LUKE SKYWALKER – THE WIZARD’S JOURNEY
In Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Luke Skywalker goes beyond his Hero’s Journey to embark on a different type of adventure…
In discussions of the Hero’s Journey in contemporary storytelling, Luke Skywalker is one of the most frequently cited examples. Joseph Campbell—the academic whose work on the subject influenced George Lucas’ writing—viewed Luke’s path in Star Wars: A New Hope (1977) as a modern execution of what he called the “monomyth:” the archetypal hero’s story common to every culture and era. Likewise, Christopher Vogler— who reframed Campbell’s ideas into a model specifically designed for cinematic storytelling— used A New Hope as one of his primary examples in his 1992 book The Writer’s Journey. Yet Luke’s story did not, of course, end with A New Hope. What seemed like a complete Hero’s Journey in that film was expanded and developed upon in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (1981) and Star Wars: Return of the Jedi (1983), making the path from farmboy to Jedi far more involved than simply using the Force to destroy the Death Star. The prequel trilogy then expanded the story of Luke’s father, and how the pieces came to be in place for Luke’s own journey. In the new trilogy, the Hero’s Journey belongs to Rey, Finn, and Kylo Ren. Each has progressed along their own path as the story has unfolded. But Luke’s journey is not over. In the events between trilogies, Luke has gone from Jedi Knight to Jedi Master, and then disappeared into exile. Having elevated him to mythic status within his own fictional universe in The Force Awakens, the latest trilogy has one more cycle for Luke to complete in The Last Jedi: that of the Wizard’s Journey.
The Wizard Archetype Wizards are a familiar and longstanding archetype in fiction—whether the magicwielding sorcerers of high fantasy or the technological masterminds of science-fiction. The iconic examples are easy to name: Merlin, The Lord of the Rings’ Gandalf, and Harry Potter’s Dumbledore in the first category; and in the second, the Doctor (as in Doctor Who), the Back to the Future Trilogy’s Doc Brown, and Plutarch Heavensbee (The Hunger Games). Frequently, though, these characters don’t have a story arc of their own. They may be revered for the role they play as mentors to a younger hero undertaking the Hero’s Journey, but they are not separately undergoing a metamorphosis to become a better version of themselves. That is the difference between a character who represents the wizard archetype and a character whose Wizard’s Journey brings them through a final heroic cycle to reach self-mastery.
In Star Wars, a Jedi Knight may reach the rank of Jedi Master by training an apprentice, but few will attain the transcendent understanding of the Force that brings the spiritual wisdom to become more powerful than one can possibly imagine. Of all the masters seen in the prequels and Star Wars: The Clone Wars on TV, only three have become one with the Force after death: Qui-Gon Jinn, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and Yoda. Each has completed a Wizard’s Journey in order to do so (although Anakin seems to score a free pass in Return of the Jedi), but for the most part this has occurred beyond the view of the audience. Star Wars: The Phantom Menace (1999) establishes Qui-Gon’s iconoclastic perspective on the Force—the source of his differences with the Jedi Council—but we do not see how he acquired the views that became vindicated later.
Obi-Wan learns much from his former master during his long exile on Tatooine, but we only saw the origin and end of that process in Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith (2005) and A New Hope, not his progress in between. For Yoda, The Clone Wars offers a brief glimpse into his spiritual and philosophical transformation, when he visits the mysterious Force Priestesses and learns how to reconnect with Qui-Gon during the Season One episode, “Destiny.” In The Last Jedi, however, we see a Jedi Master take his Wizard’s Journey onscreen. In his first interactions with Rey, Luke is very much the archetype of a wizard mentor—and an especially grumpy one at that. But then the story moves him forward, and he becomes not simply a Gandalf, or a Yoda in Empire, but something more: Rocky Balboa learning to become a teacher and mentor to Adonis in Creed (2015); Captain America redefining his nature and purpose as a hero in the face of fundamental conflicts over power and accountability in Captain America: Civil War (2016); and in The Hunger Games movies, Haymitch and Finnick evolving to become not merely former victors and allies to Katniss, but icons of the rebellion in their own right. Luke fulfi lls his Wizard’s Journey before our very eyes.
Luke Skywalker’s Heroic Cycles:
The first iteration of a Hero’s Journey, according to Campbell and Vogler, is what a modern audience would call the “origin story.” The hero has some special gift—a connection to the Force, the ability to wield magic, an innate or artificially induced superpower—and must learn to use that gift in the course of succeeding on a quest. Luke blows up the Death Star, then later saves his father. Katniss wins the Hunger Games, then helps liberate Panem. Wonder Woman defeats Ares, and saves the World of Man. Once the hero’s origin story is completed, they can progress through further heroic cycles. Each new adventure brings a new metamorphosis. Each new transformation compels the hero to redefine their identity, reconciling who they have been with who they are now becoming. As one cycle builds upon another, the hero draws progressively closer to their true self. For comparison, this iteration of heroic cycles is quite distinct from more contemporary forms of storytelling in which the character becomes more powerful over time. With its origins in roleplaying games, and now common in videogames, the concept is a familiar one: ongoing adventures provide the character with experience which allows them to “level up” in power, unlocking increasingly stronger abilities and requiring opposition from increasingly dangerous adversaries. The best creative storytellers will ensure that the characters’ aspirations and motivations evolve alongside their abilities, but often—especially in YA fi ction—a gaming-style focus on “power creep” predominates over personal growth.
