Redemption of the Jedi: A Look Back at Star Wars, Episode VI: Return of the Jedi
Obi-Wan Kenobi wants Darth Vader dead, and he is perfectly willing to use Vader’s son to get the job done. He sends Luke Skywalker on a mission to assassinate Vader. “I can’t kill my own father,” Luke plaintively protests. “Then the emperor has already won,” Kenobi replies, trying to guilt Luke into patricide. It is clear that for Kenboi, victory means Darth’s death, and the Emperor’s too. Yoda is just as insistent that Luke confront Vader. And the Emperor himself eggs Luke on to kill Vader during their final duel.
The only person who thinks Vader deserves a chance is Luke himself. That’s what makes the character of Luke Skywalker so compelling, what made Return of the Jedi a fitting finale, and what ingrained hope into the DNA of Star Wars: no one is beyond redemption.
There is more continuity between the Luke of Return of the Jedi and the Luke we meet in The Last Jedi than fans might want to admit.Trilogies rarely end well. Godfather III, Back to the Future 3, and The Matrix Revolutions show how difficult it is to bring the curtain down on a cinematic triptych successfully. More often, trilogies end with whimpers. They stagger toward the final credits and collapse of exhaustion. And their failure diminishes what came before, making the first and second entries lesser than they once were.
The reputations of the original Star Wars and its sequel, Empire Strikes Back, are so stellar in part because the original Star Wars franchise escaped the trilogy curse. Return of the Jedi, uniquely for the time and very rarely since, brought its story to a powerful and cathartic conclusion, and it did so because of Luke’s quest for Vader’s redemption.
I revisited the entire Star Wars saga in the run-up to The Last Jedi. For my kids, it was a chance to get the insanely complex galactic timeline straight and untangle the soap opera of the Skywalker-Solo family tree. For me, it’s been an opportunity to dwell on the themes that have made Star Wars resonate so deeply.
Kenobi had every reason to want Anakin Skywalker dead. Kenobi was Anakin’s surrogate father and brother. As we saw in the prequel trilogy and through six seasons of the Clone Wars animated series, Kenobi raised him and trained him and they fought side by side year after year. “You were my brother, Anakin!” Kenobi wailed after striking him down on Mustafar in Episode III.
Anakin betrayed everything: he abandoned the Republic; left the Jedi Order; murdered women, children, and unarmed combatants; cursed the light and embraced the darkness. Kenobi was justified in believing that Anakin was truly dead, that whatever was left was irredeemably “twisted and evil,” beyond saving.
Still, Kenobi’s insistence that Luke hunt down and slay his own father is unsettling. It has the ring of bloodlust and wrath. The original title of the film was Revenge of the Jedi, until George Lucas changed his mind because the Jedi aren’t supposed to seek revenge. But the title is more accurate than Lucas knew: Kenobi (along with Yoda, probably) wants a corpse. He wants to hear the final wheeze of Vader’s scuba ventilator. Kenobi wants vengeance. If this is what it means to be a Jedi, no wonder Luke wants them to end.
Despite later critics accusing Lucas of making it up as he went along, the trilogy sets up Luke’s dilemma very well. Luke’s parentage is a mystery from his first scene in A New Hope. Uncle Owen worried that Luke is too much like his father, but Kenobi told Luke that his father was a Jedi, a pilot, his friend, and a veteran of the Clone Wars before he was “betrayed and murdered” by Darth Vader.
Kenobi’s version builds Anakin up as a war hero, a man of portent whose fate became entangled with great events. This serves Kenobi’s purpose nicely: the higher the pedestal on which Anakin stands, the more repulsive Vader is for his murder. From this very early scene in the original film, Kenobi taught Luke to hate, to equate Vader’s death with justice for his father — and, by extension, for Kenobi, the man most wronged by Vader’s ascent. Kenobi is not training Luke to be a Jedi; he is training Luke to be an Avenger.
Interestingly, the original film sets up, but does not deliver, a showdown between Luke and Vader — a clear preparation for a sequel. Luke obligingly spends the second film preparing for, and embarking on, his revenge fantasy. Instead of giving us a standard hero-villain showdown, it is here that the Star Wars saga takes its famous and unexpected turn in a move that plays like a classical Greek tragedy. After learning the truth, Luke confronts Kenboi in the third film:
LUKE: You told me Vader betrayed and murdered my father.
BEN: Your father was seduced by the dark side of the Force. He ceased to be Anakin Skywalker and became Darth Vader. When that happened, the good man who was your father was destroyed. So what I have told you was true… from a certain point of view.
Now Luke faces a choice: exact vengeance to appease Kenobi, earn the Jedi title, and win points for the rebellion at the cost of committing patricide; or refuse, and let his mentor down and fail the rebellion.
Vader’s redemption plays against the expectations of the first two films. Vader is clearly a monstrous villain, having struck down Kenobi, tortured Leia, and kidnapped and literally sold Han Solo to criminals; worst of all, he stood by as an approving witness to Grand Moff Tarkin’s genocide of Alderaan.
