of ‘naturalness’ from being in balance with nature, the antagonists have their ‘natural’ counterpart as well. The strict hierarchy of Empire is not an invention of technocrats, there exists a naturally evolved equivalent which makes sense in the particular context of Geonosis’ hostile and barren world. But where ‘Empire’ fails to recognize this, takes from it what it deems useful and then discards it. Yet so does ‘Republic’ pervert ‘nature’ and equips itself with a manipulated, cloned and ‘technologized’ form of life in the Clone Army. Taking only what it considers useful. The Kaminoans Kamino3themselves are shown to have a similar ‘amphibian quality’ of being able to be in air as much as being able to be in water, being able to accommodate life as well as to accommodate death. In fact, one rift between Anakin Skywalker and The Jedi Order opens up in a conversation with Yoda, where Yoda equally seems capable of accommodating Death as much as Life when he tells Anakin to ‘rejoice’ for those who become one with the Force.

The Clone Wars tell the story of how, in the Republic, these living creatures, the Clone Troopers, escape the confines of their cloned and ‘technological’ existence and find a path towards individuality and ‘You need to make your own decisions’ … a spirit of freedom. ‘Empire’ however ‘Geonosifies’ its free and conscripted citizens into the faceless Storm Troopers. The inability of the Storm Troopers relative to the Geonosian Warriors is an indication how this too is a perversion of a naturalness that the Geonosians within their context & world possess, but which the Empire twists and hence loses.

The tension between Life and Death that is at the heart of this narrative spills over into Anakin’s life most profoundly during Revenge of the Sith. 300px-Anakin_in_FlamesAnakin cannot find a way of accommodating both, despite Yoda recommending him to. Yet destiny irrevocably drives him to do just that, of not in a good way then in a bad way. In his quest for Life and very much for Air, he brings Death to what he cares about the most, Padme, and he loses his capacity to breath independently. Stuck in a suit like a deep-sea diver he is encapsulated by Death. Yet also encapsulated by Water, right at that same moment, are his daughter and son. And while the ‘womb of death’, i.e. Vader’s suit’, closes around him the New Hope, his children, are released from the water and exposed to the air. With Padme, Anakin’s freedom, his ability to breathe, die simultaneously. tumblr_m8l2npT0ua1qzwk3bo6_250The air-and-water symbolism in this harkens back to that fateful conversation of two lovers on Naboo with its ‘choke-symbolism’ in Padme’s dress and Anakin’s dialogue.

It is the embrace of innocence with passion & attachment, the Ewok example, that brings about a shift in the sequence of events that seems to inevitably rule the fate of the Galaxy. Anakin finds a new balance where he can bring Life at last but only at the expense of his own Death. Anakin submerges into the Waters of Death when the suit opens, when he destroys Sidious, when ‘nothing can save him now’ but he willingly accepts this. The key to his ‘bringing of balance’ was not Strength as he thought all those years back on Tatooine, it was Sacrifice. The decisive aspect of the Ewok contribution to the Battle of Endor was not strength either, but sacrifice too. That is why we see them wail the fallen in the midst of Battle.

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