This article was written a few years ago… so my views have probably evolved since then.
I recently had a strange insight into the profundity of the first three Star Wars films (Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi). They have some deep parallels with the Heathen mythos, and some truly special psychological insights about the paths of Tyr/Teiwaz, and more especially, of Odin/Wodan. Then Othrerir roared, and out came this essay. I ask readers who are sceptical of the substance of the Stars Wars trilogy to consider this essay before they dismiss it for superficial reasons.
I will not comment on the new Star Wars films because 1) the third doesn’t exist yet; 2) I’m note sure that there is anything profound in them. And as a final note of slightly indulgent clarification, when I use words like ‘human’ below, the reader should infer that I mean all of the sentient alien species in the Star Wars films, not just the humans specifically.
At the end of The Return of the Jedi (which I will refer to as Return from here on in), Luke Skywalker, the Jedi knight, finds himself confronting his dark Jedi father (Darth Vader) and Vader’s malignant master, Emperor Palpatine. Palpatine tries to defeat Luke by exhorting him to “give into the hate” that dwells within him. Here we see the fundamental conflict of the Odinnic magician, of the child of Wodanaz. The struggle for Jedi (magicians) like Luke and his father is to find equilibrium between light and darkness, between Asgard and Hel. Each has an important place in the whole, but when one dominates disaster results.
The Jedi or magician struggles to resist the impulse to give into the hate. They feel keenly their own power and strength, and it is easy to forget that this strength has only come because they have surrendered their ego to The Force (the fundamental life energy of the universe that underpins the metaphysics of the Star Wars films). They risk beginning to feel that they have some innate power, and this is when the darkness, the hate, threatens to overwhelm everything and bring disaster upon the Jedi’s head.
Hate stems from fear and objectification. When the Jedi (or magician) denies that her power flows from The Force (or wyrd, or the Way), they are denying the fundamental subjectivity of the universe, treating it as dead matter onto which they may impose their will. Compounding the danger of falling into this attitude is the fact that the Jedi IS powerful, and so they feel that they have external or objective evidence of their personal greatness whenever they successfully act with purpose.
The Jedi, in their attempt to avoid the trap of being consumed in hatred and egotism, must not repress the darkness. Either they will go mad, or else it will grow out of all proportion and overwhelm them, turning them into a cancerous monster. They will become a beast, become even less than a Jedi that chooses to be totally consumed by hatred. All hope of redemption is then gone.
They must not indulge the darkness within, but they do have a responsibility to use it. They must turn it towards positive ends. They must use their resources as the outsider, the killer, the critic, the artist, the mystic, to contribute to higher ends – to help bring about a less tormented world, to help heal it. They can use the strength and independence that their darkness can give them both to combat those who have indulged it (though they must have care, as the magnitude of Luke’s temptation shows), and to destabilise trends around them that are causing or allowing injustice or needless suffering. An incredible amount of art and creation, things that enrich so many lives, stems from the transformation of darkness into beauty. I am not criticising darkness, I am criticising those who abuse it.
On the surface, the ‘light side’ of The Force is much weaker than the ‘dark side’. This is for two reasons. One, it is non-linear – it is diffuse, it works in subtle ways throughout the whole fabric of the world. Two, the dark side is bound up with egotism – it is concentrated densely within the dark Jedi’s personality. The upshot is that in most situations the dark Jedi is able to bring more power to bear more rapidly than the light Jedi. He is more responsive in crisis situations. This is part of why the Jedi must learn to become comfortable and at peace with his darkness – it has its place and is valuable, so long as it is not allowed to rule.
Regardless, the light side is infinitely more powerful, because the Jedi who works with the light becomes a conduit for all of Being. They become a vortex of creativity and life, and in the moments when they is able to move with the tide of the world, they move with the momentum of the universe. The dark Jedi, conversely, must expend endless energy forcing circumstances, twisting patterns, manipulating, maintaining a constant sense of drama and crisis. They can never relax, because their power can only manifest when brought to bear on resistance – difficult circumstances, enemies, etc. And because they can feed only on their own energy, on their victims, and on the negative energy generated by the conflicts they orchestrate, they end up burning away into a hollow, monstrous shell. They become a living draug, a walking corpse. A sociopath.
