Crazy Old Wizards – Re-Re-Thinking Vergere

“You’re Sith, aren’t you?”

She went very, very still. “Am I?”

*     *     *     *     *

You recognize this little exchange, don’t you, little Jedi?

It’s from Traitor by Matthew Stover. The questioner is the teenage Jacen Solo – Han and Leia’s son – and the answer is from his enigmatic alien mentor Vergere,

Within the novel, the question is never directly answered, and it doesn’t need to be. It seems to serve principally to illustrate Jacen’s naïveté, revealing the inadequacy of the categories that he’s using to try to interpret the world, and the fear and insecurity which rise from that inadequacy: he’s a hardened young warrior, a killer of monsters – but in his heart and soul, he’s still afraid of the dark.

In subsequent novels, though, a more straightforward answer has been given to Jacen’s question. Vergere has indeed been portrayed as a Sith acolyte, a prose-fiction counterpart to Asajj Ventress and Savage Opress.

Moreover, this apparent “retcon” of Vergere’ backstory been closely associated with a shift in Jacen’s own trajectory as a character.

In Traitor, it seemed, Vergere was trying to help Jacen overcome his fear of the dark, by giving him a more honest understanding of the Force, one less bound up with ideas of dualistic conflict. In the later novels, however, the result has been turned on its head. As Vergere’s Sith identity has been revealed to the reader, and to Jacen, Jacen has become a Sith himself – a crazed tyrant who was eventually assassinated by his twin sister.

The implication seems to be that she was just setting him up for a fall.

The response to these plot twists has been polarized. One chorus of voices supports the dramatic and thematic repercussions, and welcomes a return to the clarity of traditional Jedi morality.

Another group of fans are crying out in opposition. Some of them simply dislike the emotional turmoil that the protagonists have been put through, but for many, it runs deeper. They were inspired by Traitor‘s provocative new perspectives about the Force, and now they find the old-fashioned binary of Jedi and Sith unconvincing.

I think it’s possible to have it both ways, though. We can accept Vergere’s argument about the nature of the Force and her backstory as a Sith. We can mourn what happened to Jacen Solo in Invincible, without rejecting the arguments he accepted as a younger man in Traitor.

It seems wrong that Vergere, of all characters, has provoked such a dualistic argument about the nature of the Force.

So, little Jedi? Shall we begin again?

*     *     *     *     *

Is there some inevitable logic that makes Jacen Solo’s fall an inevitable result of his acceptance of Vergere’s teachings in Traitor?

Well? Is there?

And is there some reason that what Vergere tells Jacen must be wrong, little Jedi? Is her argument compromised, somehow, just because she had some instruction in Sith techniques, many decades earlier?

Does it even matter if she continued to self-identify as a Sith sometimes, when it suited her?

After all, as Vergere herself might have pointed out… yes, she was a Sith, but she also remained a Jedi Knight.

And what the heck does that mean? Not necessarily anything, in fact.

Darth Vader was a Sith Lord for many years before turning around to become the hero in the final act.

Luke Skywalker stepped into Vader’s black space-boots in the Dark Empire comics. Characters from beyond the movies have also had their time equipped with dark cloaks and red lightsabers, among them Jedi heroes like Kyp Durron and Lord Revan.

Darth Vader’s Secret Apprentice is another example – although he’s been mentored by a Jedi Master, renounced the Empire, and joined the Rebellion, I’m not sure if he’s a Jedi by any conventional definition.

So, there plenty of heroes who’ve taken a walk on the dark side. We also get characters, heroes and villains alike, who defy the expected categorizations one way or another without crossing the central line.

I’m very fond of the Junior Jedi Knights series, in which Han and Leia’s twelve-year-old-son has to free the trapped souls of the ancient Sith civilization, innocents imprisoned by the oppressor who their histories characterize as an “evil Jedi Knight”: a subversive deconstruction of Jedi dualism for readers aged eight to twelve!

In Timothy Zahn’s novels, the ultimate antagonist, Master C’baoth, is a powerful and confident Jedi Master, whose unflinching commitment to serving the Force and upholding peace and justice has long since driven him psychotically insane.

And most of the time, no-one even notices.

And just as you can have evil Jedi, some Sith can show heroism and humanity.

In the Jedi vs. Sith comic, the enemy commander Kopecz gets to die a warrior’s death, an exit which gives him dignity and integrity, and even – quite deliberately – saves some innocent lives on the way, without compromising his insistence on being an enemy of the Jedi and everything they stand for.

It’s a very human ending for a bad guy, not that different from what happens to the Jedi Lords he’s fighting. All of them are hardened warriors, conscious that the ideals they once believed in have been obliterated by the carnage of their war.

