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Thursday, May 26, 2022

May 26, 2022: Star Wars Studying: Yoda, Luke, and Love

[May 27th will see the much-anticipated release of the first episode of Obi-Wan Kenobi, the newest Star Wars show. So this week I’ll offer a few ways to AmericanStudy the iconic series and its contexts and connections. May the Force be with us all!]

On what the wisest Jedi Master got very wrong, and why the opposite lesson matters so much.

As the dutiful father to two Star Wars-obsessed sons, I’ve watched the prequel trilogy many more times than I would have ever chosen to on my own (once was more than enough, to be honest). If I had to pin down the precise scene that epitomizes the failings of those three films, I would point not to obvious choices like Jar Jar Binks or “I don’t like sand” (although yes and yes), but instead to this weighty conversation between Yoda and Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) in Revenge of the Sith. For one thing, this CGI-version of Yoda looks infinitely less real than did the original trilogy’s puppet; I know we’re talking about a puppet green alien, but the scene is meant to be hugely emotional, and the feel of the characters matters. But more importantly, Yoda’s response to and advice for Anakin in this scene are uniformly terrible; this young man is terrified of losing a loved one, and Yoda tells him that the way of the Force and Jedi mean he should be happy if those he loves dies. Even if that’s officially true, Yoda should be able to sense how much it’s the opposite of what Anakin needs to hear at this moment; that he can’t makes me second-guess his role as Jedi Master and teacher to Luke in the original trilogy as well (and thus, yes, slightly ruins my childhood).

But the thing is, Yoda isn’t just wrong here about human nature or what the immensely powerful and deeply frightened young man sitting before him desperately needs; he’s also wrong about the Force and the Jedi. My evidence? None other than Luke Skywalker, and the most important actions in the entire series to date: those that result in turning Darth Vader back to the light side, destroying the Emperor, and helping save the universe. Luke took all those actions because he still loved his father and sensed the reciprocal love in him (despite Yoda’s assertion that Jedi aren’t supposed to love), and because he didn’t want to let his father (or his sister Leia, friend Han, and other loved ones) die without trying to save him. And Darth responded in kind for the same reasons: he did in fact still love his son, and didn’t want to let him die when the Emperor was on the brink of killing him. All of these most heroic actions are driven by precisely the kinds of deep and defining emotions that Yoda had argued are antithetical to the Jedi Order—and yet who could possibly argue with Luke when he says, amidst that final confrontation with the Emperor and shortly before his father saves him, “I am a Jedi, like my fatherbefore me”?

My point here isn’t just to argue with Yoda or display the silliness of the prequels (although if you watch them as much as I have, you’ll understand both impulses, I assure you). No, my point is that the Force itself, as portrayed by the original trilogy (and almost entirely misunderstood by the prequels), is quite literally love. That might seem mushy or reductive, but I think it’s actually a great lens through which to analyze what motivates some of the most vital and heroic characters in epic fantasy stories: Sam’s love for Frodo; Severus Snape’s love for Lily (Evans) Potter; Willow Ufgood’s love for Elora Danan; and the list goes on. On the one hand, this recurring storytelling thread grounds and humanizes these fantastic stories, linking them to one of the most shared and universal elements of our humanity. But at the same time, the thread elevates love, making it into a force that can change and shape and save worlds, can defeat the most powerful evils. Seen in this light, the ubiquitous family relationships between so many characters in the Star Wars universe aren’t just coincidence or storytelling shorthand; they’re a symbolic reflection of the love that links us to one another, that “surrounds us, and penetrates us, and binds the galaxy together.” A lesson Yoda, like all of us, could stand to learn.

Last StarWarsStudying tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other Star Wars contexts you’d highlight?

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