Saturday, May 28, 2022

May The Source Be With You (2)

What did Luke Skywalker know of the Force?

Luke seems to be aware of "the wars" (i.e the Clone Wars) and of the existence of the Jedi. When Ben says "I was once a Jedi Knight the same as your father" Luke does not reply "What's one of those?" But he is unaware of the Force.  When Ben mentions it, he simply responds "The Force?" In the novel, his "face twists in confusion" and he says "A force? That's the second time you've mention a force."

This is more than a little odd. If we assume that the Jedi didn't show off their powers too ostentatiously; and that most of their Force usage was about exerting a strong influence over the weak minded (as opposed to, say, chucking Force lightning around willy nilly) then it would be perfectly possible to know about the Force, without believing in it. This is Han Solo's position: he must know that there was once a large and influential order of mystics in the universe, but he doesn't believe that they could really perform miracles. Luke is more in the position of a person who knows what the Knights Templar were, but has never heard of Jesus Christ. Owen might have tried to keep the existence of the Force hidden from Luke while he was growing up (Herzeleide prevented Parsifal from knowing about the grail knights) but surely he would have learned about it from the wider society?

Do we know if there were schools on Tatooine, incidentally? Has Luke studied history? Can he even read and write?

Why was Luke so sad when Ben died?

Luke seems to be emotionally wrecked by the death of Ben Kenobi at the hands of Darth Vader: more so than he was by the deaths of Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru, and indeed, more than Leia was by the destruction of her entire planet. Why does he react more strongly to the death of a man he only met a few hours ago than he does to that of the only parents he has ever known? 

Now, I am not completely certain that the question is valid. When he realises that Owen and Beru's lives are in danger, Luke leaps into action (even though it is, according to Ben, too dangerous) to try to save the. When he discovers that they are dead he spends several minutes grieving at the burning homestead; and then returns to Ben, who tries to comfort him. ("There was nothing you could have done, had you been there.") Luke then makes a life-changing decision (to go with Ben to Alderaan) and the next time we see him he is more or less back to normal.

When Ben is killed, he similarly leaps into action (shooting wildly at storm troopers); grieves for a few minutes ("I can't believe he's gone") is comforted by Leia in exactly the same terms ("There wasn't anything you could have done") and immediately resumes his normal demeanour. George Lucas has treated the two bereavements in the same way: using cinematic compression to reduce the grieving process to a few short scenes. But that still makes Ben's death and the deaths of Owen and Beru of equal importance.

From a narratological point of view, this is relatively easy to explain. Luke meets Ben about 30 minutes into the film; his death occurs 60 minutes later. From the audience's point of view, they have been together for a very long time -- two thirds of the movie, and half its entire running length. By contrast, Owen and Beru are introduced about 15 minutes into the film and killed only 20 minutes later.

Furthermore, Lucas cunningly inserts a three minute scene in between the Millennium Falcon's escape from Tatooine and its arrival in the Alderaan system. Star Wars is modelled on the old movie serials, and there is a distinct sense that one episode has ended and a new one is beginning. This scene pointedly begins with an in media res tableau: Threepio and Chewbacca are already some way into a chess game; Ben has been teaching Luke how to use a lightsaber for some time. This set-up becomes a new status quo: by the time they are trapped on the Death Star they are a family group; not six people who recently met.

Lucas uses the same narrative trick after our heroes escape from the Death Star but before they arrive on Yavin IV: Han talks to Leia about his pay; Han and Luke talk to each other about Leia. ("Do you suppose a princess and a guy like me...?"). This serves to establish Leia as "one of the family". Before the final battle, she is clearly treating Luke as a friend and comrade, not a plucky peasant who saved her from the bad guys some 22 minutes ago. (The deleted scene between Luke and Threepio on the Landspeeder would have served a similar purpose.) 


So: as long as we are treating Star Wars as a movie Luke's reaction to the death of Ben presents no problems: Lucas knows exactly what he is doing. But if we want to make sense of it as an historical text several possible in-universe explanations present themselves.

1: Ben tells Luke that he will have to learn the ways of the Force if he is going to go with him to Alderaan. After his family are killed Luke says that this is indeed what he wants: to learn the ways of the Force, go to Alderaan, and become a Jedi. So it is surely possible that, before setting out to Mos Eisley, Ben takes Luke back to his home and spends some days teaching him about the Jedi.  This is more satisfactory than Brian Daley's explanation: that at Obi-Wan uses Jedi mind powers to "open Luke" to the Force more quickly than would normally be possible.

