Darth Vader and Solzhenitsyn

Who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

Star Wars endures as one of the greatest stories told in the 20th century. It is a classic journey of man fulfilling his destiny amidst a battle of good and evil. It has everything to pique the imagination of children bizarre aliens, dashing scoundrels, beautiful princesses, and battles in space.

However, what makes the Star Wars movies so great is not just their fantastic setting and characters but their moral dimension. In the films, the battle between good and evil is not just one that happens outside of us and amongst the stars. The true battle is the one that happens within us. Whether we are upholding the light side of the Force — the mystical reality which binds together all living things — or the dark side of the Force depends on the moral choices we make as individuals. The Jedi are admonished to lead an ascetic discipline in order not stray to the dark side of the Force.

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Darth Vader, arguably the main villain of the original trilogy, is not just an inhuman abomination that crawled out of some twisted nether to torture the innocent. He certainly does evil things, but we know that he was once a good and noble man who was interested in protecting those he loved. We learn in the prequel trilogy that Darth Vader’s journey to the dark side is not an absolute plunge into the abyss, but an incremental journey. It begins by his seemingly innocent defiance, his rebellious attitude and his secret marriage. But each misstep begins to pile up. The true transformation from Anakin Skywalker to Darth Vader is not when he is viciously burned and forced to live as “more machine than man,” but when the accumulation of his choices culminates in his betrayal of the Jedi.

The important thing to note is that even after all the evil Darth Vader has done, he is still redeemable. The duel between Luke and his father in the final film, Return of the Jedi, is a battle for each of their souls. It isn’t only a battle over Luke’s soul, but also a battle for Darth Vader’s soul. Even though Luke must fight him, he refuses to believe Darth Vader is beyond redemption. The Emperor presses Luke to give in to his hatred towards his father. It could even be argued that this hatred was a righteous hatred; Darth Vader was responsible for the deaths of untold numbers of people. However, Luke refuses to give into this hatred because he knows that his father, no matter how evil, still has a kernel of goodness in him. As the Emperor proceeds to torture Luke, Darth Vader decides to protect his son and he attacks the Emperor. Not only does Darth Vader save Luke, he destroys the Emperor for good. As Darth Vader dies, he asks Luke to remove his mask that inspired so much fear, so that he may look on his son with nothing between them. Beneath the fearful mask we see a weak and dying man, humbled. As the Death Star crumbles around him, Luke pleads with this father to let him save him. “You already have,” he replies.

The lesson of Star Wars is the same as that of Alexander Solzhenitsyn:

If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

Star Wars is about the war within us. It is about stepping into light and out of darkness. It is about believing in whatever atrophied good is left in the worst parts of us and others and having that recognition rarify it and unleash it. The battle rages inside us, but the only final victory can be of good over evil.

Is Star Wars more morally complex than Lord of the Rings?

Read the rest of the symposium

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  • […] note: This article was originally published at Humane Pursuits and is part of a symposium on the moral complexity in The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars. It is […]