The finale of The Return of the Jedi is full of strong emotions, certainly for the audience, but not less for the characters involved in the story. Upon confronting Darth Vader and the Emperor, in the most powerful moment of the encounter, Luke throws away his lightsaber, showing firm conviction in the unwillingness to kill his own father. In response to this, and in seeing Luke facing death in the hands of the Emperor, Vader decides what is right and turns against his old master.
This is the redemption moment for Anakin Skywalker, when he finally makes the right decision after so many wrong choices in his life, and it is the moment of victory for Luke Skywalker; not the physical victory over the Empire, but the spiritual victory where he lets go of anger, hatred and where he decides not to fight; this is the true “Return of the Jedi”, where Luke Skywalker becomes the Jedi.
Many would see this part also as a beautiful moment of reconciliation between father and son, the moment when the bond of family love saves the day. Such love is indeed a beautiful thing, no arguments about that. But if we stop for a second and think about what this moment is supposed to be – the return of the Jedi – red flashing light should appear in our minds. Jedi are forbidden to love, and they are supposed to forsake all family bonds.
This alone would raise an immeasurable heap of questions. Was Luke being a “proper Jedi” here? (Vader wasn’t, we already know that, but did he act like one here, if saving his son’s life was his motivation?) Or was the Jedi teaching about the family and love proven wrong by this scene? Did Luke do the right thing, was this a step to “reform” the Jedi? Many would jump to these conclusions, but I think that would be a grave misinterpretation.
Let us now forget arguments how and whether the Jedi Council’s principles regarding emotions, bonds, love and family work or not. That would be a matter for long discussion or a book of many pages. Let us, for now, just accept that these principles are there, and that they are there for a reason. Jedi are supposed to travel the Galaxy and settle conflicts wherever possible, and they use their power to protect innocents. The non-attachment means that they remain impartial, they are also free to focus on their mission even if it is on some far end of the Galaxy, and they don’t spend their time worrying about their parents, partners and pets they left back home. Their only constant companion is the Force, and it is everywhere. And because of this, Jedi are able to empathise with all lifeforms on all planets they travel to. And because of this, they are able to feel what is the most important Jedi value, compassion.
This is confirmed even by such a breaker of Jedi rules as Anakin Skywalker himself was, even though he has his own addendum to the code, clearly influenced by his current infatuation: “Attachment is forbidden. Possession is forbidden. Compassion, which I would define as unconditional love, is essential to a Jedi’s life. So you might say, that we are encouraged to love.”
Now, for the purposes of this article, let us forget about the parts where Anakin mentions the L-word, and especially the last sentence, because he has obviously his own agenda in mind. Jedi are meant to feel compassion, no more, no less – perhaps we can imagine it a bit like some healthy-balance attitude of a doctor towards their patients. A good doctor should definitely be able to empathise with their patients, but if they became completely attached to them – for instance, if they started to love them (ping!) – they would probably eventually suffer a psychic burnout.
So here we have an ideal Jedi. Now, if we look once again at Luke and Vader, is Luke acting here like an ideal Jedi? Is he “attaching” himself to his father? More importantly, is there love present? Is it a factor in Luke’s victory and in Vader’s redemption?
I actually want to argue that no, it is not. Luke (and maybe even Vader, here) acts as a prime example of an ideal Jedi. If love and attachment actually have a place among what transpires in the Emperor’s throne room, it is a negative place.
Let us review the scene once again, from beginning to the end. Luke arrives as prisoner. Palpatine takes his binders off, which seems like a random act of self-confidence, but it is actually part of the plan. And as we know, Palpatine is all about plans. By freeing Luke’s hands, Palpatine enables him to take his weapon and fight. Which eventually happens, thanks to Palpatine’s teasing. The Emperor makes it clear to Luke that the Rebels cannot achieve a military victory, so the only way, the only desperate way, is for Luke to try to kill him. At that moment, Vader, being essentially “programmed” to protect his Master, steps in and so Luke, in order to win, would have to first kill his father.
Palpatine had already tried to awaken anger in Luke, anger towards himself, only to show Luke how powerful he can become if he embraced the Dark Side. Now, the next step would be to awaken anger towards Vader. It probably does not matter to Palpatine who is Luke angry at, as long as he is angry. That is the point: to display how powerfully destructive anger and hatred can be, and to make anger cloud Luke’s judgement so he no longer is a Jedi. But Luke, contrary to the Emperor’s plan, remains a Jedi. “A Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defense, never for attack,” is what Yoda once said, and Luke holds on to that. When dueling Vader, he does not refuse to fight because it is his father he is facing, he does that because it is not the Jedi way.