When we follow Luke through from Star Wars through to Return of the Jedi, we see how he evolves, and we see the critical impact that other archetypes have on his own Odinnic one. He is raised as a farm boy, in touch with natural cycles, and raised in a spirit of humanism and passion. This sets him on the right path, and we must acknowledge that dark Jedi may have had a very big handicap in early life, though not always (some are just self-indulgent brats).
And yet his passion, which wells from the dark of the unconscious, makes him dissatisfied with his simple Vanic life (the Vanir are the Heathen nature and agriculture gods). This is the curse of the Aesir (the Heathen gods of nobility, magic, art, and war). Luke was raised by his uncle, a very Vanic man, they struggle constantly. Luke’s uncle is perpetually worried about Luke because he sees the trouble and suffering that this same passion brought Luke’s father, Darth Vader. This is an example of ancestral orlog, the process by which each generation must assume responsibility for retaking the tests failed by the previous one (orlog is a Norse word meaning ‘primal layers’ and refers to the past as a force that pushes the present towards a partly determined future).
Luke’s uncle does not understand the passion that Luke and his father share, and believes that he can keep Luke safe by stifling, dismissing and ignoring Luke’s sense of adventure and lust for mystery. This actually intensifies Luke’s tendencies, and also makes him idealise the only person he knows who allows a place for this aspect of his personality – Obi-Wan Kenobi.
Kenobi is a light Jedi, and his archetype is Tyr/Teiwaz, not Odinn/Wodan. He was Darth Vader’s master, but he failed to help Vader find equilibrium between darkness and light because he could not understand just how powerful the darkness is.
Although Kenobi is easily capable of killing, and is pragmatic about the means he uses to achieve his ends, his ‘dark’ acts are not motivated by passion or desire. Rather, he commits them because he accepts the flow of wyrd (a concept from Heathen belief similar to The Force). He has enough faith in wyrd that he does not question or argue with the courses of action that are Needful for the success of his quest to help promote empathy and equilibrium in the world.
Therefore, Kenobi does not struggle with the dark as Luke does. He is a child of Teiwaz, he has utterly offered himself to the Force as an agent for healing (of course sometimes healing requires the controlled destructiveness of the rune Kenaz, hence Kenobi’s warrior aspect). His burden is that he is doomed to self-sacrifice and will never truly know the rewards of his right action. In contrast, those who are Odinic must struggle endlessly with tides of shadow that threaten to drown them and turn them into the very monsters they fear and despise.
In the first film, Kenobi helps his friends escape from the Death Star by willingly going into battle with Darth Vader, despite knowing that he will be killed. He is comfortable with sacrificing himself for the good of his friends and for the bigger picture.
And yet he empathises with Luke’s hot-headedness, and sees that if it is repressed it will still manifest in the long run, but twisted and hideous. He has learned from his mistake with Vader, and so eases Luke into the Jedi path. Although he can see that potentially Luke may become an even worse agent of hatred and suffering than Vader, he has faith in wyrd, The Force, in The Way, and is willing to take his chances in mentoring Luke. He realises that to not try is to fail, and moreso, it is to fail to take responsibility for the need that he has been called on to fulfil. The way of Tyr/Teiwaz is the path of absolute responsibility, whereas the Odinic/Wodennic Jedi (e.g. Luke or Vader) must work hard to resist abandoning the path of right action and falling into hatred, into rampant, uncaring darkness.
To be absorbed by the dark of ego is to refuse to take responsibility for one’s own capacity to destroy and bring suffering. It is to refuse to take responsibility for the innate empathic bond with others and with Nature that all people must accept and move with. Hatred, therefore, is cowardice. It is for this reason that racism, elitism, sexism, homophobia, totalitarianism, etc, are contemptible. People with these attitudes pride themselves on being more powerful or better than those they victimise or demonise. But in truth they are the weakest of the lot, because they lack the strength of character to acknowledge even the most basic essence of being human – empathy.
