When Jedi Master Even Piell became one with the Force and was sent over the lava-falls in one of the last Clone Wars episodes of the season, it shook a small yet vocal part of Star Wars fandom. Rather than simply being moved by a noble death, they collectively bristled, arguing that the formidable Piell had already been killed in the Expanded Universe timeline. Though once a little-respected, largely inconsequential tale in the ever-growing market of Star Wars literature, Coruscant Nights unexpectedly became something of a fault line running through the heart of that galaxy far, far away.
The question of what constitutes canon in the Star Wars saga has been an increasingly touchy subject in the fan community. For some, the plethora of books, comics, and games constituting the Expanded Universe almost trump the films themselves, with a certain fringe element even suggesting that George Lucas should hang up his Jedi robes and retire his lightsaber, and allow the authors of all the tie-in novels to take over stewardship of the galaxy he created. For others, canon was never that big of a deal. Actually, since I've read enough tie-in stories with other franchises, I was surprised to learn there were any issues with Star Wars canon at all. When I first heard the controversy, admittedly my first thought was "Oh, the novels are supposed to be canon?"
For me, there has never been any issue with canon, because I've always been first and foremost interested in the films. This is changing thanks to the Clone Wars series, but it still has the direct input of George Lucas and is coming down directly from Skywalker Ranch. That is really all I care about, and I should admit now that I'm a Lucas man all the way. Or at least I am in the same sense that Harry Potter always described himself as a Dumbledore man all the way. That's just the way it is for me. Lucas started this party thirty plus years ago, and I just haven't seen or read anything that has caused me to discount him or believe others could somehow do better Star Wars. Others feel differently, which is fine, though I personally feel this is kinda missing the point.
Just as something as insignificant as Coruscant Nights has led to larger issues, so has this controversy led directly to much bigger issues concerning Lucas, Star Wars, and fandom in general. It seems to me the focus of many fans is too narrow, focusing almost exclusively in-universe. In other words, after viewing the films, the lens is turned almost immediately to the Expanded Universe, that self-perpetuating tidal wave of fiction that currently floods the bookstores. As much as the novels outside of Lucas' storytelling have boosted fandom and carried it through the dark times when no films were on the horizon, they've hurt it as well. Not only have they diluted the property in certain ways, but they've also made a divisive and quarrelsome community even moreso. The reasons for this are a little complicated.
My own experience with the EU has been fairly straightforward. Actually, most of my own significant moments with the EU were born out of the old Marvel comic book series, particularly during the almost unbearable wait between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. Sure, everyone knew Han Solo wouldn't be rescued until the next movie, but as a kid, the search alone was thrilling. Yet those old Marvel days have been dismissed from hallowed EU canon, much like Alan Dean Foster's Splinter of the Mind’s Eye. The exclusion comes because the comic series and that first tie-in novel were found to clearly be incompatible with Empire and Jedi.
And that was just one comic series and one novel. This is nothing when weighed against the monthly additions to the overly complicated canon currently putting cracks down over-stacked bookcases. The relationship between Luke and Leia, Anakin's identity as Darth Vader, the origins of the Mandalorians, and lots of other issues as established in the original EU were rendered superfluous by the two last films of the classic trilogy. It's no wonder that the continuous stream of material from Del Rey and Dark Horse has enormous difficulty keeping everything straight. But either way, it just wasn't that big of a deal back in the day. The internet is part of the issue, something that no one had to contend with in fandom back in the late seventies and early eighties (if it had been around, I do sometimes get the unsettling feeling that the online continuity police would have gathered to debate whether Empire or Jedi should be admitted into canon).
My current status as a sometimes consumer of the EU remains remarkably drama free. The novels are there, and if I have an itch left vacant by George-Level canon, sometimes I'll read them to scratch it. I'm slowly making my way through the Darth Bane and Han Solo trilogies and, while I'm enjoying both, I'm not clinging to their canonicity like a Sith Lord Force choking a clone. Maybe they happened, or maybe they didn't. I can keep that part of my brain just vague and fuzzy enough where it's not a crisis, or even of much concern. When the last page has been turned, it really comes down to whether the story was good or bad, or whether I enjoyed it or not. At the end of the day, they're all just a fun diversion, and for me that’s all they were intended to be.
