There Is No Try


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The X-wing fighter has sunk, and only the tip of its nose shows above the lake’s surface.

LUKE: Oh, no. We’ll never get it out now.

Yoda stamps his foot in irritation.

YODA: So certain are you. Always with you it cannot be done. Hear you nothing that I say?

Luke looks uncertainly out at the ship.

LUKE: Master, moving stones around is one thing. This is totally different.

YODA: No! No different! Only different in your mind. You must unlearn what you have learned.

LUKE: (focusing, quietly) All right, I’ll give it a try.

YODA: No! Try not. Do. Or do not!! There is no try….

The lines above are from the screenplay to The Empire Strikes Back, the second of the first trilogy of Star Wars movies, aka Episode V. Many of us who originally saw the 1980 film back in the theater fondly remember this scene in the swamps of Dagobah featuring the grumpy and whiny student, Luke Skywalker, and his impatient, diminutive, Kermit the Frog-like teacher, Yoda.

Now, insert brother and sister into their roles and you have some idea of my childhood fantasy life. Instead of quoting Bible passages for spiritual guidance, sometimes my family quoted Star Wars.

Recall the wonder of the Force, this arcane and powerful energy field that filmmaker George Lucas proposed as a kind of religious rubber cement that held together his universe. In the words of Yoda, the Force “surrounds us and binds us. … Here, between you…me…the tree…the rock…everywhere!” For a skeptic like me, neither raised in a religious home nor educated about Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, or anything else even marginally spiritual, the Force seemed like a cool and even plausible explanation for not only what might bind together a galaxy far, far away, but my small and mundane world in rural New Hampshire. To heathens like me, the Force made a lot more sense than the Holy Trinity.

It’s easy to dismiss science fiction and other genre movies (and books, and games) as mindless entertainment. But the reason for the popularity of Star Wars, Twilight, and Lord of the Rings can’t simply be that our culture craves vapid adventure stories to while away the idle hours. I think we consume these modern epics because, for many of us, traditional institutions don’t cut it anymore. Church, family, and government once handed over fairly rigid instructions on “how to live”: how to be a good citizen, neighbor, spouse, or parent. The cultural revolution of the 1960s and ’70s changed all that. Vietnam, political assassinations, government corruption, and the rise of the corporate state left us suspicious of conventional authority and religion. We got jaded.

Is it no wonder, then, that many now seek moral guidance and spiritual example not in mosques and chapels, but huddled in darkened movie theaters or bathed in the holy glow of our Blu-rays? Our new gods and priests might be writers, movie directors, and actors. When, in The Lord of the Rings, Sir Ian McKellen as Gandalf the wise intones to Frodo, “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us,” it’s hard not to prick up our hobbity ears and nod our heads in agreement. Yes, that’s damned good advice. And for many of us, it’s guidance much easier to swallow than the kind shouted from the pulpit on a Sunday morning.

That we seek direction from unexpected places these days, even from movies like Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, is one reason why these fantasies mean so much to me. But I watch movies with heroic characters, and play video games and role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) for plenty of other reasons: because they’re fun, because they’re exciting, because I need to tune out and decompress for a couple of hours, or because they show me places and creatures that could never be.

Yet, recently back from another holiday marathon screening of “the trilogy,” I think the explanation goes even deeper than that.

One essential reason that a world like Tolkien’s Middle-earth, is so appealing — even the more spare version brought to life by director Peter Jackson — is the depth of that world. Middle-earth is almost as detailed as Planet Earth. For any fantasy spell to work, you need a believable setting. For his novels, Tolkien conjured one of literature’s most intricate realms: a world autonomous and detached from our own, far from familiar racial and social problems, yet infused with archetypical, high fantasy themes of good, evil, honor, and justice. Tolkien devised his own races of people and creatures; created languages for them to speak; gave them histories, poems, songs, beliefs, and family trees; created lands, maps, geographies, and calendars; and invented a detailed backstory and consistent nomenclature to bind it all together. Because this world was not specific to a single culture or religion, readers found it applicable to all.

For me, I didn’t believe in heaven and hell. But Middle-earth’s lands, or a D&D labyrinth, or a science fiction universe like Star Wars — those were places I could believe in, and visit as often as I liked.

I met a man named David Randrup, from the Los Angeles area, who was raised as an atheist. Visiting churches as an adult left him disappointed. He got no sense of wonderment or higher purpose-until he found the Society for Creative Anachronism (or SCA). In this group, devoted to recreating the best parts of the Middle Ages, Randrup became Sir Gareth, a knight who found in the Society’s chivalric ideals what he called his “moral compass” and transferred those ideals to the real world. When faced with a thorny problem, like a conflict at his school, Randrup asked himself, How would a medieval noble face this situation? While wreaking havoc with a broadsword was tempting, he said, the better choice was to “face a situation with courage, mete out justice while expecting it from others, show mercy as you’d expect others to, be generous without regret, have faith in humanity, show nobility in adversity, have hope for the future, and have the strength to do it all over again the next time.”

