(Warning - if you really, really hate the Star Wars prequels, and are happy embracing that hate, then you might want to look away now, as the theory below could just change your mind...)
I should probably come clean. It's something I've kept secret for a long time -- and about as controversial an opinion as they come -- but it might just be time to open up and let you all know what I've been keeping hidden all of these years: I don't hate the Star Wars prequels.
Now, in fairness, I don't exactly love them either, but they're Star Wars, so no matter their flaws, I'll still always be fond of them, and forgive them a whole lot of Jar Jar.
For millions of fans around the world, however, that position is seen as, to put it mildly, completely and utterly goddamn ridiculous. Hating Jar Jar, baby, pod-racing Anakin, clone armies and CGI Yoda has been an article of faith for countless Star Wars fans for years now, and shows no signs of changing. Which is, of course, absolutely reasonable (even if hate does lead to suffering, and the dark side).
After all, it's hard to dispute that the prequels have a tendency to come across as lesser, more commercially-minded rip-offs of the original trilogy -- explaining both their popularity with younger fans, and the hatred supporters of the original trilogy feel towards them...
What, Though, If the Prequels Are Secretly a Whole Lot More Than They Seem?
That, as it turns out, is the suggestion being made by Star Wars theorist extraordinaire Mike Klimo, whose increasingly popular Star Wars Ring Theory might just transform the prequels from second-rate knock-offs into key parts of George Lucas's grand vision for the saga.
In many ways, it's nothing new -- George Lucas has been pointing out for years that the two Star Wars trilogies were designed to riff on the same themes and plot points, revealing on The Phantom Menace's audio commentary that:
"It’s very, very clear in the two trilogies that I’m putting the characters in pretty much the same situations, sometimes even using the same dialogue so that the father and son go through pretty much the same experience."
Even noting elsewhere that:
"I create themes...and I repeat those themes, in different chords and different arrangements."
Why, Though, Does That Matter?
Well, here's the thing: according to Klimo, Lucas isn't simply repeating himself, or attempting to make his own original ideas seem more resonant. Instead, he's tapping into a very particular -- and ancient -- idea of poetry, one that might just explain why the Star Wars saga means so much to so many of us.
As Lucas himself put it, in relation to the two trilogies' similarities:
"Instead of destroying the Death Star [like Luke], [Anakin] destroys the ship that controls the robots. It’s like poetry. Every stanza kind of rhymes with the last one."
Except, of course, that isn't really the kind of poetry we're used to. When we say rhyme, we tend to mean that something sounds the same as something else - i.e. pound rhymes with sound, or star rhymes with car. That, though, isn't what ancient poetry - and society in general - thought of rhyme as being.
Instead, ancient poetry took as its central approach the rhyming of ideas -- a form of poetry known as parallelism. It's a style that'll be very recognizable to anyone who's read the Old Testament, with the traditional modern rhyme scheme of ABC ABC working, in Klimo's example, as such:
A: A wise son B: brings joy C: to his father
A: but a foolish son B: brings grief C: to his mother
A, B and C are repeated, and in so doing create a meaningful parallel between the two lines -- which is exactly what Lucas is attempting to do in Star Wars.
The Two Trilogies Shadow One Another Like Poetry
As Klimo puts it:
"The Phantom Menace (A) corresponds with A New Hope (A’), Attack of the Clones (B) corresponds with The Empire Strikes Back (B’), and Revenge of the Sith (C) corresponds with Return of the Jedi (C’)."
Take, for instance, the opening sequences of The Phantom Menace and A New Hope. Where in the latter, a rebel ship was trying to escape a blockade, in the former, a rebel ship attempts to fly into one -- all the while using strikingly similar shot selection...
...right down to the entrance of the ships into larger ones:
These visual and and narrative parallels continue not only through the scene, with the droid and rebel defenders being framed in strikingly similar ways...
...while being placed in the exact same situations...
...but also throughout the rest of the two films' respective trilogies.
In other words...