Of course, if an author scored face-time with George Lucas, then that does add a little more relevance to a work. The prequel novelizations are one of the few books that falls into this category. As recounted in his book Sometimes the Magic Works, Terry Brooks got the royal treatment at Skywalker Ranch while writing The Phantom Menace, not to mention the hours he spent talking on the phone with Lucas as he went over his original notes. R. A. Salvatore likewise met with the Maker, and his Attack of the Clones novel fills in some of the holes left by deleted scenes in the film. For me, though, the show stopper was Revenge of the Sith. Matthew Stover composed not only a great novelization, but a lyrical one as well. His character work, his poetic descriptions, as well as simply his understanding of the Force, are all pretty much unparalleled in Star Wars literature for me. But Stover also boasted a firm grounding in Eastern philosophy, and such grounding has always been important, as I’ll discuss later.
And again, just for the record, Sean Stewart’s Dark Rendezvous Clone Wars novel is an absolute favorite of mine. Not only beautifully written, it also offers pitch perfect portrayals of Yoda and Count Dooku. And I for one got really attached to the Jedi younglings in it as well. I’m also a big fan of the James Luceno prequel era stuff. Having said that, if the Clone Wars series renders it irrelevant apocrypha, I’m not batting an eye, nor am I writing petitions and organizing online rallies. But that’s just me.
One last bit of my personal relationship with the EU. I say personal because I’m probably in a minority of one on this, but it doesn’t seem fair to omit my own peculiar take here. If I’ve failed to mention any post Jedi EU (though I did love the groovy Ewok movies as a kid), it’s because I don’t consider it any of it relevant to canon. Yes, this even includes the beloved Timothy Zhan trilogy, whether officially recognized or not.
Everyone knows Star Wars is something of a space age fairy tale, with “a long time ago” being the galactic equivalent of our very own “once upon a time.” It took me years to figure out why the post-Jedi EU rang so hollow to me, especially when most fans were waxing lyrical about being able to hear John Williams music as Grand Admiral Thrawn flew across the stars. Perhaps I should get my hearing checked, but I think most of the trouble lies in that final scene with Luke, Han, Leia, and everyone else gathered around the fire on Endor at the end of Jedi. If it all started with “once upon a time,” then that’s a “happily ever after” shot if I’ve ever seen one. Skywalker saga over, curtains fall. I have no more urge to follow the Star Wars characters around than I do to keep track of the actual day-to-day married life of all those fairy tale princes and princesses after they finally tie the knot. This is no reflection on the authors or the storytelling, just the nature of the saga as I see it.
But even when considering the content - Solo kids going to the dark side, Chewbacca wrestling a moon before dying, Luke reforming the Jedi Order, a geriatric Fett wheel-chairing around Slave 1 … none of it holds the slightest appeal for me. Not only does the whole thing feel like a misstep, it now just goes on interminably, with no end in sight. If Legacy of the Force was like beating a dead horse, Fate of the Jedi was like pulling his teeth out, setting him on fire, and beating him some more. At some point, presumably before Luke’s actually hobbling around a galactic rest home and the story’s now about his long lost, second Skywalker cousin twice removed who has to bring balance to the Force for the twentieth time, I fully expect Ferris Bueller to step in, face the fans, and say something to the effect of, “It’s over. Go home.”
Now that I’ve alienated practically everyone (except maybe Jason), I want to examine some of the aforementioned effects the EU has had, as well as what Star Wars as a whole really is. I suppose the next logical question for me posed by other fans would be about my feelings if Lucas decided to turn the tables and make Episodes VII-IX after all. “Happily ever after” shot or no, I admittedly would feel as though I’d made the Kessel Run in less than eleven parsecs.
That this isn’t a contradiction is simply because there has never been any doubt in my mind that Lucas is the Maker, coupled with the fact that all of the Star Wars he’s personally created is completely permeated with that utterly intangible Star Wars feeling that overtakes me when I consume it. In over thirty years of fandom, this has been the case. Of course, it’s probably helped that I’ve never attempted or even seen any point in trying to outsmart or second-guess George Lucas. Since the beginning of the internet, some people have managed to make a secondary career out of doing exactly that, but for me personally, it’s his party and if I wasn’t having a good time, I would have grabbed my jacket and left years ago.