Arguably the Star Wars Legends tales struggled over time with this dynamic, particularly in relation to Luke and other Jedi, by focusing on combat prowess or feats of the Force rather than exploring their emotional crises or spiritual development. In the films, Luke’s origin story establishes the basis for his subsequent heroic cycles. In A New Hope, he learns of his ability to use the Force, and successfully draws upon this gift to fire the torpedoes that destroy the Death Star. He also meets the mentor and friends who will shape his journey, along with the adversary who seeks to thwart his victory. In his first iteration of the Hero’s Journey, he has only begun to discover the power of the Force, and the man he will become. In Empire and Jedi, Luke’s continuing Hero’s Journey refines his self-awareness as he transforms from apprentice to Jedi Knight. He learns more about the Force, and the dangers of the dark side that come hand-in-hand with the light. The story also reveals the core nature of Luke’s heroism: his compassion. He is less concerned with Jedi tutelage on Dagobah than with saving his friends on Cloud City. He steps away from the battle against the Empire to rescue Han Solo from Jabba the Hutt. He risks everything to confront Vader and the Emperor, his belief in success founded in his faith that he can reach the good that still remains within his father. On the second Death Star, Luke’s moment of triumph comes when he tosses away his lightsaber and truly becomes a Jedi. It’s a show of emotional fortitude in the face of extreme adversity that inspires Anakin to return from the dark side.
Luke saves his father, not through combat or with the Force, but with compassion and unconditional love. Luke completes at least one more heroic cycle prior to The Last Jedi, though its details remain hidden. Like the audiences of the 1980s, who wondered about offhand references to the Clone Wars or the Kessel Run, today’s fans can only infer from brief bits of dialogue in the films and nuggets of backstory in novels and comics. Those hints indicate that after redeeming his father, saving his friends, and defeating the Empire, Luke’s compassion becomes writ large. He endeavors to fulfill the task Yoda set for him: to pass on what he has learned, and rebuild the Jedi to once again serve the cause of peace and justice in the galaxy. He searches far and wide for information about the nature of the Force and the Jedi Order of old, seeking whatever knowledge the Empire has not erased or destroyed. Later, he establishes a training temple and takes on a dozen students as Jedi apprentices, including his nephew, Ben Solo. Over time, this heroic cycle takes Luke from being a Jedi Knight to a Jedi Master. Luke continues to travel in search of knowledge, training Ben at his side. This means the young man is far away from his parents when the galaxy learns the truth that his mother, Leia, is the daughter of Darth Vader (as detailed in the novel Bloodline). Along with Supreme Leader Snoke’s manipulation, this revelation plays a large part in Ben’s turn to the dark side, which finds its full expression one fateful night at the training temple. When Luke senses the extent of the darkness already within Ben, his instincts urge him to prioritize his compassion for others over his compassion for one young man capable of inflicting so much suffering.
In the instant it takes for Luke to pull back, recognizing his own mistake in thinking that carrying out one horrific deed would prevent many more, it is too late. Ben has already seen the ignited lightsaber in Luke’s hand, and unleashes a heinous vengeance. Everything You Just Said is Wrong Luke is not the first Jedi Master to face terrible tragedy at the hands of a fallen apprentice, of course. At the end of Revenge of the Sith, Obi-Wan and Yoda go into exile having seen their greatest protégé turn to evil. They hide the newborn Skywalker twins and commit to wait, biding their time on the fringes of the galaxy, until the moment is right to finally make a move against the Sith. After the destruction of his training temple, and the massacre of most of his students, Luke too goes into exile. Unlike his teachers, though, Luke is not hiding with a plan to re-emerge. Instead, Luke has chosen to live out his final years on Ahch-To alone, so that—when the time comes—the Jedi way will die with him. While some fans struggle with where Luke starts his Wizard’s Journey, his backstory suggests he was less prepared to face the emotional toll of being a Jedi Knight compared to Obi-Wan and Yoda, who received a sophisticated education in the Jedi Temple and were taught from their youngling days of their value in the galactic balance. Similarly, his sister, Leia—who throughout the novel Leia: Princess of Alderaan is shown failing but persisting—has learned from a young age to accept failures while continuing to fight on. When Rey arrives to break Luke’s seclusion, he explains his refusal to take up his old lightsaber in simple terms. The galaxy, he says, does not need Luke Skywalker. The idea that he could stand alone against the First Order armed only with a laser sword is a fantasy, he scoffs. There is no “One.” It is time, he insists, for the Jedi to end.
In his Wizard’s Journey, Luke discovers the same lesson that he imparted to Rey and Kylo: that everything he said was wrong. Luke holds himself to blame for creating Kylo Ren. In Rey’s strength in the Force, he sees only danger, not potential. The guilt he carries for his error that night in the training temple drives his refusal to train anyone else in the ways of the Jedi. The Jedi Order of old failed due to its hubris, and so, Luke believes, did he. It is Yoda who guides Luke to see the one final lesson he must learn: that failure is not a reason to quit, but a source of knowledge for the challenges ahead. Luke’s failure came not in Ben Solo’s fall to the dark side, but in Luke’s own reaction to it, both in exiling himself from the galaxy and in rejecting Rey’s plea for training and guidance. A Jedi does not fail when his objective is not achieved; a Jedi fails only when he no longer seeks any objective at all. In that moment, Luke recognizes a fundamental truth: it may be too late to save Ben Solo’s soul, but it is not too late for Luke Skywalker to make a difference once again. Luke completes his Wizard’s Journey by accepting this truth about himself and his role as a Jedi Master. Leia is in danger; the Resistance is at the brink of annihilation. On the verge of military conquest by the First Order, the galaxy needs a spark of hope. Luke bids farewell to his sister, apologizing as much for his own choices as for the fates of Ben and Han. He releases his guilt and regret. And then he does what Rey had asked. He becomes a legend.