There is nothing truly remarkable about the design on the shirt (pictured above). For all intents and purposes, it is otherwise run-of-the-mill. The partial quote emblazoned in capital letters on is a recognizable one from Return of the Jedi: “I AM A JEDI LIKE MY FATHER.” Within the words, a LEGO version of Jedi Knight Luke Skywalker from stands in a ready position with his green lightsaber ignited. Determination emblazoned on his face, this LEGO Luke is prepared to enter battle.
While I am conditioned by my life-long love of the franchise to notice Star Wars merchandise online and in-stores, I rarely linger on the products I find. On the one hand, I have more than enough Star Wars stuff, and on the other, many Star Wars products are pretty banal. Unless something really unique catches my eye, or I have a vested interest in a product, I typically “move along” rather quickly.
Yet, this t-shirt design, while not something I would buy for myself, never-the-less caught my attention. In fact, when I saw it, I found myself pondering what I was seeing. And the reason for this reaction was because in that moment I was looking at an image which fundamentally misrepresents Luke Skywalker when he states this quote in Return of the Jedi.
In my piece Luke Skywalker: A Farewell to Arms I dive into the moment Luke Skywalker delivers the quote, the moment he truly becomes a Jedi in Return of the Jedi. As Emperor Palpatine goads Luke to destroy and replace Darth Vader, the young man has a moment of clarity. The anger which propelled Luke to violence and saw him teetering on the precipice of the Dark Side is washed away by an awareness which comes to him before he delivers the killing blow. Recognizing how close to darkness he has come, he turns toward Palpatine, he throws his lightsaber away. It is only then, after this action, when he declares “I am a Jedi, like my father before me.”
The t-shirt design presents a far different accounting of this critical moment. While keeping part of the quote which signifies his elevation to Jedi Knight – I AM A JEDI LIKE MY FATHER – it instead couples Luke’s declaration with an image of Luke that does not fit the scene in Return of the Jedi. Notably, the design is actually closer to an image of Luke from earlier in the film when he is battling Jabba the Hutt’s gang on the sail barge. Were the quote left out of the design, and we were just given the image of a LEGO Luke that mirrors Luke’s sail barge stance, none of this would really matter. Never-the-less, the image of Luke within the quote serves as a reminder that Star Wars creators and fans alike are often willing and eager to undercut one of the most radically subversive moments in the Star Wars narrative.
Admittedly, this is hardly surprising. Star Wars in general and the Jedi in particular have, overtime, succumbed to the flashy excitement of lightsabers. It is how Jedi are understood, how they are defined, how they are recognized. A symptom, at least in part, of the choreographed lightsaber battles of the Prequel Trilogy that added more gravitas and intrigue through balletic acrobatics, the snap-hiss ignition and hypnotic twirling of blue and green blades has come to be the defining feature of the Jedi Order. The franchise consistently telegraphs that being a Jedi is having a lightsaber ignited and at the ready. It is hardly shocking, then, that a shirt design depicting Luke Skywalker, even a LEGO version, would show him with his green lightsaber at the ready and superimposed within his iconic statement declaring his status as a Jedi.
But while this may not be surprising or shocking, it is nonetheless disappointing because it forces me to wonder if some of the most profound lessons in Star Wars are being lost. Star Wars has rightly been described as a form of modern-day myth, and as such, myth always has something to say, something to teach. In Return of the Jedi, the Jedi “return” precisely because Luke recognizes his capacity to fall into darkness and stops himself from doing so. Turning off his lightsaber and tossing it aside is not just a rejection of that darkness, it is a rejection of violence more broadly. Luke heroically displays that we, too, can reject violence through similar actions in our own lives.
Of course, to some fans, the act of disarming himself may seem foolish as he turns and faces down a powerful Sith Lord. Wishing he would have fought the Emperor and/or deriding Luke for being defenseless misses the point, though. Luke chooses the path of non-violence, willing to face his adversary, the Emperor, without his lightsaber because Luke recognizes and offers a lessons that is exceedingly important, one that the Star Wars franchise seems to have forgotten over time: the “elegant weapon of a Jedi Knight,” the lightsaber, is irrelevant to being a Jedi. It is NOT what makes him a Jedi; it is not what makes anyone a Jedi. Rather, Luke can declare “I am a Jedi” because he possesses something far greater than a saber of light. He possesses the Light Side of the Force. Choosing to face his enemy with only the Force as his ally offers the clearest sign that the Jedi have returned. But don’t just take my word for it, take the Emperor’s. He is the one who has the final say on the matter in the moment, and I will likewise give him the final word here.
“I am a Jedi, like my father before me,” Luke declares, standing with poise after tossing aside his lightsaber. And to this, the Emperor responds with a contemptuous affirmation: “So be it, Jedi.”