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Pietas, Part 2: Toil (feat. Luke Skywalker)

I can hear you now. “Luke is so whiny!”, like you’re the first person ever to observe this. 

Excuse me. What did you say? Did I not, in just my last installment, explain that lamentation is not weakness?

I love Certified Dipshit Luke Skywalker. I love the part when he complains that he wanted to buy power converters, and his hair is so lush and floppy it’s positively femme, and he completely pulls it off. I love the way his lecherous interest in his sister feels so perfunctory that none of the creative team had a problem ignoring it in future films. 

I love Luke’s struggle with his faith in the Force. I love his hesitation to leave what’s familiar behind. There’s a tension in him, an internal struggle both mythic (his lineage) and literal (his reluctance to leave home). Luke must constantly work to identify and choose the side of good. He strives to feel empathy – it’s real work! – and that toil is part of his pietas.

Let’s talk about Empire Strikes Back, when Luke is training with Yoda. In addition to physical conditioning, Yoda submits Luke to psychic trials. So Luke hallucinates that he’s dueling Darth Vader. Yet Luke can’t dream about killing Vader without empathizing so radically that he sees his own face in Vader’s beheaded helmet. (Of course this foreshadows Empire Strikes Back’s later reveal, but it’s also empathy.) The radical act of murder shocks him. (Incidentally, this vividly echoes the very end of the Aeneid, when Aeneas’s slaughter of Turnus is framed as a ghastly surrender to anger, proof of how power has corrupted Aeneas.)

Luke’s pietas isn’t just a trait; it’s a never-ending task. Pietas is the homework Yoda gives Luke. Luke must resist his innate desire to rage or hate. This is why Luke instinctively knows it’s true that Vader is his father. 

Pietas is the engine of Luke’s story. It’s the wild fire of his beating heart that allows him to beat the odds.

I love in Return of the Jedi, when Vader and Palpatine are stalking around talking about turning Luke to the Dark Side. It’s honestly hilarious these clowns think they can pull that off. Luke has friends on the Light Side, and the last thing our guy is going to do is turn his back on his friends.

Instead, this dingdong willingly puts himself in Darth Vader’s custody because he thinks he can convert his dad back to the Light Side. AND HE SUCCEEDS IN DOING SO. And only because he refused to murder Vader when he had the chance. The big toad told Luke to be peaceful and Luke was friends with the big toad so he’s gonna follow the rules!!!!

Whew, all those exclamation points tired me out. Just three more things I want to say here:

1. Luke understands that while violence is often an easy solution to a problem, it’s rarely the correct one. This is his entire arc in Return of the Jedi, and in case you didn’t get it the first time, it’s all repeated, louder for the people in the back, in The Last Jedi.

2. Luke eschews showboaty masculinity – especially when you contrast him to Han Solo. Luke isn’t strutting around with extra guns holstered on. If you tell Luke “I love you,” he’s going to reply with “I love you too,” the way, you know, a decent person would.

Luke’s strength is in his devotion to his friends, not in lasers and lightsabers.


Featured photo: Everett Collection

Published inCulture

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© Mary Gaulke 2023