So it’s “Star Wars Day”. May the Fourth Be With You!
I was seven years old when Star Wars came out in May 1977. My dad took me to see it a couple months later, in September I think; I remember that it was a school night, and he joked that I shouldn’t tell my teacher he’d kept me out late.
It was a defining event of my childhood. I had the action figures, argued with my friends over who got to be Luke Skywalker and who got to be Han Solo when we played, built an X-wing Estes model rocket. And in my secret heart, when I was trying to figure out how to respond to the world, I would ask myself, “What would Luke Skywalker do at a time like this?”
I should perhaps point out that this was long before “What Would Jesus Do?” was a catchphrase. And as I’ve grown up a little bit since then, I might ask myself now “What would Han Solo do?” — working-class hero Han, after all, had to make his way without any mystical super-powers, just guile and good piloting and straight-shooting. (And he got the girl in the end, something that wasn’t very significant to my seven-year-old self but that I was starting to notice by the time I saw Return of the Jedi at age thirteen.)
All these years later I’m not sure if started my first experience in the martial arts, a ju-jitsu class through the local recreation council, before or after I saw The Empire Strikes Back in 1980. I guess it was after. But I knew Yoda before I ever stepped into a teaching role, and I’ve often said that all martial arts teachers want to be Yoda when we grow up.
By the time Return Of The Jedi came out, my good friend Mike and I were old enough to be dropped off at the mall and see the movie ourselves. I can remember my middle-school music teacher coming out of the show before as we waited in line and talking to her about it. I think that was the first time I talked with one of my teachers as an equal, just two people out at the movies.
Most people rate Jedi as the weakest of the original movies, what with the Ewoks and all. But it contains the series’ crowning moment of awesome. Luke is tempted into rage — a rage fueled by love for his sister — and comes within a hair’s breadth of killing his father and turning to the Dark Side. But he sees the stump of Vader’s artificial arm where he has just sliced off Vader’s sword hand, looks at his own black-gloved bionic one, and understands. From that position on the precipice he sees exactly how Vader fell to the Dark Side, how he is poised to do exactly the same thing (“take your father’s place at my side”). And knowing that he stops himself, something he could not have done without Vader’s example.It’s no small bit of ethical philosophy there, as we see Luke wordlessly go from rage to calm understanding. It is in that moment — as he tells the Emperor — that he becomes a Jedi; and, though his life may be forfeit, he denies the Emperor victory and redeems his father. (“You’ve failed, your highness. I am a Jedi, like my father before me.”)
Forget the lousy prequels and shun the “special editions” with their pointless effects and plot changes. (Han. Shot. First.) Let J.J. Abrams’ fun but hollow fan fiction wash over you but don’t take it seriously. Those few seconds of Return of the Jedi about the moral choice we face, about understanding how others can fail in making that choice, about finding compassion even for people who have done horrible things, about the ever-present possibility of redemption, justifies everything about the original trilogy.
What would Luke Skywalker do? What’s important is not that he would pilot an X-Wing or swing a lightsaber. It’s that he would see into the nature of evil, into how even love can drag one into doing horrible things, and step back from it, finding calm equanimity even in the face of death.