Randrup showed me that games like D&D and World of Warcraft and reenactment groups like the SCA aren’t just fun ways to socialize and feel the rush of battle (whether we swing foam and PVC swords in our mind or on a real-world play battlefield). These experiences actually teach us useful things, and for some players, provide a framework. Games also provide accomplishment and belonging, and in some cases (such as gaming guilds and medieval reenactment societies) rites of passage and codes of honor. Why look to a game for life philosophies? Because our technology-driven ways have forsaken them. Organized religion is corrupt. The world is mundane. And as post-industrial, post-blue collar office workers stuck in our civilized ways, we are effectively paralyzed and chained to our desks and DSL lines, far from Eden, far from nature, far from the magical thinking of yore.

But D&D not only gave me, a nerdy and shy kid, a magical world of escape. It wasn’t merely something to do each Friday with friends who didn’t judge my lack of prowess on the athletic field. It also helped give shape and order to a chaotic world of adolescence and my own troubled home life. I had learned that in the adult world, fate was chaotic and uncertain. Guidelines for success were arbitrary. But in the world of D&D, at least there was a rule book. My character gradually becoming more powerful, I could gradually risk more daring feats. D&D was a safe place to act out, be bold, be a champion. The game’s subterranean realms and heroic quests welcomed me; high school dances and locker rooms did not.

Even as a teenager, that pick-up-your-battle-ax and kill mentality, long suppressed by so-called society, still coursed in my veins. Fantasy lets us “just do it.” We travel to richly-imagined parallel worlds and watch a hero like Aragorn kick major Orc butt. We cheer and secretly wish that we were him.

Of course, modeling behavior on ideal characters is not terribly new. The plots of Lord of the Rings and its ilk are as old as The Iliad and Beowulf. But as old as the storylines feel, the feelings of being empowered are, magically, renewed each time we read or watch these epic stories of triumph and derring-do. Moreover, they inspire us. The last time I watched these familiar quest stories that have become, in the words of Gollum, “precious” to me, I realized why these tales of Hobbits and magic rings and malicious powers have power over us. In those worlds, heroes do things we can’t do in real life. They fight the good fight, and slay the evil Orcs and Goblins and uruk-hai. They take risks. They behave as we might want to: with bravery, honor, and sacrifice. They remind us again, as the cliché goes, “what is worth fighting for.”

A dress-up medieval reenactment group or “escapist” book, movie, or role-playing game offering life lessons? And yet they can and do. The Lord of the Rings or Star Wars universes provide another way to look at our universe. The movies are another text that provide a metaphor or signpost for how to tackle life’s thorny troubles.

Which bring us back to that scene between Yoda and Luke in the swamps of Dagobah. Here, poor whiny Luke is struggling to harness the Force and lift the sunken X-wing fighter from the murky depths of the lake:

Luke closes his eyes and concentrates on thinking the ship out. Slowly, the X-wing’s nose begins to rise above the water. It hovers for a moment and then slides back, disappearing once again.

LUKE: (panting heavily) I can’t. It’s too big.

YODA: Size matters not. Look at me. Judge me by my size, do you? Hm? Mmmm.

Luke shakes his head and complains that Yoda wants “the impossible.”

Quietly Yoda turns toward the X-wing fighter. With his eyes closed and his head bowed, he raises his arm and points at the ship. Soon, the fighter rises out of the water and moves majestically toward the shore. Yoda guides the fighter carefully down toward the beach. Luke stares in astonishment.

LUKE: I don’t…I don’t believe it.

YODA: That is why you fail.

Perhaps even a Saturday matinee Western, disguised in the garb of a science fiction space opera, can make us believe in things and forces we can’t see or understand. Or a game of make-believe knights in shining armor can instruct us how to be better people, not in a time or galaxy far, far away, but right here on planet earth.

Or a broken family — father, stepmother, sister, brothers — glued to the TV set about six hours deep into Middle-earth, can believe that each person wields real power. I mean, we do. It comes down to that line of dialogue uttered by the elf queen Galadriel (played by the ethereal Cate Blanchett), “Even the smallest person can change the course of the future.” If a three-foot Hobbit can learn to wield sword, face down evil, and emerge victorious, perhaps you and I can find courage to face down our own problems and challenges, no matter how small in comparison. • 15 January 2010


Ethan Gilsdorf is the author of Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms (Lyons Press). He contributes regularly to The Boston Globe, New York Times, National Geographic Traveler, and The Christian Science Monitor.