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(WARNING: This article contains spoilers for Rogue One. Consult the Force before you proceed!)
When George Lucas first created Star Wars, he envisioned a series of films from the narrative perspective of an alien race known as the Whills. Now, in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, this mysterious alien race have finally gotten their first on-screen nod.
Who Are The Whills?
A mysterious alien race who are bound to the Force, the Whills were originally a narrative concept that allowed George Lucas to tell the #StarWars story. As he observes in the annotated screenplay of A New Hope:
"Originally, I was trying to have the story be told by somebody else; there was somebody watching this whole story and recording it, somebody wiser than the mortal players in actual events. I eventually dropped this idea, and the concepts behind the Whills turned into the Force. But the Whills became part of this massive amount of notes, quotes, background information that I used for the scripts; the stories were actually taken from the 'Journal of the Whills.'"
Alan Dean Foster, who ghostwrote the novelization of A New Hope, kept the idea; the novelization was supposedly excerpted from the Journal of the Whills. As the decades passed, we got ever more curious references to the aliens. Matthew Stover's Revenge of the Sith novelization, for example, states that Qui-Gon learned the secret of immortality from the Whills (this was later contradicted by The Clone Wars).
Officially, until the events of #RogueOne, we only had one canonical reference to the Whills. When Alan Dean Foster returned to Star Wars to pen the novelization of The Force Awakens, he gave us an excerpt from the Journal:
"First comes the dayBut Rogue One changes everything.
Then comes the night.
After the darkness
Shines through the light.
The difference, they say,
Is only made right
By the resolving of gray
Through refined Jedi sight."
The Guardians Of The Whills
In Rogue One, the Empire's quest for power has led them to tap into the potential of the Kyber crystals — the gems that famously power Jedi lightsabers. Planets that are rich in Kyber are essentially being strip-mined, including - of course - Jedha. There, we find the mysterious spiritual order known as the Guardians of the Whills. According to The Ultimate Visual Guide for Rogue One, this order is ancient but almost extinct, and — intriguingly — doesn't differentiate between the Light and Dark aspects of the Force. We learn in Alexander Freed's Rogue One novelization that they consider Jedha a holy place, and protect the pilgrims who flock to Jedha. Their belief in the Force is subtly different to the Jedi beliefs — they refer to it as the "Force of Others", and view Jedha as a physical manifestation of the Force of Others.
"I ask you to believe that Jedha is a nexus for faith, life, and the Force of Others in all their forms. If the Force can be embodied in a vision or a living creature, why not a place? Or why not an idea? Why can pilgrimage not be Jedha, and Jedha not be the Force?"
Donnie Yen's Chirrut Imwe is the most notable surviving Guardian. We don't learn much about him in the film; all we're told is that the Guardians of the Whills traditionally prevented Kyber crystals from being misused, and that their interference in Imperial affairs is complicating life on Jedha. It's not long before we see Chirrut in combat, though, and we quickly learn that he can tap into the power of Kyber crystals - notably using a staff capped with Kyber.
Imwe's catchphrase is a fascinating one, and likely reflects a key aspect of Whills' teachings:
"The Force is with me and I am one with the Force."
Fascinatingly, in an interview with ScreenRant, actor Donnie Yen reveals he still can't discuss the history and backstory of his character — or even the reason for his blindness! This clearly indicates that Lucasfilm has a long-term plan for the Guardians.
"That's a backstory actually, we did a lot of back and forth discussions and research between actors, producers, and directors so that is something…it’s probably (motions a large book) this thick of materials and research, but I'm not allowed to talk about it."
This mysterious backstory seems to be tied to the greatest riddle of Rogue One; the Kyber Crystals. The traditional weapons of the Guardians of the Whills include hand-made lightbows (seemingly analogous to Jedi lightsabres), as well as Imwe's Kyber-capped staff. Imwe's greatest feats consistently occur when he's in close proximity to Kyber, suggesting the crystals link him somehow to the Force.
From the 'Rogue: One' Novelization to 'Aftermath: Empire's End'
The Star Wars universe embraces a lot more than just the movies, and the novels are continuing to give us a sense of the Guardians. Take the Rogue One novelization; it gives us what is referred to as the 'Sunset Prayer' of the Guardians.
"In darkness, cold.
In light, cold.
The old sun brings no heat.
But there is heat in breath and life.
In life, there is the Force.
In the Force, there is life.
And the Force is eternal."
It's a wonderfully optimistic, spiritual addition to the Star Wars lore, especially in a novel focused on the planet-killing Death Star! Again, though, this Sunset Prayer offers a hint of the Guardians' mystical perspective, adding depth to their philosophy.
Star Wars: Aftermath has just added further details; in one of the novel's many interludes, we catch a glimpse of another mysterious Force-based cult, 'the Church of the Force'. While this group had already been teased in The Force Awakens through the character of Lor San Tekka — who gave Poe Dameron part of a map to Luke Skywalker's hideout on Ahch-To — Aftermath hints at stronger ties between the 'Church' and the Guardians of the Whills, including their shared commitment to the Kyber Crystals. As if that wasn't enough, Aftermath also provided us with another quote from the Journal:
"The truth in our soul
Is that nothing is true.
The question of life
Is what then do we do?
The burden is ours
To penance, we hew.
The Force binds us all
From a certain point of view."
That last line is a clear tie to the classic trilogy, with Obi-Wan claiming he told Luke the truth - "From a certain point of view."
So What Does This Add?
The Whills are now officially part of the fabric of our beloved galaxy far, far away, and it's exciting to speculate about where this could go next. We haven't yet met the Whills — a common myth is that Yoda himself is one of the Whills, but George Lucas himself has denied that time and again. Perhaps Rogue One sets the stage for the Whills to eventually make an appearance? It's too soon to tell, but it's entirely possible that Lucasfilm is waiting to see how the Guardians of the Whills are received.
Regardless of what comes next, mentioning the Whills adds a whole new layer of mysticism to the Star Wars franchise. As we saw, they're closely bound to the Force, and their Guardians seem very powerful indeed. Whatever Lucasfilm's plans for the Whills may be, this is a wonderful nod to George Lucas's earliest ideas. It's little wonder that Lucas was apparently pretty pleased with Rogue One. Although the film stands on its own two feet, it also includes some tremendous nods to the overarching Star Wars narrative.