The new versions of Star Trek and Star Wars have rejected, but not refuted, the hopes they once entertained.
Before The Mandalorian debuted over two years ago, it wasn’t clear what sort of Star Wars universe story it might be. Would it achieve popular and critical renown in the mode of Rogue One, or flop in the mode of Solo?
The show has proved to be a hit and received its own spinoff, The Book of Boba Fett, which recently concluded. A mere four episodes into Boba Fett, “Mando” himself, Din Djarin, returned to star in an hour-long episode in which Fett never appeared. This seemed to confirm what some fans suspected all along, namely that Boba Fett was really The Mandalorian Season 2.5. The iconic bounty hunter became a supporting player in his own show.
Shortly after Fett’s return, a character snidely quipped: “I didn’t know sidekicks were allowed to talk.” Some fans are upset about this treatment of Boba Fett. On the contrary: deserving of the sacrifice of the aged, verdant bounty hunter, Mando’s story is.
The most cogent criticism of the new Star Wars trilogy was that it traded on nostalgic emotions of fans by bringing back old characters and cannibalizing them in service of new, but less interesting, characters and plotlines. Kylo Ren killed his father, an unarmed Han Solo; Leia Skywalker sacrificed herself to save her lover’s murderer. Yet, despite three films clocking in at eight hours of runtime, hardly any screen time was devoted to the family relationship of the Solos. The viewer was thus not invested enough to care much about these parental and filial relations. This fact helps explain why the deaths of Han and Leia in service of the redemption of their son Ben Solo were so unsatisfying.
In contrast, The Mandalorian has effectively used the streaming series medium to move beyond the Skywalkers and the Solos to explore new familial bonds between Mando and his adopted son Grogu (sometimes popularly referred to as “baby Yoda”). Thus, despite the (justified) criticism of Disney’s treatment of Gina Carano, The Mandalorian has achieved storytelling far superior to the new trilogy. This, I contend, is in no insignificant part due to its positive portrayal of manliness and fatherhood. (It also portrays motherhood positively in more subtle ways, but here I shall focus on the former.)
In recent months prominent statesmen have been discussing the crisis of masculinity, which has garnered thoughtful reflections on manliness by prominent political philosophers and journalists. And it isn’t only conservatives who are taking notice of the detrimental effects the crisis of masculinity has for society. The crisis is complicated by the fact that we live in an increasingly illiterate age which means, as Mario Vargas Lloga points out, images have attained precedence over ideas. But images are also the vehicles of ideas and therefore defenders of masculinity need images of manliness. Mando’s character provides a powerful exemplar for imaginations formed by popular culture. He is a man who embodies the virtues of chivalric masculinity, and who abides by the precepts of the Tao (C.S. Lewis’s term for the moral law). His story arc gives us insight into the drama central to manhood: the love for, and responsibility to educate, his children.
The Mandalorian as Chivalrous Knight
As they adventure across the galaxy, Mando and Grogu have encountered voracious monsters, rapacious scoundrels, and nefarious droids. Throughout these adventures, Mando embodies the chivalrous ideals of manliness and fatherhood, which can be seen as typified by Joseph of Nazareth. In the New Testament, Joseph is described as a “righteous” man who kept the Jewish law and as tekton which, while often translated carpenter, is more accurately translated as an artisan, i.e., someone broadly skilled with his hands in construction and repair. Moreover, in the Christian tradition, Joseph is thought by many theologians to be sanctified and confirmed in grace (and therefore in possession of all the virtues), specially set apart by providence for the special mission of protecting the Woman and the Christ child. After receiving a message from God warning them that Herod intended to kill the Christ child, Joseph takes Mary and Jesus into exile in Egypt where he was their guardian until it was safe to return. It has thus been fittingly argued that Joseph of Nazareth is the archetype of the chivalrous knight. In Stratford Caldecott’s words, Joseph was the “mirror of chivalry” in whom “justice is combined with tenderness, strength and decisiveness with flexibility and openness to the will of God.”
The Force (Star Wars’ version of Providence) places in the care of the chivalrous man an innocent child with supernatural abilities and a transcendent destiny. Even though Grogu is not Mando’s biological son, the Mandalorian Creed recognizes Mando as the Child’s father. To protect the Child, he must defend him from the agents of the evil tyrant who are sent to kill him—and this includes a sojourn in exile, much of which is spent in the desert. Sound familiar?
To be clear, such symbolism in the show is not allegorical as in C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books; it proceeds more in the spirit of Tolkien’s mythopoeia. As an exercise in myth-making, Jon Favreau has sub-created a world and characters within the Star Wars Universe, in which (perhaps better than he knows) the rays of light from reality shine through in various ways. An element of the real is essential to sound myth-making, supplying the structure of moral reality, The Way.
The Mandalorian was orphaned as a child and set apart from Mandalorian society as an initiate in The Children of the Watch, which is reminiscent of a medieval Christian religious and military order of knights. Very little is known about them, but we can draw inferences from what we do know. Mando’s duty to keep on his helmet is an extraordinary discipline that also serves as a metaphor for observance of the precepts of The Way. These include the virtues and attendant duties of honor (he regularly abstains from dishonorable deeds), honesty (he keeps his word and tells the truth even when it hurts), industriousness and proficiency with one’s hands (he maintains his ship, armor, and weapons), justice (as a bounty hunter in the lawfully organized Bounty Hunters’ Guild, he vigorously enforces just contracts and laws), mercy (he executes the fundamental duty to protect the innocent from harm even if it violates the letter of a contract), generosity (he donates liberally from his earnings to his order), chastity (he declines a marriage offer as contrary to his vows), obedience to proper authority, and even penance (Mando confesses and seeks atonement for breaking the law of The Way). And, like the natural law, the precepts of the Way can be followed by anyone. In a striking (implicit) rejection of the racial essentialism of identity politics, Mando explicitly clarifies that the Way is not a matter of race but of creed.
