Luke Skywalker: initially the heroic darling of the original trilogy, Luke has long been derided as the whiny, sensitive, impulsive, immature farmboy. Since Han Solo’s demise, Luke has become seen as the “cool Jedi” again, largely based on the assumption that in the time span between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens, he has tapped into the Dark Side, or is at least something analogous to a “Grey Jedi.”
But do people genuinely change their inner self when dealt traumatic experiences, such as the slaughter of Luke’s students at the hands of his own nephew? In the original trilogy, Luke is an idealist who saves his father from the Dark Side. How would that match with the suggestion that he has tapped into something more sinister?
Note: I am primarily using the most popular definition of a Grey Jedi, being a Jedi who uses both the Dark and Light Sides of the Force.
Luke’s Arc Through the Trilogy
In Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, we are introduced to a young man who has a few questions about his past. The most important one would be, “Who is my father?”
We see Luke’s commitment to doing right by his obligations from the beginning, especially after meeting Old Ben, also known as Obi Wan Kenobi. The mysterious Jedi seems able to answer Luke’s questions (which his Uncle Owen refuses to answer), and gifts him a Jedi’s weapon.
However, the price for the answers is to leave his Uncle and Aunt and travel with Obi Wan. Luke reluctantly chooses to stay on the farm because they need him. Only after they have been slaughtered does he agree to go, where staying on Tatooine is almost too painful for him. When he changes his mind, he commits with his entire heart:
“I want to learn the ways of the Force and become a Jedi like my father.”
He has no idea what his father became or what the Force or a Jedi really is, but he has pledged his life to it. Throughout the films we see that he tends to leap before he looks, and lives with the difficult consequences of his choices.
Luke believes that the Force is fundamentally good. Even when others doubt if an x-wing pilot can hit the exhaust hole on the Death Star, Luke answers confidently that it can be done… implicitly because it must be done. Right and good succeeds, so it will work out. You might describe Luke as pure-hearted, idealistic, and naive.
In Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, Luke leaves his friends to seek a Jedi teacher. He finds a powerful and wise Jedi in the form of a small, ancient, green alien named Yoda who does not meet his expectations…
He is impatient and frustrated both with his training and his masters. Where the Jedi are reclusive, secretive, tempered, and possessing a single-minded, long-ranging vision, Luke is warm, open, passionate and sees multiple but short-sighted possibilities and solutions. Where Obi-wan and Yoda insist that he forsake his friends for his training, Luke forsakes his training for his friends. From the outset, Luke has rebelled against the traditional Jedi teachings and been his own kind of Force user.
Following Vader’s revelation, Luke must reevaluate his morals and vision. The naive and happy-go-lucky farmboy has disappeared. His experience at the Magic Tree revealed to him that on his current path of fear and hatred, he could fall as well. Luke must reconcile how he, who believes in good, is the son of the second-most evil being in the universe. He must reconcile Obi Wan’s words that his father was once a Jedi. He wrestles with Yoda’s wisdom that the Dark Side will forever dominate your destiny.
By Star Wars Episode VI: The Return of the Jedi, Luke’s purpose is refined: saving his father Vader. This is the ultimate expression of Luke’s dedication to his ideals. Obi-Wan, the Jedi who told Solo that “there are alternatives to fighting,” is advocating that Luke kill his own father. Luke’s failure to do so only spells defeat in Obi Wan’s eyes.
To Luke, however, there are alternatives to violence. Luke shows compassion and mercy to a man who deserves neither. His confidence now rests in his inner peace and lack of fear. In a way, Vader’s revelation helped to present a connection that Luke could use to his advantage. Vader is a human, now. The anger and fear that the Dark Side feeds upon has (mostly) disappeared.
Ultimately, Luke succeeded in saving the universe by first saving his father and by extension, his own soul. His small act of compassion and dedication moved Vader to end the Emperor’s torture. In their last moments together, Luke practices total forgiveness of his father’s crimes and insists on bringing him back to live as Anakin Skywalker. Anakin’s final words were to the daughter he never knew, effectively asking for her forgiveness through her brother. Described as “more machine, now, than human,” Anakin found his humanity again.
