Dragons. People always ask me about dragons. They always
seem to be far more interested in dragons than they are in trolls, but I
think dragons are the much less interesting beings. Dragons are very
annoying, of course – not annoying in the various ways that trolls can be, but
Most of the dragons that are found in Wessex or Mercia are
smaller. They can still breathe fire, of course, and their teeth and claws are
deadly, but their strength does not come from their size. These are, of course,
meadow-dragons. A meadow-dragon can be brought down with just one well-thrown
Much more of a problem are the dragons that live in the
west. These are mountain-dragons – far bigger, far deadlier, and far harder to
kill. Thrulgor the Bothersome was a mountain-dragon – the biggest I’ve ever
heard of (at least, in Albion – I’ve heard that there are dragons even greater
than him beyond the seas). These dragons stay in the mountains most of the
time, but every now and then one will fly east – they are learning that that is
where men and women live, with cows and sheep and horses – and silver, which
they prize above all else.
But of course, dragons are not annoying just because of what
they eat. Dragons are perplexing beings, subject to whims that men and women
may never understand.
This is a story about a dragon, whose name was Magnathor.
Magnathor was a truly ferocious dragon – twelve yards high at the
wing-shoulder. His scales were as hard as diamond – the largest four hands across.
His claws were long and yellow. His tail was barbed. His breath could melt a
steel blade in a second, and his roar could cut down a great oak.
But he was also rather daft.
One day, Magnathor came down from the mountains, and he saw
a river that he liked. It was, in fact, the Tames, near Oxford. There was a
stone bridge over the river – wide enough and sturdy enough for the dragon to
sit on. The dragon landed on it, and he stared down into the water, his tail
swishing from side to side. (The river near this bridge is quite shallow and
wide, and there are many small rocks beneath the surface. In bright sunlight,
the water glitters and glimmers, and I believe it was this that drew the dragon
to the ground – they like shiny things, I think (which is, I think, also why
they like silver, though it’s difficult to know – the minds of dragons are
The dragon sat there for hours, watching the river. After
some time, a man, whose name was Aethelstan, and who travelled over the bridge
most days, came to it this day.
Upon seeing the dragon, Aethelstan froze, for it was far
bigger than any dragon he had seen or heard of before. He tried to creep away
from it, further into the woods, but dragons have excellent senses of smell and
hearing (and sight, for that matter). The dragon turned its great head, so that
its large, golden eyes stared straight at Aethelstan.
‘Hello’ the dragon said.
Aethelstan felt as though he had turned to stone. ‘… Hi.’
‘What are you doing?’ the dragon said.
‘Err … I was … err … hoping to cross the bridge.’
The dragon blinked at him. ‘Why?’
‘Well … ‘cause … that’s where I’m going.’
The dragon blinked at him again.
Aethelstan blinked back.
‘Aren’t you going to cross then?’ the dragon said.
Aethelstan looked at the hulking, shimmering mass of dragon
that sat on the bridge before him. ‘Well … you’re sort of in the way.’
The dragon looked back at the rest of its body and its tail.
‘Oh yes, so I am.’ And he lifted his tail off the far side of the bridge, and
coiled it neatly around him. Then he looked back at Aethelstan expectantly.
‘Right …’ Aethelstan said, and he began to shuffle
forwards again. He walked across the bridge slowly, careful not to make any
sudden movements – dragons are easily startled.
The dragon watched him the entire time. ‘What’s your name?’
the dragon boomed when Aethelstan was right behind it.
Aethelstan nearly shat himself. ‘Aethelstan’, he said.
‘I am Magnathor. If you need to cross this bridge again, and
I am still here, just tell me your name – I will remember who you are, and I
shall let you pass at once.’
‘Oh …’ Aethelstan said, not relishing the thought that the
dragon might still be there the next day. ‘Okay.’
Aethelstan continued walking slowly across the bridge, and the
dragon continued watching him with big eyes, blinking every now and then.
Aethelstan reached the other side, and walked backwards along the road into the
‘Bye!’ the dragon said, and he turned back to look at the
‘… Bye …’ Aethelstan said, still half expecting the
dragon to turn back towards him and pounce on him.
But the dragon didn’t.
The next day, in the morning, Aethelstan came to the bridge
again. The dragon was still there. It looked like it had hardly moved – except
for the swishing of its long tail. It still hung its head over the side of the
bridge, so that it could stare down into the shimmering water.
Once again, the dragon sensed Aethelstan before he even
reached the edge of the wood, and turned to look at him. Aethelstan felt much
more confident in approaching the dragon today.
‘Hello, Great Dragon.’ he said as he strode onto the stone
of the bridge. ‘It is I, Aethelstan.’
‘Who?’ Magnathor said, not moving his tail from across the
The dragon pondered for a moment. ‘No I don’t know who that
‘It’s me – I walked across this bridge yesterday – you asked
me what my name was.’
‘Doesn’t ring any bells.’ the dragon said.
‘I walked across this bridge yesterday! You asked me what my
name was, and you said you’d remember it if I came to the bridge again, and let
me cross!’ Aethelstan said. Was this dragon trying to trick him or something?
‘Well that doesn’t sound right.’ the dragon said. ‘I think
I’d remember if I said something like that. Are you sure you’ve got the right
bridge? Perhaps it was a different bridge that you crossed?’
‘I think I’d remember which bridge it was!’
‘Well how can you be sure?’
‘Because it was the one with a great big dragon on it!’
‘Alright, there’s no need to shout!’ the dragon said. ‘Tell
me your name and I’ll let you cross. I’ll remember what your name is and if you
come to this bridge again and I’m still on it, I’ll let you cross straight
‘It’s Aethelstan!’ Aethelstan said, exasperated.
‘Aethelstan, Aethelstan …’ the dragon thought out loud.
‘That’s quite an unusual name, isn’t it?’
‘No, not really.’
‘No, I think I’ve got it – I’ll remember – it sounds like
‘It really doesn’t.’
The dragon pondered for a few more moments. ‘Very well – you
The dragon moved its tail out of the way, and Aethelstan was
able to cross the bridge. The dragon stared at him the entire time.
‘Bye!’ the dragon said as Aethelstan walked onto the road on
the other side of the bridge.
Aethelstan walked away down the road.
The dragon continued to sit on the bridge and stare down
into the water. It may have seen some fish – dragons like fish – they can watch
them for hours and hours.
In the late afternoon, Aethelstan came back.
‘Hello, Great Dragon! It’s me again.’
The dragon turned and stared at him.
‘… It’s me! Aethelstan!’ Aethelstan said.
‘Oh my god! You saw me this morning!’
‘No I didn’t.’
‘YES YOU DID!’
‘Alright! There’s no need to shout!’ the dragon said. ‘Are
you sure you didn’t meet a different dragon?’
‘Yes! It was you! On this bridge!’
‘Well how can you be sure?’
‘How many dragons do you think I meet?!’
‘Well I’m sure I don’t know.’
‘It was you! I met you! Here! On this
bridge! This morning! And yesterday!’
‘Well I have no recollection of this at all.’
‘Look, both times you asked me my name, and you said you’d
remember it, and if I came back to the bridge and you were still on it, you’d
remember who I was and let me cross straight away!’
‘Oh that’s a good idea!’ the dragon said. ‘What’s your
‘Is that a name? I don’t think I’ve ever heard it before.’
‘You heard it about a minute ago!’
‘Well I will remember it, and if you should ever come this
‘I go across the bridge twice a day.’
‘-just tell me your name and I’ll let you cross straight
away.’ the dragon said.
The dragon moved its tail out of the way again, and
Aethelstan crossed the bridge.
‘Nice meeting you for the first time!’ the dragon called
‘That was the third time!’
Aethelstan walked away down the road, and the dragon went
back to staring at the water.
The next day, Aethelstan returned. He was hoping that the
dragon had gone, so that he wouldn’t have to explain to it again how they’d
already met. But he saw that the dragon was, in fact, still there – its blue
scales gleaming in the sunlight, and its tail swishing from side to side as it
looked down into the rushing water of the river.
‘Hello, Great Dragon. It’s me, Aethelstan … again.’
The dragon turned to look at him and blinked.
‘… It’s me … Aethelstan … do you remember? From
yesterday … and the day before.’
‘Have we met?’
‘Oh my god! Yes, we have met! Three times! Twice yesterday
and once the day before!’
‘Oh I didn’t meet anyone yesterday. Or the day before.’
‘Oh my god! Yes you did! You met me! Do you remember?!’
‘Well I’m pretty sure I didn’t.’ the dragon said indignantly.
‘I haven’t met anyone since I came here.’
‘THIS IS A VERY BUSY ROAD! I’VE PASSED ABOUT TWENTY PEOPLE
ON IT IN THE LAST HOUR! HOW HAVE YOU NOT MET ANY OF THEM?!’
‘Such a quiet part of the country – untouched by human
‘You are sitting on a bridge that humans built!’
‘Oh gosh – I’m in your way, aren’t I?’
‘Yes! Yes you are!’
The dragon coiled its tail around itself again, and
Aethelstan crossed the bridge.
‘Oh I’ve just had a thought!’
‘Let me guess …’
‘Next time you come to the bridge, if I’m still on it, tell
me your name. I’ll remember you and let you cross.’
‘What a great idea.’
The dragon looked at him expectantly. ‘… What’s your name
‘AETHELSTAN! IT’S AETHELSTAN!’
‘Got it. “Uhtric”.’
‘“Uhtric”. That’s your name.’
‘NO IT ISN’T!!!’
‘Gosh, where’s Uhtric then? He normally comes by here twice
‘So you have met other people then.’
‘Oh hello! Who are you?’
‘Oh my god.’
‘Do you want to cross the bridge?’
‘I just did!’
‘No you didn’t.’
Aethelstan just walked away.
‘Well it was nice meeting you, whoever you are!’ the dragon
The dragon remained on the bridge for many weeks. He never
remembered who Aethelstan was. Aethelstan became more and more frustrated.
Eventually the dragon left of his own volition.
And so this is how dragons can be annoying. It’s altogether a different kind of annoying to the way that trolls are annoying.
There were once two people, by
the names of Othoral and Hiadmath, who lived in a small house in the
countryside. The house stood on a slight rise in the land, and was surrounded
on all sides by field after field of tall crops grown by Othoral and Hiadmath.
Every day, Othoral made a cake
‘I am looking forward to this.’
Hiadmath would say as the cake was in the oven. ‘I do so like cake. I could
happily eat the whole thing in one go.’
Once the cake had been baked,
Othoral would take it out of the oven, and place it on the table. Once the cake
had cooled, Othoral said to Hiadmath ‘Here, the cake is made. You may eat the
But despite his earlier eagerness
for the cake, Hiadmath would say ‘I may have some of it later.’, for Hiadmath
would be preoccupied by other things. Some days he would be sweeping the floor;
some days he would be brushing soot out of the fireplace; some days he would be
making a wooden chair. He complained about these tasks the entire time he was
doing them, but he did them nevertheless.
Only after many hours would he
sit at the table and have some of the cake, and when he did, he would only cut
a thin slice for himself.
‘Why not have another slice?’
Othoral would say, once Hiadmath had eaten the first. ‘I know you will like
But Hiadmath would say ‘No, I
have had all I want.’ or ‘I may have some more later.’ (but even when he said
this, he would always become preoccupied with other tasks again).
This happened every day. Othoral
would make a cake, while Hiadmath talked of how much he was looking forward to
eating the whole thing. But once the cake was made, Hiadmath would only have
one thin slice.
After a while, Othoral was fed up
with this, so one day, rather than just give Hiadmath the whole cake, Othoral
took the cake, along with many plates, and walked around the fields and through
the thickets near to their house. Every few paces, he placed one of the plates
on the ground, and then broke a single crumb off the cake, and placed the crumb
on the plate. Once he had placed every crumb of the cake, he returned to the
In the afternoon, Hiadmath, after
many hours of working, said ‘I rather fancy a piece of cake.’
Othoral said ‘Look outside the
Hiadmath did so, and he saw a
plate on the ground, on which was a single crumb of cake. He picked up the
plate, and ate the single crumb of cake that was on it. ‘Mmm’, he said, ‘that
was delicious, but I would rather like some more.’
Hiadmath then saw another plate on
the ground, a few paces away. He walked over to it, and saw that it too had a
crumb of cake on it. He picked up the plate and ate the crumb. ‘Mmm, that was
also delicious, but still I would like some more.’
Hiadmath followed the trail of
plates around the fields and through the thickets. He picked up each one, and
ate the crumb of cake that was on it. By the time he got back to the house, he
had eaten a whole cake.
‘All that cake was delicious!’
Hiadmath said to Othoral. ‘I could eat even more!’
Othoral had made another cake
while Hiadmath had been wandering around outside, and he placed it on the
table. ‘Here you go.’, Othoral said, ‘I have made another.’
Hiadmath immediately ate the
whole second cake.
And this was how they continued.
Every day Othoral baked a cake, and then walked around the fields, placing down
plates, and placing a single crumb of the cake on each one. Every day Hiadmath
walked around the fields, picking up the plates, eating the crumbs. And when
Hiadmath returned to the house, he would eat a second whole cake.
Hiadmath ate far more cake than he had done before – before he had only eaten one thin slice of cake, but now he ate two whole cakes! He even ate more than he had at first wanted to – at first he had only wanted to eat one whole cake – for, as Othoral realised, the crumbs are more than the cake.
This great empire was vast –
reaching from the pine-covered mountains of Arennia in the west, to the golden
beaches and azure reefs of Marcanne in the east, from the freshwater lakes of Belgamon
in the north, to the apple orchards and apiaries of Arganza in the south. It
was so vast that evening on one side of the empire was morning on the other.
And at its centre stood its Capital – a limestone and marble metropolis that
was the seat of power for a hemisphere.
This great empire was also
extraordinarily wealthy. Though it had started as only a small city state, it
had fought many wars over the years against the kingdoms and principalities
along its borders, and it had won most of them. With each new territory it had
conquered it had stolen all the riches it contained, fuelling yet further
expansion of the empire. And with each monarchy that fell before it, ever more
convinced did the subjects of the Emperor become that they were the only truly
civilised people in the world, and that all those beyond the empire’s borders
But most of the people in the
empire were not wealthy – they were impoverished – for most of the great wealth
extracted from the lands they had taken was hoarded by the Emperor and his
Barons. By the time of this story, they
were far wealthier than they had ever been. The Grand Imperial Palace at the
centre of the Capital was a small kingdom of ivory towers, marble colonnades,
golden cupolas, glass-walled orangeries, wisteria-wrapped pergolas, and
mosaic-covered terraces. The statues that stood atop the walls, the painted
domed ceilings, and the stained glass windows all gleamed with a brilliance
that was taken as proof of the empire’s immutable virtue.
The Emperor and his Barons spent
their days strolling through the lush gardens and great halls of the imperial
palace, but for most of the people of the empire, such a life was but a whisper
of a whisper. In contrast to the luminance of the imperial palace, most of the
great city that was the empire’s capital was in disrepair. Fires broke out
every month; the sewers overflowed; the bridges collapsed. The houses were
small, cramped, and expensive. Disease was often a death sentence.
Most of the people who lived in
the city worked twelve, fourteen, sixteen hours of the day. A person had to be
a master of two or three crafts in order to survive. Many were in debt. Food,
at least, was cheap – not fine food, but food that would keep you alive, and
well, for a time. In what little free time the people of the empire had, they
had fun, and some were able to find a reluctant contentedness, but none were
truly able to change the circumstances of their lives, and the risk of
deprivation, despair, and death remained constant.
