The Redemption of Luke Skywalker
If you’ve managed to avoid The Force Awakens, I strongly advise you to read no further. In other words, “Thar be spoilers ahead!” If you’re like me and you’ve seen the movie one or five times, welcome aboard. In related news, the Blu-Ray comes out on April 5th.
Who is Luke Skywalker?
That’s supposedly the question that got J.J. Abrams interested enough to direct Episode 7. In my opinion, that’s the right question to be asking as the story of our favorite far away galaxy is fleshed out. Luke is the main protagonist of the original trilogy. In a space opera heavily influenced by Joseph Campbell’s philosophy of myth and the hero quest, Luke is the hero. So even as we follow new characters on an original quest, there’s no escaping from the one true hero of the Star Wars saga. (An argument could be made that Luke’s father, Anakin, is the true hero of Star Wars, but I don’t accept that. Anakin’s a tragic hero, where Luke is the positive ideal and embodiment of hope. Here’s a great blog post that reinforces Luke’s hero status.) And even though Luke only appears for about a minute at the very end of The Force Awakens, his presence is palpable throughout. We need to know what has become of him, and what happened that caused his apprentice, Ben Solo, to turn to the Dark Side? Luke has experienced an intense and unresolved trauma, which demands a resolution.
When I was young, I didn’t think of Luke’s duel with Darth Vader in The Empire Strikes Back as a traumatic event. It was cool and exciting, and the big father reveal caught me by surprise, but I knew everything would be made right. Luke is a good guy and good guys win. Besides, he gets a fun new hand by the end of the movie and that solves his problem. As an adult, I look at this moment in Luke’s journey and see his lowest point and deepest trauma. This is the quintessential father wound. His father injures him physically by cutting off his hand and pummeling him with large objects. He simultaneously wounds Luke by revealing that his father is an evil tyrant who has embraced the Dark Side. It’s an assault on Luke’s identity. And it goes even deeper than that.
This is also a moment of tremendous personal failure. Luke disobeyed both Yoda and Obi-Wan, abandoning his training to rescue his friends. He took a huge risk and accomplished absolutely nothing. Han Solo is frozen and sold to Jabba the Hutt. Leia and Chewy escape with Lando, but this is only made possible because Luke is unintentionally acting as a diversion. Luke doesn’t actually help anyone. He just walks into a trap, gets his hand cut off and narrowly escapes with severe emotional trauma. Add to that his realization that Obi-Wan has been lying to him about his father all along. No matter what nonsense Ben Kenobi says about “points of view”, Luke has been betrayed by his most respected father figure. And it goes even deeper than this.
In the Star Wars universe, the Force is a metaphysical entity that breeds life and directly influences people and events. It is the god of that world. Luke is the last Jedi. He’s the last hope for the Light Side of the Force. Certainly, he must have some sense of purpose as the torch bearer. In that moment, gripping the platform with one hand as Darth Vader reveals his true identity, Luke most likely feels betrayed by the Force itself. After all, the Force didn’t help him in his fight against Vader. It didn’t preserve his hand. It didn’t help him save his friends. What it did do was turn his father into Darth Vader and lead him to this agonizing place where his best option is to jump into a mile deep pit. Luke is wounded by the Force itself.
We know that in the years between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens Luke began to train a new generation of Jedi. At some point, his nephew Ben turned to the Dark Side as Kylo Ren, and likely killed the rest of the students. This mirrors the path that Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader took in the prequels. Han Solo says that Luke blamed himself for what happened and chose to seclude himself as he searched for the first Jedi temple. Surely, this fresh trauma opened up the old wounds that Luke experienced in Empire. Again, he is faced with an inability to protect those he cares about. And the legacy of Darth Vader has been revived in Kylo Ren. Luke has failed again, and perhaps the Force has betrayed him again. Shouldn’t it be the will of the Force to raise up a new generation of Jedi? How could this be allowed to happen? Luke’s choice to seclude himself is similar to his choice to jump off the platform. Just as Luke fell through space and ended up alone under Cloud City, he traveled through space to end up alone on that island. Again, Luke has been deeply wounded.
When Rey walks up the hill to find Luke Skywalker, she reaches into her bag and pulls out the lightsaber that was lost. The last time Luke saw that weapon was when his father sliced off his hand. For Luke, that lightsaber had intense negative associations. It represented his failure, and even a betrayal by the Force itself. I am sure he believed he would never see it again. But there it is, in the hands of a young girl who represents a great hope for the future of the Jedi. Somehow, the Force has orchestrated events to bring the lightsaber of Anakin Skywalker, his father, back to him. In this moment of catharsis, the Force is reaching out to say, you haven’t been forsaken. It’s telling Luke that he still has a purpose and redemption is at hand.