The Jedi Are not “Good”
I feel that the Jedi masters sought to protect Luke not from Vader the Sith Lord, but from Vader his father. Following Vader’s revelation, without proper training, he may have either joined Vader or killed him. Both would lead him down the Dark Side. Certainly that was Vader’s thinking as well. It harkens back to Uncle Owen not telling Luke anything about his past. Everyone around the young Jedi has been afraid that Vader’s connection would destroy him.
Instead, Luke throws himself into the abyss. He would rather die than join Vader.
How did his masters expect him to defeat and kill Vader without himself heading down the Dark Side and becoming the Emperor’s pawn? Ideally, Obi-Wan and Yoda would have preferred that Luke learned of his true parentage after Vader had been killed. They wanted an emotionless weapon. The moral and psychological consequences on Luke was of less concern. The news would probably have destroyed him. This plan would play into the Emperor’s hand, but when Luke realized that killing Vader was not the right path, the Emperor lost. He saw through what Vader had become. He was what the Emperor was after.
Never. I’ll never turn to the dark side. You’ve failed, your Highness. I am a Jedi, like my father before me.
At the end of it all, Luke still believes in his father Anakin. Luke uses every ounce of his compassion to not destroy Vader, against everything the Emperor wishes. The Dark Side is the “easy path” that leads to spiritual death. At the end of it all, with a defeated Vader before him, Luke throws his weapon aside and choses the Light Side – the difficult path towards spiritual life – facing physical death for his choice. He abandoned any motivations of fear, hatred, and desire for power.
Some would argue that Luke tapped into the Dark Side while raging against Vader. I disagree, at least to the extent that he tapped significantly into the Dark Side. I think we should separate hateful anger from righteous anger. Yes, Luke was angry. However, his anger came from a protective love for his sister, not a hatred of Vader himself. Though perhaps, a broader hatred of evil and the evil that Vader was proposing against Leia. Righteous anger can be productive when it causes us to enact changes and I feel that Luke was exercising (mostly) righteous anger.
The Jedi are not the gatekeepers of morality. The Jedi do not follow a supreme Jedi God handing down absolute truth – the council is led by mortal beings. The Jedi dedication to temperance of passions is naive at best, and destructive at worst. As humans, emotions separate us from robots. Violence and anger driven by fear and hatred – the motivations that Luke left behind – are what ultimately lead to the Dark Side.
Good is boring, evil is cool!
In 1977, we feared for the Rebels’ lives. Now [in Rogue One] we cheer their deaths.
Over the years, our culture’s preference for light or darkness has shifted toward darkness. A similar trend is observable in the Star Wars world. When it was first released, little boys wanted to be Luke Skywalker. Ten years later, Han Solo had eclipsed Luke Skywalker. By the mid-90s, Boba Fett was the man. Even more scoundrelly than Han, Boba Fett is morally grey. It’s easy to project onto him all of our fantasies of working in the shadows and committing crime while somehow maintaining our morality.
Since the prequel trilogy was released, the Dark Side of the Force has become much more popular. Star Wars merchandise features Darth Vader and the Empire much more frequently. Darth Vader has become a symbol of the ultimate “cool.” Little girls want to be Princess Darths. A miniature Darth Vader was a popular Superbowl commercial topic. Darth Vader’s final scene in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story was universally praised as the best 2 minutes of the entire film (which is not saying much) as he slaughters Rebel fighters – in 1977, we feared for the Rebels’ lives. Now we cheer their deaths. Isn’t Vader awesome?
Darth Vader is to be pitied for his suffering and respected for his authority, but not admired. Vader is not good. Vader is a murderer who gets redeemed, but not before executing the Emperor. However, the cries of adoration ignore his redemption to Anakin Skywalker. In a sense, both men – Luke and Anakin – are lost. Luke’s arc is ignored. Anakin’s redemption is seen as unimportant.