Many of the problems of the
empire could have been resolved if some of the empire’s extraordinary wealth
were put towards resolving them. The ordinary people of the empire knew this.
And why should this not happen? After all, it had been these ordinary people
who had fought the empire’s wars in the first place. They had obeyed the
commands of their divine Emperor and taken land in the name of their
exceptional civility, and then been left to suffer.
The People of the Capital thought
that perhaps if they could speak to the Emperor, they could persuade him to
implement policies that would solve the empire’s many problems. But getting to
the Emperor was difficult – the Emperor, his Barons, and his Ministers were
isolated within the Grand Imperial Palace. They never went beyond its tall
So the People of the Capital
gathered together, and resolved to send one of their group into the palace as a
representative, to become one of the Emperor’s Ministers. (Unlike the Barons,
who passed down their fortunes and titles to their sons, the Emperor’s
Ministers were chosen from the greater populace.) They chose one man from their
group who they believed would succeed – he was eloquent, rational, and honest,
if somewhat brusque.
It was on a bright day, just
before lunch, that this First Man strode up to the golden gates of the imperial
palace, to be admitted as the Emperor’s newest Minister. The gates swung
outward, and the First Man stepped forward into a world he could not have
The Grand Imperial Palace is
filled with a great many wonders of the world: the Hydrargyrum Fountain, which
will amalgamate any coin that is thrown into it, to become part of its
quicksilver jets; the Lotus of Charan’girak – the flowers of which are fifteen
feet tall and only bloom on the day after a blood moon; the Tree of Rhonyssia,
each branch of which produces a different kind of fruit – cherries, pears,
bergamots, dates, pineapples, blackberries – everything.
The flowerbeds, the shrubs, the
walkways were all kept perfectly tidy by the imperial palace’s many hundreds of
servants. Every leaf that fell from every tree was caught before it even hit
the ground. Every cracked paving stone was replaced before the Emperor could
see it. Every oil lamp was refilled every hour throughout the night so that not
a single flame would go out.
It was through this wondrous
place that the First Man strode on this day. Though he was transfixed by the
chiselled cornices, the viridian ponds, and the onyx statues, he walked past
them all to the great glasshouse at the centre of the palace that was the
Though the imperial palace had
galleries, chambers, and halls that were the official locations where the
discussion of legislation took place, the Emperor and his Barons and his Ministers
actually spent very little time there. Instead they gathered in the Emperor’s
Menagerie, every day, at midday, to discuss and give assent to policy.
The Emperor’s Menagerie was
bright and humid. It had tall walls and many glass domes. The fronds of the
ferns and the cycads were a lush green, and the pools that sat and the streams
that ran throughout the building were clear.
But despite the grandeur of the
architecture and the greenery of the Emperor’s Menagerie, most of the animals
in it were rather unspectacular. There were lorikeets and parakeets, lemurs and
macaques, pythons, puffins, porcupines, and pangolins, chameleons, tortoises,
sloths, a jaguar, a giraffe, and even a hippopotamus, but they all looked
rather tired and grey.
There was one exception to this,
however – a unique specimen that was the Emperor’s prized possession. In the
very centre of the Emperor’s Menagerie, beneath the great crystal dome and on a
circular plinth of gold and garnet, sat an enormous … pink elephant.
The elephant was truly gigantic –
twice the height, width, and length of a normal elephant. But as remarkable as
its size was, it was nothing compared to the colour of its skin. The elephant’s
skin was a lurid, electric fuchsia – a hot, shocking cyclamen. It was such a
vile and offensive shade of magenta that it stung the eyes to look at it. It
was so fluorescent that it drained all of the colour from everything around it.
The elephant was also disgusting.
It gave off a nauseating stench of bitumen, vinegar, oyster sauce, burnt
aubergine, and piss – the entire menagerie smelled of it. This may have been
caused by its diet. The elephant did not eat leaves and grasses as normal
elephants do – it ate incredibly expensive foods, provided to it at the behest
of the Emperor and his Barons: caviar, goose liver, lobsters, artichokes
stuffed with white truffle, bluefin tuna, and it ate all of this food in vast
quantities. The servants of the Grand Imperial Palace would drag great bowls –
four feet across – filled with this food up to the elephant every half hour.
The more recently-appointed servants were given the task of carrying away the
elephant’s shit, which was produced almost constantly.
All of this makes the Emperor’s
Pink Elephant difficult to ignore, but ignore it you must, because if anyone
talks about the elephant – whether they go on about it at length or just
mention it – that person will be swiftly removed from the palace, and never be
permitted to return.
Almost all of the people of the
empire, however, at this point, were completely unaware of the existence of the
pink elephant. As such, when the First Man strode through the glass doors of
the Emperor’s Menagerie, to begin his first term as one of the Emperor’s
Ministers, he gawped at the pink elephant, in shock and amazement. The pink
elephant stared back, grinding crabshell in its teeth, bored with the turn of
The Emperor’s other Ministers
shuffled up to the First Man, with their hands clasped together and forced
smiles on their faces. They nodded politely as they asked the First Man
pointless questions and ignored his answers. And after a few minutes, the First
Man said ‘I had no idea that the Emperor had an enormous pink elephant in his
menagerie! What an unusual creature!’
The Emperor’s other Ministers
continued to smile and nod, but did not refer to the elephant themselves. They
changed the conversation to something meaningless and dull.
An hour after the First Man had
arrived in the menagerie, and before the First Man had had the chance to speak
with the Emperor (who always stood on a raised area at the back of the
glasshouse, dressed in imperial green and guarded by a number of his Barons)
one of the Emperor’s servants walked up to the First Man and said ‘Most
honourable gentleman of the house, I bid that you come to the gates of the
palace – there is a matter that requires your expertise.’ The First Man,
suspecting nothing, followed the servant out of the menagerie and back to the
golden gates of the palace.
He stepped through the gates of
the palace. Once he was outside, the gates were closed behind him and locked,
and the servant walked away.
The First Man, like those who had
elected him to become a Minister, was naïve to the way that the palace
operated, and so was confused. He had expected to find this matter outside the
gates of the palace, but he did not. The servants had walked away, so there was
no-one he could ask. He waited for an hour in case the matter reappeared, but
it did not. Then he tried to get the attention of someone in the palace, but
none came to him.
By the end of the day, he
realised that this was not a mistake, and that he would not be permitted back
into the palace, and could not take the people’s requests to the Emperor. What
he couldn’t figure out was why.
He analysed the day’s events with
the People of the Capital. He told them of everything that had happened while
he had been inside the Grand Imperial Palace, and everything he had said to the
Emperor’s Ministers. He told them that in the very centre of the Emperor’s
Menagerie there was an enormous pink elephant that ate vast quantities of
expensive food and gave off a foul odour, and that he had mentioned the
elephant to the Ministers. But he had said so many things and made so many
slight gestures that neither he nor the People could figure out which of them
had led to his expulsion.
But the empire still had many
problems, so, since they could not send the First Man back into the palace, the
People of the Capital chose another from their group to become one of the Emperor’s
Ministers in his stead. This Second Man was very similar to the first, but
perhaps slightly more observant.
So the next day, just before
lunch, this Second Man strode up to the golden gates of the imperial palace, to
be admitted as the Emperor’s newest Minister. The gates swung outward, and the
Second Man stepped forward into a world he had heard a few things about.
He walked the two miles from the
entrance to the palace to the Emperor’s Menagerie, not stopping to marvel at
the Opal Obelisk, Sereri’s Fresco, or the translucent chrysanthemums. But when
he stepped through the glass doors of the menagerie, like the First Man, he was
awestruck by the pink elephant. The elephant looked at him with impatience.
The Emperor’s other Ministers
shuffled up to the Second Man, eyes eager and greedy. They chatted with the
Second Man about things both tedious and irrelevant, and laughed at things that
weren’t funny. And after a few minutes, the Second Man said ‘I must say, I knew
that the Emperor had an enormous pink elephant in his menagerie, but I could
not have anticipated just how vivid its skin is, or how pungent its smell is.’
‘His Majesty’s Menagerie has many
wondrous and unique animals in it.’ one of the Emperor’s other Ministers said,
though it wasn’t true in the slightest – all of the other animals were rather
dull. ‘My favourite is the pigeons.’ he said, pointing up to the rafters, where
hundreds of fat, grey pigeons sat.
‘Oh yes’, another Minister said.
‘Far better than those sparrows that used to be here. And I never liked that
An hour after the Second Man had
arrived in the menagerie, and before he had had the chance to speak with the
Emperor, one of the Emperor’s servants walked up to the Second Man and said
‘Most honourable gentleman of the house, I bid that you come to the gates of
the palace – there is a matter that requires your expertise.’ The Second Man,
also suspecting nothing, followed the servant out of the menagerie and back to
the golden gates of the palace.
He passed through the gates, and
they were locked behind him. He was tricked just as the First Man had been,
though the Second Man realised this as soon as he heard the lock clink behind
The Second Man also analysed the
day’s events with the People of the Capital. He told them everything he said
and everything he did, and the People realised the only thing that both the First Man and the Second Man
had done was to talk about the elephant in the room.
As ever, the problems with the
empire persisted. The People resolved that they could not give up, so they
chose a Third Man from their group to try to get into the palace and speak to
the Emperor. But this time, he would go in with the intention of not saying a
single word about the pink elephant, and if one of the Emperor’s servants said
he was needed at the gates, he would try to find a way of not going.
So the next day the Third Man
went in. When he stepped into the great glasshouse, the Emperor’s other
Ministers shuffled up to him, whispering and glancing at each other. He did not
say a single word about the elephant, but he did stare at it – it was difficult not to – its skin was so blindingly
saturated. And of course, it was right in the middle of the room.
The Emperor’s other Ministers
watched the Third Man as they prattled at him. They didn’t look towards the
elephant themselves, but they knew that the Third Man was looking at it – they
knew that he was thinking about it.
And after an hour, one of the
Emperor’s servants walked up to the Third Man and said ‘Most honourable
gentleman of the house, I bid that you come to the gates of the palace – there
is a matter that requires your expertise.’
The Third Man immediately
realised what was happening – they were trying to expel him from the palace –
he must have done something the other Ministers didn’t like. ‘I’m sure the
matter can wait.’ he said to the Emperor’s servant. ‘The discussion of policy
is very important; I would not like to miss any of it.’
‘Oh that won’t start for ages
yet.’ one of the Emperor’s other Ministers said. ‘We’ll probably just be
babbling on for another few hours yet, as we do.’
‘Yes’, another Minister said,
‘you won’t miss anything – I’m sure you’ll have the time to deal with this
The Third Man had not anticipated
this. ‘His Imperial Majesty expects all of his Ministers to be in attendance.’
‘Oh he won’t mind.’ one of the
‘Yes, I’m sure he won’t mind.’
another said with a smirk. ‘You should go.’
The Third Man couldn’t see how he
could reason his way out of this. Everyone wanted him to go to the gates.
‘Very well.’ the Third Man said,
after a moment, and he followed the servant out of the menagerie.
He knew that the moment he
stepped outside of the palace, the gates would be locked behind him, and he
wouldn’t be able to get back in, so he tried to think how he could avoid going
through them. He could just run to a different part of the palace, he thought,
but they would only find him, and then tell him to go to the gates again.
He couldn’t think of how to get
out of this. When he got to the gates of the palace, which were wide open, he
stopped before passing them, adamant he would not go a step further.
‘Well, where is this matter
then?’ he said to the servant.
The Emperor’s servant said with
half-lidded eyes ‘It is in the marketplace a short distance away from the
palace. I will take you there.’
The Third Man was still
suspicious. ‘What on earth is this matter?’
‘It will be easier to show you.’
the servant said.
Once again, the Third Man didn’t
see how he could refuse. But the servant would be with him – they’d have to let
the servant back into the palace when they returned, and he could go in at the
same time. So the Third Man stepped past the gates of the palace, and followed
the servant to the marketplace.
The marketplace was bustling. The
Third Man followed the servant through the dense crowd as they wound between
the stalls. He was almost starting to believe that there was some important matter for him to deal with, but for a moment he
looked the other way, and when he looked back, the servant was gone.
The Third Man immediately
realised what had happened, and pushed his way back through the crowd to try to
get back to the palace as soon as possible. But when he arrived at the
entrance, the gates were once again locked shut, and there was no-one on the
other side who could or would open them.
Like the First Man and the Second
Man, the Third Man told the People of the Capital everything that had happened.
They realised that not only would talking
about the elephant get you thrown out, but even looking at it – acknowledging it in any way.
So the People of the Capital sent
a Fourth Man to the palace. The Fourth Man did not mention the elephant at all,
nor did he stare at the elephant when he first walked into the menagerie. He
managed to stay in the menagerie for longer than the first three had – most of
the afternoon. But though he avoided staring
at the elephant, when its amaranth skin caught the edge of his vision, he
couldn’t help but steal a glance at it.
The Emperor’s other Ministers had
been watching him closely the entire afternoon, even after they had run out of
things to blather on about. They saw the Fourth Man look at the elephant for a
fraction of a second, so the Fourth Man was expelled too.
The Fifth Man that the People
sent in was the first one who managed to remain in the menagerie for a while.
He said nothing about the elephant and did not look at it even for a moment.
He went into the menagerie at
midday every day for a week, along with all of the Emperor’s other Ministers.
The first few hours of every afternoon were spent rambling on about things that
didn’t matter. Many of the Ministers would wander around the menagerie with one
of their friends – the menagerie had many winding gravel paths through it
(walled by emerald foliage, which prevented anything the Ministers whispered to
each other from being overheard by others in the glasshouse).
It was only towards the end of
each afternoon that any actual discussion of policy happened, and it was
usually very quick. The Ministers and the Barons were in complete agreement on
almost everything. The Emperor did not question any of the policies that were
proposed – in fact he didn’t say anything at all in the discussion – and he
gave assent to everything that the Ministers and the Barons decided upon. The
Fifth Man realised that it was not the Emperor that he needed to speak to, but
the Ministers and the Barons.
Over the days that he was there,
the Fifth Man tried to convince the other Ministers of the policies that the
People wanted. He tried to persuade them to support the rebuilding of bridges,
aqueducts, and sewers. He tried to persuade them to put some of the palace’s
great wealth towards building more houses, so that the people of the city would
not have to live in such cramped spaces. He tried to persuade them to end the
constant war and expansion – the empire was big enough as it was – any bigger
and it might fracture.
He went from group to group
within the menagerie, repeating the same arguments. The Ministers smiled and
nodded. They responded with things like ‘What an interesting idea.’, ‘I
couldn’t agree more.’, and ‘Oh yes, we must support the common people.’. But
when he asked if they could put the policy to the Emperor, they said ‘Let’s do
that tomorrow.’, or ‘This will fit well with a bill I’m writing for a few days’
time.’, or ‘Let’s talk to some more people about this.’.
But they never did. Every day
they would defer it. The reasons were slightly different each day, but the
effect was the same. Though the Ministers said
that they liked the Fifth Man’s policies, they would never allow them to be put
to the Emperor.
