“Luke Skywalker has vanished”
So begins The Force Awakens. Hold on, though – shouldn’t Luke be fighting with Leia’s Resistance against the First Order, taking on the villainous Snoke and his fallen apprentice Kylo Ren, rather than running away from his problems? For many fans, to whom Luke was a childhood hero, this narrative choice seemed at best out-of-character, and at worst a betrayal of everything he stood for.
Luke’s disappearance is indeed a long way from the swashbuckling young hero we saw in A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back. But Luke’s journey in the original trilogy is to become a Jedi, the Jedi – the one to correct the mistakes of the previous generation. From this perspective, his choices following Return of the Jedi make perfect sense.
The Fall of the Jedi
To give that idea its proper context, we must understand why the old Jedi Order failed. These ideas are a fundamental part of the prequel trilogy, and have been further explored in The Clone Wars and Star Wars Rebels.
When we first see the Jedi in The Phantom Menace, they are negotiating a trade dispute. It is not the role we might have imagined for them based on the original trilogy, and to make matters worse, Qui-Gon Jinn later states that freeing slaves is outside their remit. By tying themselves to the Republic, they are ordered around by politicians, unable to bring justice to those who need it if it is politically inconvenient to do so. The Order itself has also become bureaucratic, following its Code dogmatically with little room for flexibility or empathy.
As the Clone Wars begin, the Jedi’s commitment to the Republic turns them into soldiers, and the act of fighting the war is itself enough to corrupt them. Before the war begins, Mace Windu (who symbolizes everything that is wrong with the Jedi Order) dismisses the possibility that Count Dooku could assassinate anyone because “he used to be a Jedi.” By the end of the war, in Christie Golden’s Dark Disciple, Windu himself argues for the assassination of Dooku. The Jedi have lost their principles.
In the Clone Wars episode “Sacrifice”, Yoda finally becomes fully aware of how far the Jedi have fallen:
“No longer certain that one ever does win a war, I am. For in fighting the battles, the bloodshed, already lost, we have.”
The theme is continued in Rebels. In “Shroud of Darkness,” Yoda tells the story of the fall of the Jedi to Ezra Bridger:
“In our arrogance, join the conflict swiftly we did. Fear, anger, hate … consumed by the dark side, the Jedi were.”
By the very act of fighting a war, Yoda seems to be saying, the Jedi fell into the dark side’s trap. When Ezra asks “how are we supposed to win if we don’t fight back?” Yoda replies “how Jedi choose to win, the question is.” In the same episode, Kanan Jarrus faces his final trial in a battle against a vision of a Temple Guard, and succeeds only when he casts aside his weapon and accepts that he cannot protect Ezra, and must let go. It’s a motif we will see repeated at very specific moments.
A New Hope
When we meet Luke in ANH, he longs for adventure, even if it means joining the Imperial Academy. Once he leaves Tatooine, he becomes the swashbuckling young hero – saving Leia, swinging across chasms, shooting TIE fighters and, ultimately, flying an X-wing to destroy the Death Star. Yet in that final moment, we get our first hints of Luke’s future path, because he fires the final shot not by using his targeting computer or even his skill, but by “letting go” and becoming a vessel for the Force. The idea of allowing the Force to guide you, rather than wielding it for your own ends, is central to Jedi philosophy. In another moment of Jedi triumph in ANH, Obi-Wan becomes more powerful than Vader because he surrenders himself to the Force, rather than trying to defeat the Sith in combat. The Jedi’s true victory comes through non-violence.
When Luke finds Dagobah in ESB, Yoda is concerned by his heroic instincts – “adventure, excitement – a Jedi craves not these things.” Yoda’s advice throughout Luke’s training shows how far his views have developed since the Clone Wars. “Wars not make one great,” he says, and advises Luke to be “calm, at peace, passive. A Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defense. Never for attack.”
Yoda’s fears are verified when Luke fails his test in the cave. He ignores Yoda’s advice not to take his weapon, and from that moment he has failed. When he defeats the vision of Vader in combat, he finds his own face beneath the mask. Follow the path of fear and aggression, the film is saying, and Luke will end up like Vader. The lightsaber becomes an interesting symbol: as fans we might want Jedi to be “badass” and spend their time fighting, but as Kanan and Obi-Wan have shown, they only find true victory when they choose not to use their weapons.
When Han and Leia are captured on Bespin, Luke – against Yoda’s warning that he is not ready – leaps into action to save them. When he faces Vader, he is the aggressor, drawing his lightsaber first. Luke fails catastrophically, losing both his weapon and his hand, and his friends end up having to save him. Trying to be a hero, taking the fight to the bad guy, has been a disaster.
