One thing that made the original Star Wars film so unique was how it introduced its main characters. After the memorable credit crawl, and the iconic opening shot of the Star Destroyer chasing the Rebel Blockade Runner we are introduced not to the hero of the story but two of its supporting players, the droids C-3P0 and R2-D2. This is followed by meeting the villain, Darth Vader and the heroine, Princess Leia. The droids flee, the princess is captured, and the villain is in pursuit of the Rebel Alliance, trying to reclaim the plans for their super weapon.
This leaves the audience wondering: just where is the hero of the story. The threat has been established and all that remains left is to see just who will rise up to challenge this tyrannical empire, and save not only the beautiful princess but the galaxy as well. Luke doesn’t even show up in the movie until a full half an hour into the film. When he’s first introduced in the film, Luke is not exactly what some may expect as a “hero”. He was just an 18 year old farm boy from a backwater planet of Tatooine, who is in the process of helping his uncle purchase some new droids for the farm and doing his chores.
An orphan boy living with his aunt and uncle, there is little in terms of excitement in his life. As he tells the droid C-3P0,when discussing where the droids had ended up,
“It just isn’t fair. Oh, Biggs is right, I’m never gonna get out of here… Not unless you can alter time, speed up the harvest or teleport me off this rock… well, if there’s a bright center to the universe, you’re on the planet that it’s farthest from.”
This is not really the stuff of heroes. We expect our heroes to come from big and exciting places and do incredible big and exciting things from birth. Hercules was able to strangle snakes as an infant. One of the sons of Thor was able to lift a giant’s foot from off of the god of thunder as a baby. Even today we expect it. No one wants to see Rambo in basic training, or watch Dirty Harry start out in the police academy. We like our heroes born, not made, and we like to see it from the outset.
However, few heroes are honestly introduced to us in a way that looks heroic at first. Perhaps most notable is King David in the Bible. Before he ruled the nation of Israel, before he became a mighty warrior, and even before he battled the giant Goliath, he was nothing more than a simple shepherd boy, in the backwater town of Bethlehem , watching the sheep. Luke, like David, was just doing his chores when his destiny found him. King Arthur is just known as “Wort” a lowly squire before he can ever draw the sword from the stone. Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit was simply enjoying a nice sunny day, in the Shire, an equally backwater area of Middle-earth, enjoying a whiff of tobacco from his pipe when Gandalf invited him on an adventure to the Lonely Mountain, one that would put him on the path to discovering The One Ring. Even Peter Parker is more worried about talking to the pretty girl in class he has a crush on, avoiding bullies and doing well in school then developing some great destiny that would lead him to rubbing elbows with various members of the Avengers, The Fantastic Four, and the X-Men.
Much like David, Arthur, Bilbo and Peter, Luke was completely unaware of what would await him that day. In fact the first thing he is told to do is to take the new droids and get them cleaned up before dinner. This leads to his famous line, which has become the ridicule of all but the most hardcore Star Wars fan: “But I was going to Tosche Station to pick up some power convertors.”
Despite his seemingly squeaky clean presence, Luke Skywalker was actually a fairly countercultural character. As Brad Bird, noted in The Making of Return of the Jedi,
“Remember that this was the 1970’s when the vast majority of films were paranoid, morally ambiguous, dark. This was the age of the antihero, when the Godfather was the masterpiece that most films aspired to be, where the killing of family members was ordered, ethics were murky and no one was to be trusted. To come out with a science-fiction fairy tale in that environment was nothing less than a radical act.”
Luke, in contrast was the furthest thing from an antihero. He had noble ideals, he had big dreams for his future, he was earnest, eager, and ready to do the right thing simply because, it was the right thing. If anything his battle against the death star was more like a high-tech version of the classic Bible story of David and Goliath. The story itself has gone on to become the cultural shorthand form of describing a story of a young hero who goes up against insurmountable odds to conquer a seemingly unbeatable foe.
However, this is only half the story. In the Bible, when David went out to face Goliath he did not go out with any weapons or arms, save for his rock, a sling and a staff. Even King Saul was amazed, as David went out in complete faith in his God, knowing that would help him win the day. In the same way, Luke goes up against the Empire in a rickety old space ship, switches off his computer and steps out in faith.