Luke’s Legacy and Grey Jedi
“There must be both dark and light. I will do what I must to keep the balance, as the balance is what holds all life. There is no good without evil, but evil must not be allowed to flourish. There is passion, yet peace; serenity, yet emotion; chaos, yet order. I am a wielder of the flame; a champion of balance. I am a guardian of life. I am a Gray Jedi.” – Grey Jedi Code
We also have the emergence of the “Grey Jedi,” a bullshit “code of ethic” that patently misses the point of the Force. Thankfully, I understand that Lucasfilms has confirmed that Grey Jedi won’t be a part of the new films. We’ll see. There are two definitions of a Grey Jedi, 1) a Jedi who does not follow the Jedi Council, and (more popularly), 2) a Force user who uses both the Dark and the Light Side to achieve balance. Common arguments for the Grey Jedi is that you get all the goodness of the Jedi/Light Side while also getting all the badassery and awesomeness of the Dark Side. I have an announcement to make: the “awesomeness” of the Dark Side only serves to entice while actually offering up spiritual death. What better way to administer the poison than in something tasty?
Unfortunately Luke has been tagged with the “grey Jedi,” label because he “tapped into the Dark Side to defeat Vader,” he “rebelled against Jedi teachings,” he “force-choked the Hutt guards,” or even worse, he’s “wearing black in The Return of the Jedi.” Those situations bore specific significance within the films, but don’t have any bearing on the actual Grey Jedi origin.
No one is pure. No one is above failure, sinning, darkness, etc. We are all capable of theft or murder, but do we necessarily do those things? Same logic. I am not denying that Luke has the capacity to tap into the Dark Side. However, because one has the ability to, does not mean one does that. While Luke was venting his anger and hatred toward everything that Vader has represented, he stopped. He recognized the path they could lead him down. He would become his father. We all possess both the raw darkness inside of us and the ability to choose not to entertain it. We should strive to be something greater. Effectively, the Grey Jedi code implies that to strive to be good is… bad.
Hoping that Luke has become a Grey Jedi – that he did not recognize the perils of the Dark Side – denies that he truly saved his father. Instead it says that Luke ultimately gave into his hate, at least from time to time. The very “code of ethics” for the Grey Jedi indicates that they have no moral compass or internal ideals. They follow whichever way the Force wind blows as long as it is “in balance.” Luke is the complete opposite, as his arc is defined by his ideals. Perhaps he changes his approach, perhaps he is cynical, but it is not possible for him to be a Grey Jedi in spirit.
Never. I’ll never turn to the dark side. You’ve failed, your Highness. I am a Jedi, like my father before me.
By the events of the third trilogy, perhaps Luke has seen the errors of the Jedi way, the sentiment of his statement is still true. Kylo Ren, his student, turned to the Dark Side and thus Luke went into hiding. We aren’t certain why, but shame and fear (of being killed, or repeating his mistake) are two good reasons. It suggests that he in fact has not turned to the Dark Side at all – not even in the capacity of being a Grey Jedi – and instead is ashamed of his failure and is questioning himself. His possible refusal to train Rey is his own projection of his past failure onto her. Perhaps Kylo brought him to a place he did not want to go, and would not want to return to again. Perhaps he has come to cynically believe that using the Force seems to always lead to the Dark Side. There is too much power.
No, I believe Luke will still reject the evils of the Dark Side: fear, anger, hatred, and desire for power. There is no “grey area” in this realm. As the film will not be released for another month, we don’t know the full context of Mark Hamill’s deep-seated discomfort with Rian Johnson’s decisions for Luke Skywalker.
If Johnson has indeed plunged Luke down into dark waters (without at least the hope of a redemption arc of his own) then the legacy of Luke Skywalker has been completely misunderstood. Luke’s sacrifice to save Anakin was in vain. Ultimately it sends the message that we will all fail and turn to our own Dark Sides, no matter how hard we fight it. That a good person is always ultimately corrupted, while the opposite – a corrupted person experiencing redemption – is not possible. We cannot rise above our fallen natures and become something greater.
I would like to believe that we still have room in our hearts for fundamentally good people.
I’ll just bring attention to a few great articles on why Luke is such an important character in Star Wars: