Last night I was watching Return of the Jedi to celebrate the release of The Force Awakens (which I have not seen yet, but when I do, I will be posting a review). As a teenager, RotJ was my favorite Star Wars movie, but it’s been a long time since I’ve seen it, so I was curious to see how/if my opinion of it has changed as I’ve gotten older. It hasn’t. It was just as epic as the last time I had seen it–especially Luke’s confrontation with the Emperor, which was always my favorite part of the movie. As an adult, though, I picked up on a few themes that I hadn’t really noticed as a teen, and those themes deepened my appreciation for this film.
When Yoda tells Luke that he must confront Darth Vader in order to fully become a Jedi, at first I called a George Lucas Plot Hole. “You literally just told him in the last movie that you didn’t want him to fight Vader, and now you’re saying you do! Make up your mind, muppet man!” As the movie continued to play, I realized what it was that Yoda was really asking Luke to do. In telling Luke that he must confront Vader in order to fully become a Jedi, Yoda is telling him that he must confront his own fears and insecurities before he can live up to his full potential as a Jedi. At his core, I believe that Luke was afraid of falling into darkness the way his father did, which is why Yoda warned him not to seek out Vader in The Empire Strikes Back; he knew that Luke was not ready to know the full truth about his father and would begin to doubt himself and his own motivations, fearful that he would become as dark as Anakin Skywalker. Now clearly Luke was not suffering from self-doubt when he organized Han’s rescue, but Yoda could sense Luke’s unease. He knew the only way to dispel that unease would be for Luke to confront Vader a second time and, in doing so, confront the darkness and fear in himself.
This is an interesting tactic when you consider that in the prequels the young Anakin was not given the opportunity to face his fears. Yoda famously tells him in The Phantom Menace, “Fear is the path to the Dark Side. Fear leads to anger; anger leads to hate; hate leads to suffering.” Anakin was told from the start it was wrong to be afraid; it was wrong to miss his mother; emotions are bad, so don’t have them. As a result, he never truly controlled his emotions; he buried them and pretended they didn’t exist. If he felt anything at all–grief at his mother’s death, love for Padme–he took it as a sign he was a failure as a Jedi. As most people are aware, burying your emotions instead of confronting them usually blows up in your face. Anakin got to the point where he couldn’t bury them anymore, and it sent him over the edge to the Dark Side.
While on Dagobah, Yoda had plenty of time for thinking, so it probably occurred to him that telling Anakin not to be afraid was part of what turned him to the Dark Side–he never acknowledged his fear, and it consumed him. So when Anakin’s son comes to him for training, he pushes him to confront his fears and move past them instead of dwelling on them.
There’s another reason, too, why I think Yoda wanted Luke to confront Vader. He wanted Luke to see the Dark Side in its entirety and know how it felt. In days past the Jedi only worked with the Light Side of the Force; the Dark Side was seldom discussed. It represented a tempting forbidden knowledge, which was another facet of Anakin’s fall–he didn’t know the whole truth about the Force, how intoxicating the Dark Side’s power truly was. Yoda realized that Luke deserved to know the whole truth about the Force, both the Light and the Dark Sides. He deserved to experience its power for himself…but he also needed to see the corruption that resulted. Yoda trained Luke in how to be a Jedi, but Luke had to decide for himself if that was how he wanted to live his life.
That’s why the scene where Luke throws his lightsaber away is so powerful–this is the moment of his choice. He has experienced the allure of the Dark Side and reveled in its power, but he has also realized the power would make him as bad as his father, maybe even worse. He chooses not to become the same kind of man Vader is, and this choice abolishes his fears. He was afraid of becoming like Vader, but now he realizes that he doesn’t have to be afraid. He can choose to be someone different, and he does. He chooses to be a Jedi, like his father…his real father.