2: It is also possible that Luke and Ben met with hazards or hold-ups on the trip from Ben's home to Mos Eisley. They could have been attacked by tusken raiders, by Jabba's goons, by pirates or bandits, or encountered some other peril. This could easily have resulted in an adventure lasting several days or weeks. Friendships can form quite quickly on camping trips.

3: When we cut back to the Millennium Falcon after the destruction of Alderaan, Chewbacca and Artoo are already several moves into their chess game, and Luke has been doing his exercises for some time. Han joins them in the mess and says 

"Well, you can forget your trouble with those imperial slugs...I told you I'd out run them .... Don't everybody thank me at once." 

This is a very odd thing for him to say: they made the jump to hyperspace some time ago and settled down for some R&R: why would Han waltz in and announce something which happened half an hour ago. (Foster spots the problem and changes the line to "You can stop worrying about your imperial friends: they'll never be able to track us now.") The scene would make far more sense if Han were referring to a subsequent attack by Imperials: one we have not seen. The Falcon flew out of Mos Eisley and (for some reason) ended up in a different part of the Galaxy. We rejoin it after several more adventures, when our friends are are close to Alderaan. This is part of my "head canon" because I want there to have been a time when Luke, Ben and Han got to bounce around the universe, having fun and being heroes, before everything turned dark. 
However the true explanation of Luke's possible over-reaction to the loss of Ben Kenobi may be hidden in very obscure corner of the secondary canon.

Someone To Watch Over Me

Ben says that he understands that Luke is a very good pilot: but in the radio version at least, Luke sees that this is only true from "a certain point of view".

"I remember that, when you saved Windy and me. And then you showed up again today, and you know about my piloting. Ben you have been sort of keeping an eye on me, haven't you?"

"Let's just say that I have kept abreast of your progress."

Abreast of your progress. The 2015 Marvel Comic series (which is regarded as canon) included a sub-plot in which Luke, in the months following the Battle of Yavin, returning to Tatooine and discovering the journals of Ben Kenobi. (This partly accounts for his increased knowledge of the Force by the time of Empire Strikes Back.) The journals provide a pretext for some flashbacks to the time when Ben and Luke were still living on Tatooine. The twelve year old Luke is portrayed as being very like the Anakin of Phantom Menace. Uncle Owen spots that his is the only homestead which has never been attacked by Sand People or fingered by Jabba's racketeers; and realises that Ben must be protecting it. When Luke crashes the family skyhopper in a Beggars Canyon escapade, Ben arranges for the Jawas to give him a box of skyhopper parts  -- which Owen returns. (Owen himself subsequently replaces it with a similar gift: their relationship is considerably more affectionate in the comic than it is in the film.) After this incident, Owen travels to Ben's home and explicitly tells him to stay away from his family, which Ben respects. A similar flashback story in the original (non canonical) 1977 Marvel Comic saw Luke and Biggs racing through Beggars canyon, and Luke negotiating the deadly "Diabalo Cut" to save his life: but Obi-Wan pointedly does not appear in the episode. 

The canonical comic book ends with Ben continuing to keep an eye on Luke: literally watching over him, from a distance, through macrobinoculars. This motif -- of Ben observing Luke in secret -- also occurs in an episode of Star Wars: Rebels in which Obi-Wan has a final and decisive lightsaber battle with the resurrected Darth Maul. 

Veteran American children's book publishers Golden Books specialise in tie-in properties for very-young readers. (They were publishing licensed Disney titles from the 1940s) Their current line includes kid-friendly retellings of all the Star Wars movies, and books with titles like "I am a Jedi" and "I am a Droid". In 1998 they published a fascinating text called Adventure in Beggars Canyon.

The story is a whistle-stop tour of canonical and secondary Tatooine motifs, and not at all badly done, given its target audience. The story tells how a teenaged Luke and his friend Windy go hunting womp rats, crash their Skyhopper in Beggar's Canyon, see off some Jawas, hide from some Sand People and are menaced by a Krayt Dragon. Just when all looks hopeless, they are rescued by a mysterious, cloaked figure, who uses the Force (un-specified) to quieten the monster. He tames three dewbacks, and takes the boys back to Luke's home. He leaves in a hurry when Uncle Owen shows up. 