But while he was in the
menagerie, the Fifth Man also realised something else. You see, while he did
not look at the pink elephant, he
could still see it. When his eyes
were focused on something else, the pink elephant might be on the edge of his
vision, and he could turn his mind’s eye towards it. And of course, the
menagerie was made of glass – he could often see the elephant’s reflection in a
He knew what the elephant was
doing at any one time – they all did – all of the Ministers knew. They all
pretended not to, but everyone in the room knew
what the elephant was doing, and they all knew that everyone else knew. But
what the Fifth Man realised was that the pink elephant must have been costing
the empire a fortune to keep. It ate a great bowl of the most expensive foods
in the world every half hour for every hour it was awake. A team of eighty
servants had the task of preparing all of the elephant’s food and bringing it
to the elephant. Keeping the elephant cost more than all of the palace’s other
daily expenses combined! The elephant was part
of the problem! If they didn’t have to pay for the elephant, they would
have more money to spend on repairing and rebuilding the city.
After a week, getting nowhere
trying to persuade the other Ministers to put his policies to the Emperor, and
seeing just how ridiculous it was keeping this disgusting, useless elephant in
the menagerie, the Fifth Man snapped.
‘This is absurd!’ the Fifth Man
shouted so that all of the Ministers and Barons could hear. ‘All of you are
twattling on about things that don’t matter, and then passing legislation that
does nothing to solve the actual problems of the empire, all the while ignoring
that revolting elephant that is partially the cause of those problems! What are you doing?! What are you here
for?! Why do you keep ignoring the elephant in the room?!’
The Fifth Man was completely
right of course, but while he had understood the Ministers enough to be able to
get into the menagerie, and even stay there for a few days, he did not
understand them enough to realise that there was no point asking these
questions, because the Ministers would not answer them – they would never answer them. No amount of
rationality or rage would ever make
them answer these questions.
The Fifth Man was greeted with
gelid silence. All of the Ministers and Barons looked at the Fifth Man with
stony expressions, insulted that anyone would be so direct about the elephant.
The Fifth Man, looking around, realising that he had no power in the menagerie
anymore, did not need to be expelled by deceptive means – he left the palace
But of course, the problems of
the empire persisted, and the People of the Capital sent in a Sixth Man, then a
Seventh Man. The Sixth Man remained in the menagerie for several weeks, and the
Seventh Man for several months. Neither of them said a word about the elephant,
but as time went on, the two of them, and the People who put them there,
realised that it didn’t matter whether or not they mentioned the elephant. The
Ministers and the Barons simply didn’t want
to implement the policies they were suggesting. All of them were in agreement,
and anyone who did not agree with them would be removed – that way they kept
their control over the Emperor and the empire – that way they stayed in power.
And though they all did this – they all knew
that this was what they were doing – they never acknowledged it.
The Sixth Man and the Seventh Man
were eventually expelled too. The Eighth Man to go in tried a more radical
method of solving the empire’s problems. He took a pistol into the menagerie,
hidden in his coat. As soon as he saw the elephant, he took the pistol out, and
shot at it. But the bullet bounced off the elephant’s skin (who would have
known that in addition to being quinacridone the elephant’s skin was also
bullet-proof?), and instead struck one of the Barons in the arm. (The Baron
didn’t die – in fact he recovered remarkably quickly.) The Eighth Man was
swiftly removed and imprisoned for life.
And then … the Ninth Man went
in. By this point, most of the ordinary people in the empire knew about the
pink elephant, and many realised too that the elephant was part of the problem.
The Ninth Man had listened to everything his eight predecessors had said, and
he had an idea. He asked that the People of the Capital choose him to be the
next person to be sent to the palace, but he did not tell them what his idea
was, knowing that he would not need to.
And so the Ninth Man, when the
sun was high overhead, strode up to the glass doors of the menagerie, and went
inside. He did not mention or look at the elephant. The Emperor’s other
Ministers shuffled up to the Ninth Man, as they always did, and started talking
The Ninth Man said similarly dull
things back to them. He caught a glint in their eyes – they thought they’d got
one of their own this time.
And then after a few minutes of
meaningless words, the Ninth Man said ‘Oh, by the way, I have brought a gift
for the Emperor.’, and he signalled to one of the servants to bring it in.
The servant wheeled it in. It was
covered by a satin cloth. With a flourish, the Ninth Man pulled the satin cloth
off, revealing a large copper cage underneath it. And within the cage was a
magnificent … turquoise flamingo.
The flamingo was delightful. Its
plumage went from cyan to aquamarine to cerulean to teal. Its eyes were a
glimmering silver. And the bird had an aroma of blueberries and pears.
‘Oh what a marvellous animal!’
the Emperor’s other Ministers all sang together. They then looked for a space
for it within the menagerie; the Ninth Man directed them towards one of the
spaces on one of the paths that wound through the building.
And then the afternoon wore on as
it usually did. All of the Ministers spent several hours warbling and
twittering at each other, and at the end of the afternoon, they voted on some
legislation. The Ninth Man played along.
The Ninth Man stayed in the
menagerie for many months. He did not mention or look at the pink elephant,
even though he, like those before him, knew that it was a big problem. He
chattered and jabbered with the other Ministers, and they were not suspicious
of him. Everyone in the menagerie was overjoyed by the turquoise flamingo –
most of all the Emperor, who often came down from his malachite throne to stare
at the bird in its cage. Unlike the pink elephant, the turquoise flamingo was
cheap to keep – it ate the sorts of foods that flamingos normally eat: small
insects, molluscs, and crustaceans, and it didn’t eat all that much of them.
The flamingo was a far better centrepiece for the menagerie than the elephant.
After many months had passed, it
was time for the people of the empire to elect another Minister – well, two
actually. They did so, and two people showed up at the glass doors of the
menagerie. The Ministers – not including the Ninth Man – shuffled up to the two
newcomers, as they always did. They watched them eagerly for many hours, to see
if they would talk about the elephant or glance at it. Neither of them did –
clearly both of them knew that they
must not do so.
The two new Ministers walked
around the menagerie, talking to people and gazing at the other animals. And
then they came to the flamingo, which the Ninth Man always stood next to.
‘What a marvellous animal!’ the
older one said. ‘Where did it come from?’
‘Oh I found it atop Mount
Sarabaya.’ the Ninth Man said.
‘On top of a mountain?!’ the
older one asked.
‘Yes. I climbed the mountain in
an hour, found the bird standing at its summit, and then was back down again
Anyone who knew anything about
Mount Sarabaya knew that it could not be climbed in an hour – it normally took
at least two days to scale the icy peak, and the same time again to get back
‘That’s absurd!’ the older one
said. ‘No-one could climb Mount Sarabaya in an hour!’
The Ninth Man puffed himself up
and said proudly ‘I’ll have you know that I’ve won the Arennian Mountain
Climbing Championship seven years in a row! I am undefeated to this day!’
Believing he had insulted the
Ninth Man, the older of the two new Ministers stumbled over his words, saying
‘Oh … er … well, of course an ordinary
person could not climb the mountain in an hour, but I’m sure it’s quite easy
for a mountain climbing champion.’
‘Indeed it is!’
‘What are you talking about?!’
the younger one said. ‘It doesn’t matter how many championships you’ve won –
no-one can scale Mount Sarabaya that quickly – it’s more than five miles high!’
‘As the current Arennian Mountain
Climbing Champion I dare say I am the
expert on mountaineering in this menagerie, and it is absolutely possible!’ the Ninth Man insisted.
‘Mount Sarabaya Base Camp is ten
miles away from the summit! Unless you sprinted
up the mountain, it’s not possible.’ the younger one said.
The older one gawped as this
argument was happening – shocked that the younger one would dare suggest that
the Minister didn’t know what he was talking about or was lying.
But the Ninth Man had actually
succeeded in his aim. ‘Well perhaps you’re right.’ he said to the younger one.
‘It was so long ago – it’s all just a blur now. Perhaps it simply felt like an hour.’ and the conversation
moved on to other things.
Later in the afternoon, the Ninth
Man took one of the servants aside and whispered to him ‘The older of the two
new Ministers is a most talented person. I think we need to find ways to help
him use those talents.’
The servant understood, and a few
minutes later the older of the two new Ministers was expelled from the palace,
in the same way the First Man had been.
The younger of the two new
Ministers was allowed to stay. Both he and the Ninth Man did not talk about or
look at the pink elephant. They smiled and nodded along with the other
Ministers, and did not attempt to persuade them to support better policies, for
both of them knew that they never would.
A few months later, and another
two people were chosen by the public to become Ministers. They stepped into the
menagerie one day, and they successfully ignored the pink elephant. They soon
came over to the turquoise flamingo, where the Ninth Man stood.
‘What a marvellous animal!’ the
shorter one said. ‘How on earth did it acquire such a colour?’
‘I believe it is a rare species.
I saw a similarly-coloured flamboyance of flamingos when I was travelling
across the Manjure.’
‘There are flamingos in the
Manjure?!’ the shorter one asked.
‘Yes of course. Flamingos like
Anyone who knew anything about
the Manjure knew that it was in fact freezing cold there most of the year. It
was a vast, dense, boreal forest, interrupted only by icy streams and
‘What on earth are you talking
about?!’ the shorter one said. ‘The Manjure is freezing cold!’
The Ninth Man puffed himself up
and said proudly ‘I’ll have you know that I have travelled along the
Trans-Manjurean Railway no fewer than seven
times! I’m quite familiar with the Manjurean climate!’
Believing he had insulted the
Ninth Man, the shorter of the two new Ministers stumbled over his words, saying
‘Oh … well … I suppose you must be very familiar with the region then.’
‘You suppose correctly!’
‘That’s absurd!’ the taller one
said. ‘The Manjurean caribou is famous
for its thick fur. The Manjurean caribou would all die of heat exhaustion if
the Manjure were a tropical climate!’
‘I am good friends with the
leading expert in the climate and geography of the Manjure at the University of
Marcanne! I dare say that I’m more familiar with it than you!’ the Ninth Man
‘Being friends with an expert
does not make you an expert. Unless
the climate of the Manjure has changed drastically in the last few years, it
absolutely is not a hot region!’ the
taller one said.
The shorter one gawped as this
argument was happening – shocked that the taller one would dare suggest that
the Minister didn’t know what he was talking about or was lying.
But the Ninth Man had once again
succeeded in his aim. ‘You know what I think you might be right.’ he said to
the taller one. ‘I’m thinking of Bansoor – that’s where I saw those flamingos.
The service on the Bansoor Express is so awful I think I blocked it from my
memory.’ and the conversation moved on to other things.
Later in the afternoon, the Ninth
Man took one of the servants aside and whispered to him ‘The shorter of the two
new Ministers is a most talented person. I think we need to find ways to help
him use those talents.’
The servant understood, and a few
minutes later the shorter of the two new Ministers was expelled from the
palace. Now there were two Ministers in the menagerie who the Ninth Man had
allowed to stay. They and the Ninth Man played along with the faux concern of
the Emperor’s other Ministers.
And this was how it continued for
many months – years even. Whenever a new Minister entered the menagerie, first
the Cabal stalked them, to see if they would acknowledge the pink elephant, and
then the Ninth Man countered it. The Cabal believed that everyone in the
menagerie was part of the Cabal, since they expelled anyone who acknowledged
the pink elephant, but really the only people who stayed in the menagerie were
those who the Ninth Man did not expel.
Over time, more and more of the
court was on the side of the turquoise flamingo. They waited not just until
they could win any vote against the old Ministers and the Barons, but until
almost all of the old Ministers had been replaced – otherwise the supporters of
the pink elephant would realise that their strategy was no longer working, and would
And once this had happened, those
on the side of the turquoise flamingo started to put forward and vote for
policies that would benefit the people of the empire – much to the shock of the
They voted for bridges to be
rebuilt, for sewers to be maintained, and for houses to be built further apart
so that fires would not leap from one to another so easily. They voted to pay
for doctors to heal the diseased; they voted to nullify debts; they voted to
end the wars of expansion. They voted to remove the Barons from the menagerie,
and the people of the empire started to prosper once again.
And at the end of all of that,
they voted to release the pink elephant back to the wild. It was taken over the
sea and released into the humid forests of Bansoor.
But not just that – they also
released the turquoise flamingo, for now that there was no-one left in the
menagerie who would use the pink elephant for deceit, there was no need for the
turquoise flamingo. Those coming to the menagerie would no longer be expelled
for talking about the elephant in the room. They would only need the turquoise
flamingo again if the pink elephant were brought back.
The pigeons left the menagerie, and the sparrows returned. And every now and then, on a clear day, the people of the city could just about see, flying high in the sky … a turquoise flamingo.
Hundreds of thousands
of people lived in this city. But the people were divided into two groups: the
Many, and the Few.
For the Few, life in
this great city was wonderful, for the Few were very wealthy. They lived in
grand houses on the banks of the river that meandered through the city. Each
marble mansion was filled with drawing rooms and dining rooms and more than
forty bedrooms. Each grand hallway was filled with gold-framed oil paintings
and fine china vases. The baths were made of burnished bronze and the toilet
seats were solid silver. Every house had an outdoor pool, an indoor pool, and a
glasshouse. And the gardens stretched a hundred yards, all the way to the
river, with orange trees and lemon trees to sit beneath in summer.
The Few lived
lavishly. The mornings were spent dressing for lunch. At lunch they sat with
their true friends, eating chocolate cake and cream-filled pastries, gossiping
about who among the Few had the most money. The afternoons were spent dressing
for dinner, and every evening they sat with their fair-weather friends and
feasted on all manner of fowl, stuffed inside one another – a quail stuffed
inside a duck, stuffed inside a pheasant, stuffed inside a grouse, stuffed
inside a chicken, stuffed inside a goose, stuffed inside a turkey, all roasted
in lard with potatoes, parsnips, and pork sausages. They talked about the fate
and fortunes of the city, all the while trying to curry favour with the few of
the Few who held the most power and influence in the city. And at the end of
every evening, they shat out the feast from the day before, clogging the sewers
that took their shit to the river.
For the Many,
however, life in this great city was grim, for the Many were not wealthy. The
Many lived far from the river, on the higher ground. In this part of the city,
timber-framed houses overhung narrow cobblestone streets. The rooms of the
houses were small, with low ceilings. Twelve would live in a house built for
two. There were no sewers in this part of the city, so shit sloshed down the
streets, and the Many had to step over the brown rivers as they pushed past
The Many lived
meagrely. They woke up early, and worked for twelve, thirteen, fourteen hours
of the day, in factories making cotton or iron. The work was repetitive and the
air was filled with coal smoke. They were given no time to rest, and if someone
did not produce enough in one day, the factory owner – who was often one of the
Few – found someone to replace them. They were paid little, and if they were
lucky, at the end of each day they had enough money to buy fresh bread and
vegetables, but if they were unlucky they would have to catch rats and pigeons.
The death rate among
the Many was high. Those who did not die of starvation died of disease. Those
who did not die of disease were killed in the factories. And those who were not
killed in the factories killed themselves. The death brought more disease and
despair, and always more young people flooded into the city from the
countryside, believing it would be a better life.
It had been this way
in the city for many years. No-one could remember a time when it wasn’t so.
Indeed many believed that it had always been so – since the beginning of time
itself. (But in reality it had only been this way for a few decades.)
Everyone in the city
knew the myth of the Magic Money Tree. It was said that far away, deep in the
icy mountains north of the city, there grew a tree … with leaves of pure
gold. And the tree did not drop its leaves once a year, as most trees do, but every day, and each morning new golden
leaves grew. The leaves that covered the ground could be gathered and melted down
to make gold bars or coins.
