It’s a common take: the Jedi were wrong to forbid “attachment,” and Luke proved this by saving the galaxy through his love for his father.
Themes are always open to interpretation, and my reading is a little different. I’d argue that the Jedi were, broadly, correct, and whatever the flaws in their approach, I firmly believe George Lucas meant for us to view his story as a warning against the jealousy and greed that arise from becoming overly attached.
What is “attachment”?
The key is to understand what is actually meant by “attachment” in Star Wars. Anakin explains it in Attack of the Clones:
Attachment is forbidden. Possession is forbidden. Compassion – which I would define as unconditional love – is central to a Jedi’s life. So you might say that we are encouraged to love.
Attachment, here, is one manifestation of love – one tied up with “possession,” and separated from the selflessness of compassion. Yoda reinforces this in Revenge of the Sith:
Attachment leads to jealousy. The shadow of greed, that is. (…) Train yourself to let go of everything you fear to lose.
“Jealousy” is used here in its true sense. It is not the same as “envy,” which is wanting something that somebody else has; “jealousy” is the fear that somebody or something in your possession will be taken from you.
The influence of Buddhism on Lucas’s thinking is well documented, and echoes of its ideas are undeniable here. In Buddhist terms, attachment can be defined as “exaggerated not wanting to be separated from someone or something.” Compassion is the selflessness of “wishing others to be free from suffering.” To traditional Buddhists, attachment is the path to misery, because change is inevitable; to gain peace, we must accept change and learn to let go.
It is no accident that these definitions echo the words of Anakin and Yoda. As Lucas reveals in The Making of Revenge of the Sith:
… you can’t be obsessed with holding on. (…) Because holding on is in the same category and the pre-cursor to greed.
The Jedi are trained to let go. They’re trained from birth. They’re not supposed to form attachments. They can love people – in fact, they should love everybody. They should love their enemies; they should love the Sith. But they can’t form attachments. So what all these movies are about is: greed. Greed is a source of pain and suffering for everybody.
More recently, Lucas echoed the Buddhist idea that attachment is tied up with personal suffering as he talked about the “key to Star Wars”:
If you go to the side of the light, you will be happy because compassion, helping other people, not thinking about yourself (…) that gives you a joy that you can’t get any other way. Being selfish, following your pleasures, always entertaining yourself with pleasure, and buying things and doing stuff, you’re always going to be unhappy (…) You finally get everything you want and you’re miserable, because there’s nothing at the end of that road.
If we view “attachment” in this way – not as a synonym for “love” or “relationship,” but as a jealous manifestation of love, and the opposite of compassion – the true meaning of Anakin and Luke’s struggles becomes clear.
Anakin in AotC is not merely arguing semantics to justify his feelings for Padmé. What he says is correct. His tragedy is that he fails to live up to it.
“Fear is the path to the dark side…”
The context of Yoda’s words in The Phantom Menace is often forgotten: the “fear” is Anakin’s fear of losing his mother, and his prediction is shown to be accurate when Shmi’s death leads to anger, hatred, and the suffering of both the Tusken Raiders and Anakin himself.
Anakin’s relationships are defined by selfishness. They are based too much on the pleasure and comfort he gets from having his loved ones in his life, and not enough on compassion for their welfare. At Shmi’s funeral, while Cliegg Lars’s words are mature and accepting, Anakin speaks only of himself. “I wasn’t strong enough to save you, mom. (…) But I promise, I won’t fail again.” He is preoccupied with his own sadness and power. This is the danger of attachment to a Jedi: the Force gives them power over the world around them, and the desire to keep things as they are leads to a lust for control that the light side, imbued with harmony rather than domination, does not offer.
Even before Anakin’s vision of Padmé’s death, his love for her is profoundly unhealthy. In the fireplace scene on Naboo he talks only of his own feelings, his own suffering, and even his later line “your presence is soothing” speaks to an uncomfortable truth: what he loves most is how Padmé makes him feel. Anakin reacts furiously to any sign of independent thought by Padmé: he becomes irritated when she questions the state of the Republic in Revenge of the Sith, and in The Clone Wars, he is possessive and controlling when Padmé undertakes her own missions. His jealousy reaches a head with the arrival of Padmé’s former lover Rush Clovis in season six. Anakin’s rage nearly kills Clovis, in a shocking display of uncontrolled fury. “You don’t have a say in this!” he shouts at his wife. “I don’t feel safe,” Padmé later says, in a grim foreshadowing of her fate.
Anakin’s inability to follow Yoda’s advice – to learn to let go – leads him to seek the power of Darth Plagueis. “I can’t live without her,” he tells Sidious: his concern is not really for her, it is for himself. He is willing to sacrifice the lives of others, even children, to save a person he cannot bear to lose. When he fears that Padmé is in alliance with Obi-Wan (“you will not take her from me!”), he chokes her – a violent act of control through the Force. Tragically, the seeds were planted from the moment he fell in love with Padmé. Whatever mistakes the Jedi Order made (we will come to those), Anakin’s attachment is still, fundamentally, his downfall.
But was it not Luke’s attachment to his father that brought Vader back from the dark side? This is where we must look carefully at the characters’ motivations, and the consequences of their actions.
