Guest Talker: Michael J. Miller
When I was a child, Return Of The Jedi was always my favorite Star Wars film. Yes, I know The Empire Strikes Back is the most artistic and philosophical of the films. I get it. I do. But the little kid version of me didn’t care about that. I liked Return Of The Jedi for two major reasons. First, there was a conclusion. I wanted an ending and Return of the Jedi gave that to me. It was a good one, too. The heroes won! Yay!
Second, I loved that we finally got to see Luke Skywalker in Jedi mode! In A New Hope we see Luke awkwardly begin to use his lightsaber. In The Empire Strikes Back we see Yoda put Luke through an odd Jedi workout, the deep and profound spiritual and philosophical significance of which I was far too young to understand. But in Return Of The Jedi, we see Luke in full-on Jedi superhero mode as he rescues Han Solo from the clutches of that vile gangster Jabba the Hutt.
I still vividly remember the excitement I felt as I watched Luke bring Jabba’s organization down in a blaze. Here was our hero! The Jedi had returned! I loved it. It was quite the shock then when, years later, I first realized that Luke was far from a Jedi superhero in that scene. In fact, everything he does as he rescues Han from Jabba is in and of the Dark Side. That was a tough pill to swallow…
As the film begins, R2 plays a message where Luke introduces himself to Jabba the Hutt as a Jedi Knight. When Luke appears at Jabba’s Palace, though, he is clearly sliding into the Dark Side. Physically, he looks just like Vader or the Emperor! He is dressed all in black and wrapped in a black cloak, face shrouded. Echoing his father’s actions, he even uses the Force to strangle a few of the Gamorrean guards as he enters the palace.
Luke tells Jabba, “I warn you not to underestimate my powers.” Like his father he is focused on his own abilities, cocky, and arrogant. Yoda told Luke a Jedi uses the Force for “knowledge and defense, never attack.” Yet when Jabba refuses to negotiate with Luke, the first thing he tries to do is shoot the Hutt! Luke also threatens Jabba’s life twice. First he tells Jabba, “This’ll be the last mistake you ever make.” And second he demands, “Free us or die.” These sorts of ultimatums and threats are not the Jedi way. From threats to violence to arrogance to vengeance, nothing he does at Jabba’s Palace is of the Light Side.
And yet, the hero emerges, the Jedi do return. But they came back in a way that young me couldn’t fully understand. Luke – and by extension the Jedi – wasn’t the sort of superhero I expected. What Luke learns, what Luke does, is more heroic and far more important than anything that filled the pages of the superhero comics I was reading or the cartoons I was watching.
When Luke surrenders himself to Vader on Endor we see the man he was at Jabba’s Palace is no more. Instead of threatening Vader when he doesn’t agree with him, Luke offers his life. Luke has faith his father can be redeemed. As opposed to the further corruption of a battle tinged with the Dark Side of the Force, Luke is willing to die for what he believes in. Luke is calm, at peace.
While in the Emperor’s Throne Room aboard the second Death Star, Luke falls in and out of combat with his father, trying to resist the pull of the Dark Side. Yet, it is only after he severs Vader’s hand that he realizes the truth of the power of his choices and who he can become.
The Emperor—“Good. The hate has made you powerful. Now fulfill your destiny and take your father’s place at my side.”
[Luke switches off his lightsaber.]
[He throws his lightsaber away.]
Luke—“I’ll never turn to the Dark Side. You’ve failed your highness. I am a Jedi, like my father before me.”
It is in that moment, with the most powerful line of the film (in my opinion, at least) that the Jedi truly return in Luke. He is ready to die for his belief in the Light Side of the Force and for his belief in his father. Luke is ready to give himself over to something larger than himself; he is ready to be selfless. In that moment of nonviolent resistance and self-sacrifice Luke redeems Anakin. What happened on Mustafar is reversed. Vader is destroyed. Anakin—moved by the love he has for his son who is calling out to him for help—destroys the Emperor, saves Luke, and brings balance to the Force.
Now as an adult, Return Of The Jedi is still my favorite Star Wars film but for all new reasons. To me, nothing is more powerful than that moment – where the Jedi return and Anakin is redeemed. It’s brilliant and exciting film-making. Yet its importance comes from how the power of that moment extends beyond the film. Luke not only redeems his father but offers a daring challenge to anyone watching the film. This – love, nonviolence, self-sacrifice, and faith – is the true nature of the Light Side of the Force. This, according to Star Wars, is the true nature of a hero. The question then rests with us as viewers, are we brave enough to follow Luke on that path?