If the tree were
real, and the Many knew where it was, many of their problems would be solved.
The Many could journey to the tree, gather up some of its golden leaves, melt
them down into coins, and then when they were back in the city they could pay
for more spacious houses, better food, and better clothes. They may even be
able to buy many of the luxuries that the Few had. Sure, after a while, gold
would be very common, and the Few would not have so much of it by comparison,
but it would mean that a happy life was not so immutably the domain of so few.
But everyone (almost
everyone) agreed that the tree did not exist. It was fiction. You might go into
the mountains in search of the tree, but you would find nothing. There was no
Magic Money Tree.
Except that … there
The tree … was real! The Magic Money Tree did exist! Its golden leaves, its copper
bark, the sapphires and rubies that grew like fungi among its roots – it was all real …
… and the Few knew
where it was.
But the Few did not
want anyone else to know where the tree was, because they too realised that if
the Many were given access to the tree, the Many would become wealthier, and
the Few would become less wealthy by comparison. The Few did not want to lose
their lavish lifestyle, and so did not want the Many to have access to the
But if the Few
acknowledged that the tree existed, and kept only its location to themselves,
the Many might still be able to find it. A small number of them might venture
into the mountains, and, given enough time, they would find the Magic Money
Tree. So rather than just keep the location
of the tree a secret, they also tried to keep its existence a secret. They pretended that it did not exist. Whenever
anyone who was not one of the Few asked whether the tree was real, they would
say loudly ‘Don’t be ridiculous! There is no Magic Money Tree!’. But in the
evenings, when they were among the Few, they all acknowledged the tree’s
existence, and shared the location of it with each other.
While most of the
Many believed that the tree did not exist, there were some who knew that it
did. This was partly because the Few’s deception was conspicuous – they were so
fervent in their dismissal of the idea that the tree existed that it was
suspicious. But it was also because they were somewhat careless in keeping
their secret – lavishness and meticulousness are rarely found in the same
person, it seems. Some of the Many worked for the Few in their mansions – as
servants and cooks – and often did they hear the Few, through doors both open
and closed, talk about the very real tree. This information found its way to
those among the Many who were more vocal about the great wealth disparity in
These more vocal
people tried to convince the rest of the Many that the tree was real, and that
the Few knew it. They tried to convince them that the Few were deceiving them,
because if the Many found where the tree was, the Few would not remain so
wealthy for very long. But as loud as they shouted, the Few shouted louder, and
indeed the Few paid some of the Many to shout for them. And ultimately it was
the intuitiveness, not the veracity, of what the Few said that swayed so many
of the Many. ‘Don’t be ridiculous!’ they said. ‘Have you ever seen a tree with golden leaves and
copper bark? Money doesn’t grow on trees, you know!’
Except that … it
One year, there was a
great flood. It had rained continuously for two weeks, and the river through
the centre of this great city overflowed its banks. The Many were hardly
affected by this at all. They lived on the higher ground far away from the
river – the water did not reach their houses. The Few, however, lost a lot. All
of their houses lined the river, and all were flooded. The water rose half-way
up the ground floor, turning all of their oil paintings to brown sludge, and
warping all of their antique wooden furniture. The cellars and glasshouses,
pools and gardens, were all turned into bogs.
The cost to repair it
all would have been enormous. While most of the Few had enough money to pay for
all of the repairs to their houses and gardens, it would have been a
substantial fraction of their total wealth. And the Few were reluctant to give
up so much money.
But as the Few knew
the location of the Magic Money Tree, they decided that, rather than spend any
of their current wealth on the repairs, they would simply go to the golden
tree, gather the golden leaves on the ground around it, melt them into gold
coins, and spend those on the repairs.
And that’s exactly
what they did. A small number of the Few made an expedition to the mountains.
They found the Magic Money Tree, which grew in a shallow between two great
summits, its golden leaves and copper bark reflecting the light in a thousand
directions down the valley. They gathered the leaves on the ground, cut away
some of the bark, and dug in the soil around the roots to find the rubies and
sapphires. Once they had filled the sleds, they hauled their riches back to the
When they got back to
the city, they melted down the gold and minted hundreds of thousands of new
gold coins. They paid a select few artisan stonemasons, decorators, and
gardeners to repair their houses and their gardens, and any money that was left
over they kept.
The Many saw all of
this. Most did not see the sleds being dragged into the city, for they were
brought in under cover of darkness, but they saw all of the repairs being made
to the houses and gardens, and they saw all of the rubies and sapphires that
were given out as payment. But they did not question it. They did not question
where the riches came from.
Those among the Many
who knew that the tree existed shouted that that’s where the Few had gotten the
money from. ‘They have gotten all of this money from the Magic Money Tree!’ they
said. ‘The tree is real – the Few know where it is! But why should they be the only ones who have access to
the tree? Why are their problems
important enough such that they can use the money from the tree, but ours are
not? We have starved for years; we have died for years; and throughout all of
it they refused to use the tree, and pretended it did not exist! But at the
first inconvenience to them, they will use the tree.’
But most of the Many
did not believe it, for they were so rooted in the idea that money did not grow
on trees, that even though they could not explain where all of this new gold
had come from, they refused to even consider the possibility that the tree
might exist, and that the Few simply didn’t want them to know about it.
Twelve years later,
there was a great fire. The fire ravaged the city, burning both the areas where
the Many lived and where the Few lived. Much of the city burned to the ground,
and many people died.
Fortunately, a lot of
people had managed to leave the city before the fire had reached their houses.
They moved to the countryside around the city. For many, life improved – the
air was less stale, there was less disease, and everyone had more space.
The fire burned
through everything it could, and by the time it had burned itself out, not much
was left of the city but smouldering ashes.
The Few, who were now
living in their country mansions, discussed what they wanted to do about this.
While a number of the Few had inherited their wealth, a lot also had owned
factories and machinery that had been destroyed by the fire, and they were dependent
on the profits from those factories to maintain their extraordinary wealth. (It
cost a lot of money to eat a seven-bird roast every evening.) They wanted to
rebuild the city, and bring all of the people back to it – give them factories
to work in and houses to live in – so that they could continue to get the profits
from what they produced.
But rebuilding the
city would cost even more than it did to repair all of their houses as they did
many years ago. This time, the Few absolutely did not have the money to pay for
it all themselves, and the scale of the disaster was far bigger than what it
had been before, so it was easy for the Few to decide: they would once again
use the Magic Money Tree.
They made another
expedition to the tree, taking far more sleds this time. This time they
gathered every leaf in sight, even grabbing the ones off the tree that had not
yet fallen that day. They cut away more of the bark, and picked up all of the
branches that had fallen over the last few months. They burrowed for more
rubies and sapphires, and they even picked the fruit of the tree, which was
shaped like a pear, but which was silvery-green in colour, and which instead of
seeds at the centre had small pearls. (It was also said that eating the fruit
would give you an extra eight years of life.)
They brought all of
it back to the city, and they paid for all of the factories and houses to be
rebuilt. This lured the Many back to the city – they moved into newer, but
still just as small, houses, and began working in factories again, though the
work was still repetitive, and the coal furnaces blasted out just as much
But still, even
though the Many themselves were the ones that the Few paid to rebuild the houses and the factories – even though they had
been given the gold and rubies and sapphires from the tree – they had held it
in their hands – they still did not believe that the tree existed.
‘Where do you think
they got the money from?!’ those among the Many who did know that the tree existed said. ‘They didn’t have all of this
money before – where do you think it came from?! They went to the tree again!’
ridiculous!’ the Few shouted. ‘Money doesn’t grow on trees, you know!’
‘Yes, don’t be
ridiculous!’ the rest of the Many parroted. ‘Money doesn’t grow on trees, you
‘There is no Magic
Money Tree.’ they chorused together.
And nothing changed.
Within a few years, the city had returned to how it had been before the fire.
The Few still held control over the tree. Only when it was in their interest
did they harvest its leaves, but always did they pretend that it did not exist.
And never did the Many learn, that sometimes, when someone doesn’t want you to
do something, rather than try to persuade
you not to do it, they will try to deny that it is even physically possible.
In my reviews of Star Trek Picard, I’ve started using the term ‘dramatic dissonance’ to describe something that we’re seeing on-screen. This particular phenomenon or quality may already have a term to describe it – if it does, I don’t know what it is, so for now I’m going to use ‘dramatic dissonance’ (to mimic the phrase ‘dramatic irony’). And while I’ve started using this term in my Star Trek Picard reviews, it’s something I’ve seen in lots of other shows too – like Star Trek Discovery and recent Doctor Who – so I thought I’d write a blog post about it in order to define it more clearly.
Dramatic dissonance is when the reactions of the characters
to each other, or to the events of the story, are different to the audience’s
reaction to the characters or to the events of the story.
Here’s an example of this: one character says something, and
several other characters around them consider it a very awkward thing to say,
or a faux pas, but the audiencedoesn’t think that it’s an awkward thing
Here’s another: one character does something (it could be
anything), and all of the characters around them think that this character is a
genius for doing it, but the audience isn’t impressed by it at all.
This second example is one we’ve seen a lot in both Star
Trek Picard and Star Trek Discovery – in fact this second example is often a
way of determining whether a character is a Mary Sue. (Other characters will
just think that they’re brilliant no matter what they do.)
Dramatic dissonance is a bad quality for a show to have. It
is, by its very definition, unrealistic, and if a show has it, the audience
will sense something is amiss, even if they can’t quite put it into words. The
audience can sense it because things in the show don’t seem to make sense.
I’m not sure I could exactly say what the origins of
dramatic dissonance in a show actually are, but I don’t think it’s an acting
problem – I think it comes from the writing. It may come from writers thinking
too much about ‘How do I want this
character to react?’ rather than ‘How would
I’ve just published a new short story on my website, titled Magnathor the Forgetful. You can read it here.
This story is the first in a series of short stories called
On The Subject Of Dragons, a spin-off series of On The Subject Of Trolls.
I’ve mentioned before in videos that I had plans for two
spin-off series’ of On The Subject Of Trolls. This is one of them. (The other
one has a title, which I won’t reveal yet, but it is highly guessable.) I’d
normally make a video to announce a new series like this, but I find making
videos rather tedious these days.
The stories in On The Subject Of Dragons will be a bit
different to those in On The Subject Of Trolls. They will probably all be
shorter, and they are lighter – unlike the trolls stories, they are not trying
to depict an extremely unpleasant phenomenon on the internet (though they are
still metaphorical). Because of this, I’ve decided that I’m going to release
them one at a time on my website, rather than waiting to have lots of them and
putting them in a book. (They’re so short, and I plan to do them so
infrequently, that it’ll take a long time for me to have enough to make a book
out of them.) Once I’ve got enough for an OTSOT-length book, I will put them
into a book, which will of course just be called On The Subject Of Dragons.
I decided to do this project quite spontaneously this morning. The idea’s been floating around in my head for a few days or so. I’m normally quite reluctant to start new projects of this kind nowadays – I have a lot of projects – too many, really – and each new project takes time away from the others. However, this project is quite valuable for the world-building for On The Subject Of Trolls, and it is relatively simple to do, so I decided to start it.
Amazingly, I’ve managed to get it to a ‘finished’ state in just a few hours. Now, when I say ‘finished’ here, I don’t necessarily mean absolutely complete in all ways. I find it useful to distinguish between different kinds of ‘finished’. A part of this project is actually researching and writing out the etymology for all or lots of British place names. (I may not do absolutely all British place names – I may only do a few hundred or a few thousand in total.) This is something that is very difficult to do all in one go – this is something that’s better to do gradually over time, so I don’t include this in what I mean by ‘finished’. Similarly, with any web-app, there are often hundreds of features that you could program into it – I don’t include these in ‘finished’ either. With projects like this, I generally consider them finished when I have something that I can put online, that works (even if it only has a limited number of features), that looks polished, and that contains well-formed data (even if it’s only a small amount of data). In the case of this project, I have managed to create 11 data files for place names, create the compiler (which takes those data files and outputs a JSON file that the web-app effectively uses as its database), and create a polished front-end.
So the web-app is now online and available. It describes the etymology of various British place names. In future you will be able to search for place names that have a particular suffix or that have a particular element in them. There are other fun features that it could have too – like rendering a map of Britain using the names that places had in a given century. It only contains a few entries so far, but I will add to that over time.
This is a very fun project to do. I have liked etymology for a long time – I can’t remember when it was that I started looking things up on etymonline.com several times a day – probably about seven or eight years ago – but it has been a fascination of mine for a long time. Place names is an area of etymology that is somewhat lacking online – it’s fun being able to create something new that’s useful.
As with the last two posts, this post isn’t going to be
about meticulously analysing this film in order to explain why different things
work or don’t work – it’s just going to be about making observations.
I think this is a lot of people’s favourite film out of the
six. I think this is the most variable out of the original three – there are some
moments that I really like, and some that I really don’t like.
I like a lot of the world design in the opening sequence.
Jabba the Hutt being a giant slug was of course a change from the first film,
and I think it was an excellent change. Jabba is delightfully disgusting, and
even though he’s just made of rubber, they manage to add a lot of expression to
his movements. I also like the fact that, when they’re on the leisure barge by
the Sarlacc pit (the Sarlacc is another great bit of world design), and chaos
erupts, at the first opportunity Leia strangles Jabba with the chain she was
restrained by. She doesn’t wait to take action – she sees an opportunity and
The Mon Calamari are also good world design – a very unusual-looking
alien, but again, they manage to make the Mon Calamari very expressive. (This
was something I really liked about Rogue One too, where I assume all of the Mon
Calamari were pure CGI. They really managed to make the Mon Calamari expressive
in that film, which just shows what you can do even when limited by a
non-humanoid face.) Though it is funny that ‘Mon Calamari’ is literally ‘my
squid’ in French.
I think one of the real stand-out aspects of this film is the
Emperor. We learn early in the film that the Emperor is coming to the new Death
Star, and the general nervousness that the other characters have about this
builds the air of power around the Emperor, and builds the tension. Later in
the film, of course, we get the first scenes with the Emperor. I like
the fact that he appears as this old, cloaked man. The fact that he does not
try to show how powerful he is through his appearance makes us realise that he must
be very powerful. It also makes it look as though he has been around for
ages – that he is this immovable, mystical being who has dominated the galaxy for
millennia. (Of course, we know that it’s only been a few decades – the point is
the aesthetic shows a kind of permanence.)
Ian McDiarmid is of course brilliant as the Emperor – as he
was (or by the point of view of when this film was made, will be) in the prequels.
Every line he delivers is excellent. I’m very glad that he was able to be in
both sets of films, as it makes for great continuity.
As for the things that I don’t like about this film, one of
them is the speeder chase through the forest. The whole thing feels like
filler. It goes on for a long time, and the entire time, we don’t really get a
sense of where the Stormtroopers are actually trying to go. They never seem to
escape the forest, and they change direction so many times that they must have
gone in a circle by the end. This is also a world where they have long-distance
telecommunication – I’m not sure why they needed to jump on speeders and go and
tell someone in person. The whole thing seems unnecessary, and I don’t think it
really adds anything to the film.
I also dislike the Ewoks. I’m sort of amazed that there aren’t
more people who dislike them. A lot of people can’t stand Jar Jar Binks, and
yet I think the Ewoks are far more annoying. A lot of people dislike the
obvious merchandising of Star Wars too (I myself don’t mind it too much), and
the Ewoks are an entire merchandise species. A LOT of time in this film is
spent with the Ewoks, and I think the only thing I like about it is C-3PO’s
interaction with them, being ordered to pretend he’s a deity.
