How often do you think about Luke Skywalker? Maybe just when a new rumor comes out along with a picture of a bearded Mark Hamill. Or only when you brush past that dusty box of the unaltered trilogy on VHS that you still have even though you don’t have a player. Or maybe you just don’t think about him and you’re now wondering why I’m even asking this.
Well, I think about him way too much, and I have a question. Why is he one of our enduring heroes in modern myth?
We see through the early whining and lack of mourning over his aunt and uncle and we love this guy. We can’t get enough. So much so that people are frantically trying to figure out what he’ll look like in The Force Awakens and Disney is deleting leaked photos of him left and right.
Now, if you’re thinking, “Oh no, he’s about to do another close reading of Star Wars,” then you are right!
But let’s return to the question. Why is Luke a hero for us when the climax of his story is steeped in failure? By the end of Return of the Jedi, he had not completed his training. He could not bring himself to defeat the man who had massacred the order. Leia’s existence was revealed. The rebellion was nearly spent, retreating from a super-weapon.
He has nothing left, and that is precisely when this happens.
Luke looks at his father’s mechanical hand, then to his own mechanical, black-gloved hand, and realizes how much he is becoming like his father. He makes the decision for which he has spent a lifetime in preparation. Luke steps back and hurls his lightsaber away.
LUKE Never! I’ll never turn to the dark side. You’ve failed, Your Highness. I am a Jedi, like my father before me.
The Emperor’s glee turns to rage.
EMPEROR So be it…Jedi.
My earliest memory of this scene is my brother pausing it and saying that that was the moment when Luke became a Jedi Knight. It wasn’t all of the training or inherent ability or the star-crossed nature of his birth. It was a choice in a little moment, when there was nothing left.
Now, you might say, “But ah! this is not a little moment but the pivotal moment when the Chosen One turns back to the light side.” That’s looking at it from the vantage of knowing the plot. Luke doesn’t know that his father will hurl the Emperor down the shaft. Luke only sees the small blips of his friends flashing into nothingness outside the viewport.
Like any little boy, I wanted to be a Jedi. So I studied this scene, looking at it as the moment of moments in the trilogy, the embodiment of the Jedi code, more than Yoda explaining why Luke has failed in lifting his sunken fighter, more than Obi-Wan defining the Force in his little hut.
And what is the heart of this scene? Luke says “No.” He says no to the dark joy of the Emperor. He says no to the execution of a man who killed younglings, a man who brought about the death of his own mother. He says no to hate, and in doing that, he redefines power for us. Power isn’t in hatred or revenge. No, power is in throwing the lightsaber away. “Wars not make one great.”
It is in the midst of the failure of Luke and the Rebellion that the Emperor fails and the noble spirit of what Anakin could have been is finally awakened.
The same brother told me of a moment of realization he had. When he was young, he was sure that he would be an X-wing pilot (and honestly, who wouldn’t be). It seemed second-nature that a life in small-town Oregon would lead to exciting escapades in the Rebellion. But one day, he was walking the gravel path that leads from our barn to the house, perhaps not much unlike a young moisture farmer, and it hit him: he would never be an X-wing pilot. When he tells this story he sees it as his earliest memory of adult awareness.
Well, he may never fly an X-wing, and I may never vow the Jedi code, but we can throw away our lightsabers, tell the Emperor that he has failed, and accept the lightning when it comes.