There is something deeply Christian in the idea that no one is beyond salvation. The thief on the cross has not run out of time; he can yet be saved. Saul the persecutor is not too evil for Jesus; he can be saved and, more, turned into an agent of light. David, the murderer and adulterer, is forgiven, enthroned, promised an eternal kingdom, and given authorship of the Bible’s most moving poetry.
The Christian echoes do not stop with Vader’s salvation, but the other parallels are vague and muddled. Vader turns on the Emperor, saves Luke, but is mortally wounded. The son saves the father through filial devotion, while the father sacrifices himself to save the son, winning redemption by offering himself as atonement, becoming a Christ-like martyr-hero.
These echoes don’t make Star Wars a “Christian movie” anymore than the Force can be read as a science fiction equivalent of the Holy Spirit. Star Wars cosmology is Manichean, not Christian; the Force is impersonal while the Spirit is deeply and profoundly personal. Vader’s sacrifice reverses the Christian Trinity, in which the Son, not the Father, is the atoning sacrifice. There is something uniquely American in this version: the young saving the old, the son finding good in the father.
But George Lucas was a skilled storyteller. He successfully borrowed and rearranged concepts deeply rooted in the Christian mythos to give his story a resonance that was both visceral and transcendent. It hits the viewer at a deep, primal level, evoking not pleasure but awe. During the final sequence of Luke and Vader’s duel, the music switches to a choral hum. If Empire is a Greek tragedy, Jedi completes the trope by bringing us to Oedipus at Colonus: we are joined at the end by the Chorus to witness in awe Vader’s apotheosis.
This is an extraordinarily difficult thing to do. If you follow your inspiration too exactly, it comes off as preachy or as plagiarism. When Lucas tried to do the same with the Virgin Birth in the prequel trilogy, it was clumsy, lame, and forced. But when done right, it can elevate a film and even make it literally iconic, in the theological sense. Icons are physical representations that point toward deeper spiritual truths they merely signify. Art, at its best, transcends entertainment and becomes iconic of truth. Vader’s redemption is an icon of redemption and atoning sacrifice.
There is another truth toward which Jedi hinted. Luke charts his own course; he refuses to follow fully the mentorship of Kenobi or Yoda. It’s not just that Luke refuses to kill Vader. He also refuses their Buddhist-like aloofness. He quite clearly gives in to his anger. It’s unclear which side of the force he draws on at the end.
Luke is impetuous throughout the trilogy. But watch again Luke’s final assault on Vader. He is mad as hell. Vader gets under his skin by suggesting that Leia might be corrupted and turned to the dark side. Luke responds with a pained and angry war cry and a frenzied attack and finally brings down the dark lord. Luke gives in to his righteous anger — and it works.
Luke is not following the Jedi Code, not as it was taught to him by Kenobi and Yoda, and not as we see it in the prequel trilogy. In these final moments of Jedi, Luke seems to embody something new, something that combines his desire to redeem Vader with his very human, and very justified, anger at Vader’s evil. Luke was never a conventional Jedi. The arc of the original trilogy, and especially the climax of Return of the Jedi, leads quite naturally into some new understanding of the Force.
There is more continuity between the Luke of Return of the Jedi and the Luke we meet in The Last Jedi than fans might want to admit. The older Luke wants the Jedi to end—not because he has lost faith in the Force, but because the old Jedi order was arrogant and blind. Luke’s own failures are part of the mix, of course, but Luke is pointing toward a truth that, I suspect, Rey will carry to fruition.
The Jedi might, like Luke, reject the Buddhist approach to the Force and embrace a Platonic alternative: we must recognize and harness, rather than repress, the thymotic parts of our souls. Anger and passion are not intrinsically evil; sometimes they may be justified, so long as they are obedient to the higher angels of our nature. This is an extraordinarily difficult balance to keep, and perhaps this is what it truly means to bring balance to the Force. Perhaps at the end of Return of the Jedi, for a moment, Luke embodies this balance: not between darkness and light, but between mercy and justice.
Great article, and I quite like a lot of your points, but your argument at the end is based on a flawed reading of that final scene, which undercuts your conclusion. Luke DOES use his anger in that final assault, but it is no righteous anger (in the SW setting, whatever it may be by the rubric of a Christian morality). It is the rage of the Dark Side of the Force, which does provide strength enough to batter through Vader’s defenses.
But look at that next moment, as Luke sees his handiwork, noticing his robotic hand and Vader’s missing one, and realizes that he’s following the same path as his father, the path to the Dark Side. It is in that moment that Yoda’s warnings come back to him and prove prophetic. The Emperor realizes this, and he declares “Your hate has made you powerful.” It is here that Luke returns to the very teachings you argue he moves away from, embracing the Buddhist-like rejection of rage and violence, tossing away his lightsaber and opposing the Emperor with calm assurance. Luke visibly masters himself, and he discards his weapon because he knows he cannot successfully wield it and remain in the Light. He would rather face his death than be corrupted like his father. He is never more truly a Jedi than at that moment.
This is no tertium quid, no third way. This is Luke falling dangerously under the influence of the Dark Side before refusing its lure and returning to the Light.
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