Star Wars Episodes IV–VI

Themes

The Mystery and Power of the Force

As Ben and Yoda explain it to Luke, the Force is an energy field created and sustained by all the life in the universe. The Force is omnipresent, binding the universe and everything and everyone in it together. It can be manipulated and controlled by a trained Jedi (and by their evil counterparts, the Sith) and is the source of a Jedi’s remarkable powers. The Force can also take a more active role, guiding a Jedi’s actions, as when Luke allows the Force to guide his aim and destroy the Death Star. The Force is largely represented as nurturing and benign in nature, but it has a dark side as well. This dark side, the side of aggression, anger, and hatred, empowers the Emperor and his apprentice, Darth Vader. The Force provides a spiritual dimension to the action of the trilogy and has been the subject of much speculation and theorizing by fans of the films. George Lucas is careful not to spell out in any specific way what the Force is and what, exactly, the Jedi believe.

As Lucas presents it in the Star Wars series, the Force is a rather vague entity, serving primarily as a vocabulary for good and evil and as a way to explain the “magical” powers of the Jedi. Clearly, however, the Force cannot be identified with the God of Christianity, Judaism, or Islam, as it is impersonal, created by life and not the creator of life. Rather, the Force is a new-agey amalgam of various eastern religious and western philosophical sources. One such source is Taoism, an ancient, nontheistic (without a personal deity) Chinese religion that teaches simplicity and conformity to the Tao, or “Way,” of nature. In the concept of “light” and “dark” sides of the Force, there is an echo of Manicheism, an ancient near-Eastern religion that claimed the physical universe was the result of the combat between two equally matched spiritual forces, one good, the other evil. There are also elements of Romantic nature worship (as in the essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson), Pantheism (a belief that the universe itself is God), and Western-influenced Buddhism in the way characters speak of the Force. Yoda’s lecture to Luke on the importance of mindfulness in Empire is reminiscent of Buddhist teaching, for example. These are just a few interpretations, and though the Force is clearly central to the action of the Star Wars films, it ultimately remains mysterious. Lucas seems to intend a general life force with which one can be in harmony or conflict, and the details can be safely left to the imagination.

The Superiority of Nature over Technology

The Jedi strive to live in simplicity and in harmony with nature. They are not averse to technology, but they do not rely on it alone, at the expense of their own senses and feelings. When Luke encounters Ben and Yoda in their homes, he finds these Jedi masters living austere lives, close to the land. And when Luke must destroy the Death Star with one shot, Ben’s voice encourages him to shut off his targeting computer, relying on his own senses, his intuition, and his connection to the Force. A stark contrast to the way of the Jedi is the behavior of their dark-side counterparts, the Sith. Darth Vader is, as Ben puts it, “more machine than man,” a walking hybrid with robotic limbs and built-in life support. The Emperor’s deformed body seems to be in revolt against life itself, and he is seen exclusively in an overwhelmingly manmade, technological environment, the new Death Star. Clearly then, there is something soul destroying in an over-reliance on technology. Significantly, Darth Vader’s last request is for Luke to remove his mask, so that Vader may see Luke directly, without the technological filter.

Nature proves to be superior to technology when the Ewoks rise up against the Empire on Endor. Despite the primitive nature of the Ewoks’ weapons—sticks, stones, arrows, and spears—they are able to defeat the technologically advanced Imperial troopers, with their walking tanks and laser blasters. Lucas himself has said that he intended this sequence to be reminiscent of the Vietnam War, in which the less technologically advanced side was ultimately victorious. Again, Lucas is not trying to say that technology is bad in itself. Indeed, this would be an odd thing to claim in films that are themselves the product of the most advanced technology available at the time (some characters are completely computer-generated in certain scenes). After all, R2-D2 and C-3PO, two of the best and most beloved characters in the films, are, by their very nature, completely products of technology. Lucas’s point is that we must not allow the machines that surround us to make us less than human ourselves, as Darth Vader does but Luke does not.

The Myth of the Hero’s Destiny

Joseph Campbell, in his classic study of world mythology The Hero with a Thousand Faces, makes the case that all mythology about heroes is really a symbolic retelling of a basic “monomyth” about the growth and personal development of the individual. Drawing on the work of psychologists Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud, Campbell argues that the hero of myth must struggle against society and culture as he finds them in order to define himself both outwardly and inwardly. Outwardly, the hero struggles to find his place and role in society even as he struggles inwardly to understand his own nature. Symbolically, these struggles take the form of an orphaned hero who discovers the secret of his birth (often that he is of royal blood) and must make his way in the world. Along the way, the hero encounters resistance in the form of monsters he must battle (which symbolize his own fears or failings), and he receives aid from wise older counselors. Ultimately, the hero aspires to rise to full maturity by taking his place as a figure of patriarchal authority, often by displacing or destroying a faulty father figure who occupies the hero’s rightful place. Classic examples of heroes who fit Campbell’s pattern include King Arthur and Oedipus, though in each case the specifics and outcomes of the hero’s quest will vary.

The case of Luke Skywalker can easily be seen to fit this mythic pattern. Luke is an orphan, uncertain of his place in the world and even of his own identity. He is cast adrift but is guided along his path by Ben and by Yoda, who share the wise elder counselor function. Luke faces many adversaries, but his greatest challenge is in learning self-mastery, and with each battle Luke grows in wisdom and self-understanding. In the end, however, Luke must face his own father in order to take his father’s (abandoned) place as a Jedi Knight and as the symbolic head of his family. Note that Luke fights Vader in the end primarily to defend his sister, Leia. Ultimately, the son overthrows, and saves, the father, achieving the full maturity and goodness that the failed father figure could never achieve himself. In this sense, then, the story of Luke Skywalker is the story of any man’s maturation and self-definition, told symbolically through the structure of myth and adventure.