All of the Star Wars films have missing or wrong character
reactions – the prequels have more of them, but the originals have them too. In
this film, I think Leia’s reaction to finding out Vader is her father is not
strong enough. Leia was a member of the senate for years, and Vader was her
enemy throughout. Vader imprisoned and tortured Leia. I’d’ve thought after all
of that, her reaction to finding out he was her father would be a lot stronger.
The way they talk about good and evil at the end of the film
– in the scene between Luke, Vader, and the Emperor – is quite daft and
un-thought-out. It seems to boil down to ‘being angry is evil’ – which is a
rather stupid notion. Discussion around good and evil was actually something
that the prequels were far better at.
And finally the reveal of Vader’s face at the end was
perfect – a mystery set up with A New Hope, now finally revealed. It is only
once Vader is redeemed by finally destroying the Sith that he has become human
again. The way these films did the masked character trope should be thought of
as the template for all other films that try to do this trope. (The Disney
films tried to do a similar trope, but to minimal effect, because Kylo Ren
takes off his mask in the first film.)
So this film probably had more things in it that I dislike
than the previous two films did, but it still had plenty that I liked. All of
the films in this series have their flaws – none are perfect – indeed, a lot of
them have the same flaws. Missing or wrong reaction shots and stilted dialogue
exist in all of the films. I’m not sure which film I like the best – I like all
of them pretty much to the same degree. I think it would be a great series to
remake one day – perhaps as a long-form television series – a lot of detail and
continuity could be added to the story through doing that. But I don’t think
that could be done by Disney – they have shown themselves to be completely
incapable of managing the franchise – I don’t think they could remake the six
Star Wars films without making the same kinds of mistakes as they did with
their attempts at making sequels.
On to Episode V – widely regarded as the best Star Wars
film. Once again, the aim of this post is not to examine every facet of the
story, and explain why it works – the aim is just to make some observations.
Firstly: world-building (probably my favourite aspect of
fiction). The world-building in this film is excellent. This is something that
I’ve said of every film so far in these reviews – and one of the things that
I’m re-realising through doing these reviews – the world-building in George
Lucas’ Star Wars is extraordinary. The real stand-out in this film is Cloud
City – what an extraordinary environment – a city that floats in the atmosphere
of a gas giant. It’s completely unlike anything we saw in Episode IV. It’s
amazing that we don’t see this sort of environment more in science fiction.
Hoth is also an example of good world-building. That
particular climate hadn’t been used in the previous film; we saw two unique
species that live on the planet (the tauntauns and the wampa – and they weren’t
just background filler or accessories – they were actually involved in the
plot); we also saw several new pieces of technology used while on the planet –
notably the ATATs and the ion cannon.
Han, Chewbacca, and Leia’s storyline in this film is an
excellent example of realism and how to build tension. At the start of the
film, Han and Chewbacca are trying to repair the Millennium Falcon. We see many
shots of this and we get the sense that it is complex and takes a long time.
This is realism. In the Disney films, when the Falcon gets damaged, repairing
it doesn’t seem to be a difficult thing (which means that it getting
damaged at all doesn’t add to the tension – it’ll just be repaired quite easily
and quickly). Indeed, in this film, a big part of Han, Chewbacca, and Leia’s
storyline revolves around trying to fix the Falcon’s hyperdrive, and trying to
escape the Empire without being able to jump to hyperspace.
Vader gets tonnes of great stuff in this film. Even the
details are great. I love the way we get a glimpse of what Vader looks like
under the helmet – just a fraction of a second as his helmet is being put on.
The first film sets up the mystery of what he looks like under the helmet, and
this film gives us a glimpse, but no more. I also really like how Vader tells
the admiral to take the ship out of the asteroid field so that they can send a
clear signal to the emperor. This tells us that Vader doesn’t want to annoy the
emperor – he doesn’t want the emperor to see any imperfection – he wants to
show deference. This is a great way of signalling that the emperor is at the
top of the hierarchy.
Also, Vader altering the deal with Lando Calrissian several
times shows how the empire is used to getting its way – even when they make an
agreement, they don’t have to keep it – they can just do what they want, and
whoever they made the agreement with just has to go along with it. This is a
great way of showing the power of the empire.
Everything with Yoda in this film is fantastic. The puppetry
by Frank Oz is just outstanding – every time I watch this film I am amazed by
just how much expression it is possible to put into the movement of the puppet.
Despite it quite obviously being a puppet, it doesn’t break the illusion
of the film. (This is quite amazing considering that in the Disney films,
sometimes very detailed CGI does break the illusion.)
The opening sequence with Yoda I think is my favourite of
the scenes we get with Yoda. That particular kind of whimsy – being willing to
make himself look daft, quite the opposite of what a Jedi master is supposed to
look like, in order to test Luke – is not something we seem to get from any of
the other films.
Just like with the previous four films, some of the dialogue
in this film is a bit strange. The entire conversation between Han and Lando
when Han, Chewbacca, and Leia first land on Cloud City is very odd. The whole
thing is stilted – as though when they were filming it, they didn’t have the
other actor say their lines when one actor was doing their takes.
The interaction between Han and Leia is weird for a lot of
this film too. A lot of their dialogue is quite cheesy – to some extent that’s
fine – it was the eighties – they didn’t intonate words with as much precision
back then. But also, Han is quite creepy in the first part of the film. Leia
makes it very clear, multiple times, that she’s not interested in him, but he
keeps leering over her. They get together in the end, of course, which makes it
seem like Han was right to persist, but several times Leia makes it incredibly
clear that she’s not interested in him – in a way that seems not at all
There is also one plot oddity that I was reminded about on
this rewatch. Before Luke goes to Cloud City to try to rescue the others,
Obi-wan and Yoda tell Luke that it’s a trap. This doesn’t seem to change
Luke’s plan, nor does it change his mind about whether to go to Cloud City at
all. This strikes me as odd – if I were told that something were a trap, I
would very quickly change my mind about what I wanted to do. We see a similar
problem to this in Episode III – when Anakin and Obi-wan get into Grievous’
ship over Coruscant, they realise that they’ve walked into a trap, but this
does not change what they plan to do – they just decide to spring the trap. I
dislike this in stories – when characters realise that something’s a trap, but
it doesn’t change what they intend to do.
And finally another small detail I like is Admiral Ozzel
taking the fleet out of hyperspace too close to the Hoth system. This allows
the rebels to raise their energy shield in time. I like this because it hints
that perhaps Ozzel was secretly on the side of the rebels. Perhaps he was
deliberately doing things in such a way that gave the rebels the advantage in
battles. This is supported by Vader saying ‘You have failed me for the last
time, Admiral.’ – Ozzel has failed many times before, perhaps because he is
trying to help the rebels. (Of course, he could instead just be incompetent.)
And that’s it for this film. I never got the Big Reveal
moment (‘I am your father.’) when I first watched this film, because when I
first watched this film I must have been twelve or something, and had seen
various fragments of the Star Wars films out of order already. But this is an
excellent film overall, with great world-building, some great character
moments, and great details.
On to the originals. My posts about these films aren’t
really going to be reviews, so much. Almost everyone already agrees that these
are good films, so there’s no need for me to go through them and point out the
good things in them. Instead, in these posts, I’m just going to make some
observations about the films, and point out that some of the things that the
prequels are criticised for also exist in the originals, but a lot of people
are much more forgiving of them.
Watching the films in the order that is chronological for the internal universe really highlights that the original Star Wars films were very simple films. The prequels are a lot busier by comparison – a lot more happens in them, over far greater scales, and it happens a lot faster. In fact I think the complexity of the prequels is part of the reason why a lot of people don’t like them (not that I ever really hear anyone say that), whereas the simplicity of the originals is partly why they are so successful. The originals don’t try to do too much – why, in Episode V, Han, Chewbacca, and Leia spend most of their time just trying to avoid capture. In this way the originals are also unlike the main Disney films. Those films are also very busy – it seems to be a very common thing with modern Hollywood films – they don’t like to have a scene with just two characters talking or trying to solve a problem – they like to have five characters all talking to each other while trying to solve one problem while walking to another location where there’s another problem.
An example of the simplicity of this film is right at the start. When C-3PO and R2-D2 land on Tatooine in their escape pod, they land in the middle of nowhere. This is very likely, given that Tatooine is mostly desert. Their first objective is to find their way out of the desert. Even this goes wrong, and they end up being captured by the Jawas. They do eventually find Luke and get to Obi-wan, but all of this takes quite a bit of screen time. If this were a Disney film, I expect the droids would land right outside wherever it is that Obi-wan lives.
In the original films, C-3PO and R2-D2 get a lot more to do, and are a lot more interesting. They don’t get as much to do in the prequels – partly because those films are just so busy – and they are merely accessories in the Disney films. The banter between them is much better in the originals – it’s great that R2-D2 plays the fool in order to get his way, and that we can tell that simply from what he does and what C-3PO says.
Peter Cushing is just amazing. He has such extraordinary presence. Just from the way he walks into the room in his first scene, you can tell that he’s in charge – the way he walks is brisk, confident, and assured, but not arrogant – which is what you would expect from someone near to the top of the empire, and who has a lot of power and authority. Despite there being other people playing similar parts in Star Wars films since then, no-one has managed to equal that portrayal – no-one else has had that presence.
Even though it was actually different in the original version of A New Hope, when it came out in cinemas, I really like the concept of Jabba the Hutt. I really like the idea of giant slugs being the mobsters of the universe. This shows the raw creativity that went into the original Star Wars films. Again, if this were a Disney film, Jabba the Hutt would probably have been humanoid. The Disney films seemed to be very against having any characters that deviated much from humans.
As with the prequels, there are some bad reaction shots in this film. In fact there’s one particularly egregious example, and that’s Luke’s reaction to seeing his aunt and uncle incinerated. This reaction is nowhere near strong enough. This reaction is so underplayed that the first two or three times that I watched this film (many years ago now – back when I was about twelve or something), I didn’t even realise that those skeletons were his aunt and uncle. I just thought that they were two other random people who happened to be in the area – precisely because Luke’s reaction isn’t very strong. Luke is looking at the bloody skeletons of his aunt and uncle, and his reaction is to just slowly look away. It’s not strong enough.
There are also several bad lines in this film. The dialogue between Luke and Han when Luke tries to convince Han to rescue Leia is a bit unrealistic. And the dialogue between Luke and Biggs is – I dislike the word ‘cheesy’, but that’s the only word that really describes it. The performance of that dialogue is amateurish. It’s bad in the same way that some of the dialogue in the prequels is bad.
They convey the sense of scale in this film very well. This is something I’m very interested in with films that have very large objects or environments in them. In this film, the Death Star genuinely feels big. This is something that they failed to do in The Force Awakens – in that film, Starkiller Base did not come across as something planet-sized. Conveying scale well is all about physics. Large objects in large environments work differently to everyday-sized objects. Another example of a film that failed to convey scale well was Jupiter Ascending. In that film, ships go in and out of Jupiter’s Red Eye storm. The ships are shown as being comparable in size to the storm itself, but in reality, the Eye of Jupiter is 1.3 times the width of planet Earth – far bigger than the ships.
Part of how the scale of the Death Star is conveyed is the final battle of the film. The final battle has a lot of screen time, and we see a lot of the surface of the Death Star in it. This close, the surface of the Death Star appears flat. This is what shows its scale – we’ve seen that the Death Star appears spherical from afar, but when you get close to it, it’s so big that you can’t tell at all – and we see lots of positions in between these two extremes throughout the film.
This final battle also shows the simplicity of the film – which is part of its success. The rebels make multiple attempts to blow up the Death Star, and several of them fail. This raises the tension. As the battle goes on, fewer and fewer ships remain to make the attempt, and the more times they fail, the harder we understand it to be. The fact that the film takes its time in this battle is what makes it successful.
And finally, my favourite scene in this film is the final one – for one reason: the music. The music in the final scene is just fantastic. Of course, this film being the first Star Wars film, it gets the credit for all of the main music in the series, but I particularly like the music in that final scene. It’s not just triumphant, but a true finale.
So this film is good, but not without its flaws. Its main success over the prequels comes from it giving enough time for the various scenes and sequences – it doesn’t rush anything. In terms of raw creativity, world-building, performances, music – this film and any of the prequels are roughly equal, I think.
So, Episode III. I get the sense that this is the prequel
film that people like the most. It does have a great many excellent moments –
particularly after the half-way point, where Anakin becomes Darth Vader. I like
almost everything in the second half of this film.
As with the review for the previous film, in this review I’m going to have to go through the events of the film in mostly-chronological order. (I would prefer to split the review by the different aspects of filmmaking, but that’s not really possible with this film.) A lot happens in this film, and a lot of the scenes we see build very rapidly on previous scenes.
The opening sequence is excellent. Such a complex, low-altitude space battle is not something we’ve seen before in this series. And George Lucas putting it over Coruscant leads to many interesting questions – if anything of sufficient size falls to the ground, it will cause A LOT of destruction – there’s nothing but city down there – anything that falls WILL kill a lot of people. Since Palpatine is ultimately orchestrating this entire war, and could stop it at any moment, it shows how little regard he has for the people of the soon-to-be empire.
The buzz droids are also not something we’ve seen before. They are an interesting new weapon, and an example of good world-building. In a universe with droids as clever and common as R2-D2, buzz droids would definitely exist.
We even get some good character moments in the opening sequence. Anakin’s determination to save Obi-wan from the buzz droids makes the ending to this film all the more tragic. But then despite Anakin saving Obi-wan, Obi-wan still berates Anakin – as he did throughout the last film – that Grievous’ ship’s shields are still up.
Ian McDiarmid and Christopher Lee are brilliant as always. If this film were released today, I’m sure the way McDiarmid plays Palpatine would be described as over-the-top, cartoonish – or even slightly flamboyant. There is a trend at the moment for gritty villains. But McDiarmid playing the character in this way is what makes it enjoyable – the character isn’t supposed to be some pretentious mIrRoR tO tHe AuDiEnCe – he’s supposed to be the embodiment of pure evil – someone who is devious and cunning – and McDiarmid plays that perfectly.
Like with the last two films, there are some odd lines of dialogue in this film. Some very noticeable examples are in the conversation between Anakin and Obi-wan after they have gotten the chancellor back, and just before Obi-wan goes back to the temple. This entire conversation is a bit off – the whole thing sounds like two actors acting rather than two people who are actually friends talking to each other. Once again, I think this is a writing problem – the lines just haven’t been written in a very natural way.
We then get many scenes that are great setup for Anakin’s fall. Anakin starts getting visions of Padmé’s death and he goes to Yoda for advice. (As a side note, I really like that Anakin can go to Grandmaster Yoda – this again shows how Yoda is not just the leader of a martial order, but a spiritual one too – he has to be involved as much in the moral training of the Jedi as the day-to-day running of a martial school.) The advice that Yoda gives Anakin is ‘Train yourself to let go.’.
This is the worst possible advice to give Anakin at this moment – he is never going to follow that advice. This shows how even if the Jedi’s teachings are correct, they did not adjust how they taught them for Anakin – who of course, was older than most people are when they join the Jedi Order – they knew he had already formed attachments – they needed to adjust his training based on that. And here, Yoda doesn’t know the exact details of Anakin’s situation, of course, but as soon as a Jedi as powerful as Anakin – and the Chosen One – came to him talking about fearing someone’s death, Yoda should have inquired more. This should have been a red flag for Yoda.
