Frantic to return to his homestead to warn his family about an impending Imperial raid, Luke arrives too late. Slowing down in his landspeeder, the young man leaps out and calls to his uncle Owen and aunt Beru as black smoke billows from his burning home. Scanning the destruction, Luke locks eyes on the smoldering carcasses of his guardians. Not only was he too late, but the extermination was absolute. Luke may have expected, as he sped closer to home and could see the smoke on the distant horizon, that he would find the limp bodies of Owen and Beru. But he surely did not expect such an abhorrent scene – the grotesque, distorted skeletons of his loving uncle and aunt. One cannot help but wonder -and certainly the thought must go through Luke’s mind – if his uncle and aunt suffered in their final moments of life, tortured by the pain of being burned alive.
This short but disturbing moment in A New Hope is one that never fails to move and pain me. Admittedly, the event is a narrative necessity, albeit a disturbing one, a way of jettisoning Luke from the confines of his childhood connections into a larger world. Seeking adventure and desiring to leave home, even petitioning his defiant Uncle at dinner the night before to allow him to leave, Luke’s adolescent dreams can not be fulfilled. There is no longer any resistance standing in his way and he can join Obi-Wan Kenobi on his valiant quest to defeat the Empire.
And yet, as the scene concludes with Luke standing there in the quiet desolation of his childhood as the smoke billows and the carcasses continue to smolder, I have always wondered: what did Luke do next?
This is not a question that demands a definitive answer. In fact, I would be furious if the Lucasfilm Story Group was to provide an “official” or “canonical” account regarding Luke’s actions (or his thoughts/feelings) when the scene concludes. On one level, this is because this scene in A New Hope, which we can link with Luke’s sad return to Obi-Wan and his admission that he can now join the Jedi Master’s journey, work with seamless fluidity even though they are separated. We do not need to be told what Luke did in the interval because the narrative intention in A New Hope is to move Luke from one stage of life to the next. The innocence of his childhood is literally destroyed and he will now venture forth into the responsibilities of adulthood.
On another level, any “official” explanation would usurp the imaginative faculties of fans, taking away the opportunity for one to insert their own thoughts and feelings into the heart-wrenching moments before, during, and after Luke arrives. Not knowing what Luke does, or the emotional turmoil he experiences, is in many respects what makes the death of Owen and Beru so powerful. Without explanation, other than the pained look on young Skywalker’s face as he views the carnage of his familiar surroundings, we are left to fill in the gaps, all of which enables our own, individualized connections with Luke, and the film, to flourish.
And so, the question – what did Luke do next? – percolates in my mind precisely because my imaginative faculties, aided by the emotion which the scene evokes inside of me, consistently arrives at a number of possible explanations. Just as I can believe Luke simply turned around, walked back to his speeder and left his home, I can just as easily imagine that Luke feel to the ground and broke down in tears. Or maybe Luke dropped to his knees and screamed, bellowing out the agony and guilt of not being there to protect his loving family.
Perhaps Luke sprung into stoic action, choosing to carefully bury the bodies as he internally contemplated the loss of his innocent and simple life. Digging graves next to those of his great uncle Cliegg and great aunt Shmi, Luke placed the wrapped bodies of uncle Owen and aunt Beru in graves he methodically dug. The burial complete, Luke returned to his land speeder and drove off into the Tatooine desert, taking nothing but the memories of his family, his home, and his youth with him.