“I must be allowed to speak,” Luke Skywalker demands of Jabba the Hutt in Return of the Jedi. Historically peacekeepers and diplomats, the voice and spoken word are as important to the function and philosophy of the Jedi as their lightsabers. Having already struck out in anger against the Emperor in ROTJ, Luke pulls himself back from the precipice of the Dark Side, lays down his weapon and confronts him again, only this time with his voice: “I’ll never turn to the Dark Side. You’ve failed, your highness. I am a Jedi, like my father before me.”
This understanding can perhaps be traced back to A New Hope and the ethereal voice of Obi-Wan guiding him through the Force – itself a kind of consciousness, the voice of the universe. Before becoming one with the Force, Obi-Wan tells Darth Vader that if he strikes him down he’ll become more powerful than his former apprentice can possibly imagine. Power, however, isn’t simply strength of body, but mental fortitude and, in this case, the ability to grow beyond physical limitations. In this transformation, Obi-Wan was able to guide Luke in ways he never could have before, teaching him to let go his doubts and conscious mind, and embrace the omnipotent Force. From this perspective, Obi-Wan’s self-imposed exile on Tatooine can be read as a journey towards enlightenment.
In Buddhism, the path to enlightenment can be achieved through the Eightfold Path, as outlined by the Buddha in his principal sermon. The first of these eight primary teachings concerns the right view or understanding, an insight into the true nature of reality – i.e. that death is not the end. In the Star Wars universe, the path begins the same way, with understanding the nature of the Force. Enlightenment, then, occurs in becoming one with it. In teaching Luke in this way, Obi-Wan begins his student’s journey through these fundamental truths, which culminates decades later when Luke achieves enlightenment and transforms into the Force.
It’s fitting that the third step along the Eightfold Path is using speech compassionately. Voice is the central point of all creation, unifying religions and belief systems around the world. The prophet Muhammad is said to have climbed into a mountain cave and tirelessly meditated until he heard a voice compelling him to write the Quran. In Genesis, God speaks the universe into existence, illuminating the darkened void with the immortal words, “Let there be light”.
The voice is power, used for good and for evil. The dissolution of the Galactic Republic and the formation of the Empire are achieved through an address to the senate. Palpatine’s greatest asset is his charisma, using it to gently coerce Padmé Amidala in The Phantom Menace, or woo Anakin in the following episodes. Looking again at ROTJ, it’s with his words that he attempts to seduce Luke to the Dark Side. But Luke triumphs, and redeems his father.
The struggle between humanity and the machine is one of the core conflicts of the Star Wars saga, most poignantly realised in Darth Vader. In giving into his fears, passions and anger, Anakin surrendered himself to the Dark Side and made himself a machine – first metaphorically and then physically. In this half-human state, he becomes the other, trapped in a symbolic underworld of his own making. As well as this transformed physical appearance, Anakin’s voice is altered, modulated and monotone through his mask. His eventual unmasking after saving his son is a crucial visual signifier of his redemption, literally removing him from the machine. Key to that is hearing his voice, weak and broken, yes, but entirely his own. In telling Luke to go and, thus, save him, Anakin achieves not only the third step of the Eightfold Path – using speech compassionately – but all of them, attaining enlightenment and becoming one with the Force, the cosmic voice of the galaxy.