In The Empire Strikes Back, Luke leaves his Jedi training to try to save his friends, despite Yoda’s warnings that he is not ready. Is he acting out of compassion for their suffering, or fear of losing them? What we know of Anakin’s fall forces us to ask the question, especially since his mission is indeed a disaster – his friends end up having to go out of their way to save him, and he loses a hand in the process.
In Return of the Jedi, the key to the Emperor’s and Vader’s attempt to turn Luke to the dark side is his love for his friends. Palpatine taunts Luke about Han and Leia dying on Endor, and Vader warns him that submitting to the dark side is “the only way you can save your friends.” It is the thought of losing Leia to Vader that almost turns Luke, as he strikes out in anger to protect her. Unlike Anakin, though, he is not prepared to join the dark side and sacrifice others to keep a loved one in his life, and instead throws away his lightsaber.
Most importantly, Luke’s quest to redeem Vader does not come from attachment, from a fear of losing his father; instead it comes from compassion. “I can save him,” he tells Leia – his goal is to save Anakin’s soul. His thoughts are for Anakin, not for himself, and he is prepared to sacrifice his life in the attempt to ease his father’s torment. Through these actions, the same compassion awakens in Anakin. He is not motivated by wanting to keep Luke in his own life, as he was with Padmé; he is willing to die to ease Luke’s suffering. He has finally found someone he cares more about than himself, and this selflessness saves the galaxy.
Perhaps this explains his manifestation as a Force ghost. Obi-Wan is able to achieve this after sacrificing himself, and in TCW, Yoda is deemed worthy of the ability only after sacrificing himself, in a vision, to save Anakin. If we need further confirmation, Qui-Gon in the RotS script reveals: “it is a state acquired through compassion, not greed. You will learn to let go of everything. No attachment, no thought of self. No physical self.” Far from being presented as a Jedi mistake, the letting go of attachment is venerated as the path to the ultimate connection with the Force.
If you doubt this reading, consider Lucas’s own words on Anakin’s redemption in The Making of Revenge of the Sith.
Children teach you compassion. They teach you to love unconditionally (…) The end of the saga is simply Anakin saying “I care about this person, regardless of what it means to me”. (…) He takes the ounce of good still left in him and destroys the Emperor out of compassion for his son.
We are free to disagree with any creator’s take on their work, but we must also recognize that their values will likely form the basis of future storytelling – especially since members of the Story Group have reiterated this reading. The Buddhist-influenced philosophy of Star Wars is subtly at odds with the more self-centered focus of most modern blockbusters, which is part of what makes it so unique and so misunderstood.
Where the Jedi Went Wrong
We can’t completely let the prequel-era Jedi off the hook, however. They are cold to Anakin, showing a lack of compassion by failing to provide the emotional support he needs. Qui-Gon, the Jedi who shows the most concern for helping “pathetic life forms,” is seen as a dangerous maverick. The Jedi show more concern for their own status as they meditate on the future in their high tower, than they do for the lives of those they should be helping. Palpatine’s argument about the Jedi in the Coruscant opera scene has a ring of truth to it – they guard their power with increasing jealousy as it comes under threat.
The need to let go of attachments is correct, but its implementation – a rule forbidding all romantic relationships – is perhaps too inflexible. It is understandable to some degree: the heightened emotional state of romantic love lends itself particularly to attachment. But had Anakin felt able to talk honestly about his feelings, he may have been able to find help. After all, RotJ shows us that healthy and mature romantic relationships are possible – when Han, who himself goes on a character arc from selfishness to compassion, worries that Leia will choose Luke, he is prepared to let go: “I won’t get in the way.”
Still, Anakin must bear responsibility for his choices. His decision to slaughter children in the attempt to keep Padmé in his life cannot be blamed on the Jedi Code, or anyone else. As with much of Star Wars, balance is the key. Luke truly balances his relationships – he finds strength in his friends, but does not allow himself to be ruled by his attachment to them, and he ultimately places compassion above all.
The Sequel Trilogy
Compassion will re-emerge as a theme in the sequel trilogy, and we should not be surprised to see its Star Wars counterpoint – attachment – also reappear. So far we know little about Luke’s new Jedi, or the lessons he learned from the mistakes of the old Order – his view of attachment may be very different, though perhaps not quite as different as is often imagined. The promise of the “first Jedi Temple” also implies some insight into the outlook of the ancient Jedi, so we may be able to track where the prequel Jedi went wrong.
In terms of our new protagonist, given the recent emphasis in Rebels on Obi-Wan’s compassion for Maul, it is difficult to imagine Rey becoming a Jedi while continuing to see Kylo Ren as just a “monster.” As for attachment, perhaps Finn, the person Rey cares most for in the whole galaxy, will be placed in danger, in an echo of ESB, though Rey’s journey in TFA gives us another option. Rey’s flaw is that she has imprisoned herself, refusing to leave Jakku even though she knows deep down that her parents are never coming back. Rey learns that what she really seeks is belonging, and her journey to Ahch-to is a statement of her decision to let go of her family and instead follow her Jedi destiny.
But what if the possibility of finding her parents re-emerges? Here is a weakness that Kylo or Snoke could exploit (and given the link established in Empire’s End between Jakku, the Unknown Regions and the dark side, some form of connection seems possible). If they promise Rey that they can lead her to her parents, would she abandon her Jedi training and put the galaxy’s fate at risk as Luke did? Her greatest challenges lie ahead.