Because of his total openness to the world, Obi-Wan Kenobi does not truly die when he is slain, but lives on as a spirit and guide to those he loves. Dark side egotism tries to live forever by seizing up and sealing itself from the world. Ironically it is Kenobi’s embracing of totality and surrendering of ego that lets him live on.
Luke is bonded to his friends Han Solo and Princess Leia through trust, empathy and love. He understands their flaws, and vice versa, but is able to love them anyway. They may not be able to understand the conflicts and responsibility that his nature entails, but they have faith in him and love him for his compassion and his determination. They also help to counterpoint his self-indulgence, bringing him back to earth when he becomes too lost in the ego-dangers of mysticism (the atheist Han especially plays this role).
Luke also helps his friends to have faith in themselves and find themselves – for this is the kind of healing that Wodanaz may bring. He helps Han take responsibility for his own life and begin working for the Rebellion to help create the chance for a society based on compassion and empathy. He helps Leia to have faith in her role as a leader, somebody who brings out the best in others. They help each other to come to terms with their conflicted and pain-riddled childhood. As it turns out, Luke really IS the brother that Leia never knew she had.
Luke’s next teacher is Yoda, who long ago attained equilibrium between light and dark, but who then chose to become a hermit. When we meet first meet him we find that he has gone into solitude so that he might maintain his stability until he is again needed.. For him, there is none of the false pretence of ‘try’, which really reflects insecurity and the low self-esteem that leads to the grating parade of egotism. There is merely do or not do. He is totally comfortable with the responsibility that he bears to all things, and therefore when there is Need for action, he acts. At first this mystifies Luke, whose lack of self-belief clouds his judgment and his connection to The Force.
The critical moment of Luke’s training with Yoda is when he goes into the dark valley. Yoda tells him that the only thing in this valley of darkness is “what you take with you”. In youthful ego and fear, Luke straps on his lightsabre and other weapons and heads into the dark.
There he confronts an imaginary Darth Vader. They fight and Luke beheads his foe. To his horror, the imaginary Vader’s helmet flies off to reveal that it is actually Luke. This is an important lesson for Luke – it forces him to confront his own darkness and realise that if he does not take responsibility for it and use it for the benefit of the whole he will become what he fears and despises. It also teaches him that he cannot indulge the temptation of objectifying his enemies, of reducing the world to simple dichotomies of good and evil. He must learn to empathise with everything, even those things that he hates and fears, if he is to avoid becoming those things.
Luke’s response to these revelations is something of a classic. Soon after the battle with his dark self in the valley, his enhanced clairvoyance reveals that Han, Leia and their friends are travelling to the Cloud City of Bespin, seeking refuge from Darth Vader and his Imperial space fleet. Luke realises that Vader is one step ahead, that his friends will be betrayed, and that Han will be turned over to his old enemy, Jabba the Hutt. Although Yoda warns him that his presence will not help and that he is not yet ready to face Vader, Luke attempts to take on TOO MUCH responsibility too soon, adopting a Tyrric role that he, as Odinic, cannot truly see through. If you pay careful attention to these parts of the film, you will notice that his arrival at Bespin does not contribute to his friends escape (they do it of their own initiative), and Han Solo is frozen in carbonite and shipped off to the court of his revenge-hungry foe.
Instread, Luke battles Darth Vader, who manipulates him into doubting both Obi-Wan Kenobi’s honesty and his own worth, before humiliating Luke in battle. Vader tries to corrupt Luke into joining forces with him, into making the same mistake that Vader did. Thus Vader becomes a direct agent of his own corrupted orlog, trying to propagate it in his son through unfulfillable offers of love. This dynamic is similar to an addict trying to encourage others to use drugs. In his sense of loss and betrayal, Luke reacts by denying Vader, who in anger severs Luke’s hand and leaves him for dead. The parallel with Tyr sacrificing his hand to Fenris in an ultimately futile attempt to save the Aesir from Ragnarok (the death of the gods) is clear.
