Star Wars is not just about family. It is family. It becomes tradition as long-time fans of the saga pass it down to their children, to experience it through fresh eyes full of wonder. It charts the scars left by the absence of family; the fall into the circles of hell of a young boy, then a young man, alone in the galaxy and grown in the hope for greatness. The self-doubt and darkness felt by the male half of two twins, a farmer and a princess, who never knew their biological parents.
That’s where a pattern starts to appear, where the prequel and original trilogies pass the lightsaber and the struggles and pain and loneliness from father to son. In all this, even Rey’s seeing Han Solo as the father she never had, where are the mothers? They fill spaces. They give Anakin Skywalker someone to give him birth, his open-hearted goodness, optimism and honourable ideals. They carry the new hopes of a galaxy fallen to darkness to term, naming them Luke and Leia in their dying breaths. But they leave spaces too. Negative spaces. The overwhelming weight of their being missing.
Even in sensing their lack has an impact, the Star Wars saga needs a closer eye to uncover where the mother’s absence is deeply felt. Shmi Skywalker’s purity and love leaves its mark, a scar as Anakin is torn from her, adrift without a blood-bond icon in any world to aspire to. Luke Skywalker slips into darkness after a vision of his own face behind Darth Vader’s mask, and in going to confront him alone again in Return of the Jedi, he asks Leia Organa, the sister he doesn’t know yet, about her mother. Her real mother. In some subconscious, Force-like way, he knows that if he didn’t have the void in his mind where his mother would be, he wouldn’t feel the pull to the dark side. If he hadn’t felt so abandoned, so alone, the dark seed inside him wouldn’t have sprouted the fury, the hurt that makes him do violence to others.
Luke and Leia never have the chance to know their mother. They don’t even find out who she was from their father. Maybe because she grew up with a family who supported her vast potential as a person of power, of influence, Leia feels that blow to a lesser degree than Luke, whose uncle holds him back on the moisture farm with promises that he can start his own life next year….next year…
So many translucent strands of the saga are based around the great importance of the love of a mother, and the tragedy of characters who don’t, or won’t, receive that love. The Force Awakens renewed that tragedy with Kylo Ren, and The Last Jedi pushed down on that lacking until it cracked down the middle. Perhaps more fragile and in even greater need of love than Anakin before him, he too feels abandoned in being shipped off to train as a Jedi, only to be abandoned yet again by his uncle and master.
General Leia Organa, ironically the one remaining and fully present mother in Star Wars, senses her own failing in missing, or misinterpreting, the guidance her son truly needed. She misses it perhaps because she has never felt that need for a strong parental presence, as she’s known it all her life. Meanwhile, Han Solo had always been a drifter at heart, and probably struggled to show love to his son through simple presence of being, protection and being his teacher in life. Indeed, he passed that responsibility on to the last Jedi Master Luke, neither mother nor father sure what to do with the growing shadow they could sense in their son. Instead of accepting it and showing him love despite the fear, they pushed him away. Onto the person they trusted to do the most good, but pushing him into even deeper loneliness nonetheless.
Time and again, it is the feeling of being adrift in a world they don’t quite belong to, that could not appreciate or find room to care for their struggles, pains and hardships, which pushes the heroes of Star Wars on into darkness or light. It’s no different for Rey, ever looking back over her shoulder for belonging, scratching off the days to an unknown time when she’ll be brought home again. She snatches new chances at that home, but still feels pulled back to her fallen AT-AT abode on Jakku, where she spent those lonely days hoarding her dreams without having to feel responsible for their fruition. It is the lack, that negative space where love should be, which calls them to their destiny. It is the space where we feel all the love we’ve received in our lives, and how destroyed we would be if it was taken away, which relates us to their journey and gives it meaning as we join them.
Many Star Wars fans of a certain age will have a memory of leaving home, or home leaving them, in some variation or other. It is the loop of hope and longing that entwines itself around Anakin, Luke, Rey, Kylo Ren—the heroes, the villains, and the audience to their trials and tragedies. It is the feeling, no matter how we become separate from the sanctuary of home, of something of the innocent love we had being forcibly ripped away which forges this connection. When we see Anakin, Luke or Rey take a tearful look back at their old, safe and sheltered lives, we see the same one we took for granted, or the one we’ll never know.
The mother is the often invisible representation of what’s being lost. Our heroes each leave the womb to follow their calling, whether the cloistered warmth of an abandoned war machine scattered with the relics of childhood’s safety, or the smooth, sturdy domes of a desert home. Only little Ani runs back to his mother’s arms to tell her he “just can’t do it”. We still don’t know quite who Rey screamed to, pleading for them to come back when she was left on Jakku. But it’s true what Anakin says; neither one can leave. All their strength and power goes into finding that sense of home somewhere, anywhere else.
Anakin’s replacement for Shmi is Padmé in their strained, tangled and emotionally complex love, both seeking comfort and escape from the stresses of duty in Attack of the Clones. It is having to suffer the mother’s abandonment once, again with Shmi’s death, again as Padmé turns from his twisted path and soon to die too, which snuffs out the light that otherwise might have broken through his misplaced desperation to snatch Padmé from her fated passing. Only when he sees her again, through his own eyes and in their son, can he be redeemed. Anakin, Luke and Kylo, one after the next, are pulled to the dark side in its promises of belonging, a relationship with a sympathetic and powerful parental guide, through them gaining strength worthy of worship and adoration from the masses, if not their fear and awe. All because they are missing the unconditional love that should come, at the very least, from the mothers who carried them.
But that is the universal umbilical of tragedy between the mother and the child. No one love is eternally, physically present and perfect in its bond. Maturity, mortality and mere separateness of being sees to it that the bond is broken, one way or another. The undercurrent of any Star Wars story is coming to accept that fact, allowing the child to find love and fulfilment by following their own path. For if one truth remains infallible throughout the saga, it’s that these things are always found. Never quite in the shape or by means expected, but in absolute certainty all the same.
This is the message we want to pass down when we introduce Star Wars to the young ones in our lives. It is one we want to leave for when they feel unloved or abandoned. The wisdom of the Jedi, after all, is to let go of all you fear to lose. Because it is only in letting go, and looking back, that we can see the love we have in all its clarity. Home and mother may seem out of reach, or invisible. But the power of that love, present or missing, will always guide us home.