The psychology of Luke Skywalker, pop culture’s most complicated hero

Upon first seeing Princess Leia’s desperate plea to Obi-Wan Kenobi to aid her father and the plight of the Rebel Alliance, Luke Skywalker’s first thought is that she’s beautiful. Giving this teenage farm boy the benefit of the doubt, this was only part of the message, with a stubbornly loyal R2-D2 embargoing the rest for Obi-Wan’s eyes only.

When Luke follows the wayward Artoo and encounters the hermit Jedi for himself he can finally see the message in its entirety. Obi-Wan is stirred immediately into action, Leia’s message the catalyst for the coming change he has waited in solitude for. “Until the time is right,” Yoda told him almost two decades before. The time, then, is now.

For Luke, though, things aren’t so simple. Far from the soon-to-be-dissolved Senate, Luke’s understanding of the Jedi, the Clone Wars and even the Empire is more like stories – like myths – than facts. His life is one of farm chores and the simple pleasures of piloting and bullseyeing whomp rats. This farm boy isn’t called to action by Leia’s message. His instinct is to return home, to his safe and predictable life. He feels helpless, caught between the warring factions of his past and future while he’s abandoned in the desert of the present.

When viewed through the context offered by The Last Jedi and its themes of letting the past die, it’s interesting to observe that Luke isn’t driven to save Leia by looking forward but by the literal death of his past. After he returns home, he finds the smoking ruin of his family’s moisture farm. The charred bodies of his aunt and uncle, his protectors alongside Ob-Wan these past decades, desecrate the ground. So far as he knows, Luke is now alone in the galaxy. With the anchor to his old life now severed, he follows Obi-Wan. Though this ‘called to destiny’ trope is fundamental to the mythic narrative George Lucas constructed, it seems more to this writer that Luke had no other choice. He could become a hero, or he could stay behind and suffer the same fate as his family.

Confronting Vader

Luke wasn’t met with a call for help and stirred into action, ready to take on the evils of the Empire and save the day. He was motivated by personal loss, tragedy and, frankly, fear. This, tied with Luke’s own frustrations or – as fans love to point out – his whining, aren’t the makings of a hero but of someone trying to find their place in a vast galaxy. In that way, the Luke we meet in The Last Jedi feels like a natural and nuanced progression of the same character.

Having played a pivotal role in the downfall of the Empire, Luke became a beacon of hope and light, not just for the Rebel Alliance he served under, but for the galaxy at large. The spark of the Jedi still burned within him. The fate of that entire Order rested upon his shoulders. Should he decide not to train the next generation, then all the Jedi had been would truly fade to legend. So Luke took it upon himself to become a teacher and, as Master Yoda told him in Return of the Jedi, “pass on what you have learned”.

Among the students was his own nephew, Ben Solo. The prequel trilogy served, in part, to show that father and son went on the same journey in their temptation to the Dark Side. That familial pattern occurs again in Ben, who was twisted and kowtowed by Snoke. There are suggestions that Snoke’s toxic influence was there from Ben’s birth, that the poor boy never had a chance. In a saga hinged on destiny, the outcome of his actions had already been written.

In one of the most controversial and divisive moments in the Star Wars saga, Luke stands over his sleeping nephew and ignites his lightsaber. Luke had long sensed the lingering darkness inside Ben, a swelling shadow that was growing ever hungrier. Having felt the same pull himself, Luke is intimately aware of the struggle. Yoda himself tells Luke that once he starts down the dark path, forever will it dominate his destiny. There is, therefore, no escaping the dark once its creeping tendrils get a grip of the heart and mind; never abscent, only managed. In that darkness, Luke could glimpse the pain, suffering and death his nephew would bring, and so he thought, for the good of the galaxy, the boy must be destroyed.

At war with past mistakes

It was a fleeting thought with deadly consequences. Ben woke to see his uncle stood over him, saber in hand, and assumed he was there to kill him. Perhaps it was the catalyst Ben needed to tip him over the edge. It might have been part of Snoke’s (read: Palpatine’s) game all along, and these two were simply pawns. But the damage was done. Luke’s temple was put to the flame, the students who wouldn’t join Ben – baptised now in blood as Kylo Ren – were killed. Luke was left among the bodies and the ashes, as if he’d never left Tatooine, as if he was still on the threshold of adulthood with his home in flames and the bodies of his aunt and uncle still smoking under those relentless twin suns.

From this moment, it’s as though Luke could see the repeating patterns of the universe. No matter his actions (or inactions) darkness would rise, and light would cast it out only long enough for shadows to gather and attack again. In isolation on Ahch-To, Luke cuts himself off from the Force, removing himself from the hero’s journey. It’s the Jedi, Luke convinces himself, who are to blame for the state of the galaxy, with their hubris and arrogance opening the doors to tyrants and sowing their own downfall.

Here he remains for years, until Rey arrives on the island brandishing the old lightsaber he lost in a duel with his father. She asks him for help and at first he ignores her, then admonishes her. So convinced is Luke that he can see these repeating patterns that he’s certain helping Rey will only precipitate yet more despair. Nothing really changes. He came to the island to die, he tells her, and take the legacy of the Jedi with him. To let the past die.

Peace and purpose

As with his father, Luke’s character undergoes a transformation, a metaphorical birth-death-rebirth cycle. The Luke we first meet in A New Hope is filled with doubt, fear and anger by the time of The Empire Strikes Back. It’s most clearly seen on Dagobah, during his Jedi training with Yoda, entering the cave. Here he symbolically confronts the darkness, anger and fear lurking within himself, a shadow beneath the surface similar, perhaps, to what he would sense in Ben all those decades later. In her 1981 essay, Anne Lancashire points to this as the moment Luke realises the complexity of evil.

The boy Luke, who until now, childlike, has thought of evil as something outside himself, is now beginning to recognize that evil comes from within, that every human being, including himself, contains the potential (or force) for evil (through emotions such as fear, anger, and hatred) as well as for good (through idealism, love, and faith). The evil Luke meets in the magic tree-cave—which he takes there with him, symbolized in the weapons Yoda had advised him to leave behind—is his own emotional dark side, which will destroy him if he does not learn through patience to control it.”

– ‘Complex Design in The Empire Strikes Back’, Anne Lancashire

Not only is the Luke we meet in The Last Jedi true to the character we’re first introduced to forty years earlier, but also to the events that have shaped his life. Like his father before him, Luke’s destiny was never his own. He was an instrument for the Force to move through as is his nephew Ben. He tried to turn away from that life, from his duty and from his own failings but, like his decision to join Obi-Wan and help Leia, the galaxy had a way of guiding his path and actions. Luke is a legend, true, but he’s also something much more relatable. He’s human and flawed, as much at 19 as he is at 60, with the doubt and fear he fights to be truly heroic.

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