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The Jedi are awful. Well, not in theory. But in practice, the old Jedi Order definitely was. Caught up in its rigid tradition and absurd emotional restrictions, it laid much of the groundwork for Anakin Skywalker’s fall to the Dark Side and inadvertently helped Palpatine conquer most of the galaxy, all in the name of peace and justice.
The old Order was a failure, but its central mission of protecting the innocent and the peace was still a worthy one. And, in lonely farm boy turned Rebel hero Luke Skywalker, those ideals found a champion unencumbered by the dogmatic obsessions that doomed the Order. Luke destroyed the Sith and redeemed his dad.
In The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, Luke’s success as an individual Jedi Knight did not translate into success at resurrecting the Order. He lost his nephew Ben to a new agent of the Dark Side, and lost his other students to Ben’s inaugural massacre as Kylo Ren. In grief and despair, he exiled himself to Porgland, where his studies, his meditations, his self-reflection and his self-loathing led him to conclude that “it’s time for the Jedi to end.” Where he goes from there is a question soon to be (or, if you’re reading this after The Last Jedi’s premiere, newly) answered.
In the old Star Wars expanded universe, though, Luke largely succeeded in revivifying and transforming the Jedi. The body of work now called Star Wars Legends offers a long and winding explanation for why Luke’s Jedi Order would remain vital where the old Order ossified: Luke was not only willing to question himself, he insisted upon it. As a whole, Legends runs the gamut from dreadful to fantastic (I wrote about the wonderful Wraith Squadron books last year), and Matt Stover’s Luke Skywalker and the Shadows of Mindor is one of the best.
Mindor, a book that pays particular attention to Luke’s moral code and insistence upon accountability, has excellent character work and prose that’s lush without being florid. It gets that the Force is more than just something that lets people push things with their minds. And it’s one of the rare pieces of Star Wars to really dig into the pop culture of that galaxy far, far away, which is, for me at least, catnip.
Mindor opens with Luke commissioning an investigator named Geptun to determine whether or not he’s committed a war crime. Luke is not only a Jedi, but a General of the New Republic, and in that capacity he engaged an enigmatic, theatrical, powerful warlord calling himself Shadowspan on the ruined resort world of Mindor. At first glance, Shadowspawn is a Dark Side warrior with dubious Force powers and no indoor voice. Here’s some of his dialogue, which leaves Luke just as flummoxed as the reader. Keep in mind, he’s yelling this while brandishing a giant sword:
“You think you can defeat me? Fool! This blade is the product of untold millennia of Sith alchemy! Against such power, your Jedi toy is but a broken reed! Come Skywalker! Summon your blade and fight!”
Luke is nonplussed by Shadowspawn: he has already deduced that Shadowspawn is really an old enemy, a cunning and mysterious Imperial Intelligence agent codenamed Blackhole (a character who originated in the Star Wars newspaper comic strip), but the dissonance between the cartoonish villain he faces and the man he fought before is too much to reconcile. Something isn’t right. And sure enough, though Shadowspawn and Blackhole are the same person, neither is the true identity. Instead, both are personas used by Cronal, an evil Force wielder who doesn’t just believe in the power of the Dark Side, but in a sapient power beyond it called The Dark. Cronal’s ultimate goal? To sacrifice all life in the universe to The Dark. His immediate goal? To resurrect the Empire and conquer the galaxy using true Sith Alchemy, something far more subtle and dangerous than Shadowspawn’s giant sword, to trap Luke’s soul in The Dark forever. With that done, Cronal will possess Luke’s body and play a part he has carefully prepared through the galaxy’s pop culture. Through its movies, in fact, a delightful wink across the fourth wall.
In the wake of the Emperor’s death, the galactic public had flocked to cheap, quickly produced movies about Luke, Leia, Han, Chewbacca and company. Cronal, who for all his religious nihilism is a man with a genuine taste for the dramatic, had secretly commissioned one of the most popular. “Revenge” had been widely seen and widely liked, so once Cronal had Luke’s body for himself, it would not be hard to convince the galaxy’s populace that its fiction was truth. “Luke” could suddenly have a change of heart, honor the dying wish of his beloved mentor Palpatine, take command of the Republic, and turn it back into the Empire. It’s a magnificent evil plan, unlike any other in Star Wars.
Star Wars being Star Wars, Luke and company will triumph over Cronal, but at a heavy cost. Luke’s exposure to The Dark is extremely traumatic, and even after escaping it he initially believes that Cronal was right, that The Dark is the ultimate truth and the ultimate end of everything and that nothing matters. But lives are in danger, and no matter what dark truths he’s learned, the Jedi in Luke will not stand by and let people be slaughtered. So, he vows to act as he did before, as though life matters. If he does it long enough, Luke hopes, maybe he’ll believe it.
Even in his traumatized state, Luke rediscovers one of his earliest lessons as a Jedi: the Force is everywhere, in everything and everyone. It’s alive, and if you listen to it, you can see how truly vast and multifaceted life is. Cronal’s crazed insistence that The Dark is greater than life leaves him unable to respond to or counter any other perspective. In the end, Luke turns Cronal’s own power against him, causing the wicked darksider to petrify and disintegrate in hyperspace. Cronal’s death, however, also kills everyone still enslaved by his alchemy, since their minds and lives had been linked to his own. Luke, who knew that this would happen, stays with them as they die, the only thing he can do for them.
Though the war crimes inspector Geptun insists that Luke committed no crime – nothing could have freed Cronal’s slaves during the final battle – Luke resigns his military commission, adamant that his actions were too destructive, too lethal to write off as a consequence of war. No good will come of a Jedi who’s just a soldier. But, as a keeper of the peace, committed to being “the light in the darkness,” a Jedi can do good. So, once he’s given Geptun some very specific notes on the movie he plans to make about Mindor, Luke commits fully to the path of a Jedi Knight. If the Jedi are to do good, there need to be more of them. If there are to be more Jedi, someone needs to teach them. And if Luke is going to teach them, his path will not be easy. But whatever happens, Luke will not fall to the old Order’s fate. He does not deny the Dark Side’s power. He refuses to believe that serving the Force makes him inherently righteous. He will not run and hide, as his father did, from fear and rage until they consume him. To quote Kar Vastor, one of the men Luke did manage to free from Cronal’s control:
“I have known Jedi. Many, many years ago. That knowing was not a gladness for me. I believed I would never know another, and I rejoiced in that belief. But it is a gladness for me to be proven wrong. I am happy to have known you, Jedi Luke Skywalker. You are more than they were… unlike the Knights of old, Jedi Luke Skywalker… You are not afraid of the Dark.”