This is an updated version of an article that ran in 2012.
It started off pretty simple—there was a young man who wanted to become an agent of good, like his father before him. He would use a mystical energy known as “the Force” to become powerful enough to defeat darkness. Once he did, the universe would be restored to its balanced state, freedom would spread throughout the galaxy, and all would be well.
But you know what? Balance is not good triumphing over evil. Balance is balance. The seesaw doesn’t tip in either direction here, so… what does that mean for Star Wars? Well for one, it may be time to reevaluate everything that we know—or think we know—about the nature of that galaxy far, far away. And the given the questions raised by the final words in The Last Jedi’s trailer, those questions are more pressing than ever.
While George Lucas may have based the general outline of Star Wars on western mythology, the Force itself resembles faiths and spiritual ideas from all over the world, from Zen Buddhism and Taoism to audio fragments from an Arthur Lipsett film in 1963. These inspirations lead to a phrase that we hear often in Star Wars canon—“so-and-so will bring balance to the Force.” Yet we’re not encouraged to actually explore what that might entail.
For the record, Lucasfilm in its pre-Disney days stated officially (in the Power of the Jedi sourcebook) that the “correct” philosophy where the Force was concerned is the one held up by the Jedi Order in the prequels. It’s an awkward insistence at best since:
- this has not been confirmed in any other licensed material pre- or post- canonical restructuring;
- there are a plethora of fascinating perspectives on the Force that have been explored in the Star Wars Legends novels (aka the old “Expanded Universe”), the current canon, and the television spin-offs Clone Wars and Rebels;
- this sends a lot of poor messages where the Jedi are concerned, especially when you take into account their horrible handling of, well, everything in the prequels.
So let’s actually consider how the Force seems to operate in the Star Wars universe. We have a special form of energy that only certain sensitive creatures are capable of using. It allows the manipulation of objects, minds and, in certain cases, matter (i.e. you can create life at a certain level of mastery). Understandably, different groups emerged with different perspectives on how to use this energy and what its purpose was. The two most prominent sects in Force philosophy were the Jedi and the Sith. The Jedi were motivated by compassion, order, and a pursuit of peace. They believed that the Force had a dark side and a light side, and that pursuing the light side was keeping the Force in its natural state.
The Sith were practitioners who embraced the dark side of the Force, the side most commonly associated with anger, fear, and hate. It is important to note that the Jedi are the most insistent that the dark side works primarily on these emotions. However, the more interesting differences between the Jedi and the Sith lie in how they choose to operate the Force: the Jedi prefer to keep in contact with the Force occupying all living things, to draw on the natural world and use it to their advantage. The Sith are more concerned with cultivating internal energies, focusing on personal power and passions. Rather than anger and hate, it would be more correct to say that the dark side is predicated on selfish pursuits, or more interestingly on emotions at large. Sith seek to gain status and control their surroundings, while the Jedi seek to use their powers for the benefit of others and attain peace in place of emotion.
That sounds like the nobler endeavor, but the problem with the Jedi boils down to one word: order. Once you establish something as an order, rules and regulations are needed to give it structure. It would have been beneficial if the Jedi were simply “Random Acts of Kindness Agents,” helping those in need and offering a friendly hand, but once they had existed as an organization for long enough, they were simply folded into a galactic chain of command. They were called on at the behest of the largest government in the galaxy, involved heavily in politics, and they needed numbers to grow so they could properly handle the demand for their services.
Which is where the whole “taking babies from their parents to train them in the Jedi Way” thing started. No matter how you slice it, that’s one practice that never made the Jedi look good. While it’s understandable that you would want to start those kids early and get their brains ready for the harsh realities of the peace-keeping life, nabbing your recruits before they have they have the chance to form the most basic opinions is basically non-consensual brainwashing. Even if you and your compatriots are on the so-called side of goodness.
There are fascinating co-philosophies at work within the Star Wars galaxy. When the movie prequels came out, accompanying material stated that Qui-Gon Jinn and other Jedi like him were proponents of the “Living Force,” choosing to focus on the moment and let all living energies inform their decisions. The Clone Wars series introduced the concept of the “Cosmic Force,” the aspect of the Force that binds the universe together (that’s more Yoda’s bag, as you’ll recall from his sermonizing in Empire Strikes Back) and seems to have dormant and active states—Rey’s “awakening” to her sensitivities in Episode VII was the result of the Cosmic Force going through some brand new turbulence.
The Legends canon had even more ideas about how the Force should be perceived by living beings: there were believers in the “Unifying Force,” who did not adhere to the notion that the Force had sides—imagining instead that the Force was a deity-like entity that did not judge actions or living beings to be good or evil, and focused on the future to connect with that what was meant to be. Interestingly, this practice was also deemed important by many Jedi, though they did not seem to hold with any other beliefs associated with the Unifying Force philosophy.
How are we supposed to parse out this web of moralizing? It’s fair, perhaps, to claim that the Jedi are “more right” than the Sith in their views of the universe, but that does not make up for their myriad of errors in execution. Anakin Skywalker was believed to be the Chosen One as decreed by a prophecy. Because the Jedi believe that the elimination of the dark side equates to balance, the hope was undoubtedly that Anakin would bring the Sith out in the open and allow for their elimination. He failed to do that entirely, instead destroying the Jedi Order down to the last youngling. (Ouch.)
Unless you take the actions of Luke and Leia into account. In which case, Anakin Skywalker did manage to bring balance to the Force—by virtue of his children. His children who were not supposed to be born according to Jedi doctrine, because Jedi were not supposed to fall in love, get married, and have babies. Hello there, shaky ground. (For the record, this particular interpretation of events was confirmed by George Lucas himself.)
