Okay guys, we are going to talk about Star Wars, because YES. This past week I watched all six films and I realized that 1. I have been too hard on the prequel films, and 2. Star Wars is one of the greatest stories of redemption ever told.
Redemption comes for many people in the saga, but let’s be real: the only redemption arc we care about is that of Anakin Skywalker.
Think about it: he starts as a child slave on Tatooine, becomes one of the most powerful Jedi of the Order, and then falls away only to become a slave once again – this time to an Emperor.
By that point, he has been stripped of his loved ones, his limbs, his very name, known thereafter only as Darth Vader.
But the story doesn’t end there – it takes another three films, but by the end of the saga, Anakin is plucked back from the darkness by none other than his own son.
And just as you cannot talk about Anakin’s story without talking about Luke, you absolutely cannot talk about Luke without talking about his father.
Like Father, Like Son
From day one, Luke wanted nothing more than to be like his father – he says so multiple times. Raised by his aunt and uncle, Luke never knew Anakin, but he feels a pull to his father’s legacy all the same: “I want to learn the ways of the Force and become a Jedi like my father,” he tells Obi-Wan.
…So it’s something of a rude awakening at the end of the Empire Strikes Back when he realizes that his hero and idol is none other than the galaxy’s Big Bad #2.
You see, right up to this moment of paternal discovery, Luke has been going through a Vader hate-fest for two whole films. Darth Vader “betrayed and murdered your father,” Obi-Wan tells Luke, and this statement breeds a hate-fire powerful enough to fuel a couple star systems. Luke takes it for granted that his life’s mission is to kill Darth Vader.
Until he finds out that Darth Vader is his father – the very man he has most wanted to know and love and become all his life.
And THAT’S WHEN THE STORY GETS GOOD, BABE!
Because what’s remarkable about Star Wars is also what this story is not:
- It’s not a story about a boy rejecting his family history, negating his father from his life.
- It’s not about Luke overcoming his father, rising from the ashes of his father’s ruin to a new life in pure opposition to Anakin’s legacy.
No, Star Wars is about a boy who chooses compassion for his father – and, miraculously, that very compassion saves Anakin in the end.
The thing you have to understand though is that this reconciliation between the two isn’t just a nice personal moment between the Luke and Anakin at the end of Return of the Jedi – the implications of this event are COSMIC in their scope.
Throughout the whole Star Wars saga, the big end goal is “balance” in the Force. They only say it a million times. Anakin, say the Jedi, is the Chosen One who will bring balance to the Force – this mantle is later implicitly passed on to Luke by Obi-Wan and Yoda.
But what does that even mean? Balance? What, is the Force some sort of spiritual teeter-totter?
Well first off, there are two sides to the Force: the Light, and the Dark. The Jedi are agents of the Light; the Sith, of the Dark.
Now, finding balance does not mean that the two sides need to get along. I mean, when you have Yoda and Obi-Wan Kenobi on one side and the Emperor on the other, the two groups are not exactly going to meet for tea every Tuesday. Opposition is only natural, and even necessary.
Neither does balance of the Force mean equal numbers of Sith to Jedi (technically that was achieved at the end of Revenge of the Sith with 2-2, but something about the death, destruction, and unqualified triumph of evil tells me that universal peace and harmony wasn’t exactly achieved that day).
Balance in the Force – in my understanding – means that the two sides recognize the Other in themselves. The Light sees the darkness in themselves and accepts it; and, just as importantly, the Dark sees the Light in themselves and embraces that as well.
Such an understanding will necessarily cause a shift: the scales tip – and someone is redeemed.
Beware the Dark Side
The problem is that such a truth is seen amongst both Sith and Jedi as impossible. Everyone believes the interaction between the Dark and Light as a one-way street: once you go Dark, you can never go back. You forever become the darkness and are lost to the Light forever. The end.
“Once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny” – Yoda says this to Luke twice, in two separate films. The Emperor seemingly concurs, throwing around phrases like, “It is unavoidable,” “It is your destiny,” when trying to seduce Luke to the Dark side.
And the effects of this view are toxic – just look at Obi-Wan.
He and Anakin were friends, Obi-Wan having trained him from a young boy. They were family. And yet the moment he discovers Anakin’s defection to the dark side, he divorces the memory of “Anakin” from “Darth Vader” completely, seeing them as two separate people – one dead, the other irredeemable. He doesn’t question the fact that Anakin must be killed (only that he be the one to wield the saber).
Then when he stands over the ruined body of his friend at the end of Revenge of the Sith, Obi-Wan screams, “You were my brother Anakin!” and leaves him to burn alive in the dirt. Notice the past tense: even though Anakin is very much alive (if disfigured), Obi-Wan already sees him as dead and gone. This dissociation continues years later when Obi-Wan tells Luke that Anakin was killed by Darth Vader (to Luke’s immense confusion and dismay a film later).