Again it is the love and empathy of his friends that saves Luke after this disastrous initiation. Although this mainly occurs off-screen (between the second and third films), it is implied in the closing scene of The Empire Strikes Back (the second film). There we see a recovering Luke holding hands with Leia as their star ship flies away with the still-determined tatters of the Rebel Alliance to fight another day.
We then find ourselves at the beginning of the third film, Return of the Jedi. In the opening, Luke works to save Han Solo. By this stage he is almost totally in equilibrium with dark and light. He plays the role of Woden as wanderer and manipulator to gain entry to Jabba’s court, and becomes the catalyst for the rescue of his friends – Han, Leia, Lando Calrissian, Chewbacca, and the droids. He also pays back with blood the debt owed to Boba Fett, the bounty hunter who helped Vader capture Han and who took Han back to Jabba.
Although the Rebellion needs him to assist in battling the new Death Star, Luke realises he has yet to fully let go of his fear and egotism. He returns to Yoda, who before passing away tells him his last test is to kill Vader. Luke thinks that Yoda means that if he cannot murder Vader then he will never come to terms with his darkness and find equilibrium. In fact the test that Yoda foresees is that if Luke DOES kill his father then he will fail and be consume by hate. This is the dreadful manipulation that the Emperor tries on Luke when he and Vader fight as the battle over the Death Star rages at the end of Return.
When Luke confronts Vader and the Emperor, the Emperor sense Luke’s darkness, that he is not yet at peace with it, and tries to make him commit to hatred. If Luke were to slay his father in anger, then there would be no turning back, and the Emperor sees that he has even more ‘potential’ than Vader.
Vader has been so consumed by hate and ego that be has become more machine than man, “twisted and evil” as Kenobi describes him. The Emperor, the darkest of the lot, is not exactly an image of vitality, wholeness or happiness either.
As Luke and Vader duel, it becomes clear that Luke’s hatred is more overwhelming than Darth Vader’s, who finds himself in an emotional conflict because the fragment of light still left in him empathises with his son’s struggle. He cannot truly bring himself to slay his own son, and in a curious reversal, it is now Luke who severs Vader’s hand. Luke prepares himself for the killing blow, but empathy returns. When he sees how helpless and wounded he has made Vader he throws his weapon aside. With this act, he lets go of the hatred, the egotism. He ceases letting it have a chance to dominate him. He allows it no more than its rightful due, and would rather be killed by the Emperor than compromise. This is a mighty evolution of the Skywalker family’s orlog, for the son has overcome the temptation that consumed the father and, as I am about to discuss, this act also helps the father to atone for his own failure.
As the Emperor slowly kills Luke with his lightning hands, Vader in turn recovers his empathy. For the first time the awful consequences of indulging the dark side of the force are revealed to him in a way that he can permit himself to empathise with – in the attempted murder of his son. Inspired by the example that Luke has set by sparing him, Vader finally take responsibility for his actions and for his own darkness. With his final strength, he hurls the Emperor off a precipice, turning his capacity for darkness and destruction to a good end. Father and son lay together, exhausted and hurting, but finally whole and finally able to love one another. Soon after Vader dies, but he is reborn as Kenobi and Yoda were. With his final breath he lets go of the leaden burden of egotistical hatred. He becomes a son of Wodanaz who is able to find equilibrium and take responsibility for the empathic duty that rests on the shoulders of all human beings – love.
Luke is left to continue the ancestral path of the family of Jedi, a family bonded sometimes by blood, but more generally by common experience, harmonised (though sometimes different) perspectives, empathy, and fellowship. Interestingly, some semi-official written ‘sequel’s to the films have Luke later succumb to the darkness, and this is an important message. ‘Enlightenment’ is not forever, equilibrium is a responsibility to maintain, and initiations are not final. One must undergo initiations again and again in the process of growth, for an initiation is not just a ceremony (though ceremonies can be used to cause initiatory experiences). An initiation is some kind of challenging or traumatic life experience that helps you let go of repression and delusion and opens you to the central core of things that matter.
Hopefully by now my reader can see why I believe that the first three Star Wars films are essentially as profound as any mythology, be it Heathen or otherwise.