Anakin keeps getting bad
instruction and bad advice from the Jedi Order – Obi-wan constantly berates
him, and now when he goes to Yoda he doesn’t get the right advice. They are not
good mentors for Anakin.
At the same time, Anakin sees Palpatine as an excellent mentor – his true mentor. There are several scenes in the previous film and this one that show that Palpatine has befriended Anakin over the time he’s been on Coruscant. (In truth, these scenes have told us this rather than shown it – through off-hand lines of dialogue. Seeing Palpatine befriend Anakin should probably have been a more major component of these films, given how important it is – it could certainly have replaced some of the overly-long action sequences – but I’m not sure it could ever have been given enough time given that this is just three films – this is perhaps another reason why the story of the prequels might be better told through a long-form television series than a film series, but at the time the prequels were made, such series’ were less common.)
Palpatine often compliments Anakin. In the previous film, Palpatine tells Anakin ‘You are the most gifted Jedi I have ever met.’. Later in this film, he says that Anakin is the obvious choice to be the one to hunt down General Grievous, and at around this point in the film he tells Anakin that he is appointing him to be his personal representative on the Jedi Council. Anakin immediately assumes that this means he will be a Jedi Master, and from his reaction it is apparent that he has always wanted this (and probably believes that he already should be one). For the entire time that Anakin has been training to be a Jedi, he has been told that he is the Chosen One – he is expected to be a great Jedi, and he has always wanted to meet that expectation. After years of feeling like Obi-wan has been holding him back, it is now Palpatine who allows him to progress. Anakin keeps receiving good sentiments from Palpatine, and now Palpatine is giving him the opportunity to do something he’s always wanted to do – Anakin sees Palpatine as a good mentor. This is all excellent setup for Anakin’s fall.
The Jedi give Anakin a seat on the Council, but they do not grant him the rank of master. Anakin is angered by this. He sees it as unfair, and as the Council deliberately holding him back. This adds to Anakin seeing the Jedi Council as being in opposition to him (something which started when Anakin first met the Jedi Council in Episode I – they did not want him to be trained as a Jedi – his first impression of the Jedi Council was as something that would get in the way of what he wants to be and do).
Then the Council asks Anakin to report on what the chancellor is up to. Anakin strongly dislikes this – it goes against the Jedi Code – it goes against what he has been taught that it means to be a good Jedi. Anakin first being denied the rank of master and then being asked to spy on Palpatine are more excellent setup for Anakin’s fall. First he is prevented from being the great Jedi he wants and is expected to be, and then he is asked to do something that a great Jedi would never do. It puts Anakin in direct conflict with the Council, and he realises that they are not the moral paragons that he has been taught that they are (which leads into the later line of ‘From my point of view the Jedi are evil.’). The Jedi Council asking him off-record to do this makes it worse – they are being secretive and deceptive – qualities that are associated with the Sith. The line from Obi-wan at the end of the scene ‘The Council is asking you.’ is the perfect line to end on – this makes it clear to Anakin that it is the Jedi Council – and thus the institution of the Jedi – that is the problem.
This scene also shows Anakin’s naïveté when it comes to politics. Palpatine putting Anakin on the Jedi Council was him trying to get Anakin to spy on the Council for him, but Anakin didn’t see it that way, because it wasn’t put that way (and because Anakin was blinded by ambition). Anakin should have disliked the idea of reporting on what the Council was doing to Palpatine as much as the idea of reporting on what Palpatine was doing to the Council, but he didn’t, because he couldn’t see what Palpatine was up to.
All of this is a master stroke of writing. We see how the
Jedi are not good mentors to Anakin, while Anakin increasingly sees Palpatine
as his true mentor. We see Anakin increasingly see the Council as being opposed
to him, preventing him from becoming the great Jedi that he was told he would be
and that he wants to be. We see the Jedi Council ask Anakin to do something
against the Jedi Code – the moral code that they teach as the way to act
– and spy on the very person who Anakin sees as his true mentor. This is all
brilliant setup for Anakin’s fall.
After this we get the famous scene in the opera. This scene is so memorable that most Star Wars fans can quote it word for word. The best thing about this scene, of course, is Ian McDiarmid’s performance – again, maybe it’s a little bit over-the-top, but I think that’s good – that’s part of what makes it memorable. When I rewatched this film, one line that struck me as great was ‘If they haven’t included you in their plot, they soon will.’ – what a deliciously manipulative line for Palpatine to say to Anakin.
Shortly after that we get the final scene between Obi-wan and Anakin before Anakin turns to the Dark Side. Now, there’s nothing about the scene that suggests that this will be the last time they speak before Anakin turns to the dark side – there’s nothing foreboding about it – you only realise that it is the last scene when you rewatch the film, but that makes it all the more tragic. This final scene shows a very ordinary conversation. This means that from Obi-wan’s point of view, everything seemed fine, and it’s only when he returns from Utapau that he starts to see what’s happened.
What’s also interesting about this scene is that we finally see Obi-wan praise Anakin – ‘You have become a far greater Jedi than I could ever hope to be.’ – after berating him almost constantly for years. Had Obi-wan not berated Anakin so much, Anakin might not have started seeing Palpatine as his true mentor, but this praise is too late.
The world design of Utapau is excellent – we’ve not seen a world like this before in Star Wars. The prequels are excellent in how many new worlds and species are introduced. Grievous has an interesting character design – once a completely biological lifeform, he is now mostly machine – good foreshadowing of what Anakin will become. The fight scene between Obi-wan and Grievous is perhaps overly long (or perhaps other parts of the film are not long enough), but at least it incorporates elements that we’ve not seen before.
The scene where Anakin realises that Palpatine is a Sith Lord is good, but it needed to be a bigger moment. This is a pivotal moment in the story of the prequels – this moment and the moment where Anakin becomes Palpatine’s apprentice are possibly the two biggest moments – but it doesn’t entirely seem like the big revelation that it should be for Anakin. For that I think there needed to be more focus on Anakin’s reactions to every line Palpatine said, and more tension in the scene overall. The success of this scene depends not on the audience realising that Palpatine is a Sith Lord – we already know that – but on us seeing Anakin realise that, and understanding how he reacts to it – which we don’t get enough. Anakin has been told he is the Chosen One who will destroy the Sith for years – we should have seen a reaction from him of deep suspicion and indecision.
And then we get to the most important scene of the prequels – the scene where the Jedi try to arrest Palpatine, and where Anakin turns to the Dark Side and becomes Palpatine’s new apprentice.
As has been commented many times before, the fighting between Palpatine and the Jedi could have been a lot better. It veers between fairly slow, simple fight choreography between the actual actors, and a CGI Ian McDiarmid jumping around unnecessarily. This should have been an epic, memorable fight, and it’s not (well, it’s memorable for the wrong reasons). I get the sense from behind-the-scenes videos that they just didn’t spend enough time on this aspect of the scene.
Mace Windu overpowers Palpatine, of course, and then Anakin comes in. Anakin has not seen the fight, nor heard anything that Palpatine said to the Jedi, and now he must choose who to believe about what has happened. The setup to this moment is fantastic – who does Anakin believe? Does he believe Master Windu, who has never trusted him – who was the person who said that he wouldn’t be trained as a Jedi, and then that he would not be given the rank of master – who is part of the Jedi Council, which Anakin has long found frustrating, and which asked him to do something against the Jedi Code, and who is now about to do something against the Jedi Code? Or does he believe the person he has long seen as his true mentor, and who claims can teach him how to save Padmé? It’s glaringly obvious which one he would choose in the end.
I like almost everything in the film from the point where Anakin turns to the Dark Side onwards. The music as Order 66 is executed is fantastic – sorrowful, mournful. We even get some great world-building as that happens – we see several completely new planets, with very different terrains and life-forms, just for a few seconds each as part of the montage. It’s more world-building than we get in all of the Disney films. The sight of the Jedi Temple on fire at night is also delightfully tragic.
The fight between Anakin and Obi-wan on Mustafar is one of the highlights of the trilogy, I think. Mustafar is another environment that we haven’t seen so far in the series, and an excellent choice of backdrop for a fight between father and son, or between brothers, that will decide the fate of the galaxy. The music – Battle of the Heroes – is outstanding – both epic and tragic. I know very little about sword-fighting, so I couldn’t say exactly how good or bad the fight choreography is, but throughout the entire sequence, it looks like both characters are giving it all they’ve got.
I think possibly the best line of the prequel trilogy is Obi-wan saying ‘I have failed you, Anakin. I have failed you.’ – because it is absolutely true, and it’s only now that it’s too late that Obi-wan has realised it.
It is a beautiful tragedy when Obi-wan has to watch Anakin be burned by the lava. He has to watch the destruction of his pupil and brother, who by this point hates him not just because he is on the opposing side of a war, but because he has been the source of his frustration for years, and is now just letting him burn. I think Christensen performs brilliantly in this scene (and so does McGregor, when I think about it).
There are some bad lines in this part of the film. Some of Padmé’s lines when she’s talking to Anakin after she arrives on Mustafar are a bit odd. I think that, as ever, this is down to how the dialogue is written – it’s far too terse – and a lack of reaction shots and close-ups. Also, after the Mustafar sequence, when Padmé is dying, and the robot says ‘She’s dying, and we don’t know why … She’s lost the will to live.’ – this is a bit daft.
At the same time as the sequence on Mustafar, we see the fight between Yoda and Palpatine. Once again, Lucas finds a way of doing something different with the fight – this one taking place in the main senate hall. The destruction of the senate hall as the head of the Sith and the head of the Jedi fight is a simple symbolism, but a satisfying one.
After all of that, there are various short scenes that wind down the film, and the trilogy. Qui-gon being the first Jedi to become a force ghost is a nice touch – you get the sense that if there’s anyone who would be the first, it would be him. Padmé’s funeral, while short, and sort of cliché, is beautifully tragic – and a great scene to have at the end of this trilogy – the tragedy of Padmé Amidala and the tragedy of Anakin Skywalker are essentially one and the same.
This film has an extraordinary number of excellent aspects. It has some bad lines of dialogue, and there are many missing reaction shots. Some of the scenes are too long, others too short, others not impactful enough. The film has many flaws, but I don’t think they at all outweigh the extraordinary number of good things about the film. This is an excellent, but imperfect, film.
This is the same as what I said about the previous two films. There are many, many great things about this trilogy, and the idea that it was a complete disaster, as some people seem to think, is completely flawed. To see this trilogy as a disaster, you would have to ignore about 90% of it, and over-focus on about four or five lines of dialogue throughout the three films. You would have to ignore all of the great world-building, the great actors, the great performances, the great sword fights, the great costume design, the great music, a story structure which is unlike most of what we get from modern Hollywood (one of the things people who like The Last Jedi claim is great about the film was that it didn’t follow the same tired structure that a lot of space fantasy films do – well the prequels also don’t follow that same structure), and you would have to over-focus on ‘I don’t like sand.’ – a line so forgettable and ignorable that I’m amazed anyone at all complains about it.
If nothing else, writing these reviews has shown me just how many things I like about these films, and I will now be able to come back to this review if I want to think over these things again.
So, Episode II. The objective with this review is going to
be the same as with the previous one. The objective is to examine some of the
main flaws of the film (some, but not all), but also to point out some of the
good things in it.
To broadly summarise the problems with this film, while its
overall structure moves things in the right direction (in the sense that it
sets up many of the things that it needs to for Anakin’s fall and Palpatine’s rise
in the subsequent film) it again comes across more as an outline than a story.
Many crucial scenes are too short, and crucial reactions are wrong or missing.
Many of the scenes do not develop the tension as the story progresses. Because
of this I’m going to have to go through the film in (mostly) chronological
The first scene of interest is the scene where we see Obi-wan and Anakin in the elevator. This is when we first see the older Anakin, and when we see how much time has passed between the previous film and this one.
This scene attempts to set up the relationship between Anakin and Obi-wan. This scene tries to show us that even though Obi-wan is Anakin’s mentor, and is senior to him within the Jedi Order, they are friends, and have had many off-screen adventures. They have – dare I say – a bit of banter. (It’s pretty weak, early-2000s banter, but it is banter.) This is supposed to show how well they know each other, but it’s actually a bit off. I wouldn’t describe the dialogue in this scene as rigid, but it doesn’t really sell it. This scene comes across – slightly – as two actors acting, rather than two people who know each other very well talking as they realistically would. It’s not very convincing. This is a problem, because the final battle between Anakin and Obi-wan in the next film is made much more significant if we are convinced that these two people have known each other for a decade and were friends.
This is, I think, primarily a writing problem. The dialogue that’s been written for this scene is not easy to perform. It’s quite minimal – it includes only what it needs to in order to convey the facts of the story and no more. This is a problem with A LOT of the dialogue in this film. It might have been good, in this part of the scene, to let the actors improvise, but of course it’s very difficult for actors to improvise if the story takes place in a very different universe (because they don’t know what the reference points would be).
This scene also attempts to set up that Anakin is nervous to meet Padmé, which it does quite well. I actually think that Hayden Christensen performs many of the lines in this scene very well. (It’s mainly Ewan McGregor’s lines that are a bit off.)
After this, Obi-wan and Anakin meet Padmé, who is now the senator for Naboo. This is the second scene of interest (well, really it’s the same scene as the previous one, but for simplicity let’s call it the second scene). This is also a crucial scene.
This scene tries to show us, again, that Anakin is nervous to meet Padmé, and that this is because he hasn’t stopped thinking about her since they met ten years ago. This is an often-criticised scene. A lot of people complain that this scene is wooden or awkward. But I think this criticism is incorrect. Anakin is supposed to be awkward when he first meets Padmé in this film, because he is nervous. Anakin has spent the last ten years living and training within a religious order – he has no experience of this. I think Christensen performed this in the right way. I think the problem with this scene is that we don’t get the right reaction shots. We don’t get any reaction shot of Obi-wan, who is standing right next to him, and who must have seen and heard the whole thing. We needed a reaction shot from Obi-wan expressing ‘What on earth are you doing?’. We also needed a slightly different reaction from Padmé. While Padmé’s reaction does suggest that she’s noticed how awkward Anakin is being, it’s not strong enough, given just how awkward Anakin is being. A third reaction shot from one of the other characters in the room would also have been good. So the problem with this part of the scene is that we the audience don’t get the sense that the characters have realised the same things we’ve realised, even though they should.
The same problem happens later in the scene. When they’re all talking about what Obi-wan and Anakin are there to do, Anakin cuts in and promises more than what they’re supposed to do, and Obi-wan has to walk things back. This moment is in many ways quite good – it shows that Anakin is headstrong and will argue back with people who are senior to him in the Jedi Order. These are traits that lead to various events in this film, and to his eventual downfall. However, again, in this part of the scene, we don’t get the right reaction shots and we don’t get enough of them. Anakin arguing back against a senior Jedi – which he’s not supposed to do, and everyone there knows it – should make the whole conversation tense, and we should see this in reaction shots from the other characters, but we don’t. This gives the whole interaction less of an impact. However, as I say, it does show the essential traits of Anakin.
The third scene of interest is shortly after this. It starts with Anakin and Obi-wan standing guard outside the room where Padmé’s sleeping. An assassination attempt is made, and it leads to a speeder chase through Coruscant at night.