George Lucas Created the Two Trilogies to Be Viewed as One Coherent Whole
As Klimo argues:
"Lucas was carefully arranging the films in parallel by taking similar ideas and expressing them in a different way. And, in my view, like the poetic form of parallelism, Lucas was setting up the prequel trilogy to be read together with the original trilogy as a complementary unit (in order to fully understand what either half means, as well as to fully understand the whole)."
Which, if true, makes a whole lot of Lucas's widely hated changes to the original trilogy less a case of him tweaking something we all loved, and more simply him constructing a more cohesive whole.
The Really Intriguing Part, Though?
According to Klimo, that's only half of what Lucas was doing with the Star Wars saga. Y'see, that paralleling only covers the ABC ABC rhyme scheme, whereas Klimo argues that it is also possible to identify an even more complex system of rhyming going on at the same time.
That scheme? ABC CBA.
Or, in other words, while the movies are running in parallel to their counterparts in terms of release order (The Phantom Menace/A New Hope, etc.), the two trilogies are also mirroring one another.
It's at this point that Klimo invokes a theory known as 'ring composition,' a concept popularized by social anthropologist Mary Douglas, who identified it as a key part of countless ancient cultures all around the world.
In essence, it's simply an inversion of the rhyme scheme from earlier, one perfectly illustrated by President John F. Kennedy's iconic line, "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country," which adopts an AB BA pattern:
A: Ask not what your country B: can do for you
B: ask what you can do A: for your country.
In narrative terms, that rhyme scheme essentially creates a mid-point, after which the entire story turns back on itself and ends up right back where it started, much like a ring. As Klimo puts it:
"The story is organized into a sequence of elements that progress from a beginning to a well-marked midpoint. Then, the ring turns and the first sequence of elements is repeated in reverse order until the story returns to the starting point."
How Does That Apply to Star Wars, Though?
Well, that's where things start to get a little more complicated -- you can read Klimo's extensive and comprehensive essay on the subject right here -- but essentially, it goes a little something like this:
The Phantom Menace acts as an introduction, establishing key themes and characters who will recur throughout the rest of the story, while simultaneously acting as an immediate parallel for Return of the Jedi in terms of narrative (a rescue on Tatooine, Ewoks/Gungans, epic space battle as a conclusion while ground troops battle and Jedis and Sith duel).
Next, Attack of the Clones and Empire Strikes Back share similar narrative beats -- only they're inverted, with the discovery of key hidden bases taking place at opposite ends of the film, and the downbeat ending of Empire being transferred to the opening of Clones. That's because Clones is the point at which the cycle begins to descend towards its mid point, and Empire where it later ascends away from it.
Finally, then, Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope stand at either side of that central point, with Sith's ending -- the fall of Anakin Skywalker and the arrival of Luke and Obi Wan on Tatooine -- acting as a mirror image to the beginning of Luke's journey, and of Darth Vader's path to redemption, in A New Hope.
Ultimately, then, the whole saga looks less like a pair of repeated trilogies, and more (as Klimo suggests), like this:
It begins with The Phantom Menace, reaches its mid-point at the end of Revenge of the Sith, and then returns backwards through the original trilogy until it reaches the beginning of A New Hope -- at which point the ring begins once again.
And the reason that all matters?
If We Accept the Ring Cycle, Then Most of the Things People Hate About the Prequels Can Be Forgiven
After all, not only would Lucas's changes -- adding Hayden Christensen into Return of the Jedi, for instance -- make a whole lot of sense, as the films would have to work as a coherent whole, but pretty much every aspect of the prequels that is usually flagged as being problematic would suddenly seem to merely be part of a greater whole.
After all, if The Phantom Menace has to mirror Return of the Jedi in order to retain its intended meaning, then of course it needs to feature cutesy aliens like Jar Jar and the Gungans -- because the Ewoks were already there in Jedi. Similarly, the excessive lightness of The Phantom Menace, and the growing darkness throughout the latter two prequel movies, can be seen as simply mirroring -- and balancing -- the narrative pattern of the original trilogy. We need the lightness of Phantom to balance out the beloved gloom of Empire's ending.
Which, from the perspective of someone who loves Star Wars way, way too much, is a pretty neat idea...
Nicely played, Mr. Klimo. Nicely played...