These are the principal virtues, not only of the chivalrous knight, but of manliness itself. In this light, we can see that Din Djarin’s moniker, Mando, is not merely a nickname but a portmanteau of “man,” and “do.” He is a man who performs the functions proper to men by embracing the responsibilities of fatherhood: he does what a man is supposed to do. Like many fathers in our world, Mando found himself responsible for a child when it wasn’t “planned.” He passes the test every man faces when confronted with the fears associated with becoming a new father: by embracing fortitude over cowardice (which, in his case, required blasting his way through a squadron of stormtroopers and scores of bounty hunters).
Like the medieval knight-errant clad in silvery armor, Mando performs just and merciful deeds, bringing order to chaos. Of course, the medieval knight deployed the spiritual weapons of prayer and fasting alongside the sword. In Mando’s world, the Jedi practice of meditation on the will of the Force is the closest analogate to prayer. Yet, Mando’s trusty blaster and Darksaber are imbued with religious meaning. When the TSA-like agent stops him from boarding a commercial flight armed, he remarks: “I’m a Mandalorian. Weapons are part of my religion.”
Mando thus stands as a sign of contradiction to influential contemporary accounts of traditional masculinity as toxic and “on the whole, harmful.” Traditional masculinity does include traits that some modern psychologists are skeptical of like competitiveness, aggression, and stoicism. And, of course, when these traits are put into service of disordered self-love, they can become toxic. (In The Mandalorian, this defective form of “masculinity” is manifest in violent and power-hungry villains like Moff Gideon and Cad Bane.) But the code of chivalry placed these traits within the larger framework of the virtues and in the service of women, children, and the needs of the social wholes in which men found themselves. Neither does this indicate that chivalry is a form of “benevolent sexism” which implicitly suggests that women are inferior in dignity, as some feminist critics imagine. And this isn’t merely because Mando has strong female companions who have the martial virtues and protect the weak, like Cara Dune and the Armorer (although these characters do blunt would-be feminist critiques). Most fundamentally, it is because love in the broadest sense does presuppose some sort of asymmetry between friends, for every act of love communicates a good or perfection to the beloved. In other words, if the beloved already possessed all perfections, then (it has been wisely said), this world would be a desert for our love.
Mando and the Order of the Loves
The ideal of chivalric manliness held that a man ought to love the right persons and objects in the right measure, at the right time, and in the right respect. The drama at the center of The Mandalorian is the same faced by every man who embraces fatherhood. It is therefore a core element of manliness itself. It is one of love, and how to order one’s loves. The chivalrous man is the guardian first of those entrusted to his care. But how should the love of storge—the affection-love formed between parents and children in domestic life—be ordered when it comes in tension or conflict with the highest ideal of love, agape or gift-love, the self-sacrificial willing of the good of another, for God’s (or the Force’s) sake?
Mando’s central dilemma is the internal struggle with the idea that he cannot truly fulfill a primary duty of a father, to educate his adopted son as a Mandalorian foundling. Hence, he conceives that gift-loving his child requires him to bring him to the Jedi for his education, which would entail the end of the affection-love that constitutes their familial bond.
The way of the Jedi supposes that one cannot become a true gift-lover unless one achieves complete detachment from storge, since the Jedi believe that liberty from the bonds of affection is the condition of spiritual enlightenment (and the transcendent love of/union with the Force). This is reminiscent of Buddhist philosophy and errs because the bonds of familial love, as the natural concomitants of the pursuit of the objective goods of parenthood and childrearing, are aspects of the natural law. Even the medieval knight who vowed continence did not deny such goods were good, but sublimated them into a higher love.
The notion that detachment from storge is the condition of education is an idea familiar to us. For example, factions of the political Left deny that the familial bonds of storge have any bearing on the direction of children’s education. Children are instead seen as the property of the collective, to be educated by an “enlightened” elite who have been indoctrinated into the late modern state’s preferred ideology. Hence, the natural right of parents to direct the upbringing of their children is increasingly questioned. And under particular assault is the right of fathers who, drawing from their connatural knowledge that is the byproduct and privilege of storge, dare to question the idea that the boys they have raised are actually girls.
Mando shows us that the distinctively masculine form of guardianship manifests in his role as educator (principally in the practical order as a model of the manly virtues he transmits to his son, but also in the theoretical order as a guide to the truths of the Mandalorian religion) and as protector: a sort of sentinel providing his child with physical security from the evils and predations of the world. These two roles are symbolized in Mando’s gift to Grogu: a shirt of beskar chainmail. The beskar armor is a sign both of devotion to the study of The Way, and of paternal guardianship.
The way of the Mandalorian is closer to the fundamental teachings of the Tao in its embrace of storge. Grogu’s choice to leave the Jedi and return to his adoptive father is an affirmation of the reasonability of paternal and filial love, and its normative value in education. But this love does have the potential to go astray into the error of sentimentalism if it is untutored by a higher love. For, parents who put their own emotions above the genuine needs of the child and objective truth, or emotionally blackmail their children into serving their own quixotic quests for meaning, twist storge into mutual resentment and falsehood.
Mandalore the First, we have been told, was both Jedi and Mandalorian, implying that the original Way ordered all the loves in balance. Mando and Grogu seem destined to discover, not unlike the Holy Family did, how the affection-love between father and son so central to manhood can be integrated with higher loves. This is the Way.