Of course, the personalities of these characters vary. You could argue that they’re all “cheating” in one way or another, Sith-lite and faux-Jedi. But the fact that this is even possible proves Vergere’s point. There isn’t one single pattern of characterization that automatically equates Jedi and Sith with right and wrong.

The magic-wielding bad guys in Star Wars are simply crazy wizards, regardless of what they’d call themselves. That is, I’d argue, the crux of Vergere’s lesson.

So what does it mean, therefore, if Vergere calls herself a Sith?

Absolutely nothing.

*     *     *     *     *

And so, we arrive at the point I want to make.

Vergere’s view of the Force doesn’t have to be wrong, and it doesn’t have to be used to explain Jacen Solo’s fall to the dark side, either.

Perhaps we’d be better off explaining Jacen’s fall in terms of the character’s underlying insecurities, his inability to truly escape from the characterization that had been laid down before Traitor.

Jacen fell because the character couldn’t fully come to terms with the lessons that Vergere (and Matthew Stover) tried to impart. Jacen was presented with the argument that his Jedi self-image was naive and artificial, and given a choice: he could continue to hide his insecurities by posturing as a righteous defender of the truth, or he could face up to his potential as a complex human being who didn’t fit the usual Jedi categories, equipped with both an immense empathy for others, and a brutal capacity for violence.

… and he chose wrong.

The fact he changed the color of his lightsaber and his cloak in the middle shouldn’t hide the fact that he was driven mad by the problems that Vergere had pointed out, not by the solutions she had offered.

Jacen was simply too heavily burdened by Jedi expectations to truly grasp the lesson Vergere was trying to teach; too afraid of stepping out into the light, where people could see him for himself.

Doesn’t that actually prove Vergere’s point, little Jedi?

*     *     *     *     *

If that’s correct, then Vergere’s lessons have important implications for Star Wars. That doesn’t have to mean we stop telling stories about heroes and villains; what it does require is a more serious approach to what makes a hero and a villain.

Villainy in Star Wars can’t be simplified into black cloaks and red lightsabers. Not everyone with a blue lightsaber and a white tabard is on the side of good. But discarding the neat duality doesn’t mean that we should give up on heroism and idealism in Star Wars – it just means that the heroes who embody those principles can be flawed, complicated human beings. Star Wars heroes can be smugglers, Sith and politicians, as well as Jedi Knights.

And the villains can be Jedi Knights, as well.

This is the exact opposite of the trend that seems most prevalent to me in recent Star Wars stories. These stories have Sith protagonists, but they continue to draw a clear moral line between dark and light, so they focus on selfish antiheroes doing evil things.

I’m really not sure what the point of these stories is, unless they’re designed to tap a particular demographic, but they fail Vergere’s test at the first hurdle – they fail, because they suggest that there are simple moral lines that divide the characters into two fairly predictable and unconvincing types.

In the words of another Sith-turned-Jedi, and as Jacen Solo’s sister would privately agree, those moral lines are far less straightforward than they appear if you insist on staying away from them: the vapin’ things keep moving.

And thank fuck for that.

Now, some of you might see this as a contradiction of George Lucas’ basic storytelling concepts. But I’ve mentioned the fundamental fact of Darth Vader’s successful rejection of the dark side above. I’ll add another example: in the earliest draft script for Star Wars, the principal Sith character actually defects to fight against the Empire alongside the Jedi and the Rebels – and his motive is disgust at how the brutal war machine of the Empire is betraying the austere honor-code of the Sith Knights.

The real villains of Star Wars aren’t the anti-Jedi heretics with black cloaks and red lightsabers. They’re the people who want to take away the human right to freedom and conscience – the right, you might say, to choose, and act.

It doesn’t matter whether that oppression is achieved through magic or technology, or whether it’s being achieved by Galactic tyrants or local gangsters, or whether they wear pale Jedi cloaks, or black Sith ones.

It’s one of the things the heroes define themselves against – and they define themselves against it because they feel, inside, a moral imperative to stand against injustice.

To conclude, it seems appropriate to return to Vergere, and the answer she actually gave to Jacen’s question:

Her first motion: a faint curve at the corners of her lips. “Sith? Jedi?” she said. “Are these the only choices? Dark or light, good or evil? Is there no more to the Force than this?”

If she’s right, it really doesn’t matter if she happens to self-identify as a Sith, does it?

11 comments

  1. Becca Hughes says:

    Wonderful article. I mourn the loss of Traitor’s complexity in light of later retcons, but you express it perfectly when you say, it is the *issues* Vergere points out that drove him mad, not the solutions (did she even offer any beyond choosing and living with your choice, and is that really a controversial statement?) Those issues are valid whether spoken by a Sith or a Jedi. Dismissing them as snake-words designed to trick us, as something that will corrupt us simply through consideration, is an attitude that ultimately leads to a worldview as fascistic as the Empire that forms the *real* villain of the Star Wars universe – as you say, the removal of choice and honour. The removal of human identity and conscience in service to the war machine.