Obi-Wan so much believes that Anakin is beyond salvation, that there is no Light left in him, he has no qualms telling Luke to kill his own father. “He is more machine now than man – twisted and evil.”
“I can’t kill my own father,” Luke says.
“Then the Emperor has already won.”
What the heck, Obi-Wan?! Clearly this isn’t a very healthy approach.
Luckily, Luke doesn’t buy into it for a second.
And that, my friends, is what saves EVERYTHING in the end.
Because Luke understands what being a Jedi really means. He gets it where seemingly no one else does that the Jedi way is all about compassion.
Love is All You Need
The notion of compassion as a central piece to Jedi philosophy actually comes from Anakin –
“Compassion, which I would define as unconditional love, is essential to a Jedi’s life.”
Unconditional love is at the core of Jedi teachings – which makes sense of most Jedi practices, when you think about it. To maintain a focus on compassion, empty yourself of negative emotion. Cultivate love for all, and peace will come. Condense your inner state to one of unconditional, unqualified love, and a clarity comes to make your feelings a guide to the Force.
To put it another way: you cannot be a Jedi without compassion driving everything else.
However, from what we can see in the prequel films, the Jedi no longer focus on compassion in practice. Certainly Obi-Wan at least is lacking that compassionate view of Anakin, and I think even Yoda is as well. They apparently don’t think Vader has any good left in him.
I don’t blame them – they saw Anakin commit some pretty horrific acts. That would be tough for any guy to swallow – especially Obi-Wan who was so close to him.
What I am saying though is just how much more awesome and cool that makes Luke for choosing compassion for Anakin. He becomes the true Jedi.
How It All Goes Down
The road there isn’t easy though – compassion for Vader doesn’t naturally come to Luke. He has to work at it.
One nudge comes in the cave scene – you know, the weird one in Empire Strikes Back. Basically, Luke walks into a ~mysterious~ cave, and sees “Vader” walk out of the shadows, at which point Luke chooses to pull out his lightsaber and fight him. He defeats “Vader” only to discover when the mask falls away that the face inside is his own.
The lesson: trying to destroy Vader is only destroying himself.
But the lesson really hits home in his final fight with Vader before the Emperor – having momentarily succumbed to blinding rage, Luke beats his father down, cuts off Vader’s right hand, and sees wiring laid bare – a mechanical hand, just like Luke’s.
It’s in that moment, Luke realizes how very similar he and his father truly are – and it’s not a moment of rejection. He doesn’t recoil from the similarities, but embraces them.
You see, up to this point, Luke had been told by both Obi-Wan and the Emperor that he had only two options:
- Kill Vader, or
Luke’s ultimate triumph and the moment that changes everything is when he sees that there is a third option.
He turns back to the Emperor, throws his lightsaber away, and says, nodding to his father…
“You’ve failed, your highness. I am a jedi, like my father before me.”
Luke has reached ultimate compassion, choosing to see the good in his father despite all the evidence, and also seeing his father in himself.
This is a man who is spoken of by everyone, including himself, as being past saving: “It’s too late for me, my son,” Vader says earlier on. But Luke doesn’t believe it – he never believes it! Even while being tortured on the ground, in agony, he still cries out for his father who stands nearby as mere witness to his pain.
…Until Vader drop kicks the Emperor down a shaft. Heck YES!
Tipping the Scales
You see, balance wasn’t brought to the force when the Emperor died. This isn’t a game of chess where you win once you take out the King. The Force doesn’t care about politics, sorry to disappoint you.
Balance was brought to the Force the instant Luke’s compassion saw the Light in the Dark, and the Dark in the Light. It was the moment that realization broke through to Anakin, and Vader turned back. Anakin also saw himself in Luke, but also the goodness remaining in himself.
Anakin turned from the Dark side to the Light. He did what no one else seemingly thought possible – he found redemption.
Despite all the evil he did, Anakin realized that no, it wasn’t too late for him. He could turn back – choose the Light, and reject the Darkness. All the evil he had done in his life did not prevent him from doing good right then and there. So he chucks the Emperor into an abyss, destroying his Master and the man who was killing his son.
It was Luke’s compassion – that unconditional love – that sunk into Anakin’s heart. Compassion from a son to his father redeemed the father and restored balance to the Force.
A man and a universe were saved because of love.
“You were right, Luke.”
As Luke pulls his father’s body away towards the ship, Anakin tells him to take off his mask. It’s first time Anakin sees his son, and Luke sees his father. It’s a scene that quietly rehashes the moment that tipped the scales only minutes before when father and son fought for each other in defiance of the Emperor.
They look into each other’s eyes for the first time – and they smile.
“Now go, my son. Leave me.”
“No…I’ve got to save you!” says Luke.
“You already have, Luke,” Anakin replies.
And when Luke gives his father a proper Jedi funeral later on, Anakin appears with Obi-Wan by his side this time – and he smiles at Luke once again.