Mentors, Mirroring & Failure: When Star Wars Grew Up

I have never seen a Star Wars movie divide fans as strongly as The Last Jedi. If you’d spent any time with me when it was out in cinemas you would know I had a lot to say about that film, and I still do. I think that film is one of the high water marks of the perfect weaving of plot, character and theme. Not just for a Star Wars movie, but for movies full stop. I could write a thousand essays about it, but I’ll save you having to read those….for now. For today we’re going to talk about one of the most divisive aspects of the film, it’s portrayal of Luke Skywalker. I’m not here to try and convince you to like it, I’m more interested in talking about why I find his portrayal compelling and great writing, and how it resonates with and teaches us about our real lives.

So to start with lets talk about real life. Let’s talk about the stories we experience and see repeatedly playing out in our day to day lives and our relationships. And then let’s see how that plays out in The Last Jedi. Our starting point is mentor figures, I would also call them father figures. But sometimes the person who fills this role is neither our father, or a male. The mentors in our lives are the people who’ve had the greatest influence on us as we’ve grown up, the people we admire and learn from. Often this is fathers and mothers and family. Sometimes, we’re lucky enough for this to be a person who we once admired from afar, and are able to build a relationship with and learn from. There’s two aspects of this particular relationship I want to talk about. The first is that if you spend long enough time with anyone you admire, they will disappoint you. You will discover qualities about your heroes that are decidedly not heroic, some that you flat out don’t like. I’ve had this experience in my own life, of gradually becoming closer and closer with people held in reasonably wide esteem, and the closer you get to them, the more their humanity comes through. The more the myth and the image dissolves that the adoring masses project upon them, the more you find a real person who is just as vulnerable and fallible as you. And how you react to that experience says a lot about your own ability to deal with failure, and the darker parts of who you are that you hope no-one can see. Most of the time the faults we criticise most harshly in others are our greatest also, and it’s our fear of owning them which comes out in anger, pride and the rejection of others who are just like us.

The second aspect to talk about is mirroring. You will unconsciously mirror the parental figures who were largest in your life as you grew up. This is an inescapable fact, and it plays out in a thousand ways, both major and mundane. I’ve caught myself so many times sitting next to my father on a couch, and noticed that we are both sitting the exact same way. When I walk slowly and casually I adopt the exact pose my father does as he walks, with my hands clasped behind my back just like him. I react the exact same way to stress and too many demands that my father did. All of this is unconscious. It becomes part of my reflex responses to life. I’ve never consciously thought about how my father sits on a couch or walks, or any of these qualities. They’ve just become part of who I am by being around them. By seeing them play out in this larger than life figure we called “Dad.” This influence is at it’s strongest when you’re a child and still forming who you are, but it continues long into maturity. You will become like the environment you surround yourself with. You will unconsciously mirror the social responses, posturing, humour and world-views of the environments you spend the most time in.

Good writing plays out the truths of our humanity and relationships. Writing must be true, not in the sense of factual, but in terms of who we are as human beings, how we relate and behave. So often the moment you disconnect from a film or a story is the precise moment our character behaves in a way that doesn’t make sense to us. That doesn’t ring true with our understanding of how people behave and respond to situations, or our understanding of that specific character. So with all that in mind, let’s look at Luke Skywalker and his mentors and father figures. Let’s look at who they were, and see how that plays out in who he becomes.

Firstly, the man who actually raised him, Owen Lars. Who is this man? Largely a hermit, interested only in the day to day difficulties of his existence as a moisture farmer on Tatooine. He shows little or no interest in the greater galaxy, his immediate difficulties and struggles are enough. Insular, self-focused, a hermit. The next largest mentor in his life, Obi-Wan Kenobi. Who is Obi-Wan when Luke meets him? A hermit. Living in hiding. Do you see a pattern here? Importantly though, while Obi-Wan starts here, he gets called back into the story of the greater galaxy by a young person who starts him believing again that he has something to offer. He then introduces Luke to the larger world and to thinking beyond himself. And the climactic moment of that relationship is Luke seeing Obi-Wan deliberately sacrifice himself to allow them to escape the Death Star. The old man lays down his life to secure the future. Take note of this moment.

The third mentor in his life is Yoda. And who is Yoda when we meet him? You guessed it. A hermit. In hiding. And who tries to test Luke and push him away by being as wily and eccentric as possible in their first meeting. He then later says Luke has too much anger in him, just like his father. And as all good Star Wars fans know, the root of anger is fear (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kFnFr-DOPf8). This brings us to Luke’s father, Anakin Skywalker, or Darth Vader. While not a present influence in his life, it’s clear that his father and who he was looms large in his mind. And there is so much that we inherit from our parents that is not just taught by mirroring, but is simply baked into our genetics. And what was the dominant trait of his father? Fear. It was fear that made the Jedi Council refuse to train him. And it was fear that ultimately drove him to the dark side and becoming Darth Vader.