A purely pragmatic person would suffer from what Luke is doing in the second part of the confrontation: as soon as he realises that Palpatine is pushing him into a fight, he retreats and hides. Not at all a reasonable decision if you are closed in a room with two Sith. But it is the best option for Luke. He does not have much of a plan to save the Galaxy anymore at this moment, and he refuses to fight. Once again, a pragmatic person would probably tell Luke that he should try to kill the Emperor, and Vader if necessary. It would probably be a failure, but it would be a noble self-sacrifice, a trope often praised in heroic tales. What I see as unique and important here is that it is not what Luke does. He knows, on some deeper level, that this is not the way. This is not the Jedi way, and this is not the right way. (Not taking into account that the Emperor was probably still powerful enough to deal with Luke on his own, but Luke did not know the extent of it at this moment.) The true struggle in this scene is inside Luke. It is the question of his very identity, what would the act of aggression make him.
And like I attempted to sketch out above, it has nothing to do with his relationship to Vader. Quite the opposite, the moment personal feelings for family come into play in this scene, it is in a negative light. After Luke resists Palpatine’s attempt to provoke him, after he announces to Vader that he won’t fight, the thing that finally provokes him to action is Vader’s mention of Leia. We can have no doubts there is attachment from Luke’s part, as Vader himself observes: “Your feelings for [your friends] are strong… especially for… sister!” Then Vader voices the threat to turn Leia to the Dark Side – and this triggers Luke’s fear for her and his anger (in the lovely sequence of fear-anger-hatred, as it’s been always presented to us through Yoda’s teachings), he strikes, he strikes with anger, anger at those who would threaten those he loves, and he continues to strike and hit Vader with the hatred against this machine who would destroy everything…
Until, at last, he stops. And it is not love which stops him. It most certainly is not attachment. It is his realisation how close to becoming Vader he suddenly is. To quote from the original movie script:
Luke looks at his father’s mechanical hand, then to his own mechanical, black-gloved hand, and realizes how much he is becoming like his father. He makes the decision for which he has spent a lifetime in preparation. Luke steps back and hurls his lightsaber away.
If there is anything present here, it is the feeling of empathy, the core value of the Jedi, compassion, in the literal meaning of the word: com-passion, “together-suffering”, the word coming via latin originally from greek, where it had another form: sympatheia. Luke feels sympathy towards Vader, just the way Jedi should feel sympathy to all living things. And the same thing is felt by Vader as he watches his son being fried by lightning short time after.
Maybe there is some father-son bond working here in the background, even though I would hesitate to call it “love” (certainly in Luke’s case less than in Vader’s. It may be also difficult loving your father if you have known him for not very long part of your life, and most of that time only as a monster who has been killing your friends). But if so, I would say it serves here only as a substitute, a kind of crutch for the universal compassion a true Jedi should be capable of.
That is why so few people become Jedi: the demands are quite high, a Jedi should have equal compassion, equal sympathy, for everyone else, for the whole Galaxy, because a Jedi should understand that the Force is in everything. For most humans (and aliens), it is really difficult to feel equal sympathy for every human, Hutt and every piece of moss. But for a Jedi-in-training, something like a familial bond might help as an example… if one doesn’t get attached.
Luke did not get attached. When he approached Vader on his free will, it was with the hope to turn him back to light. But when Vader refused, Luke did not dwell on their family bond. “I’ve accepted the truth that you were once Anakin Skywalker, my father,” he says, and immediately clarifies: “It is the name of your true self. You’ve only forgotten. I know there is good in you. The Emperor hasn’t driven it from you fully. That is why you couldn’t destroy me.” Luke believes it is good itself, not merely the family bond, which prevents Vader from killing him. He believe there is a Jedi inside Vader, a Jedi who would not want to destroy Luke even if he weren’t his son. How Luke differs from other Vader’s victims is that he is trying to awaken the Jedi.
We need to also see Luke’s words to Palpatine in the light of this: “I am a Jedi, like my father before me.” This is not first and foremost about family bond, they are about the legacy Luke claims for himself and through himself, also for Anakin Skywalker: that the Skywalkers are Jedi, and in that way, Luke is giving Vader last chance to claim it. Which Vader ultimately does.
To sum up: family and legacy are an important theme in Star Wars, and also in lives of all the individual characters, including Luke. However, the Jedi imperative of non-attachment, which applies also to family, is not negated by the final confrontation in the Return of the Jedi. On the contrary, it is proven true by Luke’s almost-failure when facing threat to his sister. He has been able to withstand all the Emperor’s temptations except for this one case. Likewise, it is Jedi discipline and compassion – not love – which helps him. It may sound harsh to most of us if it’s phrased like that, mainly because the “Western civilisation” has mostly adopted the Christian perspective of love, and compassion is a part of our understanding of love. The difference is there because, despite being a creation of a “Western” author, the Jedi are still partly inspired by Buddhist and other Eastern traditions, and the way things are seen “from the point of view from the Jedi” might be somewhat alien to an average “Western” mind.