Much like the story of David and Goliath this is a moment that inspires and excites those who encounter the story. As director Peter Jackson, director of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings films, noted in the forward to the book The Making of Star Wars,
“I remember standing and cheering and waving my arms around when Luke was flying towards the Death Star… That sort of thing didn’t happen in films back then. It was the first time in my life that I’d ever become heavily engaged in a movie to the point of wanting to jump up and down and yell for the hero…It was a movie that was incredibly successful at engaging us. Luke really is us. That was Luke’s great contribution to the story of Star Wars. He was the character you felt you could relate to. He wasn’t outside your reach. Luke was just a kid like us who was swept away in this adventure-and though incredible things were asked of him, he managed to find it within himself to deliver in the way that we all hoped we could if we were flying the X-Wing towards the Death Star.”
Not that he was flawless. In fact Luke was whiny, impetuous, and tended to leap before he looked when it came to his plans. He was, in effect, not that different from many of the young boys watching the movie. Yoda describes it best in The Empire Strikes Back.
“Watched this one have I. Always staring of to the future was he. Never his mind on where he was. What he was doing…You are wreckless!”
Yet despite these flaws, there was something endearing about Luke in the simple fact that he wasn’t this big and intimidating titan of power from the outset. Like any young man he had big dreams for his future. He planned to join the Imperial Navy, and then find a way to join up with his childhood friend Biggs Darklighter for some exciting adventures around the galaxy.
His Uncle Owen would not allow it. Some are quick to compare Harry Potter’s uncle and aunt to Owen and Beru but that is a very thin comparison at best. It is more than obvious to anyone who watches or reads the Harry Potter books that the Durselys are abusive to Harry Potter, more on par with the wicked step mother in Cinderella or any other fairy tale. Owen and Beru however honestly loved Luke and want what’s best for him. Owen only wants to protect him, but Aunt Beru is even quick to point out to him,
“You can’t keep him here forever, Owen. Most of his friends are gone. Luke’s just not much of a farmer…he’s got too much of his father in him.”
However, Luke like any other teenager, just felt that his uncle was being so unfair and unreasonable. However as he would admit as Force Ghost a hundred years later to his descendant Cade Skywalker in Book III of the Star Wars: Legacy comic book series,
“Funny, all I ever wanted to do was get away from them- – away from here—to go out into the stars. Uncle Owen and I fought about it all the time. While I was under their roof I never understood how much they sheltered me, protected me and…loved me.”
Unknown to them, Luke has received his call to adventure, and completely by accident. While cleaning the droid R2-D2, he noticed something was jammed into the droid pretty tightly and in trying to jiggle it free activated a message for the Jedi Master, Obi-Wan Kenobi. In what would look like a blunder would become for Luke the beginning of his journey. As Joseph Campbell notes in the Hero with A Thousand Faces,
“This is an example of one of the ways in which the adventure can begin. A blunder –apparently the merest chance-reveals an unsuspected world, and the individual is drawn into a relationship with forces that are not rightly understood… Blunders are not the merest chance…They are ripples on the surface of life. Produced by unsuspected springs. And these may be very deep-as deep as the soul itself. The blunder may amount to the opening of destiny.”
For many a hero, this is how the quest really begins, by accident. Bilbo feels like he is just luggage when called to join Thorin and Company when he tumbles down a cavern and comes across The One Ring. In CS Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, Lucy Pevensie (whose first name, like Luke Skywalker, is derived from the Latin word for “bringer of light” indicating what they will bring to their respective dark and trouble worlds) stumbles upon Narnia while peaking inside a wardrobe in a spare room while exploring a big house in the country with her older siblings. An intercepted wire from Germany tips Indiana Jones off onto a quest for the lost Ark of the Covenant. Bruce Wayne’s journey to becoming Batman begins with a turn down the wrong alley at the wrong time. Peter Parker is accidently bit by a spider during a trip to the science lab. However none of these things are truly accidents but the will of something greater. Be they the will of Eru Illuvatar in Tolkien’s legendarium, the Will of Aslan in Narnia, the Will of God for Indiana Jones, or the Power of the Force in Star Wars an unseen hand is guiding these events to fruition.
Luke is ordered by his uncle to take the droids into one of Tatooine’s major cities to have the droid’s memory erased and to forget about the whole thing. However R2 runs away and in his pursuit Luke finds the little droid in a canyon where Luke is ambushed, only to be rescued by Obi-Wan Kenobi himself. While helping the boy recover and repair his droid, Obi-Wan begins to tell him the truth about his father.
