Today we celebrate the beginning of spring, that season of rebirth and rejuvenation, by thinking about the narrative archetype of exile and return.
REVENGE OR RETURN
[The following is an excerpt from the third chapter of Lucasfilm: Filmmaking, Philosophy and the Star Wars Universe.]
The title for the third Star Wars film was originally intended to be the title with which it was eventually released: Return of the Jedi. But during production the title was changed to Revenge of the Jedi. Producer Howard Kazanjian would later recall: “George came to me and he said, ‘The title of Episode VI is Return of the Jedi.’ And I said, ‘I think it’s a weak title.’ He came back one or two days later and said, ‘We’re calling it Revenge of the Jedi.’” But five months before the release of the film, despite the fact that considerable publicity had been done using the title Revenge of the Jedi, Lucas changed his mind and returned to the original title. His reason: “Jedi don’t take revenge.” It didn’t matter to Lucas that a toy licenser like Kenner would have to destroy $250,000 worth of packaging. “Philosophically, it’s correct,” Lucas explained to his marketing people. “‘Revenge’ has a ring about it that I think isn’t right for this movie. It’s negative and Jedi don’t seek revenge. A Jedi Knight can’t understand that as a concept of behavior.”
The title of the third film calls attention to an important fact about the narrative arc that Lucas creates in the original trilogy: over against the logic of tragedy evoked by the climactic scene of The Empire Strikes Back, Lucas superimposes the logic of exile and return, which is commonly associated with the genre of romance in Western literature and which lies at the heart of the monomyth that Campbell discusses in The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Early in A New Hope, when Obi-Wan presents Luke with his father’s lightsaber, he describes it as “an elegant weapon for a more civilized day.” What we discover by the end of Empire is that the surviving members of the Jedi Order—Obi-Wan and Yoda—are in self-imposed exile. It turns out, however, to be exile with a purpose, devoted to guarding the seed from which the Jedi Order might once again return.
Exile-and-return narratives tell the story of the making of the hero, while tragedy tells the story of the unmaking of the hero. Often, however, the distinction between them isn’t that hard and fast. I mentioned earlier that the genre to which we assign the story of Anakin Skywalker’s transformation into Darth Vader depends on our point of view. It’s a tragedy as far as most of us are concerned, because it represents a fall into the dark side. But Emperor Palpatine would see it precisely the other way around, though that is a perspective that the films don’t really allow their audiences to have. Likewise, for Kylo Ren in The Force Awakens, the events of the original trilogy represent a tragic arc, in which a great man is defeated, his mission left uncompleted. “I will finish what you started,” Ren says, staring at the burnt remnants of his grandfather’s helmet. In The Rise of Skywalker, however, Kylo corrects his understanding of his grandfather’s arc. In returning himself to his identity as Ben Solo, he does indeed help to finish what his grandfather started: returning balance to the Force. Ben Solo’s story is yet another invocation of exile and return.
Original teaser poster for Episode VI.
Exile, of course, is the focus of the upcoming Disney+ series Obi-Wan Kenobi, which premieres on May 25. (Don't ask me how many times I've watched the trailer below … oops, I just watched it again!) Below, Bhrigu Bhatra has a few thoughts on what's at stake in the series.
By Bhrigu Bhatra
The new trailer for Obi-Wan Kenobi is haunted by the epic duel between Anakin and Obi Wan that served as the climax for Episode III:Revenge of the Sith (2005). The trailer makes use of the dark, heavy musical themes of John Williams’s “Duel of the Fates” and “Anakin’s Dark Deeds,” which quickly overpower the quiet setting of the Tatooine desert as we get glimpses of how Obi-Wan survives in the decades between the rise of the Empire and the events of Episode IV:A New Hope (1977). He wanders the desert and cleans scrap, a far cry from his days commanding a sizable chunk of the Republic’s fleet and a well known war hero. Obi Wan accepts his fate, however; he states plainly that the Jedi lost, that the fight is over, and the goal to stay hidden. But, for one individual, the fight has never ended.
Darth Vader: his presence dominates the trailer, even though he never appears in it. His underlings are dressed in armor very reminiscent of his own, they wield lightsabers that echo his own, and in the final moments of the trailer, we hear his breathing. While it may be the Grand Inquisitor who states that “the key to hunting Jedi is patience,” this quote sounds like a lesson that Darth Vader learned after he fought Obi-Wan on Mustafar. Obi Wan’s signature lightsaber style is Soresu—a fighting style that emphasizes defense over all else and wearing out the opponent. It is the style that defeated Darth Vader’s aggressive Djem So, and after many years in the suit, Vader is coldly—and terrifyingly—intent upon finding and killing his former master and brother. After seventeen years, the duel on Mustafar still dominates Star Wars.
HAVEN'T HAD ENOUGH YET?
For further discussion of Star Wars and my book Lucasfilm: Filmmaking, Philosophy, and the Star Wars Universe (Bloomsbury), check out the following: