Poor Return of the Jedi. Somehow it has become the Rodney Dangerfield of the original trilogy (“no respect!”), routinely ranked by fans as the least favored installment. On lists that include the prequels, it sometimes falls below Revenge of the Sith. Those who have re-watched Revenge of the Sith recently know that is no minor slight.
I’d like to believe that there is something in my Christian DNA that compels me to defend the indefensible, love the loveless and stick up for the marginalized, even in a seemingly silly way. Alas, my affinity for Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi probably has more to do with a sentimental attachment, as it was the first non-animated movie I saw in theaters. If I truly cared about the least of these, I would be writing about Attack of the Clones. Some sand is too coarse.
There are plenty of paths a theological defense of Return of the Jedi could take. We could zero in on the most profound 10 seconds of the entire series: the climactic moment in the Emperor’s throne room when Vader casts his lot with his son. We could examine the redemption of Lando Calrissian, especially the leap of faith he takes vis-à-vis his friend and forgiver, Han Solo (“He’ll have that shield down in time”). We could even dive into Yoda’s deathbed soliloquy about the source of true power, a monologue which remains surprisingly resonant all these years later.
Ultimately, though, you can’t defend Return of the Jedi from any direction unless you first tackle the wampa in the room. I’m referring to the Ewoks, the target of most of the ridicule lodged at Jedi. The adversary’s line goes like this: the Ewoks are the first indication of the infantilizing tendencies that Lucas would let bloom in the prequels, a cuddly toxin that would come to all but destroy our beloved galaxy. Or worse, they are evidence of a prioritization of licensing opportunities over story, revenue over content.
While tonally, the introduction of the Ewoks may indeed be a bit jarring, especially so late in the game, they are far from a liability. They may even represent the theological lynchpin to the saga’s conclusion. If nothing else, Wicket and company provide an object lesson - on numerous levels - in what we might call the Nazareth Principle.
The Nazareth Principle refers to John 1:46, where Nathanael scoffs at Jesus by asking, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” The not-so-subtle message was that humble Nazareth, in rural Galilee, was known for its “mixed blood” and suspect practice of Judaism. Being that Nazareth was the hometown of our favorite carpenter, didn’t that disqualify Him from being the real thing? Obviously not. In fact, the Bible sets a powerful precedent for good things – the best things even – coming from unlikely places. Out of trouble and wounds, disappointments and closed doors, the actual breakthroughs of life often arrive. When we talk about strength in weakness, we are talking about the Nazareth Principle.
The Bible sets a powerful precedent for good things – the best things even – coming from unlikely places.
The original trilogy is rife with the Nazareth Principle. Tatooine, the origin of our rebel hero, has a distinctly Nazareth quality - a backwater planet barely able to support life, a far cry from the Jerusalem of metropolitan Coruscant. The rebel alliance itself is a ragtag group, unglamorous to the max, comprised of misfits and their refurbished weaponry, the galactic equivalents of fishermen and tax collectors. Han Solo is a smuggler. Luke Skywalker is the “son” of humble moisture farmers. Even so, next to the wooden, hand-sewn arsenal of the Ewoks, the motley rebels and their junky starships look pretty impressive.
If Jedi is the Nazareth of the original trilogy, then the derided Ewoks are the Nazareth of Jedi. The key to the Empire’s defeat comes from the least likely place imaginable. Not at the hands of pristine, well-trained soldiers, but from an unorganized group of primitive goofballs, essentially Lucas’ version of Hobbits. To invoke more Tolkien imagery, the battle of Endor would have felt like far less of a eucatastrophe had it been Wookies trying to take control of the shield generator. To paraphrase Han Solo, short help proves to be much better than no help at all.
What’s more, the Ewoks prove themselves to be much-needed agents of grace in a universe filled with struggle. Think about it: no character suffers more abuse in the original trilogy than C-3PO. Only the Ewoks treat the irritating, anxious protocol droid with care and respect. They go so far as to venerate him as a god! In fact, they flip the entire hierarchy on its head, relegating the rebel’s top leaders, Luke and Han, to dinner ingredients. The first shall be last, indeed.
There is one final aspect of Ewok brilliance that warrants a mention. Just before the closing battle begins, in a scene that lesser filmmakers might have left on the cutting room floor, C-3PO recounts the rebels’ adventures to an audience of their furry friends. The Ewoks listen with utter delight, like the wide-eyed children they are. It turns out they find the whole tale just as wondrous and enveloping as we do. For a split second, the Ewoks are us, recipients of a gift beyond their wildest imagination. Their part in the story may be small – it may even seem to detract from the greater glory – but perhaps that is what makes it so precious.
All this to say, the denizens of Endor may not be so different from those of Nazareth. Unpopular and even offensive, their power runs against the grain of human instinct, inseparable from humility and abounding in foolishness. At least, until it blows the doors off your bunker and lowers your defensive shields. Which is good enough news to make even the fiercest bounty hunter say “amen” - or “yub nub,” as the case may be.