I think that the children's writer (one Jane Mason) must have been using the radio show as a source: it would be very odd for two writers to independently send kid-Luke off on an escapade with Windy, who otherwise exists only in one action (stage direction) in a deleted section of Lucas's original script. It would have been far more obvious to have made Luke's partner in crime Biggs, as in the older Marvel Comic. But perhaps, nearly twenty years after the radio series "Luke and Windy had an adventure" was just a piece of lore which "everyone knows".

The picture-book finishes with the following striking comment:

"The next day, Luke and Windy took lots of tools and headed back out to Beggar's Canyon in Luke's landspeeder. As Luke bent over the skyhopper's engines and got to work, Ben popped into his mind. It almost felt as though Ben were watching over him and always would be."

In the illustration, Ben is, indeed, watching over Luke from a clifftop in the distance.

So: the original movie implied; and Brian Daley and Alan Dean Foster made explicit, the idea that Luke had met Ben before the events depicted in the first movie. However, currently canonical material -- including Rebels and the Marvel Comic -- seem to be quite clear that the two did not meet. At any rate, no such meeting has been depicted in canon. But in the current comic, in Rebels, and in the radio series Ben watches over Luke: and the children's writer realises that Luke is aware of this.

And there you have it. 

Luke has always been aware that Ben is with him, even if he has not met him directly. His apparent death severs this life long link; and Luke is bereft and alone. But almost immediately he realises that Ben's death makes no difference. He is still an unseen presence, watching over him, just as he always was.

And you are talking about this right now why, precisely?

In a few minutes, I will watch the first instalment of Disney's new Obi-Wan Kenobi TV show.

The Mandalorian (in particular) and The Book of Bobba Fett (to a great extent) were joyous Christmas gifts to all true Star Wars fans. They only touch on the very edge of the Grand Saga; but they understand -- as almost nothing since 1977 has done -- why Star Wars is The Greatest Film Ever. The Mandalorian in particular recreates that slightly ramshackle, fake-documentary aesthetic of the pre-specialisation Episode IV: droids and jawas meander across the screen, unaware of the audience, taking a long time to get where they are going. The Star Wars universe exists: someone just happens to be pointing a camera in it. Of course, there is a massive Story Arc building around Baby Yoda, Ashoka and the as-yet-unseen Admiral Thrawn; but the TV shows largely function as westerns, gangster movies, and samurai sagas. 

The Obi-Wan TV show has a much higher bar to get over. It is a prequel to Episode IV, which we all love unconditionally; and a sequel to Episodes I, II and III, which some of us never loved quite so much.

Some of us felt that the Mandalorian, set in the immediate wake of Return of the Jedi, was everything which The Force Awakens should have been. (And I speak as someone who liked the Force Awakens.) We are all hoping that Obi-Wan will be everything we originally wanted The Phantom Menace to be. (And I speak as someone who didn't hate The Phantom Menace.) If it succeeds, then it takes us back to the Tatooine that we first fell in love with and frees us up to party like its 1977. If it fails, then obviously it urinates on our memories and sexually assaults our childhoods. Again. And of course, the chess pieces are already being set up for the renewed strife between those who will automatically say that it is Woke (regardless of actual content) and those who will automatically complain that its just another film about dead old straight white men (again, regardless of what's actually in it.)

I want to believe that this Obi-Wan is the Obi-Wan of the greatest film ever made; and that this Darth Vader is his adversary and that this Luke is a younger version of the every-man hero I so wanted to be when I was twelve. The new series is under no obligation whatsoever to stick to established backstory: indeed a willingness to say "Actually, we decided to ignore that particular piece of lore because we didn't think it was fun" would be very healthy. But I am very intrigued to find out how the relationship between Luke and Ben is represented.


Brian Daley lampshades the problem.

Leia: You care very much for Artoo Deetoo, don't you.

Threepio: I have grown used to him, even though we have been together for only a relatively short time.

Leia: It is possible to care for someone very much after only a short time. 

1 comment:

  1. I'm not sure if there's any influence there, or if it's all in the eye of the beholder — but in my mind there is a very strong association between Luke's knowledge of Obi-Wan prior to the film, and Frodo's knowledge of Gandalf prior to “Lord of the Rings” — old wizard, whom the boy's elders know is a wizard, but the boy himself never really noticed, and only has a very dim, surface-level impression of the man (but a positive one).

    Unrelatedly, I seem to recall that early, now-decanonized material proposed that Owen was in fact Obi-Wan's brother, rather than being related to the Skywalkers directly. I wonder where it started, and what you make of it.


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