—this piece contains major spoilers from The Last Jedi—
“Luke Skywalker has vanished.”
The opening line of the crawl for The Force Awakens was like a gut punch to Luke fans everywhere. And not only was Luke gone, he’d apparently gone missing voluntarily, as a result of Ben Solo falling to the dark side and becoming Kylo Ren. For two years the fandom theorized not only on why Kylo became evil but why Luke Skywalker, Rebel hero and Jedi legend, has apparently given up. In The Last Jedi, we finally get those answers. Luke takes Yoda’s advice to “pass on what you have learned” to heart, but a split-second mistake on Luke’s part brings the whole thing crashing down. And as a result Luke decides to exile himself on a remote island and leave no trace of his whereabouts. By the time Rey finds him, he’s an acerbic, sarcastic hermit who in so many rude ways tells her to leave him alone and that he refuses to help Leia fight the evils of the First Order.
This seems a sharp contrast to the bright, shining figure we see in the original trilogy. Luke had hardships and made decisions that backfired on him, but he was never one to run away from a problem. So at first glance this seems like a long string of extremely out of character moments meant to create drama and difficulty for Rey and Kylo. However, when taking a deeper look at Luke’s character and personality in the original trilogy, his circumstances in TLJ are a natural extension of his character.
First, Luke has always been impulsive. We see it in A New Hope when he decides to go rescue Leia, in The Empire Strikes Back when he runs off to Cloud City, and even in Return of the Jedi there’s a certain amount of rashness needed to turn himself in to Vader for the sole purpose of trying to convince Vader to renounce the dark side. However Luke, and by extension the audience, was (generally) rewarded for his impulsive nature, because narratively he’s the hero and the hero comes out on top in the end.
Relatedly, Luke has also always dreamed of being a hero. He wants to leave the farm to go out and do great deeds in the galaxy, he wants to be a Jedi hero like his father, he wants to be the hero who saves Anakin from himself. That’s not to say he’s flippant or arrogant about his role in the Rebellion and the Jedi; he knows the responsibility that comes with leadership and he doesn’t brag about it. But he’s also embraced his role as hero.
Third, Luke’s biggest moment in RotJ is when he pulls himself back from killing Vader and falling to the dark side. Immediately preceding that moment is a furious lightsaber duel, where Luke lashes out against Vader out of fear and anger, eventually causing Luke to saber off Vader’s right hand (the same hand he himself had lost to Vader on Bespin).
And finally, family is a running theme for Luke in the original trilogy. Despite his desire to get off Tatooine, he also doesn’t want to abandon his aunt and uncle and is heartbroken by their murder. His love for Leia is what causes him to snap in fury when Vader taunts him on the Death Star. And of course one of his defining character moments is insisting that he can’t kill Vader, that there is still some good part of his father remaining.
So. Keeping those things in mind, let’s take a look at that fateful night in Ben’s hut. Luke senses something dark is growing in Ben, and is horrified to find it’s even worse and more consuming than he realized. On instinct he activates his lightsaber, intending to destroy that darkness in front of him and then instantly regrets it. But by then it’s too late; Ben is awake, sees what looks like his uncle trying to kill him, and reacts accordingly.
Luke’s instant reaction to ignite his saber was an impulsive one, made in the heat of the moment. By the time his rational thought catches up a second later it is, of course, too late and everything goes to hell. But it is an extremely human mistake to make. It is human to see a threat and instantly react in a defensive manner.
But Luke isn’t supposed to be human; he’s supposed to be a legend. And legends aren’t supposed to make mistakes.
Luke doesn’t exile himself because he failed Ben, but because he made a mistake that (in his mind) completely let down the entire galaxy. And that crushing guilt is what turns him into the cynical man Rey meets on Ahch-To.
It’s not just guilt over Ben turning to the dark side. Think about it: we have a man who no doubt feels a huge responsibility for the future of the Jedi Order; after all Yoda tells him he is the last and it’s his duty to pass on what he has learned. That’s an immense amount of pressure for Luke because if he fails, then (again, in his mind) the Jedi fail. And what’s a bigger failure than attempting to kill a boy in his sleep? After all, Luke fought to save Vader from his darkness, and fought to move beyond the failures of Obi-Wan and Yoda, so imagine his guilt when he doesn’t do the same for Ben.
Crucially, that ties into a thought (perhaps fear?) that I’m sure still occasionally lurks in the back of Luke’s mind: What if I end up like my father after all? The horror Luke feels in that moment in Ben’s hut isn’t just that he attempted to kill his sleeping nephew but also that he tapped into that dark side of himself that he works to keep in check. He managed to resist it this time, but what if next time he doesn’t?
And finally, it isn’t just any padawan that he attempted to kill…it was his own nephew. The son of his sister and best friend. Even if Ben had stayed asleep and Luke had left the hut with his nephew none the wiser, do you think Luke would’ve been able to look Ben (or Leia) in the eye, knowing what he’d almost done in a moment of weakness?
And the fact that all of that culminated in Ben burning down the temple, killing most of the padawans and then presumably running off to join up with Snoke was just the final straw for Luke. All his doubts and fears came crashing down on him at once and rather than try to search for Ben and make things right, he chooses instead to exile himself. By his thinking, he failed himself, failed his family, and failed the entire legacy of the Jedi (and thus the galaxy), and since no one else has the knowledge and skills to train future Jedi then perhaps it’s best to just let the whole concept die out. After all, has it ever brought anything other than pain and destruction?
When looking at that all together, is it any wonder why Luke decided to live out his final years as a broken and cranky individual in the middle of nowhere in self-imposed exile?
Fortunately, Rey and Yoda give him the metaphorical kick in the ass he needs. Luke is still a legend, no matter what he tells himself, as the final scene of the movie shows us with heartbreaking sweetness. The root of every legend is a real person, messy and fallible, and while they may fail (and they will fail) that doesn’t erase their heroic deeds and their inspirational power. More than anyone else, Luke exemplifies the main theme of TLJ: learn from your failures. The important thing is not to make the right decision every time, but how you decide to grow from your mistakes—and how you choose to fix them.