[Update: Reposted from April 18th for #StarWarsDay. May the 4th be with you!]
Luke Skywalker, protagonist of the original Star Wars trilogy, spent most of the series’ relaunch, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, mysteriously missing. While his appearance in the final minute of the movie was greeted with applause, the scene is tinged with an undercurrent of foreboding melancholy. Luke’s been away, hiding in a mix of shameful penance and meditative contemplation, and he must now return to the galaxy he failed to save.
What went wrong? At the end of the trailer for Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Luke muses, either to himself or to his disciple, Rey: “I only know one truth: it’s time for the Jedi to end.” This bitter statement is a far cry from “I am a Jedi, like my father before me.” Why the change in opinion?
Looking back on his actions in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, it becomes evident that Luke, as much as he looks up to Yoda and Obi-Wan, is at his best when he directly disobeys their orders. The Jedi Order went extinct for a reason: They were set in their ways, steadfastly absolute to their dogma and belief systems, and they hid their shaky foundation behind the pretense of wisdom – particularly that of Yoda. The truth is, mild-mannered moisture farmer though he may be, Luke Skywalker was most successful when he completely disregarded the so-called wisdom of his elders.
A History Of Inept Judgement
Even the start of prequel trilogy, Yoda and the Jedi Council were victims of their own rigid symmetry. It’s briefly mentioned in The Phantom Menace that Qui-Gon Jinn would be a member of the council were it not for his defiance of the Jedi Code. Of course, the film doesn’t bother to offer any hints as to how exactly Jinn defied the code, but the rules forbid emotion and attachment, and the banishment of such traits would eventually push Anakin into the clutches of the Dark Side of the Force. If Jinn had not been killed by Darth Maul and had trained Anakin himself, things may have turned out differently.
Qui-Gon was a compassionate man who understood that the Jedi Council were not the absolute authority of the galaxy, and that it was up to individuals to make their own decisions in life. He had resolved to train Anakin regardless of the Council’s decision. In his dying moments, he implored Obi-Wan to train the boy, and his apprentice agreed, but he would never be able to give Anakin the type of training he needed; his adherence to the rules and order of the Jedi religion was simply too strong.
If only the startling incompetence of the Jedi order had been a central focus of the prequel trilogy; instead, Anakin’s whining about being passed over for the title of Master in Episode III gains far more attention than Yoda’s fleeting admittance of lack of understanding in the Prophecy of the Chosen One and other failings. The subtext is there, but buried just a little bit too deeply, and most viewers will watch and enjoy the Star Wars prequels, merrily going along with Yoda as a supreme source of wisdom.
Honoring The Past
By the time of The Empire Strikes Back, Yoda had spent the better part of two decades alone on Degobah, and, by all accounts, he hadn’t learned a thing. He teaches Luke the ways of the Force, helping him to improve his telekinesis, showing him the Cave of Evil, and otherwise versing him in the old Jedi ways.
To criticize the old Jedi Order isn’t to say that there aren’t lessons to be learned from their teachings; as Obi Wan says in A New Hope, “For over a thousand generations, the Jedi Knights were the guardians of peace and justice in the Old Republic. Before the dark times. Before the Empire.” They did good deeds and important work, but they had stagnated, and when the Sith rose to oppose them, the Jedi were woefully unprepared. They had become, if not corrupt, then at least self-righteous in their delusions of infallibility.
Building The Future
The old ways aren’t always best. Yoda, in his strict adherence to the Jedi Code that forbids love and attachment, pleads with Luke to ignore the pain of his friends and continue his training. Luke cannot accept this, and he goes off, half-cocked and emotionally invested, on a quest to save his allies.
Yoda teaches “Do or do not; there is no try.” Luke doesn’t have the skills to defeat Vader, and he knows he’s walking into a trap, but he will do everything he can save his friends. He’s not like Vader; he’s not the Chosen One and he’s barely even a Jedi. In the end, however, he succeeds. He gets his arm sliced off for his trouble, and he doesn’t arrive on time to save Han Solo from being delivered to the vile gangster, Jabba the Hutt, but his losing fight with Vader affords his allies the chance to escape on their own without being cut down by the Dark Lord of the Sith.
Later, in Return of the Jedi, Yoda and Obi-Wan command Luke to defeat Vader to complete his training. When Luke proclaims to Obi-Wan that he cannot kill his own father, Obi-Wan immediately takes on a defeatist tone, sighing the line, “Then the Emperor has already won.” I thought only a Sith deals in absolutes?
Ultimately, Luke confronts Vader and discards the advice of his mentors, and the young Jedi is able to (after some trial and error and a brief slip into the rage of the Dark Side), convince Anakin Skywalker to shed his Darth Vader persona, take down the Emperor, and redeem himself. If Luke had followed the Jedi’s orders and killed Vader with merciless efficiency, he would have played right into Palpatine’s hands; the trauma of patricide would surely have been enough to drive Luke into the embrace of the Dark Side.
The Last Jedi
It’s a shame that Luke doesn’t speak to Obi-Wan, Yoda, and Anakin Skywalker when he sees their Force Ghosts in the closing moments of Return of the Jedi; Yoda would probably say something like, “Wrong was I. Forgive me, you will?” Yoda and Obi-Wan, taught him the skills and wisdom of a Jedi, but he filtered out the parts which were irrelevant, antiquated, and led to the fall of the Order in the first place. He didn’t win by just blindly following orders; he saved the day by listening to his heart, doing the right thing, and understanding the world around him. The Jedi taught him a lot, but he had to decide for himself which knowledge needed to be preserved, and what needed to be discarded.
In the now-retconned Star Wars Expanded Universe, Luke goes on to found a new Jedi Order, updating their ideals and disciplines for a new generation of Force-users. No longer are Jedi forbidden to develop attachments; Luke himself marries and has a son of his own. While this worked well enough in the EU (now classified as Legends), something went wrong in the Episode VII timeline.
Luke was training a new class of Jedi students when Supreme Leader Snoke seduced Kylo Ren to the Dark Side of the Force, leading to the deaths of all the students, and forcing Luke into hiding. Had Luke established a new Jedi Order? Or was he immediately making the same mistakes against which he had rebelled years before? Whatever the case, Luke seems adamant in Episode VIII about abolishing the Jedi. Whether that means he’s lost the will to go on, or has resolved to create something new, something better – to avoid the pitfalls of the past –remains to be seen.