On April 15th, 2017, the first teaser trailer for Star Wars: The Last Jedi was released to the thunderous roar of a thousand live attendees at Celebration Orlando and the individual cheers of viewers at home. The trailer closed with a line from Luke Skywalker, uttered in a gravelly voice and tinged with foreboding, “I only know one truth. It’s time for the Jedi to end.” Cue the launching of a thousand speculations as people wondered what exactly those words meant for the Jedi and the overall philosophy of the Force in the Star Wars universe.
When Star Wars came out in 1977 the concept of the Jedi, as explained by Ben Kenobi, was relatively simple – the Jedi were space-age knights, chivalrous and inherently good, wielding a mystical energy field that was ever-present but relatively unexamined and mysterious. Juxtaposed against the evil of the fallen Jedi Knight Darth Vader in a space-fantasy play, it seemed their position as the relative “good guys” was pretty much sealed.
Over the course of the original trilogy we got to explore aspects of the Jedi and their relationship with the Force. I’ve always felt that Star Wars was conceived as an adventurous morality play with the dynamic of the light side versus the dark side as the center theme of the classic films. Although it can be argued that Jedi believe in the yin and the yang of the Force where the light and dark comprise a whole that ties the galaxy together, they are firm believers that the “yang” or “light” side of the Force is morally right. Their actions and philosophies reflect this attitude and are not challenged within the original trilogy itself.
I wouldn’t say the philosophy towards the Force is simplistic in the classic films. However, I would say it is presented simplistically for storytelling purposes. There are a lot of complicated philosophical ideas introduced by Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda from real world Buddhist and Taoist tenets. Still, the viewer is meant to draw one major, yet simple conclusion – the light side is good and the dark side is bad. This causes the actual morally “gray” choices of light side characters like Kenobi to become talking points for fans years later because their actions sometimes don’t line up with the dualistic viewpoint of the original trilogy.
Cut to the debut of The Phantom Menace in 1999. Where the original trilogy explored the broad philosophy of the Jedi as it pertained to the individual, Lucas seems to use the prequels to explore their dogma. No longer just chivalrous space knights cloaked in mystery, the Jedi of the prequels are presented as monks who must abide by a strict moral code. Although the general framework of the Jedi’s relationship with the Force is kept intact, it becomes less flexible, with their rigid adherence to doctrine becoming one of the prequels‘ driving plot points.
Non-attachment, age limitations, and the pressure to not give in to negative emotions rather than accept them as natural aren’t proposed as sage advice, but law. Anakin Skywalker feels repressed by the regulations of the Order. He cannot move past his emotional decisions because even acknowledging them at all is frowned upon and could result in his expulsion from the Order. This causes the resentment that eventually pits Anakin against the Jedi and blinds him to Chancellor Palpatine’s manipulations.
It’s also in the prequels that we are introduced to opposing viewpoints within the Jedi Order. Qui-Gon Jinn is considered a maverick that refuses to abide by many Jedi conventions. He emphasizes the idea of the Living Force, of being in the moment and allowing emotions to govern aspects of your decision-making instead of treating them as an obstacle to overcome. This offers our first glimpse into differing views on the Force that aren’t starkly black and white.
On the meta side, the audience still understands that the Jedi are the overall “good guys”, but the flaws in their ideology are a little more visible. They’re not always consistent in their standards and maybe that’s by narrative design. By the end of Revenge of the Sith, some Jedi, like Mace Windu, are portrayed as paranoid and out of touch – frayed at the edges by the encroachment of the dark side. Although Obi-Wan states to Anakin, “only a Sith deals in absolutes”, by the end, many of the Jedi seem blind to their own binary thinking about the nature of the Force.
In the last few years, there’s been a push towards the idea that the Force exists on a spectrum versus its original trilogy state as a binary choice. In The Force Awakens, Rogue One, and both Dave Filoni-led TV series, there are story arcs and characters that examine or embody this newer approach. In The Force Awakens, it’s stated that Supreme Leader Snoke wants Ben Solo because of his capacity for both the light and dark sides of the Force. In Star Wars Rebels, there’s the Bendu – a mysterious Force-wielding force of nature who claims to be “the one in the middle”.
All of these ideas lead us to where Luke’s own relationship with the Force may be during The Last Jedi. After viewing the trailer and hearing that specific line, it seems logical that the “end” Luke refers to isn’t a physical end to the Jedi, but rather the transmutation of their ideas for a new era. From what we can tell, Luke has witnessed his nephew fall to the dark side in much the same way as his own father. Ben’s fall could be the catalyst that causes Luke to rethink Jedi philosophy and ultimately push for its evolution.
I like this idea. I think it’s important that the sequel trilogy tries to advance the story versus relying on the philosophical conceits of the first two. The films, like reality, should reflect our own evolving moralities and religious ideas. Still, it’s very difficult for an audience to spend forty years with an ideology they are told is right, only to potentially undermine it with a “the Jedi were wrong” plot in the sequel trilogy.
The Jedi still represent a belief system that expresses the integral values of selflessness, kindness, discipline, and acceptance of yourself, your experiences, and ultimately your death. These are valuable lessons and I don’t think that Luke will cast these Jedi tenets aside. I do think that he will start to view the Force as a whole, with the light and dark as necessary opposites that drive the energy of the universe instead of opposites in a proxy war to destroy each other.
I don’t believe this means that we will start seeing a dark side-wielding Luke or Rey, only that his new teachings will be more accepting of the emotions that governed Anakin, Ben, and even Luke himself instead of rejecting them. If this is the route the new films are going, it could pave the way for a Jedi Order much like the one Luke founded in the Expanded Universe. Luke may have even realized Ben’s potential as a conduit for both light and dark, but failed to realign his teachings in time to save Ben from the corruption of Snoke.
As always, there’s a chance that all of this speculation is misguided. The words of Luke Skywalker may just be the utterance of a disillusioned old man who feels his failures led to the downfall of his nephew and the newest generation of Jedi. They may have no bearing on the future philosophies or practices of the Order and the plot may be more conventional, following Rey as she works towards convincing the old Master to guide her.
I guess on December 15th, we will see. The Jedi, for their flaws, are my favorite faction from the Star Wars universe and I look forward to their potential evolution. I have faith that whatever direction the sequel trilogy takes with the Force, it will be nuanced, faithful, and very Star Wars.