From a certain point of view, that a lot of fans should have left but never did is in no small part the responsibility of the EU. It has taken the fandom a sizeable distance from G-Level Star Wars since the early nineties, conjuring up not so much an expanded universe as a parallel one. This seems to be the case with something like Joe Schreiber’s Death Troopers. True, it was different and exciting, but it was also bloody and gory and Imperials were eating each other and by the time it was all over, it just wasn’t Star Wars to me. This isn’t to say it was bad by any stretch, so much as to say that putting a stormtrooper on a book cover doesn’t necessarily make the book Star Wars.
The very first article I ever sold was to space.com, and it talked about the prequel backlash as well as the it’s-hip-to-be-square-ness of Star Wars in general. This kind of ties in with the Great Nerd Debate of 2011, but the only thing that really makes Star Wars cool is the fact that it’s never tried to be cool. G-Level canon has not only brought us Han Solo, Boba Fett, and Darth Maul, it’s also brought us Jar Jar, Ewoks, and mouse droids. My feeling is that the very thing that makes Star Wars what it is isn’t the exclusion of one side to the other, but rather the balance between the two.
This balance is precisely what makes Star Wars so unique, something that is non-existent in all of the EU I’ve encountered. G-Level canon is what it is, and it’s always been brave enough to wear itself on its sleeve. I personally find that very charming. The sense of whimsy and silliness in Star Wars is usually so lost in the EU that fans are often flabbergasted when they finally get around to seeing a new film and find such elements there. That G-Level canon never tries to be cool and dark makes it that much more genuine and rewarding when it is. Next to that, the EU merely poses, trying to make something cooler than was ever intended, and coming off as (dare I say it?) nerdier as a result.
As alluded to at the beginning, the real problem comes when certain fringe elements in fandom begin to resent Lucas and his additions to his own saga. Oh, very few overtly admit it (although I've run into some that did), but the feeling is always there. However subtly. This hit something of a peak during the Mandalorian trilogy in season two of the Clone Wars, fanned on by Karen Traviss’ blog. Never mind that if I recall correctly she completely destroyed the Mandalorian continuity I had grown up with in the comics first.
The one thing I do take issue with is the backlash Lucas sometimes gets when these kinds of problems arise. I’ve taken some time to figure this out, this oddest of phenomena when the creator of something is no longer wanted in the creative process. Again, I think these faulty lines of reasoning can be subtly traced back to the EU, which has helped breed a part of fandom so endlessly insular and self-referential it can’t see past its own nose.
Frankly, the ever-widening abyss between G-Level canon and the fringe elements of this fandom is due to an almost total lack of understanding and communication. To be sure, there are people who can tell you the exact chapter, page, and probably paragraph in Coruscant Nights when Even Piell meets his cruel demise (and sorry, but they always sound like the Comic Book Guy in The Simpsons in my head). The problem is, while they can tell you all about that, I have very real doubts that they can tell you about much of anything else.
This most certainly includes information on George Lucas. It doesn’t irritate me nearly as much as it once did when fans hate on Lucas, because I’ve finally figured out they have absolutely no idea who or what they’re talking about. This isn’t a slam, but a simple observation. Aside from the odd bit of information about where he was born or maybe where he went to film school, the more belligerent fans have clearly painted a fictitious portrait of Lucas that exists solely on internet forums and talkbacks. And these same fans are just caught in an infinite online loop of misinformation, assumption, and, for some odd reason, paranoia.
Maybe the reason why I continue to have a great amount of respect and admiration for George Lucas is that I’ve actually bothered to find out stuff about him. Rather than simply parroting what the trolls and online conspiracy theorists are saying, I’ve read quite a few books and interviews about the man, from Skywalking to the latest Star Wars Insider. The George Lucas Interviews book is a favorite of mine thanks to the Forcecast, and The Cinema of George Lucas remains one of my most treasured birthday gifts. My EU is more behind-the-scenes than anything, and I’ve torn through about every Making Of book and video I could find. The Mythology of SW, Lucas’ interview with Bill Moyers at Skywalker Ranch which mirrors The Power of Myth, gave a timely glimpse into his thinking at the time of the prequels, and it subsequently influenced my viewing of them.