Since he was a child, Luke only heard that his father had been a simple navigator on a space freighter. To which Obi-Wan told him,
“That’s what your uncle told you. He didn’t hold with your father’s ideals; he felt he should’ve stayed here and not gotten involved…I was once a Jedi knight, the same as your father. …He was the best star pilot in the galaxy, and a cunning warrior…And he was a good friend… “
Then Obi-Wan gives to Luke Anakin’s old lightsaber, admitting that Luke’s uncle would not allow it, fearing Luke would follow the “crazy old wizard ‘on some stupid crusade as Anakin did. He describes the weapon to Luke as the young man activates it and gives it a try.
” This is the weapon of a Jedi Knight. Not as clumsy or random as a blaster; an elegant weapon for a more civilized age. For over a thousand generations, the Jedi Knights were the guardians of peace and justice in the Old Republic. Before the dark times… before the Empire.”
Then after playing the message from Princess Leia that was carried by R2, Obi-Wan invites him to learn the ways of the Force and become a Jedi and come with him to Alderaan. This invitation is almost too much for Luke to take, and like Moses before the burning bush in the book of Exodus, he refuses. It would be easy to jump on Luke for his indecisiveness, but it is just as easy to see just why he would be reluctant .That morning, he was just a simple farm boy. In the afternoon, he learned he had the potential to be a Jedi and was asked to leave his home and everyone he knew to save the galaxy. Further he learned that this father he never knew was one of those legendary Jedi.
To be the child of a legend can be a difficult act for any one to try and follow. Luke acknowledges this later on in the story-arc In The Shadows Of Their Fathers from the Star Wars: Legends title Star Wars: Empire. Set after the events of the original Star Wars movie, the story arc saw Luke and the Rebels drive off Imperial Forces from the world of Jabiim, a world his father had visited during the Clone Wars. Luke learns that his father and the Jedi were ordered to abandon Jabiim, soon however, history became legend and tall tales spread about Anakin that painted a dark picture of Anakin. As Luke confides in a man named Nolan who they had come to help,
“…Growing up, I…never knew either of my parents. My aunt and uncle told me about them…gave me a sense of what kind of people they were. I felt a connection through those stories. In a way, I could relate to them. Then a few months ago, I found out that most of those stories weren’t even true. That my father was a greater man than I’d ever imagined…and in their own strange way, that my aunt and uncle were protecting me from his legacy. Or the pressure of living up to it…I guess I’ll never know…”
Further, if Luke heard anything about his father, it was that Anakin had been a navigator on a space freighter. It was a nice, simple, hardworking, ordinary ideal to live up to. Now, this “crazy old wizard’ comes along, says that he was not only best friends with his father, but that Luke was to follow in his footsteps. To make such a leap would be like hearing all your life your father had been a semi-truck driver and then finding out from his best friend he was actually a decorated CIA operative and it was time for you to follow that path. This would not be a decision to make lightly, one that would no doubt be perilous.
As such, Luke naturally refuses the heroes call, telling Obi-Wan,
“Alderaan? I’m not going to Alderaan, I’ve gotta get *home*, it’s late, I’m in for it as it is! Look, I can’t get involved. I’ve got work to do. It’s not that I like the Empire; I hate it, but there’s nothing I can do about it right now… It’s all such a long way from here… Look, I can take you as far as Anchorhead. You can get a transport there to Mos Eisley or wherever you’re going.”
Obi-Wan pleaded with Luke, hoping to change his mind, but reluctantly agreed that the boy had to do what he felt was right. However, destiny is a funny thing. For heroes like Luke Skywalker it can seem to know where you live. He would find that the same Jawa Traders that sold him Artoo and Threepio were killed by Stormtroopers, and deduce that they would be led back to his home. Hurrying back to the farm he found the farm in flames and his aunt and uncle brutally murdered.
Losing his aunt and uncle was more than enough to show him the full extent of the evil that the Empire could unleash. Obi-Wan tried to offer him comfort, telling him there was nothing he could have done as the Imperials would have killed him as well. It did little to assuage his grief or guilt as he now knew the full evil that the Empire was capable of.
He told Obi-Wan,
“I want to come with you to Alderaan. There’s nothing for me here now. I want to learn the ways of the Force and become a Jedi, like my father.”