So these are the greatest mentor figures in the young Luke Skywalker’s life. These are the qualities unconsciously baked into him. But here’s the thing, so often these responses become a reflex, and we fall back on reflex in times of great stress or confusion. We can often pull away from these qualities when we’re succeeding, when we feel in control and powerful. So Luke becomes a hero. A mythical figure in the eyes of the galaxy. Infallible. And he has no mentors left. He is alone on his pedestal, with no-one to guide him. And he fails, and he fails majorly. Fear drives him to consider for just a moment taking the life of his nephew Ben, and Ben reacts out of fear and destroys Luke’s Jedi temple, killing the other students. So we see the fear of Anakin come into play in Luke, and we see the hero we’ve admired finally fail and show his humanity through the myth that surrounds him. And what does he do when he fails? When he is scared, and alone, and feeling like he has nothing left to offer the galaxy? Well what were all his mentors when he met them? Hermits. In hiding. He mirrors what he saw in his mentors and retreats into hiding. Now doesn’t that ring so true for our humanity and our lives?

When he does get called back out of hiding, it’s by Rey – a young person who makes him believe that he has something to offer still and that he still has a role to play in the wider galaxy. This is a mirroring of Obi-Wan, who was in hiding, and called back into the fight by Leia. And what does Luke do upon his return to playing a role in the larger conflict? He sacrifices his life to secure the future, just like Obi-Wan. He makes a grand gesture and statement that will give those to come after him something to mirror. Luke’s narrative and character arc plays out in a mirror of the largest mentors in his life. He gives us the hero we need, the hero who is just like us. Not the infallible, untouchable myth. But the man who fails and struggles. Who falls back into mirroring his mentors, in both the good and the bad qualities. A man who shows how you can still make positive choices, how you can recover from failure and hopefully leave a better example for those who follow you. This isn’t just writing that rings true, it’s writing that is helpful. That gives you something to chew on and take into your life. It doesn’t just give you fan service. It gives you real life and the real day to day issues we struggle with. But in the form of a grand space opera, with all the larger than life characters and adventures that we go to the movies for.

If we didn’t see Luke fail, if we didn’t seem him do what we do and play out the same story we all play out of mirroring our mentors, he would potentially become useless to us as we grow and journey through life. A hero like that is only useful to you when you don’t fail. But guess what? You will fail. Your heroes, mentors and parents will all fail and have failed. We need writing and stories that can walk with us through our lives. We need characters we can travel with. And the Luke Skywalker of The Last Jedi is exactly that for me. In the original trilogy he was the hero I needed as a child. The brave inspirational figure who wins and succeeds and saves the day. And now he’s the hero I need as a grown man. As I see myself as a parent beginning to mirror my parents. As I fail to live up to my own expectations, and fail to live up to the image I project of myself, and that others project on me. And the aggressive reaction by many people against that hero is fascinating, because it potentially shows an inability in our psyches to deal with failure. It shows that the lesson Luke’s mentors failed to teach him, is the same lesson the young hero Luke failed to teach us. And it shows how incredibly on point Rian Johnson’s writing is in this story. It shows he hit at the nerve of a lesson that not just Luke needed, that we needed.

I believe that The Last Jedi gave us a Luke Skywalker that will walk with us through our lives. That potentially the same people who are so angry about it now will one day find themselves failing, and in that moment they’ll find a Luke who can stand right alongside them and show them a way out. They’ll find a Luke who can spark hope, and not the hope that “I’m strong and I have all the answers and I’ll win next time,” but the hope that I’m not alone. That countless of others before me have walked the path of failure and kept on walking and found they still have something to offer. Too many of us are isolated and alone, we don’t have mentors anymore. Rian Johnson gave us a story that can hopefully fill that gap in a small way. This to me is storytelling operating at it’s highest function, and the function that saw the birth of stories. Storytelling began with the passing down of lessons. Teaching the generations to come how the world works and how to navigate it. This is what The Last Jedi is doing in a major way.

When I was a child, Luke Skywalker gave hope to a galaxy a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away. He gave a child dreams of a bigger world and adventure beyond his home and his galaxy. Now he gives real hope to me as a grown man. In my galaxy. In my home. Every single day. Great storytelling is a gift given to us the audience, and we should be very thankful for when we get one as good as this.

 

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