We must note that in RotJ, even an enlightened Obi-Wan still thinks Luke may have to destroy Vader. Yoda is vaguer, merely saying that Luke must “confront” his father. Luke signals his intent to save his father rather than try to kill him, and his moments of weakness in the final battle aboard the Death Star come when he is aggressive – he tries to strike down the Emperor after being goaded that his friends may die, and launches into his rage against Vader when he fears the Sith may turn his sister to the dark side. The desire to fight, even in order to protect your friends – as Ezra wished to do in Rebels – is a dangerous path for one with so much power. Luke’s moment of victory, and arguably the defining moment in all of Star Wars, is when he refuses to strike down his father, turns off his lightsaber and throws it away.
Luke’s choice not to kill, not to fight, is what ultimately brings down the Sith. This is what makes Star Wars, and Luke Skywalker as a protagonist, so unique in modern cinema. Unlike the standard hero in a blockbuster adventure story, he wins not by finding the courage to fight, but by finding the courage not to fight.
The Luke we leave at the end of RotJ is not the boy we met in ANH. He is no longer a teenager with a burning desire to take on the bad guys and save the galaxy, but a mature Jedi Knight, at peace with himself and with the Force. It is this Luke Skywalker that the sequel trilogy is taking its lead from.
The New Jedi Order
At New York Comic Con in 2015, discussing his work on Shattered Empire, Greg Rucka said he wanted to bring some of Qui-Gon to the character of Luke, and characterize him as always calm and at peace. This is consistent with Luke’s arc, and in the comic he carries himself and speaks like a seasoned Jedi, talking of letting the Force guide him. And it is important that Luke’s mission here is not for the Rebellion; it is a quest to save the remains of the tree that grew in the Jedi Temple. Already Luke is separating himself from the goals of the Rebel Alliance, and following his own path.
Luke has not yet appeared in Chuck Wendig’s Aftermath series, but this in itself is telling. The war against the Empire continues, but there is no hint that Luke is a part of it. Perhaps he is already trying to correct the mistakes of the old Jedi Order by not fighting a war for a political body, the New Republic. It may be that Luke swoops in to give the Empire its final defeat at Jakku in Empire’s End … but that seems unlikely. The databank on the official website says that following Endor, Luke committed himself to seeking out old Jedi lore and pondering how best to rebuild the Order.
None of this is, of course, any criticism of Leia’s willingness to fight, or the just causes of the Rebellion, New Republic or Resistance. Their stand against tyranny and oppression, even if that means going to war, is presented in a positive light. But Star Wars also tells us that the Jedi, with all their power, must find another way if they are to avoid the corrupting influence of the dark side.
When we reach Claudia Gray’s Bloodline, six years before TFA, Luke’s new Jedi Order is still a mystery. They have no connection to the New Republic, to the point that some senators are suspicious about what exactly Luke is doing. What is fascinating is that even though Luke corrected many of the old Jedi’s mistakes, he still failed. Ben fell to the dark side, and his Order was destroyed. The TFA novelization indicates that Kylo wants to bring order to a chaotic galaxy, as Vader did, so we might imagine that Ben was frustrated by Luke’s unwillingness to truly wield Jedi power. However, since none of Kylo’s philosophical musings are to be found in the film itself, it is difficult to know how much of this provides real insight into his character. For now, the reason for Luke’s failure remains a mystery.
Han believes that Luke “felt responsible” for Ben’s fall and “walked away from everything.” However, the fact that Luke has gone looking for the first Jedi Temple implies the opposite. His attempt to rebuild the Jedi has failed, so he has returned to their origins to find answers. Instead of joining Leia’s war – which, history tells him, is exactly the wrong thing to do – he has followed the path of the Force. He understands that the great battle between the light and dark sides cannot be won by fighting. He must find another way.
The Force’s call sends Rey to him, and it may be that a new apprentice is the very thing Luke needs. Rebels introduces the concept that a Master and an apprentice need to enter certain temples together. Luke may have been unable to progress further until Rey turned up. Rey possessing Luke’s old lightsaber is itself an interesting symbol: Jedi victories come when they cast aside their weapons, after all. Rey has shown that she is susceptible to fighting from a place of rage in her duel against Kylo, and no one is immune to the dark side’s call. Perhaps the sight of this weapon, which symbolizes his failures on Dagobah and Cloud City, explains Luke’s conflicted look when he first sees Rey.
Rey’s mission is to bring Luke back to help the Resistance, but Luke may be reluctant to do this. I suspect he will encourage Rey to follow the path of the Force with him instead, and help him find answers. This may be a challenge for Rey, who will want to return to help her friends, but it is a trial she will have to pass if her destiny is indeed to be a Jedi.
We may learn that something else happened to Luke that further explains his exile. Even without this, however, his search for a Jedi Temple as an alternative to fighting in the Resistance is entirely consistent with his character as developed through the original trilogy. I would have been disappointed if he had chosen any other path.