At the start of this scene, there is some dialogue between Anakin and Obi-wan. Anakin says how he would like to dream of Padmé, and for the first time in the film we get some indication that Obi-wan has realised that Anakin is attracted to Padmé. He reminds Anakin ‘You have made a commitment to the Jedi Order – a commitment not easily broken.’.
This moment is crucial. In this moment, we the audience are informed that Anakin must not fall for Padmé. It’s important that we understand the magnitude of this – we must really get a sense that this must not happen. Without that sense, we will not get a strong enough sense that Anakin and Padmé’s romance is a forbidden one, and we won’t get a sense of foreboding as we watch it happen. We don’t really get this sense strongly enough in this scene – because it’s only one line. In this moment we really needed to get a sense of what would happen if Anakin were to fall for Padmé – we needed a stronger sense of what the consequences to that would be. We needed more of an idea of how the Jedi Order – the institution – would react, and we don’t really get that.
Another important aspect of this scene happens during the speeder chase. I get a sense that a lot of people don’t like the speeder chase. I myself have never minded it, because I have always found that it is the other things that are happening that are more interesting and important.
During this chase, we see even more examples of Anakin being headstrong – he does several dangerous manoeuvres, despite Obi-wan’s warnings (and the fact that Anakin succeeds at those manoeuvres shows how he has become used to his extraordinary powers). But we also see, many times, another important aspect of how Anakin and Obi-wan interact. Obi-wan often berates Anakin (‘If you spent as much time practising your saber technique as you did your wit, you would rival Master Yoda as a swordsman.’, ‘I thought I already did.’, ‘Only in your mind, my very young apprentice.’) and Anakin often apologises to him. This is crucial.
The fourth scene of interest is shortly after this, and is the scene between Anakin and Padmé just before they leave for Naboo. In this scene, Anakin says how he finds Obi-wan frustrating. (‘It’s infuriating. He’s overly critical; he never listens.’) However, he then says that he does actually appreciate having Obi-wan as a mentor. (‘I am truly thankful to be his apprentice.’) Anakin first says that he finds Obi-wan frustrating, but then, knowing that he is supposed to follow the customs of the Jedi Order, and show deference to his teachers, he expresses that despite that, he is grateful for Obi-wan’s teaching. This is what we saw in the previous scene (and what we see throughout this film): Obi-wan berates Anakin, and then Anakin apologises, because he must follow the Jedi way, and show deference to those senior to him within the Order.
This scene between Anakin and Padmé is one of my favourite in this film. It shows – very well, I think – someone who has been brought up in a martial, religious order, which has a hierarchy, and customs and traditions associated with it, and a moral code, but who is also exceptionally gifted, and who is constantly frustrated by the constraints of that religious order. This is someone who has been told – for the last ten years – that he is the Chosen One – that he is expected to be a great Jedi – but every time he actually uses his exceptional gifts, he is berated for it. He is constantly expected to be the Chosen One, but is frustrated because his teacher and the Jedi Order are preventing him from achieving it. This is why I really like this scene. I think Hayden Christensen performs it very well.
Around this point in the film we get several scenes set in the Jedi Temple. Getting to see more of the Jedi Temple is one of my favourite parts of this film. I really enjoy seeing the Jedi Order at its height. One of the frustrating things about the Disney films is that we never got to see any kind of new Jedi Order. I like just seeing inside the Jedi Temple – the cavernous hallways – it’s incredibly immersive.
I really like the scene in the Jedi Archives – with one of my favourite characters in the series: Jocasta Nu. Jocasta Nu is basically the Jedi’s head librarian. Obi-wan is in the Jedi Archives, trying to look up Kamino, and Jocasta Nu comes over to him, and says in a very fusty tone ‘Are you having a problem Master Kenobi?’. After Obi-wan shows her that Kamino isn’t showing up on the main computer, she insists that therefore Kamino does not exist, and then bustles off to help a young padawan. I really like this – I like the idea of a fusty librarian in the Jedi Order who’s not afraid to tell Jedi masters that they’re talking nonsense. I like that this reminds us that the Jedi Temple – as well as being, essentially, both a shrine and a military command centre – is also a school, and that lots of young Jedi spend their lives there. We see this even more as, after Jocasta Nu has finished dealing with Obi-wan, she goes off to help another young student. (And also, since Jocasta Nu is quite a lot older than Obi-wan, she might well have been a librarian even when Obi-wan was a young student or a padawan.)
We get another scene set in the Jedi Temple shortly after this – the scene where Yoda is teaching some very young students. I really like this scene too, despite the fact that it doesn’t make sense. Obi-wan has gone to Yoda to ask why the planet Kamino – which he trusts does exist – wouldn’t show up in the archives. Now, Obi-wan already knows the coordinates of where the planet’s supposed to be, and he knows that all the stars around the star system are being affected by gravity from something that’s there. If you know all of that, it doesn’t take much to realise that the data has been deleted, and that if you just go to those coordinates, you’ll find the planet. But seemingly, Obi-wan and Yoda need to ask some six-year-olds. This doesn’t really make sense. (In fairness, Yoda might have realised the answer, but just saw this as a teaching opportunity for his students, and Obi-wan might have had such strong conviction in the completeness of the Jedi archives that he just didn’t think it would be possible for anything to have been deleted.)
However, there are many things that I like about this scene. I like that we get to see Yoda teaching, and we see that Yoda – grandmaster of the Jedi Council, figurehead for a galactic religion (basically the equivalent of the Pope but for the religion of the Force), and quite possibly the most powerful Jedi of all time – still sometimes teaches the beginners. It really sells the idea that the Jedi Temple is a school, and that even Jedi like Yoda, who has Jedi Council meetings all the time, and often meets with important figures like the chancellor of the republic, are still involved in the day-to-day running of a school. Again, it’s incredibly immersive.
I also like how Yoda and Obi-wan speak to each other in this scene. Yoda essentially ‘performs’ for the students, pretending to admonish Obi-wan, as though he were another student, even though he’s another teacher to these six-year-olds. This reminds me a lot of what teachers would do in my secondary school – if one teacher came into your German class and had to ask something of your German teacher, the teacher coming in had to talk in German, as though they too were part of the class.
In this part of the film we’re cutting between scenes with Anakin and Padmé and scenes with Obi-wan – the film’s A and B plots – though one of the problems is that it’s difficult to tell which is the film’s A plot and which is the film’s B plot. These films are about Anakin’s fall to the Dark Side, so in a way, the plot with Anakin and Padmé should be the A plot, but the plot with Obi-wan seems to get far more screen-time, even though it’s a lot of action scenes and CGI. Again, I wonder if this is because George Lucas was too focused on the bigger picture of the events leading up to the clone wars.
We get a scene between Anakin and Padmé as they are travelling to Naboo. I really like this scene, because we get to learn more about the Jedi Order – what it’s core precepts are – and also what Anakin thinks of them. This is something that I would have liked to have seen more of in Star Wars – what is it really like to be a Jedi, to live in the temple? What’s it like growing up in that system? What are the rules? How do young Jedi respond to those rules? As it is, I like this scene, but it’s a bit short – it cuts off in a bit of an odd place. While we learn some interesting things about the Jedi in this scene, nothing happens apart from that. It should probably have been merged with another scene later or earlier, so that the whole thing could be a bit slower, and a bit more in-depth. As I say, one of the problems with the prequel films is that many scenes just aren’t complete.
We get some great world-building at this point in the film with Kamino – what looks like a planet that is entirely covered by ocean. The Kaminoans look distinct from the species’ we’ve seen so far, and they seem to have a distinct culture and customs as well. At the same time, in the other plot, the location that they chose for that part of Naboo – which is Villa del Balbianello on Lake Como in northern Italy – is just stunning. This one location choice is better than anything we got in the Disney films.
We also get some great music with Across The Stars – probably my favourite piece of music in the whole series. As a theme, it’s used for Anakin and Padmé’s romance, and it’s absolutely perfect for this. The piece is sweeping, epic, romantic, but also tragic, because this romance will lead to the fall of Anakin, and the rise of Palpatine. This one piece of music is better than everything produced by Disney.
It’s at this point in the film that we get the infamous line ‘I don’t like sand.’. People who despise the prequels seem to think that this line is proof that the prequels are the worst films ever made, but watching this film back, this line is completely forgettable. The reactions to this line are completely over-the-top. (And the same people seem to have no problem with ‘I saved you, dummy!’ from the Disney films, which is infinitely worse.)
Shortly after this, we get a scene between Anakin and Padmé where they’re just sitting in a meadow, talking about politics. What I like about this scene is that it shows Anakin’s naïveté when it comes to politics. The system he proposes as an alternative to the current one is completely un-thought-out – when Padmé questions him on it, he has no good answers to the questions. This is good because it shows that Anakin can be easily manipulated by Palpatine. Anakin is not savvy enough to realise that Palpatine might have ulterior motives for doing things, or might be deceptive. The idea that Palpatine is both secretly fuelling the separatist movement, and fighting it, in order to justify being given more power, is well beyond the level of political thinking that Anakin is doing.
This scene is one of several intended to show the developing romance between Anakin and Padmé. A lot of people criticise Christensen’s performances in these scenes, but I think if you watch closely, they’re very good. The problem with a lot of these scenes is that they are too short, and that prevents them from building any romantic tension. As an audience, we must see that this romance is going to happen before it does. This gives the storyline suspense, and this is what makes it engaging. I think doing this requires having longer, slower scenes, and having the right reaction shots at the right time – which, as I’ve said many times already, is one of the things that these films often get wrong.
One scene that I think Christensen performs exceptionally well is the scene between Anakin and Padmé at the Lars family home on Tatooine after Anakin has attacked the sand people. I don’t know how anyone could think that that scene is badly performed by Christensen. The reactions from Padmé are lacking – whether this is due to the way Portman chose to perform it or direction from Lucas is difficult to tell here. Padmé doesn’t seem at all shocked by what Anakin tells her, despite everything us knowing about the character suggesting that she should be.
But this scene really sells Anakin’s frustration. He wants to be a great Jedi, and he knows he can be, but killing the sand people puts that in jeopardy. There is a great expectation on him to be the Chosen One, but it’s all going wrong. He needs a mentor who is not going to berate him, in the way that we’ve seen Obi-wan do the entire film. Obi-wan might be very good at teaching Anakin the more practical aspects of being a Jedi, like using the Force and wielding a lightsaber, but he’s not very good at helping Anakin deal with attachment and impulsiveness. At this moment, Anakin needs a mentor who is not Obi-wan, but he doesn’t have access to anyone at that moment, and even when he gets back to Coruscant, there will be very few people – if anyone – within the Jedi Order who can help.
We then move into the final part of the film. The world-building of Geonosis is excellent. This planet looks different again to what we’ve seen before, with the distinct Geonosian architecture. The Geonosians are unlike anything we’ve seen before in appearance, and their language is distinct, and relates to their particular biology. We also get Christopher Lee as Count Dooku. As I’ve said before, many of the lines that Lucas wrote are a bit off – they’re a bit obvious and cliché – but even these lines Christopher Lee manages to pull off, showing just what a great actor can do even with a bad script. (Although sometimes a script can be so bad that even a great actor can’t perform it well.)
When Anakin and Padmé arrive on Geonosis we get an action sequence of them in the droid factory. This I think is the worst part of the film. This action sequence does nothing. It happens by accident, and Anakin and Padmé achieve nothing from it. On top of that, they could have avoided the machines just by stepping to the side at any point – the conveyor belts have panels on the side that you could stand on. Or even easier – just walk along the conveyor in the opposite direction to that which it’s moving in, then you won’t get hit by the various robotic arms. This sequence takes up A LOT of time considering it adds nothing to the story.
This is actually true of several sequences towards the end of the film. The fight above Geonosis between Obi-wan and Jango Fett is similarly pointless, and also quite long, though I do give the film points for showing us a different kind of space battle to what we’ve seen before – taking place in an asteroid field, and having Obi-wan and Jango actually use the asteroids to their advantage. That’s more than we got from any of the Disney films.
The sequence in the arena is also over-long. It starts with Obi-wan, Anakin, and Padmé being chained to the pillars to be executed. The Geonosians release the different beasts, which are swiftly killed. The Jedi turn up to take down Dooku, and there’s a big battle between them and the droids. Then Yoda turns up with the clones from Kamino. Most of this adds nothing to the story, and it takes up a lot of time. This sequence also has no tension. At no point does it really seem like Obi-wan, Anakin, or Padmé might die. It’s just not established that this situation is in any way all that dangerous.
A way to streamline this part of the film would have been to cut out the battle in space between Obi-wan and Jango Fett, and instead give them a battle in the arena. They’ve already had one fight in this film, of course, so it might be too much to have another, but Jango Fett goes down a bit too quickly.
One thing I did like about this sequence is that when Anakin and Padmé are brought into the arena and tied up, the first thing Obi-wan does is berate Anakin, and Anakin apologises to him, despite Anakin coming there to rescue him, reinforcing again just how completely unsuitable Obi-wan is as a mentor to Anakin at this point.
As I say, the action sequences in this part of the film are too long, and do nothing. It would have been far more valuable to give some of that time to the scenes between Anakin and Padmé, as their romance is a crucial part of this trilogy and the hexalogy as a whole. Many of their scenes are too short. One in particular is the scene just before Anakin and Padmé are taken into the arena, where Padmé finally says that she loves Anakin. This should have been a big, big moment in the film – if anything the moment that everyone comes away from the film talking about and remembering most vividly, as it is utterly crucial to Anakin’s storyline. As it is, the scene is too short, and there is no tension. In this scene, we should really have gotten a sense that these two are in danger – that they really are about to be executed. This could have been shown by Padmé’s fear. (Anakin would be unlikely to be fearful in this situation, as he will have been used to using the Force to get out of situations like this by this point.) The greater we sense Padmé’s fear, the bigger the impact that her saying she loves Anakin has – because we understand the importance of the sentiment at that moment. (The fact that this sentiment lacks impact in the film is also – and in large part – due to not enough focus being given to the romance storyline up to that point.)
As for the battle between Obi-wan, Anakin, and Dooku, I quite like it – it shows Anakin’s flaws very well. As for the battle between Yoda and Dooku, I know a lot of people don’t like it. I like the fact that we get to see just how agile Yoda can become when necessary, by channelling the Force into his movements, and Christopher Lee is brilliant as always, but the fight certainly seems to lack a distinct choreography. None of the camera angles used seem to be particularly satisfying angles to see the fight from. I think the first time we see Yoda use a lightsaber, we ought to be able to describe it with more adjectives than just ‘fast’.
So, to summarise, like the last film, many of the scenes in this film are incomplete. Many of the scenes are too short and lack the right reaction shots. There is an overemphasis on action – particularly towards the end of the film – and an underemphasis on the crucial plotline of this film, which is Anakin and Padmé’s romance. There is some excellent world-building, some sublime music, some brilliant actors, some great performances, and we really get to understand Anakin’s flaws, the frustration he has being the Chosen One, and how it is both the wrong guidance from Obi-wan, and the wrong guidance from the Jedi Order as a whole, that lead to his fall.
One of the things that I like to do over Yule is watch
films. I find it’s essential for making it seem like Yule. And I don’t
watch films in the way that I usually do either – usually I do something else
at the same time while watching a film, but over Yule I like to sit and watch
films, and focus on them completely. That’s a much more relaxing way to watch a
film, and relaxation is an essential part of Yule.
This year I decided that I would rewatch the six Star Wars films over Yule. I’ve been rewatching one a day – I’m now half-way through. This is actually the first time that I’ve gone back and rewatched the Star Wars films since the Disney films came out.
