Luke Skywalker Cannot Be a Grey Jedi

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?”

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Luke committing to the Jedi ways.

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.

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Luke and Han awarded medals in A New Hope.

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…

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Luke and Darth Vader duel in The Empire Strikes Back

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.

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Luke facing his father Darth Vader.

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?

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Luke and his dying father

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.

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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.

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Luke Skywalker in The Force Awakens.

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.

Further discussion

I’ll just bring attention to a few great articles on why Luke is such an important character in Star Wars:

You All Forgot That Luke Skywalker is a BAMF

Misperceiving Luke: is it whining or is it character-development?

Exemplary Manhood in Film: Luke Skywalker (Christian perspective)

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Opinion: Slave Leia

As a life-long Star Wars fan, Leia ties with Luke as my favourite film character. She is the perfect combination of sassy, smart, brave, warm, loyal, wise, and caring. Carrie was also a total boss and owned her life – the good and the bad – and didn’t care what anyone else thought.

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Slave Leia and Jabba. Credit: Oracle of Film

The Return of the Jedi is my favourite of the eight five films. Luke’s arc culmination is incredible. He would go to the Dark Side to save Leia, and that has touched my soul since I was a child. Unfortunately, the movie is also famous for Leia’s Huttese slave bikini and it led to an explosion of marketing featuring her in the skimpy two-piece. Before we go further, I think the outfit is actually beautiful and sexy, and Carrie looked amazing. I have issues with its influence on how Leia is portrayed. For all of Leia’s accomplishments, the imagery associated most frequently with her in advertising, toys, etc is the slave bikini which, in my opinion, greatly undermines her power and legacy.

Carrie was not keen on wearing the outfit. It was director Richard Marquand’s idea “because she was incredibly sexy,” and it was floated by costume designer Nilo Rodis-Jamero and supported by George Lucas (from Star Wars Costumes: The Original Trilogy). She had very little, if any, speaking time while wearing it. Recently she advised Daisy Ridley to not be a slave like she was. Also, am I the only person bothered by her “fun” Rolling Stone beach photoshoot with Darth Vader (Leia’s father) to promote The Return of the Jedi? Why did George and the gang ever think that those photos sent the right message? I agree with Carrie in that the best moment is when she strangles Jabba with his own chain attached to her neck, and then changes into something sensible off-screen.

Disney should not outright ban the outfit as it’s still a part of her character. However, up until recently Slave Leia has dominated merchandise. I would have preferred the bikini to not be the first (for a while, the only) version of Leia released by Hasbro for the Black Series of action figures while they delayed other Leia figures due to “likeness issues” but released multiple variations of other male characters. I would have preferred that for a while the Facebook “page” for Princess Leia did not feature Olivia Munn dressed as Slave Leia as the photo that represents “Princess Leia.”

As a cosplayer, I personally would never wear the outfit because I respect Leia for who she would have preferred to be seen. Over the years, however, I have seen so many women embracing the outfit as an expression of empowerment (Amy Schumer’s recent GQ photoshoot being the most public and crude incarnation of Slave Leia cosplay). I would ask… “why?” She didn’t carry around a Huttese bikini in her bra just in case she ran across a slimy worm crimeload she felt compelled to snuggle up with. She was his slave. It was intended to humiliate her and reduce her agency and power.

I disagree with the various rationalizations put forth over time, and I believe that the bikini should be seen as exploitation and not empowerment. On the other side of the debate, some would arugue that it is a symbol of Leia’s suffering, conquering her oppressor, and that she needed to be the sex slave to prove herself. Noah Bertalsky argued that her Boushh-Slave transition was a metaphor for her sexual awakening. On a lower level, Lizzy Finnegan argued that anyone who criticizes the legacy of the bikini is just a jealous feminist. These rationalizations often sound to me like an intellecutally dishonest cover for “I want a Slave Leia poster on my wall” or “I want to be a slave.” If I was Leia, my first thought after killing Jabba would not be “Now I am a woman! That was the most edifying moment of my life!” No, I shun the idea that a woman draws her worth from being sexualised against her will, which is basically what these commentators argue.

I would ask these commentators: does the bikini need to be in so many of the advertisements over all of her other non-sexual outfits (that had significantly more screentime)? If Jabba had put her in a frumpy jumpsuit, would you be arguing so strongly for her wearing it? If Carrie wasn’t considered “hot,” would men actually argue that she was exploited? Can’t we appreciate what the outfit meant within the context of the film but remember that Leia would not have wanted to wear that uncomfortable metal contraption? Can we talk about the trolls who body-shamed Carrie when she appeared in Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (her male co-stars escaping such scrutiny), many of whom are undoubtedly men who watch The Return of the Jedi “for the ewoks”? Can we just admit that sex sells and that’s what this is all about? What kind of message does that send to girls and young women?

In the film, she subverted the “damsel in distress” trope which is exactly what Leia would do. “Slave Leia” on merchandise and in advertising loses that context and reduces her to a one-dimensional male fantasy. It sends the message that this fierce warrior and politician, the only significant woman in the original trilogy, is only relavent to the entire story of Star Wars when she is essentially naked.

That being said, women being sexualised in fantasy and science fiction is nothing new. Women’s portrayal in the 1970s and before is a history lesson in itself. In the last thirty years of Star Trek alone, Marina Sirits said, of portraying Deanna Troi in Star Trek: The Next Generation, that she “got her brains back” when the writers gave her a uniform instead of a tight, cleavage-baring jumpsuit. The writers for Star Trek: Voyager swapped quiet and demure Kes for sex kitten Seven of Nine to improve the ratings and it took a long time for her to get any character development. She was actually an interesting character once they paid attention to her beyond suggestive camera angles. Cat-suit-wearing T’Pol on Enterprise stripped with Trip in the decontamination shower in the pilot episode, forever either establishing or destroying her potential as a character depending on your point of view (and emotional maturity). While Slave Leia never traded brains for boobs, the bikini’s legacy in our culture propagates the idea that the woman gets sexualized and such sexualization is the only way to justify her existance while men are never expected to prance around as sex objects in order to be fully fleshed-out characters.

Image collage: Princess Leia’s outfits through the course of the three films. The Huttese bikini remains perhaps her most iconic outfit in merchandise, with the Alderaan outfit a close second. All images found on Pinterest.com.

I don’t ask that the bikini be buried and never see the light of day again, or that Disney edits the film to cover her up in the spirit of Iranian state censorship. I take issue with the rationalization of why the bikini is so popular and I wish that for every instance where the bikini is used in merchandise and advertising, they also offered material featuring her seldom-seen Bespin gown, or her Hoth outfit, for those of us who don’t want to embrace and support her sexualisation. She does not need a bikini to show she is tough and she would still be the same beloved First Lady of Star Wars without it.