    I think Qui-Gon would always be willing to consider his enemy’s perspective.

    I still feel uncomfortable being willing to identify Vergere as a Sith (although I accept she may have used the name for her own purposes at times), but you have convinced me that writing her as a confirmed Sith and then *continuing to take her points seriously* might be the best solution of all.

  2. I have a hard time with Vergere as Sith because she seems so devoted to maintaining neutrality and exploring both sides without committing to one or the other. Calling her “Sith” seemed an easy way to give her a label in a universe that has problems with anyone who isn’t easily identified as dark or light. Jacen could have taken Vergere’s teachings in many ways, and I think it’s a bit sad that it ended with him as Sith. There were so many other fascinating possibilities.

  3. Eric J. Brown says:

    Here is my quick and dirty thoughts. Jacen doesn’t have to fall to the dark side because of “Traitor”. He has to fall to the dark side to correct the error of thinking there really is no dark side.

    Instead of thinking about things in a moralistic divide, think of the observation that Zahn makes in the Thrawn Duology – too much power always leads to the dark side. Perhaps the distinction is not just the moral angle, but also the self-restraint angle… the idea that at some point one must say, “I cannot get involved”… because simply by getting involved I am not defending anything but inserting my will into another person’s life – I am usurping their challenge, their problem, their solutions.

    And Jacen begins to gather more and more power – and it twists in his hands, and the more he tries to do, the more it falls. Why? To control, even for a good and noble purpose, is still to control.

    So, what happens when you eliminate the idea of their really being a dark side, that our intentions are the only things that matter? You have folks fall prey to the inherent abuse of power that the darkside represents, the lack of restraint. That’s why you get Troy Denning have Luke go all force lightning in the Dark Nest Trilogy without batting an eye.

    Of course, that’s why there is some measure of self-sacrifice involved in the light — if you are sacrificing yourself, you are not making sure your will, your control endures.

    Or at least some thoughts.

  4. Zachary Skaggs says:

    I don’t get this article, all I see is an attempt at justifying Troy Denning’s beliefs about Vergere that lead him to label her a Sith, and have Jacen fall to the dark side because he believe she was training her as such in Traitor.

  5. K.J. Gray says:

    In general, responses here seem uneasy about Vergere being burdened with a “Sith” label. Can we turn that on its head, though? What if we disconnect the “Sith” label from the baggage that it carries, and do the same with other labels like “Republic”, focusing on personalities rather than names?

    Becca, I’d suggest that the solution Vergere offered was self-awareness. By “pointing out the issues”, she showed it was healthier to avoid them!

    Rocky, I agree it’s more than ironic, but I wonder if Jacen did still achieve Vergere’s intentions, by derailing the plans of Darth Krayt’s Sith for a century. Any thoughts?

    Eric, I don’t think we’re disagreeing much, though I’m not sure if the term “dark side” helps. You can have villains who use unrestrained power, or who act very subtly and precisely, or who don’t have any particular powers at all. And you can have heroes who have the same range of approaches to problems. You also have to navigate a fine line when it comes to the “usefulness” of exerting control, of yourself and others alike (I think Jaina would be in a better place today if Kyp Durron had pushed her more, and she’d pushed back, for example).

    Here’s another example: Mara Jade’s mindset and skillset weren’t in any real sense “evil”, and even her missions were often “good”, but that was exactly why she served Palpatine so well.

    Zachary, what exactly do you mean by “Sith”? I don’t believe that the label has much inherent meaning, myself….

    • Eric J. Brown says:

      ” You can have villains who use unrestrained power, or who act very subtly and precisely, or who don’t have any particular powers at all.”

      I don’t dispute that you can – but I’m thinking about Star Wars here. Now, it’s not EU – but think in Revenge of the Sith. Palpatine is very subtle and precise – yet, when he gets the change to shock the tar out of a now armless Mace Windu, what is his cry? “Power, unlimited power!”

      As for Mara, that’s the distinction that Luke gives her (via Zahn) in the duology – that she was serving others, not herself, even when she was serving Palpatine.

      Of course – I *like* the terms light side and dark side – I think they are useful, I think they fit the world view of the movies. I love how Stover brings out in the ROTS novelization how when the dark side clouds the light, the Jedi act more and more out of fear and desire for self-preservation… which is saying that they are letting themselves be influenced by the dark side. It’s the meta-narrative. It’s the point of acting when you are at peace – of using the force only for knowledge (self-understanding, even) and defense (fundamentally the service of another),never attack (the imposition of your will upon another).

      Which is why when we think of “light side or dark side powers” that’s… not the starting point, it’s the derivative. One of the things I like about SWTOR is that non-force users also acrue light side and dark side points — not because my evil trooper will someday get to shoot force lightning, but because it’s about approach and worldview — will you serve, or will you subjugate?

    • Zachary Skaggs says:

      The problem I am having with this article is, by labeling Vergere a Sith and claiming she trained Jacen as such, Troy Denning has condemned her world view to be wrong. Of course Jacen’s fall has no basis in Traitor, only Denning’s delusions about Vergere and what she taught Jacen in Traitor, which is why Vergere and Jacen were written to be Sith in the Denningverse. My point is, the concept of Vergere being a Sith is osik, so I don’t even see the point in trying to accept it or anything else from the Denningverse.

  6. Ceiran says:

    Guess I need to chime in here after all. Interesting debate though it feels a lot like been there and done that if one knows all previous ones.

    Mortis. Yub I said it and I love it. Others may not but I bring it up anyway.

    As per Mortis arc, the labels “light” and “dark” do not equal good and evil but rather creation and destruction in a taoistic way with both being used by Jedi and both being used by Sith too. A Jedi who kills in selfdefense destroys (dark), a Sith who creates monsters through alchemy (light). Dark and Light in the sense of Mortis are far more than just their colloquial use by Jedi, Sith and common folk. Much like for some cultures Jedi equals Forceuser and no distinction is given if good or bad one.

    Balance is a core principle in Star Wars, balance within oneself so that neither extreme overpowers the other. Balance in the universe so that neither total destruction nor entropy shall happen. Balance of the Force.

    Likewise Sith and Jedi are labels that do not have to equal good and bad. The distinction is not Jedi = Light side, Sith = dark side. Only Jedi/Sith deal in absolutes after all.. both are more alike than one might think. And so is Vergere. She knows and admits that, not picking a label but admits being relatable to both given the similiarities.

    Another better distinction for Jedi and Sith would be, egoism vs. altruism. Jedi want the best for all, not their will imposed. Sith want their will as best for all. But even that Vergere turned from clearcut definitions into a pool of mud for mudfight debates. If a Jedi is altruistic, he imposes his own view of what is best for all upon others even if he needs to sacrifice his personal fun for it. If a Sith is egoistic, he imposses his will over all, forcing them to his way of peace and a functioning Sith world. Both Jedi and Sith want order, peace.. but use different means to the same end. Most of the time though, a Darksider is more an egoistic “I do not give a kark for the others” type of creature, whereas a Sith is very Jedi-esque in sacrificing a lot him/herself for his goals, much like the Jedi do. Recent EU even highlights the Sith selfsacrifice as mirroring the Jedi’s ascetic sacrifice. The purely evil, dark and selfserving darksider is dying out in light of backstories showing the evolution of a fall and how even the craziest of onedimensional antagonists become likeable heroes, then antiheroes and ultimately villains.

    Ultimately that leaves us with Jedi and Sith being 2 sides of the same coin, both in the middle of light creative and dark destructive sides of the Force leaning towards an extreme method as means to the same end but being caught closer to the fine grey middleground.

    Vergere accepted that, even if Jedi labeled her as Jedi and Sith labeled her as Sith. She ignored labels and the baggage they carry and taught Jacen the same. Take everyone, everything as it is, not as what people say it is, or it claims it is or you think it is. A wise lesson that in real world communications and relations can prevent many misunderstandings I bet. Sociologists know that problem well.

    Jacen though upon his return to not likeminded people lived with a Jedi label despite being more than that. On his sojourn to search for more revelations and more likeminded groups, he tried any like a suit but only found them to be one color but not the entire rainbow spectrum he was seeking. Only few groups were as allencompassing as Vergere had been. The Jedi came close (being born and uniting many groups within them) and the other were the Sith. While Jacen may have been darker from a certain point of view in Dark Nest, more ready to use destructive methods that the Jedi were less used to, and even as early Sith, he still was himself.

    He failed in two major steps. One being that he with time forgot the one thing that he in The Unifying Force still knew. Trust the Force and it will come. Doubt, and it will not. Doubt grew and it lead him to more and more using the Force instead of listening to it and being used by it as in TUF. An only too human flaw. The second step towards his fall came during Legacy of the Force close to the middle of it. He may have slipped towards darkness before, but only when Allana and Tenel Ka were threatened did he forget about his training and responded selfish. Fear got the better of him, and thus his fall truly began, sudden and deeper than many thought possible. Before it didn’t matter if he was Jedi or Sith.. he was himself. But when he broke, he truly became Caedus. Sadly so. And though he had a dark journey ahead, his return to the light all by himself when everyone gave up on him.. sacrificing himself for Tenel Ka and Allana being saved, is impressive and attests that he was still in there somewhere.

    Oh my god.. too long a rant again… one of these days I need to write an article for 1138 too… if they want me…

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