As Obi-Wan would tell him in his earliest training sessions as Jedi, it would be his first step into a larger world. From there he would go to the Death Star to rescue the Princess, develop an uneasy friendship with smuggler Han Solo, battle Stormtroopers, and lead the assault on the Death Star, destroying the station. Amidst all this he would also suffer great loses as he would watch as Obi-Wan was seemingly cut down by Darth Vader and Biggs would die during the assault on the Death Star. Luke would be given great honors for his heroism at a medal ceremony but the war would be far from over, as the Empire would rest until it had destroyed the alliance.
It would be while on the run and hiding out on the remote ice planet of Hoth that Luke would receive a message from Obi-Wan urging him to continue and complete his training with an older and wiser Jedi master named Yoda. Not only would his knowledge of the Force be taken deeper and his understanding of the universe challenged, he would be forced to wrestle with the darkness that was within him. In a vision in a cave he encountered a specter of Darth Vader, and beheaded the image. When the head tumbled to the side the mask exploded revealing his own face.
It would be during his time on Dagobah that Luke would receive visions of Han and Leia in trouble. Yoda and Obi-Wan urged him not to leave, and begged him to complete his training. They knew his friends were being made to suffer because Vader and the Emperor wanted Luke on their side and neither Jedi wanted Luke to fall to the Dark Side. He was still too raw and untrained for the task ahead of him. However, Luke had the same streak of defiance that ran in Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan and Anakin. He told his master,
“I can’t keep the vision out of my head. They’re my friends. I’ve gotta help them…But Han and Leia will die if I don’t…(But) I’ve learned so much since then. Master Yoda, I promise to return and finish what I’ve begun. You have my word.”
Luke’s insistence of running off to save Han and Leia is certainly understandable. He had already lost his uncle and aunt and childhood best friend to the Empire, he couldn’t be blamed for not wanting to lose them either. However due to Luke’s impatience he rushed head long into danger not fully prepared for the trap that Darth Vader had waiting for him. Like Satan with Christ on the mountain top Vader tempted Luke to join him on the Dark Side, telling him that together they could end the war and destroy the Emperor. Moreover, Vader revealed to him that he was Luke’s father. Luke refused to believe it and rejected Vader’s offer, even so far as to risk plummeting to his own death then join him.
Luke was rescued by his friends but he was not the same person. When next we see him in Return of the Jedi he is dressed in black, having seen the very worst the universe had to offer and struggling between the balance of dark and light. His right hand is covered by a black leather glove like his father. He almost looks more like a priest and less like a military leader.
Actor Mark Hamill who played the young Jedi related in JW Rinzler’s book the making of Return of the Jedi noted,
“In a way, the first two films were an elaborate set up for Jedi… I think people really sense that this is the final chapter of the story- so far- and not a cliff hanger. It’s the big finish… my costume reflects that. During Star Wars, I was in a white , floppy rag-doll type outfit. For Empire, I was in a militaristic looking khaki costume. Now I wear the black uniform of a trained Jedi Knight. But the question: what kind of Jedi? A Wizard, a religious figure or just a glutton for punishment.”
Even his lightsaber reveals a change in his character. Having lost his original saber in battle against Vader he is forced to construct a new one. The handle of the new one closely resembles that of Obi-Wan Kenobi, in compliance with Jedi tradition that instructs a Jedi to construct their lightsaber in the fashion of their master. He has claimed his role as a Jedi, separate from that of his father.
Here is a Luke that is older and wiser and as such thinks his decisions through carefully. While Luke makes a good effort in Star Wars to rescue Leia from the Death Star prison, things go south far too quick when the soldiers on patrol start to question his flimsy story. This leads the heroes into a dead end that leads into a giant garbage disposal with the droids C-3P0 and R2-D2 serving as a literal last second Deus Ex Machina. In Empire Strikes Back, his friends have to save him twice, Han Solo from the extreme sub-zero temps of the planet Hoth and then later Leia and Lando from the weather vane of the Cloud City when he rushes off to save his friends from Vader, something for which Yoda rebukes him. It is enough to make Han Solo say when Chewie informs him that Luke is rescuing them,
“Luke? Luke’s crazy!…He can’t even take care of himself, much less rescue anyone…A Jedi Knight!…I’m out of it for a moment and everyone gets delusions of grandeur.”