That ground gets even shakier when we examine what leads up to Luke’s near-death and Vader’s change of heart. Luke goes against practically everything that he is told by Obi-Wan and Yoda; he leaves Dagobah with his training incomplete, he confronts Vader before he’s ready, he cares too much about his friends. Yoda and Obi-Wan are still operating on the old system, acting secretively and deciding what is right for their pupil to know. Luke ultimately proves them wrong, in more ways than one: his defining moment comes out of a fall, an unintentional surrender to anger and pain, which then allows him to see where those emotions would lead him. Without that final duel between himself and Vader, Luke would have no basis for understanding what the dark side would demand of him. Vader would not then, in turn, have been faced with the prospect of losing his son, the tipping point that allowed him to destroy the Emperor. (I won’t say that Vader was brought back to the light side or the Jedi Way because I would argue that he wasn’t; Vader acted out of deep personal love and selfishness to keep his child alive, at opposition with the Jedi Code and the “correct path” for light side users according to the doctrine set down by the original Jedi Order.)
Which makes one curious: if the Jedi Order was training the initiated from infancy, breeding out any opposition or understanding of darker emotions, how did it manage to survive as long as it did?
More importantly, is it possible that “balancing the Force” actually includes the annihilation of the Jedi Order?
A look at what the Legends canon did previously to answer that question yields some surprising answers: Luke eliminated more than one of their ideological tenets when he reestablished the Order in those books. His Jedi trainees got married, considered new ways of using the Force, argued their purpose, and had complex personal relationships with their teachers and everyone they knew. Luke prevented his students from being asked to serve at the behest of the New Republic. He advocated different paths for different Force users and acknowledged that the Force may not have sides at all—it’s people who do.
Conversely, a look at the current expanded canon gives us another interesting viewpoint, particularly in the characters and events examined by The Clone Wars and Rebels. The Clone Wars series makes it abundantly clear that the Jedi Order is sliding into chaos and degeneration due to its position in the galaxy; the Jedi have their own diplomatic relations to uphold, often with denizens of the galaxy who are up to very little good. Alliances with various factions in the Senate and even crime lords like the Hutts can be observed as the Jedi struggle to keep some semblance of peace going in the galaxy. We learn that employees of the Jedi (such as cleaning and maintenance staff) are not fairly compensated or particularly well-treated. Some Jedi seem to keenly appreciate the carnage of the Clone War and fail to treat the clone troopers as sentient beings. In short, the Jedi Order is so wrapped up in its own politicking, it has failed to realize that it is just as susceptible to the misconduct that can plague long-standing institutions.
Barriss Offee, a Jedi Padawan of Master Luminara, becomes so convinced that the Order has been corrupted as a result of the war that she orchestrates a bombing on the Jedi Temple and frames her friend Ahsoka Tano for it as a way of bringing these issues to public attention. The fallout does not break down the way she intended—she is eventually arrested for the crime, and Ahsoka is so deeply shaken by the Jedi abandoning her to a Republic tribunal that she leaves the Order. The Jedi Order changes very little as a result, though so close to the end of the Clone War and Palpatine’s rise, one could argue that Offee’s point was made too late to make any difference. Funny enough, Ahsoka’s sharp decision turns out to be a boon to the budding Rebel Alliance, as she frequently turns up to aid their cause in the ensuing years. One could argue that Ahsoka Tano is a far more effective agent of peace and justice without the title of Jedi Knight, and she’s certainly a better friend and comrade.
In Rebels, Kanan Jarrus and his apprentice Ezra Bridger encounter a creature who identifies itself as Bendu on the planet Atollan. Bendu is not a Jedi or a Sith, but informs Kanan that he resides somewhere between those sides. He helps Kanan and Ezra repair their relationship at a critical juncture, and gives them information regarding the outcome of merging a Jedi and Sith holocron together. Bendu seems largely sage and benevolent, but all of this deteriorates when Kanan calls him a coward for refusing to fight with the rebels who have set up base on Atollan against incoming Imperial forces. Bendu insists that they should not have disturbed his peaceful planet and essentially transforms himself into a storm. Suggesting that the will of the Force was perhaps to eliminate the Jedi and “all your kind,” Bendu reigns down destruction on Atollan, and the rebels barely escape. It is important to note that Bendu only become violent when provoked and coerced into a war he wanted no part in. This might be our first glimpse into what a non-aligned Force-user could bring the galaxy; wisdom and perspective, but with the potential for great power. And what would that mean for the future of the Star Wars universe?
Now we have a trailer for Episode VIII, and Luke has a few choice words for us: “It’s time for the Jedi… to end.”
We know that prior to the events of the third trilogy, Luke was training some new Jedi, and that those students were ostensibly slaughtered—either by his nephew, Ben, or by other members of the Knights of Ren who absorbed now-Kylo into their ranks. We also know that Luke has spent all this time hidden away on a planet that supposedly houses the first Jedi temple. Knowing all of this, all that Luke has been through and likely learned… isn’t it possible that he finds the old ways too limiting to sustain? That he has learned enough about the Force to recognize that these labels have bound people up for so long that the battle between “light” and “dark” has become a never-ending cycle?
Because I’ve got news for you—the history of the Star Wars galaxy is precisely that. Jedi versus Sith, for thousands upon thousands of years, locked into a war they created for themselves and never seem capable of eradicating. The Sith are gone in name, but the Knights of Ren remain. Someone has to stop them… but maybe that someone shouldn’t be a Jedi.
Maybe the galaxy has to change.
Perhaps what Luke has discovered is that this overbearing focus on “light” and “dark” sides has only led to utter polarization and stagnation. While using the Force out of compassion is clearly a good idea, just as using it out of anger is a bad one, it may be time to let go of the old teachings and create something new—making the future of the Star Wars saga anyone’s guess.