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Editorial: Tragedy of the Heart

Posted by Eric on April 24, 2011 at 12:00 PM CST

Tragedy of the Heart
By Michael Falkner

Padmé Naberrie Amidala Skywalker, the child-queen-turned-senator and matriarch of galactic redemption, was one tough woman. From ruling a planet and fighting for its freedom to championing the cause of liberty during the Clone Wars, it was evident that she had an armor that no one could pierce by blaster alone. Throughout the adventures of the Prequel Trilogy era, despite the best efforts of the Confederacy and Nute Gunray, Padmé was akin to the mythic Achilles in her seeming invulnerability. However, like all warriors of myth, even Padmé had a weak point in her armor, and that was her heart.

George Lucas has been openly and repeatedly criticized for his choice to kill Padmé by means of a broken heart. After all, she was only about thirty years old and, if medical droids are to be believed, in incredibly great health. Many fans consider this to be the final nail in the coffin of the Prequel Trilogy, decrying the decision as a cop-out or a cheap trick to quickly wrap up the story because Lucas had somehow run out of material or creativity. However, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, Star Wars has always been about using classic tales to weave a mythic story of heroes and villains in the modern day.

Many myths and classic stories utilize the trope of death by broken heart to advance the story, and usually these tales are morality tales centered on tragedy. While the term “trope” tends to have a rather pejorative connotation and is usually used as a synonym for “cliché,” it comes from Greek roots and carries the meaning “to turn or twist.” From world mythology, we see this tragic turn of plot quite frequently, from Demeter and Persephone to Sarah and Abraham.

In the Greek tale of Demeter and Persephone, the god of the underworld was in search of a wife and decided to take Persephone, the daughter of the goddess Demeter. Demeter eventually agreed, but on the condition that it was only for one quarter of the year. Since Demeter controlled the seasons, during the time her daughter was away, her depression was reflected in the world around her, effectively killing the flora in what is now called winter.

In Norse myth, Baldur was a great warrior who, like Padmé, was virtually untouchable by any arrow. Despite his status as a hero, Loki, the trickster god, gave the secret of Baldur’s weakness to his enemies, and Baldur was subsequently killed. At his funeral, his widow Nanna died from her sorrow at the sight of Baldur’s body on the pyre.

In Greek myth, Amphion and Zethus, twin sons of Zeus, committed suicide because both men had tragically lost all of their children. In Christian mythology, Sarah died of a broken heart when Abraham mistakenly sacrificed their son Isaac to their god. In Indian mythology, the king Dasharatha perished from his grief when his son Ramayana left the city because of a curse placed upon Dasharatha for mistakenly killing an innocent youth years earlier.

In more modern classics, the tale of Tristan and Isuelt, which is considered to be the influence for the Arthurian story of Lancelot and Guinevere, culminates with a death by grief. The story is based around the love triangle between Tristan, his uncle King Mark, and Isuelt. Isuelt is arranged to marry King Mark, and is escorted to the king by Tristan, but during the journey, the escort and maiden fall in love. Nevertheless, Isuelt marries the king. Tristan and Isuelt still seek each other out and get involved in an adulterous relationship, and – in at least one version of the tale – Tristan is executed for the crime. Despite her love for the king, Isuelt dies from a broken heart upon seeing Tristan’s body, thus completing the tragedy.

Similarly, Romeo and Juliet culminates with deaths by suicide motivated by the sorrow of love. Arwen, an elf in the expansive Lord of the Rings mythos, dies of despair after her husband dies and she finds life without him to be empty. The Phantom of the Opera, Wuthering Heights, and Les Miserables all contain deaths of major characters attributed to despair.

But what about medical reasons for death by broken heart? Is it possible? Well, yes. Takotsubo cardiomyopathy, commonly referred to as “Broken Heart Syndrome,” is a condition marked by a sudden weakening of the myocardium, which is the muscle portion of the heart. The weakening can be induced by emotional stress, including the death of a loved one or the end of a relationship, or severe physical stress.

At the time of her death, Padmé had been experiencing a great degree of sorrow. First, toward the beginning of Revenge of the Sith, she had been trying to decide if she should tell Anakin about her pregnancy and seemed dismayed by his rather apathetic response to her news. In the political arena, she was witness to the fall of the Republic and the dissolution of the Jedi Order based on their supposed betrayal of the government. She was also one of the fiercest lobbyists for a peaceful end to the Clone Wars. She watched the Jedi Temple burn through her tears and her deep concern for her husband, and she was nagged by Anakin’s prophetic dreams that foretold her death by childbirth. She was told by Obi-Wan Kenobi, someone she trusts – but may have doubts about – that her husband was responsible for the brutal slaying of children. Finally, she has seen firsthand that the love of her life has betrayed everything he believed in, and she was assaulted by way of a Force choke. All of this was added to the extreme chemical and hormonal fluctuations caused by pregnancy.

Contrary to the evidence at hand, the medical droid claims that Padmé was otherwise healthy. However, consider that while medicine is a science, it is an evolving science with numerous instances of patients who appear completely healthy during normal physical examinations but later die due to a small problem that appeared benign. Constrained by the science of the Star Wars universe, the viewer has no concept of medical care quality. Is Polis Massa a top-of-the-line Republic medical facility, or is it equivalent to a poorly staffed clinic with limited resources? Are all medical droids considered equal in knowledge and scope, or are some less competent than others?

In the real world, the bottom line comes down to one inescapable conclusion: It's not Lucas's fault that modern movie audiences can't accept a death unless it's accompanied by a gunshot, huge explosion, or similar trauma. George Lucas has constructed numerous stories based on components from mythology and classic storytelling that have proven successful in the past. While this cannot account for any proposed lack of power in writing or plot, the use of proven literary devices that require some forethought and insight from the viewing audience is not an “easy out” to quickly wrap up a story that would otherwise go nowhere fast. Tales written by George Lucas require that a viewer take off the collar, drop the leash, and find their own way through the story. Part of that involves an understanding of stories from the past, including those of brave warrior women who can only be slain by those whom they trust most. Only then will the modern viewer truly understand the tragedy and the power of myth.

The views expressed in this editorial are those of the writer and do not represent the views of the ForceCast team. If you have questions or comments about these editorials, please email ForceCast Senior Web Editor Eric Geller. The author of this editorial can be contacted with specific feedback at womprat99@gmail.com.

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