Speaking of The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell once wisely remarked that if a person is ever fortunate enough to find an artist who really speaks to them, make it a point to find out who inspired them, and then who inspired them, and so on. If someone takes the time to do this, Campbell predicts the universe will start to unfold in a remarkably unified, harmonious manner. I’ve found this to be very solid advice; with Lucas as my starting point, I found Campbell, and then found the people who inspired him, even taking my senior seminar on James Joyce as a result.
As fate would have it, this was about a couple of semesters before The Phantom Menace came out. About as primed on myth, symbolism, and literary analysis as I could be, I was pretty much blown away by the first prequel. It was rather disheartening to go online and discover that the most literate, analytical response to the film a lot of first generation fans could offer was to type “Jar Jar Sux!!!” five hundred times and post it in a talkback.
No doubt some are about to reasonably argue that they didn’t have to know anything about comparative mythology and so on to enjoy the original trilogy. True enough. On the other hand, the generation of children who grew up loving the prequels didn’t need to either. The point stands, though, that if older fans can no longer intuitively appreciate new Star Wars films like they did when they were children, and then refuse to intellectually appreciate them as adults, the possibility of enjoyment is getting pretty slim.
Again, it’s one thing not to like what one’s seeing, and another entirely to not know what one’s seeing. This goes for the reception of the prequels, as well as understanding the Maker himself. This is why Lucas is so often perceived online as a money-hungry, effects-obsessed egomaniac, and yet I still respect him as a uniquely spiritual, philosophical filmmaker.
When the Phantom Menace DVD arrived chocked full of special features, I admit I freeze-framed the bookshelves behind him on the first web documentary to review his reading material. Quite frankly, there wasn’t a Karen Traviss book anywhere in sight, but what was there ranged from history to child psychology, from philosophy to comparative religion. For a fan such as myself, I personally was far more impressed that he’d read Elaine Pagels than that his office wasn’t cluttered with charts and graphs trying to pinpoint Greedo’s exact birth date.
In other words, if we follow Campbell's suggestion, Lucas' inspiration has never really been the EU. The occasional character or planet name may be employed by G-Level canon but, by and large, Lucas has always pointed Star Wars beyond itself. It seems to me fans should be grateful for that. Often the fans who aren't dismiss anything Lucas has to say that sounds deep or scholarly as merely pretentious, though the original trilogy is as grounded in mythic scholarship as the prequels.
One of the reasons Lucas took so long writing the first Star Wars was the amount of research he did. While The Hero With a Thousand Faces is by far the most publicized, he has stated in more than one interview that he read around a hundred books during the writing process. A hundred books. Perhaps I'm wrong, but Traviss probably didn't comb through a hundred books about folklore and fairy tale, myth and metaphor, while writing her Mandalore stuff. Bits of this reading list have shown up here and there, and quite frankly, that's my expanded universe.
The works of Joseph Campbell, Carl Jung, Alan Watts, Karen Armstrong, Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Bruno Bettelheim, Mircea Eliade, and quite a few others from East and West alike are far more essential to understanding and appreciating Star Wars than a hundred Fate of the Jedi novels. And it's fascinating, horizon-broadening stuff, too.
Along these lines, Campbell's central thesis that all myths are inflections of the monomyth, the one great story moving behind all the little ones, provides another aspect of this expanded universe. As Star Wars is but another inflection of the monomyth, a great deal of its flavor can be found in ancient storytelling. From Sumeria to Egypt, from Greece to Rome, from India to England, all these sacred stories echo Star Wars in one way or another. Whether it be Gilgamesh searching for immortality, or Odysseus trying to get back to Ithaca, or the Buddha facing down temptation, or Galahad searching for the Holy Grail, or Dante navigating the Inferno with Virgil, elements of all these stories carry within them the intangible feeling evoked by that galaxy far, far away.
And just for the record, while I may not hear the Force theme when reading the latest EU novel, it is utterly impossible for me to read the scenes in Paradise Lost when the archangel Michael and the Devil are battling with flaming swords and not hear Duel of the Fates. Because ultimately, these mythic stories and poems that depict what Campbell called "the soul's high adventure" are what Star Wars is, and where it lives and breathes.
And perhaps if some paid more attention to that aspect of the saga instead of arguing about the canonicity of Coruscant Nights, the fandom would be immeasurably improved.