However, when Luke enters Jabba’s palace he strolls in to the situation with a level of quiet confidence that he didn’t have before. He has Lando, Leia and the droids in key places and his lightsaber stashed in Artoo’s dome, ready to call for it when he needs it. The boy who once complained about not being able to see a thing through his “borrowed” storm trooper armor , now approached Jabba The Hutt, unnerved by the crime boss. When his plan gets rolling, not only do they manage to rescue Han from Jabba, they manage to take down bounty hunter Boba Fett and free Tatooine from the control of the vile gangster Jabba the Hutt.
Later on Luke further demonstrates how much he had grown when they are captured by the Ewoks. While Threepio is complaining and Han is trying to fight his way out of their predicament, Luke remains calm and urges Threepio to tell the Ewoks he will use his magic and become angry and destroy them. Amidst the din, Luke simply closed his eyes, focused and levitated the protocol droid in his throne above the frightened Ewoks. Luke had long since learned how to think on his feet and adapt to difficult situations.
Returning to Dagobah to complete his training he learns from Yoda he requires no further instruction and needs to do only one thing, confront Darth Vader. This task is all the more difficult as Obi-Wan and Yoda confirm to Luke the truth, Darth Vader was Luke’s father, Anakin Skywalker. Then Obi-Wan dropped another bomb shell on the young Jedi. To Luke’s surprise there was another Skywalker who was strong in the Force, a twin sister. It was at that moment that Luke learned that Leia was that long-lost sister. To protect her, he would have no choice but to confront Vader, a feat that was made all the more difficult as Luke did not believe he could kill his own father.
Luke’s resolve changed when he and his friends traveled to the forest moon of Endor to deactivate the deflector shield generator protecting the second Death Star. As he confided in Leia,
“Vader’s here, now, on this moon…I feel his presence. He’s come for me. He can feel when I’m near. That’s why I have to go. As long as I stay, I’m endangering the group and our mission. I have to face him.”
It was at that moment he shared with her the truth of his parentage, and that she was his sister. Leia begged him not to go, but Luke told her,
“Because there is good in him. I’ve felt it. He won’t turn me over to the Emperor. I can save him. I can turn him back to the good side. I have to try.”
Taken to the Death Star by Vader he is forced to watch as the battle unfolds and seems to go badly for the Rebel forces. All the while the Emperor mocks him, trying to get him to turn to the Dark Side. Luke refuses until in one moment he ignites his saber, ready to strike the Emperor and a duel unfolds between Luke and Vader . Vader probes Luke’s mind with the Force and strikes a raw nerve, that of Luke’s love for his friends, especially for Leia.
In a rage, Luke launched an attack on Vader and succeeded in disarming the villain, slicing of Vader’s arm. Much as he did with Anakin towards Count Dooku in Revenge of the Sith, Palpatine urged Luke to execute Vader. However while Anakin succumbed to temptation, Luke resisted, tossing his saber aside and declared his allegiance to the Light Side and as a Jedi, saying,
“Never. I’ll never turn to the Dark Side. You have failed, Your Highness. I am a Jedi, like my father before me.”
The Emperor tried to torture him and during this Luke cried out for his father to save him. It was at that moment, because of nothing more than love, that Vader cast down the Emperor, sacrificing himself in the process. In the end, Luke fulfilled the order from Obi-Wan and Yoda and had defeated Vader, but not in the way they had foreseen. They were too stuck in the old ways, and thought the only way to confront Vader was by killing him, they never imagined that Luke’s love for his father and likewise the love Vader still had within him for his son could redeem him.
With the Emperor and Vader defeated Luke had at last brought balance to the Force. However as Yoda told him, there was still some work left to do, the last stage of the heroes journey. Luke, one of the last remaining fully trained Jedi would have to pass on what he learned to a new generation. As Obi-Wan would tell him in his farewell message to him in Timothy Zahn’s Star Wars: Legends novel, Heir to the Empire, in words that perfectly encapsulate all of the farm boy turned Jedi’s heroic quest,
“You are strong in The Force, Luke, and with perseverance you will grow stronger still…But you must not relax your guard. The Emperor is gone but the Dark Side is still powerful. Never forget that. …You will yet face great dangers , Luke… but you will also find new allies, at times and places where you expect them least….Not the last of the old Jedi, Luke. The first of the new.”
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