The three Disney films that were meant to follow on from Return of the Jedi – The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi, and The Rise of Skywalker – were shit. The Last Jedi is one of the worst films I’ve ever seen, and The Rise of Skywalker was about as bad. Before watching The Last Jedi, I didn’t realise that it was even possible for one film to destroy an entire series of films, but that’s what it did. (Incidentally, since that film came out, we’ve seen this sort of thing happen (at least) two more times with other sci. fi. and fantasy titans – Game of Thrones was completely annihilated by its final series (no-one talks about Game of Thrones anymore – that’s the extent to which that franchise was destroyed), and the most recent series of Doctor Who tried to retcon its entire history.) After seeing The Last Jedi, my interest in Star Wars completely dissipated. I only went to see The Rise of Skywalker out of a sense of morbid fascination – I wanted to watch the franchise completely collapse as a result of the stupid decisions that had been made. I did not see the Han Solo film; I have not watched any of The Mandalorian. The only thing that could bring my back to the franchise is if Disney were to officially announce that their sequel films are not canon, and will have no bearing on things they make in future.
However, now that there is some distance between the Disney films and the six Star Wars films, I find I can go back and watch them, and still enjoy them.
This time, I have started with Episode I. There is much debate as to the best order to watch the films in – I tend to vary it, sometimes starting with I, sometimes starting with IV. This time I have started with the prequels.
Now, there are some people who absolutely despise the prequel trilogy. I myself have always liked them. I am aware of their many flaws, of course – I do not pretend that they are perfect – but they do have many good aspects to them. For the entire time that I’ve heard people complain about the prequel films, however, I have found their complaints to be disproportionate. They seem to focus on aspects of the film that are highly inconsequential, and take up only a few seconds of screen-time – like the odd bad line. And this focus seems to be at the expense of the many excellent aspects of these films.
Coming back to these films after having now seen the Disney films, I am now struck even more how out-of-proportion some of the complaints about the prequel films are. Many of the people who abhor the prequels adore the Disney films – the number of people who I see claiming that The Last Jedi is a perfect film – not just good, but perfect – is astonishing.
So, I’ve decided that as I rewatch each of the Star Wars films, I’m going to write reviews of them. I don’t intend for these reviews to be exhaustive – I’m not going to go through every aspect of each film and analyse it. The aim is just to point out the main flaws in each film, and just how many good things each film has in it.
So, Episode I – The Phantom Menace. Let’s get the bad stuff out of the way.
One of the problems with this film is that many of the scenes are ‘incomplete’. Actually a better way of describing this is that in many parts of the film (many, but not all), there simply are no ‘scenes’. Many times the film cuts to one set of characters, in one location, who will say only one or two lines, and then it cuts to a different set of characters, in a different location, who will again only say one or two lines, and then it will cut again. There is no ‘scene’ – it’s just clips. It’s enough to understand the events of the story, but no more. This makes the film seem more like a synopsis than a story – just a list of things that happen and in what order. This is a problem that all three prequels have, and is probably a result of George Lucas focusing a little too much on the overall plan for the prequels. (That focus has paid off in other aspects of the films, however – the overall structure of the prequels (as a set of three films) is excellent.)
A related problem to this is that there are many missing reaction shots. It is often said that all good acting is reacting. One reaction we don’t get is Anakin’s reaction to learning that Qui-gon Jinn has died. This, I would think, is quite an important reaction. Qui-gon is the first Jedi that Anakin met, and the person who got him freed from slavery. Anakin expected Qui-gon to be his teacher, and Qui-gon would probably have been a better teacher for Anakin than Obi-wan. Anakin found Obi-wan frustrating – he thought he was overly critical and didn’t listen to his ideas. Qui-gon’s more laid-back style of instruction would probably have complemented Anakin’s over-confidence well. (Indeed, one could argue that Qui-gon was meant to find and teach Anakin, and if he had, Anakin might not have fallen to the dark side – making Qui-gon’s death a crucial moment in the series.) However, as an author, I have the luxury of being able to put whatever I want in my stories. Qui-gon’s death is quite late in the film, putting Anakin’s reaction in there might have made the pacing of the ending of the film a bit odd, which is why we only get Obi-wan’s reaction, which does not require a separate scene.
Another problem that Episode I has is that it doesn’t really have a main character. Many people might say that Anakin is the main character, but Anakin doesn’t appear for quite a while in the film – not until they go to Tatooine. Also, Anakin is only tangentially involved in the ending of the film. He does blow up the droid command ship, but he does this by accident – it’s not something he intends to do, and it is not a particularly important moment for Anakin. Qui-gon and Obi-wan are main characters, but neither is the main character. The same is true for Padmé. This is unlike the original trilogy, where even though Leia, Han, Obi-wan, Yoda, et alii, are all main characters, Luke is the main character.
Related to this is that we don’t really get a strong sense of what the characters personally want. We know that Qui-gon and Obi-wan are trying to fight back against the Trade Federation, but they are doing this because they have been told to by the Jedi Council, not because they personally want to. (That’s not to say that they don’t want to do it – it’s just that their main reason for doing it is shown to be because they are told to by the Council, rather than personal motivation.) This is one of the difficulties in writing about Jedi – especially ones that are part of a Jedi Order at its height. Jedi are supposed to be detached. They are not supposed to fiercely want to fight – they are not supposed to fear losing the fight. Their personal motivation isn’t supposed to come into it.
However, this problem of not having a clear sense of what characters want extends beyond Qui-gon and Obi-wan. It’s true of Padmé too. We know that she does want to fight back against the Trade Federation, but this comes across in the film as not much more than the duty of the monarch. We needed a stronger sense earlier on in the film that the Trade Federation is a great threat to Naboo, and that Padmé knows this, and resolves to fight back against it. (A lot of this stuff is just covered by throw-away dialogue in the film – it needs to be more than that.)
And it’s also true of Anakin. Anakin almost has the opposite problem, in that he wants too many things. He wants to do pod-racing, and he wants to win in the pod-race that Qui-gon enters him for in particular. He wants to travel the galaxy; he wants to become a Jedi; he wants to free the slaves. The focus for this film should have been on getting off Tatooine, and becoming a Jedi so that he can free his mother. That needed to be established earlier and more strongly, and then we would have understood why Anakin was doing anything he was doing.
So there are flaws with the film. The ones I’ve mentioned are not structural in the sense of the events that happen, but they are structural in the sense of what we know of the characters, when we know it, and whether it affects the subsequent events of the story.
One of the things that people often complain about with this film is the dialogue. A lot of people complain that the dialogue is wooden. They often focus on Jake Lloyd, who played Anakin, and complain that many of his lines weren’t delivered well. Personally, when it comes to very young actors, I always give them a pass. Jake Lloyd was about 9 or 10 years old when he played Anakin – it’s extremely unusual to find people of that age who are great at acting. (I’ve only ever seen one, and that’s Iain Armitage, who plays Sheldon Cooper in Young Sheldon – and he is such a good actor at such a young age that it’s actually quite unnerving.) As a society we should generally expect that if we put nine-year-olds in films, that there is a limit to what they’re going to be able to do, and that’s fine.
I will also say, though, that many of the odd lines that Anakin says in this film are due, I think, to the writing and the direction. For some of Anakin’s odd lines, it’s very obvious that what was written in the script was odd, and that Jake Lloyd was just doing it as written (which is what we should expect from a nine-year-old – I don’t think we expect them to improvise). Twice in the film Anakin says ‘Yipeee!’ – now, I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone ever actually say that in real life – people don’t say that in real life. That’s why it comes across as an odd line – it’s very unrealistic. But I suspect that was just what was written in the script, and Jake Lloyd just read it out.
For Anakin’s lines, George Lucas seems to veer between lines that are clichés of what children say, and lines that only older people would say. This is a problem that a lot of writers have – they forget how children talk. So I think some of these odd lines are due to George Lucas not having a strong sense of how people of different ages talk (which is a problem, I think, that film directors tend to have more often than novelists, because film directors tend to think more about camera shots and the composition of scenes, rather than words and styles of language).
Many of Padmé’s lines are often called wooden too. I think this is primarily a direction problem. It’s apparent that, when Padmé is speaking as a queen, Lucas wanted her to come across as forceful and somewhat remote. This works well in some scenes, but not others. I think in some of the scenes, Natalie Portman should have been directed to do the performance more casually. (Indeed, she may have done some takes like this, but these were not the ones that were chosen in the edit.)
More importantly, though, the bad lines in the film are few in number, and take up a very small amount of screen-time – the complaints about them are very disproportionate. Furthermore, while Jake Lloyd does do some lines not so well, he does do plenty of lines very well, and I think this is often overlooked.
Oh – I might as well get the Jar Jar stuff out of the way. A lot of people complain about Jar Jar – I have never understood this. I find Jar Jar a completely ignorable character – my focus is never on Jar Jar when I watch this film.
Something else people complain about is the pod-racing. A lot of people seem to just wish it weren’t in the film. The existence of pod-racing is, I think, very good world-building. We were introduced to speeders in the originals – speeders, of course, have some kind of anti-gravity mechanism in them, as they float off the ground. (Anti-gravity technology must be very cheap in the Star Wars universe.) Pod-racing is just what you get in answer to the question ‘What if we add some jet engines to a speeder?’. You would end up with something that could move extremely fast, because only air resistance is slowing it down, and that would naturally become a sport. This is good world-building – figuring out what the consequences of different kinds of technology are. If both anti-gravity speeders and jet engines exist in a universe, then pod-racing exists in that universe. And besides, is pod-racing really worse than all that stuff on Canto Bight in The Last Jedi? Absolutely not.
That’s some of the bad stuff; now for some of the good stuff. On the subject of world-building, this film is a masterpiece of world-building. There is more great world-building in the first ten minutes of this film than in everything produced by Disney since they bought the franchise.
We get several new species: the Neimoidians (the species that seem to run the Trade Federation), the Gungans, the Dug (Sebulba’s species), the Toydarians (Watto’s species), the Cereans (Ki-Adi-Mundi’s species), the Zabrak (Darth Maul’s species), and what seems like hundreds more. And what’s more, characters of these species aren’t just standing in the background, as is often the case in the Disney films – the characters of these species in the prequel films actually have lines.
The Gungans get even more world-building. The Gungan cities are completely unlike anything we’ve seen in Star Wars before, with a unique and distinctive style of architecture. The Gungans also have a distinctive military, and technology which is unlike what other species and factions in Star Wars use.
The planet of Naboo gets a lot of world-building overall. The fact that the planet has no solid core, and is just water all the way down, is something we’ve not seen before in this series. The Nabooians also have a distinctive culture and their cities have a distinctive architecture.
In fact many planets get a lot of world-building in this film. Tatooine becomes more than just a moisture farm and Mos Eisley, with Mos Espa and its grand pod-racing arena. We get the entire planet of Coruscant – a planet that’s one giant city – Coruscant alone is more than we got from all of the Disney films. Coruscant has the senate building and the Jedi Temple, both of which have unique designs. In the Disney films, the most we see of anything like Coruscant is a few seconds of Hosnian Prime before it’s blown up.
We get new, and distinctive, ship designs, with the Nubian starships and Trade Federation’s control ships – both unlike anything we’ve seen so far in Star Wars. We even got new droid aesthetics – most of the droids in this film, and all of the adjacent technology that they use, are completely different to what we saw in the originals. The battle droids have a design that shows they were intended for mass production – they appear to be made of something like plastic – something that is cheap – because all these droids have to do is carry a weapon. They don’t have to last; they don’t have to endure; they just have to fight, and then be disposed of.
And the Jedi themselves have had a lot of development. We get a Jedi Order at its height, with Yoda as grandmaster of the Jedi Council. We get Mace Windu – a fan favourite. We get the very concept of padawans. We get the Jedi clothing and customs.
Some people don’t think that world-building is important, but it’s incredibly important. A rich, highly-developed, convincing world is essential for something to be immersive. When I watch a film, I want to be transported to another world, and I want to be convinced that it could be real. World-building is essential for that. The real world is complex and detailed. For a fictional world to be believable, it must be complex and detailed too.
But if you wanted a more simplistic argument for the importance of world-building, notice that it is the stories and franchises with the best world-building that have the strongest fanbases. Notice how there are entire YouTube channels dedicated to the worlds of The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, Star Wars, and Star Trek. These channels don’t just focus on the characters – they are able to make entire videos about seemingly minor aspects of these worlds, and people are interested in them. World-building matters.
We get some fantastic music in this film – most notably Duel of the Fates. Duel of the Fates alone makes the prequels far better than the Disney films. We also get some great actors in this film, and some excellent performances. Liam Neeson is outstanding as Qui-gon Jinn; Ewan McGregor is fantastic as Obi-wan Kenobi (though he doesn’t get too much to do); Samuel L. Jackson is outstanding as Mace Windu (although he didn’t get much to do either); Ray Park was brilliant as Darth Maul; and of course, Ian McDiarmid was sublime as Palpatine. There are even some minor characters who I think were done very well. Brian Blessed is perfect as Boss Nass, and I think Pernilla August plays Shmi Skywalker very well.
This film also sets up the trilogy, and the hexalogy, very well. Anakin is shown to be headstrong, and over-confident. He believes he can win the pod-race, despite never completing a race before. He deliberately stays in the Naboo starfighter, knowing that he can join in the fight while also technically following Qui-gon’s instructions. He also has a determination to change the world around him – he talks about dreaming of freeing the slaves – he wants to change the way the world works. And he also has a strong attachment to his mother. These traits all lead to his downfall.
This film also sets up Anakin’s interaction with the Jedi Order. When he first meets the Council to be tested, he finds them hostile, and he finds their questions to be irrelevant. Later, he is told by the Council that he will not be trained as a Jedi. This immediately sets up the Council as being an obstacle to Anakin – something that connects to Episode III, where he believes that the Council does not trust him, and wants to hold him back. He sees the Council as something that will prevent him from doing what he wants to do.
As I’ve said, this episode also shows how it might have been better if Qui-gon had been Anakin’s mentor. Obi-wan only just becomes a Jedi Knight at the end of the film, and as Qui-gon says, Obi-wan still has much to learn of the living force, and it’s Qui-gon’s understanding of the living force that gives him his laid-back way of doing things, which is probably what Anakin needed in a mentor. So this film sets up very well this idea of how even though Anakin was the chosen one, who would destroy the Sith, if the Jedi didn’t do it right – if they didn’t have the right person training him – then Anakin might not destroy the Sith in the way they expected. This is why Yoda says that Anakin’s future is clouded – it’s clouded partly because it’s dependent on whether Qui-gon lives or dies.
So those are some thoughts on this film. It has its problems, but it has an extraordinary number of great aspects to it – far more than all of the Disney films combined. As I said, this review isn’t exhaustive – there are many things that I’ve left out (which I might return to later). I think that all of the prequels might actually have been better as a television series, rather than films. There are many reactions and scenes that it would have been good to see in the films, and if all of them had been put it, they would probably have been too long as films. I’m not keen on the big time jump between episodes I and II, but that was necessary to fit everything into three films. But on the other hand, the idea of long-form television series’ with film-quality effects is something that didn’t really exist in the late 1990s and early 2000s – that’s a trend that’s appeared later as special effects have become easier and cheaper to do. It’s only nowadays that the boundary between film and television has ceased to exist. So I think these stories would only ever have been films.