About the Guest Talker:
Michael J. Miller is a Theology teacher at Mercyhurst Preparatory School in Erie, PA. He has a BA in Religious Studies from Mercyhurst University and an MA in Pastoral Studies from Gannon University. He is proud of the many Star Wars t-shirts in his closet and always keeps two lightsabers in his desk just in case a wayward Sith ever wanders by. He never tires of talking obsessively about all things Star Wars.
I had never even thought of it that way… This also to me accents for us an important facet of the Force. Luke, our golden boy, once unsupervised starts to slip towards the dark side! To me this is also vaguely reminiscent of how in Episode I Obi-wan turns super aggressive after the death of Qui-gon, and how Anakin would slip towards the dark side every time he wasn’t in Padawan mode with his master right there (those poor sand people). It is clear that without constant focus and attention, one will fall to the dark side. Also I’m pumped for Love and Evil B2. Just saying.
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Matthew, you hit on a really important point regarding Luke being unsupervised, and connecting this to other moments where, unsupervised, Jedi slip and give into their anger. The face on young Kenobi is priceless when he looks at Maul after Qui-Gon’s death. It is a face of not just anger, but rage. When he goes on the attack, he does so aggressively and it is not until he is facing his demise (holding on for dear life) that he seems to assess the situation, see his surroundings, and strike the fatal blow against Maul (well, fatal in that it just struck Maul down…didn’t kill him).
What is perhaps even MORE fascinating is that Luke, and others, seem to slip while they ARE supervised. Luke abandons his training on Dagobah because he fears for Han, Leia, and the others on Cloud City. Yoda AND Obi-Wan try to stop him from going but he doesn’t listen. Given what Mr. Miller points out about Luke in RotJ, that Luke is toying with the Dark Side in the first half of the film, one must ask (and I present this thought in hopes that Mike chimes in): when is the EXACT moment Luke (unsupervised and all) stops his dark descent and rejoins the Light Side in full? Personally, I think the answer is the moment he has cut off Vader’s arm and looks at his own arm (which Vader had cut off). What say you, Mr. Baldwin?
I agree, I think in that moment Luke finally realizes that in his efforts he (almost) became what he was trying to destroy. I would even argue that if in that moment he hadn’t cut off Vader’s arm, he would have never drawn the parallel between himself and returned to the light.
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Ooooo great point! If he had killed Vader in that moment, and hadn’t cut off the arm, perhaps his turn to the Dark Side would have been complete!
I’d agree with what you both have said here. It’s in that moment, when Luke severs Vader’s hand, that he has his moment of realization and then conversion. He was anchored in the Light Side at moments earlier in the film (as evidenced by how he reacts when Vader goads him on Endor) but he keeps answering the call of the Dark Side. We see that brilliant back and forth with the Emperor on the Death Star. However, once he sees how clearly he’s falling like his father (and also, perhaps, realizes WHAT he is doing TO his father) he finds the strength to reject the Dark Side and become a true Jedi.
Oh, I’m looking forward to the new Love & Evil elective too Mr. Baldwin! There’s probably a good chance some of the themes in this conversation will show up there too…
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I too have always loved Return of the Jedi and as a child and it was by far my favorite film in the trilogy, to finally see a fully skilled Luke even if not yet fully trained Luke when faces off against Jabba and Vader in their final duel.
One lesson that the duel and how it ended reminded me of is the parable of the man and abyss. For the final lesson was not a new force skill or ability as we perhaps thought before we hear Yoda say “No more training do you require,” but something greater and intangible. Man stairs as the abyss and sees nothing staring back at him, there man finds character and that is what keeps him out of the abyss. In the case of Luke in ROTJ the abyss is the Dark Side, and the character he finds that keeps him out of the abyss is wisdom. He makes the connection looking at his own mechanical hand that he is on the same road of his father, this epiphany is a realization of lessons he heard from Yoda in his training. So often in life we can be told the answer but we never understand why until we go out in the world and learn it for ourselves. Such is the case here. He looks at the Dark Side, he realizes the path he is on by the parallels of him and his father, and the character he finds is wisdom. He already knew how to use his power, but now he has the wisdom to control himself with it; learning benevolences, compassion, and selflessness. Luke tossing his lightsaber aside is a symbol to the Emperor, Luke saying to him that you can destroy me but you will never destroy the goodness and light that I represent.
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Perfectly said! I love your point about the thing that keeps him (us) out of the abyss is wisdom, something that Luke gains in the moment he truly sees (and feels) the power of the Dark Side and he shows by throwing away the saber. This is something I am going to be thinking about for a while, now.