It is May 4, which, in case you did not know, is Star Wars day. Why, you might ask?
Because May the 4th be with you, that’s why.
We STAR WARS fans are an odd, torn-up bunch in the geek world. There’s the constant debate of which pieces of media are or aren’t valuable. There are purists who want the original trilogy completely untouched by any of the digital additions (that have not, by the way, aged well AT ALL, whereas the original versions absolutely do. There’s something to be said for practical affects, here). There are those who delve deep into the EU and obsess over characters like Mara Jade and Talon Karrde and who might even be okay with the fact that Chewbacca was killed in the war against the Yuuzhan Vong saving Han and Leia’s son Anakin, who was subsequently also killed by Yuuzhan Vong – it got convoluted there after a while and I’ll admit, I stopped reading. There are those who violently reject the prequels, and those who embrace Anakin Skywalker’s hatred of sand.
There are a lot of different ways to love STAR WARS, and the camps have powerful opinions about how best to embrace this franchise.
I think to understand any of this fervent devotion, you always have to go back to the beginning. And the beginning is a space princess, who knows she is doomed, placing the plans for a superweapon that will destroy any remnants of freedom in the galaxy, in a little blue and white astromech droid. The beginning is a farm boy staring at the pair of suns setting over his wasteland of a home world, dreaming of becoming something greater. The beginning is an old man, a Jedi in hiding, being called on to act even though he is well past his prime. The beginning is a smuggler with no interest in anything but payment, agreeing to take a boy, an old man, and two droids, to a planet that will be nothing but rubble by the time they get there.
The beginning is this little shard of hope, placed in the hands of some rag-tag nobodies – worse than nobodies. The nobodies are the janitors on the Death Star, the band members in the cantina on Mos Eisley, the cute couple that was out shopping at the farmer’s market you just know existed on Adleraan before it was blown to bits. Han Solo, Chewbacca, Luke Skywalker, Ben Kenobi, Artoo, and Threepio are like that bitter, gritty sludge at the bottom of a cup of French press coffee.
But just as these characters become something so much more than what they appear, so does STAR WARS.
* * *
There is, for me, life before STAR WARS, and life after STAR WARS. I was always a nerdy kid growing up, and had a reputation for being odd, bookish, more than a smidge stuck up. Then, in third grade, STAR WARS happened, and my status as a full-on geek was permanently sealed. Obsessed doesn’t even begin to cover how I felt about these three gritty VCR tapes that I checked out from the local video rental store over and over again. I lived and breathed The Force, and lightsabers, and Jedi Knights. Han Solo, the Millennium Falcon, Chewbacca. Princess Leia, the Rebellion, PRINCESS FREAKING LEIA. I had a quasi-religious relationship with the films, and while at the time it made the adults and even the other kids in my life (I grew up in those STAR WARS dead years, when the films had been out long enough to be old news, and the EU was just getting started) incredibly puzzled, looking back I totally get it.
STAR WARS begins with hope – that spark that we all crave, that shining light that makes any injustice or suffering bearable – and then grows into something so much more. The question is, what is the thing that it becomes? And I think to even begin tracing it, you have look to the central character. Luke Skywalker.
Here, we have the buoyant and more than a little petulant farm boy with a past he doesn’t understand. Which he can’t even begin to comprehend until Ben Kenobi places a lightsaber in his hands. He is a classic, simple hero, a normal kid (when we meet him he’s still playing with model planes and whining about not being able to visit Toshi station, “kid” totally applies here) who is handed a quest he didn’t ask for. He reluctantly accepts, and then everything gets way more complicated than he could have imagined. He rescues a princess; saves the galaxy; is inducted into a mystical order of powerful, sword-wielding magicians; discovers his dad is the most evil villain in the galaxy; and eventually redeems both himself and his father, all while tidily saving his friends.
It’s pretty easy to reduce Luke Skywalker to a whiney brat who just happens to have an incredibly potent ability with The Force. Entire YouTube compilation videos will back me up here. But there’s a lot more here that keeps the three original STAR WARS films moving from one dramatic moment to the next, and as necessary as all the characters around Luke are, when you lift them away you are left with a core story that’s downright transcendent.
