A lot of people, after watching the Last Jedi, remarked: “that was not their Luke Skywalker.” It made wonder, who exactly do they think Luke is?
A lot of people, a majority of which is smarter than me, see Luke’s journey as a hero’s journey. I don’t. He is a hero; this is true. However, I’ve viewed his mission as more of a spiritual one. It’s his relationship with the force that helps define Luke, not being a Jedi. This is why I feel Luke is one of the most significant characters in film history. And that’s an essential point for this essay. It’s based on the films only.
Let’s start at the beginning. He is a farm boy with dreams of getting far away from home. He doesn’t care where; he wants to go. In fact, he is talking about going to the academy which is an Imperial academy. If believing in the Force is a religious/spiritual activity, Luke has been raised atheist. We can’t blame his aunt and uncle. They are doing the best they can. It’s not till he meets Obi-Wan Kenobi that he learns about the force. Of course, this makes Luke the most identifiable character in the story, because we learn about everything as he does. Through the rest of A New Hope, Kenobi serves as spiritual sponsor. Sure he teaches him a few things about being a warrior, but most of their time together is spent discussing the force. Having not believed in anything his whole life to this point, he now has something to believe.
Moreover, his belief is rewarded. He has to destroy the Death Star, and everyone aboard or everyone and everything on Yavin IV will be killed. But he does it by believing in the force. He even has a guardian angel in Kenobi in this scene.
In Empire, things change for Luke. It doesn’t come easy for him. Dagobah is his forty days and nights in the desert. Except, Luke is not Christlike. He doesn’t succeed in the way Jesus does. He doubts everything. He can’t accept that Yoda is who he is there to see (granted he crash lands on a planet and this is the first sentient being he runs into). He fails test after test. He fails because he does not believe.
Luke: I don’t, I don’t believe it.
Yoda: That is why you fail.
Before he leaves for Bespin, he is told by Yoda what will happen if he leaves, and he goes anyway. He has not put his trust in the Force, and he and his friends suffer for it. Granted, his friends would have suffered regardless.
When we see Luke in Return, he has transformed himself into a Jedi. This change has always troubled me a little bit. When did this happen? Who makes that decision? We assume it was Yoda, but there is no evidence that his return to Dagobah is not the first time he has been there since the events of Empire.
Nevertheless, he does seem to be at ease, the kind of ease one gets when they believe in something (or nothing as with most true atheists). He is confident throughout the movie, even to the point that he nearly fails. Also when he knows the Vader senses him, he says it as a true believer in the force would say it. Now, a lot of people say that Luke would never think about murdering Kylo Ren because he believes all people can be redeemed as he redeemed Vader. I don’t understand this. He tries to turn Vader back to the light because he senses the light in Vader. I don’t honestly think he would try if there were nothing but darkness there. And that’s what he detects in Kylo, darkness.
When is with Emperor in the throne room on Death Star II, Luke’s faith is put to the ultimate test. He has two people that are his superiors in their use and understanding of the force even if they represent the dark side. There is one Force. And he fails again. However, he quickly realizes his mistake. He suddenly remembers that he senses the good in his father. He chooses to believe. It is the only weapon that can destroy the emperor. He believes not only in the Force but in the goodness of the light side of the force. He is willing to martyr himself for this. He has surrendered entirely to it. It’s this act that saves and redeems his father. It is this act that destroys the emperor. Fight Vader was not the brave act; it was the refusal to fight him.
Now, this is not an original thought of mine. Also, I know a counterargument is the “science” of the force explanation in the prequels. I’m not rejecting that. Science is just another way of discovering how the universe works which is also the purpose of religion. They do not need to be at odds with each other in fiction or real life. It is there plain as day, and many people have written about it. This makes the backlash against his character in The Last Jedi so weird.
Now, before I dive in further, I am only lukewarm to the film. I have some issues with the plot, but none with Luke’s story.
Yes, Luke was a hero at the end of Return. But if these characters have life, then life has to happen to them. The idea that he rode off into the sunset and alls well that ends well is childish. Characters will have things happen to them, and not all of them will be good. Again, it comes all down to faith. Sensing the lack of good in Kylo, Luke has an extreme crisis of faith. He, in fact, has the “if you had the chance to kill Hitler” moment. He has to make an impossible choice. He chooses not to kill him, but that choice bears a toll on him. The crisis stays. This makes sense. No one knows what Kylo is capable of more than Luke. Luke has to carry the guilt of every evil action that Kylo takes. The choice still haunts him. Some people say a hero finds the next quest. Luke never finished this one. He doesn’t know what to believe. This makes Luke such a human figure. He is not some space wizard; he is a man with an impossible choice ahead of him. Not every trope has the hero go on the journey. Some have surrogates. In John Boorman’s Excalibur, it is Perceval who finds the holy grail. In Lord of the Rings, Sam carries Frodo. In The Last Jedi, Rey’s task is to remind Luke to believe in the Force. She comes close, but it is Yoda, his old master, that reminds him of his faith, and that faith doesn’t mean you have to be perfect.
Yoda: Heeded my words not, did you? Pass on what you have learned. Strength. Mastery. But weakness, folly, failure also. Yes, failure most of all. The greatest teacher, failure is. Luke, we are what they grow beyond. That is the true burden of all masters.
Luke now faces his destiny. He again shows his faith in the force. He has made up his mind about Kylo and Kylo is not Vader. The good is gone. Lost he is. Yet, again Luke does something he does in return. He is willing to be a martyr for the cause. He has found his faith, and this is what makes him a hero again. He literally gives himself over to the Force.