In STAR WARS, Luke Skywalker is called upon to leave behind more than just the restrictive life that he didn’t want, anyway. He also gives up his dream of becoming a pilot, and any chance at a normal life. Sure, he’s going to get the adventure and excitement he’s always hoped for, but to take a stand against the Empire means that he will always be a fugitive, always in mortal danger, always fighting a losing battle. And like any good hero, he grows and he rises, one fumbling step at a time. We know very well that without Obi-Wan Kenobi, this kid would have been dead about thirty seconds after walking into Mos Eisley. He might have mad Force skills, but it’s also pretty obvious that application isn’t exactly his strong point. If it ain’t fun, there’s a good chance Luke Skywalker will be doing it with gripes and complaints that can be heard half a galaxy away. So he gallivants around the Death Star, leaving Artoo, the all-important bearer of the very plans that can destroy this monstrous planet-killing space station, alone to fend for himself, while Obi-Wan does the careful work of making sure they can all escape. If Luke is a hero at this point, it’s only because of sheer luck, the ferocity of a princess, the bravery of a smuggler, the cleverness of one small droid, and the sacrifice of a better man who for some reason believes in this reckless punk of a kid has something going on under the surface.
And it turns out, he does. Because when everything depends on him, Luke Skywalker doesn’t whine about how unfair it is that he’s in the cockpit of an X-Wing about to be blown to space dust by Darth Vader while trying to blast a proton torpedo into an exhaust port. He taps into the Force, pulls the trigger, and gets the job done.
Damn it, the whiney brat turns out to be the hero.
And then things get complicated and philosophical as hell. And while it seems like in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK our farm-boy hero steps aside from the main conflict to hang out on Dagobah, it turns out the journey he’s on there is as critical as the tactics of any general. Because this little green guy named Yoda asks this seemingly simple kid to take a good hard look at himself, and what Luke finds is something genuinely dark and scary. Our hero goes into a tree-cave, slays his enemy, and when the mask is blown away, finds he’s looking at his own face. There is more than a little Darth Vader there.
We’d expect, based off past experience, that when Luke abandons his training and goes to Bespin to save his friends, that his unlikely good fortune will carry him through. He survived the Death Star run, he escaped the wampa on Hoth, survived a crash landing on Dagobah. This kid is lucky and plucky.
But that is not to be. Instead, Darth Vader hands Luke’s ass to him on a silver platter. And it’s not even like Luke kept a cool head and did right by his training. There is almost nothing in this fight to redeem our hero, except his escape from the carbonite freezing chamber, and the moment where he chooses certain death.
It’s a dark day when the only thing your hero did right was throw himself down into the bowels of Cloud City with no hope of surviving the fall. So EMPIRE ended with a broken hero, brought down by his own impatience and fear, haunted by a vision of darkness within.
For some reason, when I was a kid, I interpreted Luke in RETURN OF THE JEDI as this sort of Zen figure who’s taken the lessons from EMPIRE and used them to restrain the fear and anger that nearly destroyed himself and his friends. But as a grown-up, there’s way more going on under the surface. What I see now is a man – finally grown up – who knows what lesson he’s supposed to have learned, and is struggling to apply it. The anger and fear are still there, but above is this fragile shell of restraint. In Jabba’s palace, we see a figure cloaked in black, carrying a lightsaber, shouting death threats at a drug lord. He’s planning things more carefully, sure. There was no rushing in to rescue Han Solo with guns blazing, but he’s not exactly quietly getting the job done as a Jedi like Obi-Wan or Yoda would.
And in the Emperor’s throne room on the second Death Star, we see this veneer crack wide open. And Luke Skywalker, our supposed Jedi hero, hacks at his helpless father with brutal rage. Ultimately, it is an odd moment of sympathy that saves him from succumbing to the darkness he carries. He cuts off the same hand that Darth Vader removed from him. Ah. That is my father who I’d hoped to save. He is like me.
I am like him.
And Luke Skywalker throws down his lightsaber, and once again faces certain death. There is no bright, shining, knightly hero’s journey here. There is no pure and good hero. There is a man who knows he possesses darkness, and chooses to die rather than to use it. It’s not like he confronts the Emperor a radically altered person, courageously plunging his lightsaber into the heart of this really, truly bad dude who is going to kill his friends. And this isn’t Obi-Wan, sacrificing himself to save someone else.
Luke Skywalker, instead, sees the darkness he carries, and puts down his weapon, and chooses not to act. It is only Darth Vader who saves him from the Emperor. And what does that leave us with? Is Luke truly a hero for what he does there in the Emperor’s throne room? Does he find goodness within him? Or just the ability to turn away from the darkness?
Of all the characters in STAR WARS, Luke is the one who takes the most epic journey – the one in which he confronts himself, and finds there something dark and angry, something which he must try to overcome. And when we see him in RETURN OF THE JEDI, what we realize, and what he realizes, too, is that this darkness is something he will not defeat, but rather something he must always live with.
There is a lot of talk of hope in STAR WARS these days. There always has been. But I think what captured me about this universe was the journey of Luke Skywalker. That even as a little kid left me wondering what it is that we do with the darkness we carry with us.
May the Force be with you. May you discover what to do with it.