What is the Force, how does it work, and what is its true nature? These questions have been asked and answered multiple times across multiple entries in the Star Wars film franchise, and often those answers contradicted one another, usually due to the varied points of view of the ones asking and the ones answering. And as we know, the truths to which we cling depend greatly on our own points of view.
On the one hand, the Force is an energy field, created by all living things, that surrounds us, penetrates us, and binds the galaxy together.
On the other hand, the Force is a power generated within those people who happen to be born with a high concentration of microscopic organisms called “midichlorians” in their blood.
One of those truths is accepted without question by Star Wars fandom, the other is largely derided as nonsense.
Here’s another question, and it’s one that initially doesn’t seem to be up for debate: What is the nature of the Force?
The Force is divided into two opposing powers: the righteous Light Side and the corrupt Dark Side, embodied by the Jedi and the Sith respectively. If someone uses the Force, they’re either tapping the Light Side or the Dark Side. This dichotomy is absolute, and there is no grey area.
But that’s not entirely true, is it? According to The Phantom Menace, there is also the Living Force, which is mentioned in passing and then goes largely unexplained. It was clearly a concept outside the accepted teachings of the Light/Dark binary, and was likely considered heretical. I’m sure it was that heretical belief that contributed to Qui-Gon Jinn’s falling out with the Council. More on this later.
For now, keep those thoughts in mind: accepted teachings and heretical belief. Those thoughts resonate within the culture of the fictional Star Wars universe, but also within the culture of Star Wars fandom itself. There is the established Orthodoxy of the Jedi and the Original Trilogy, and the Heresy of Midichlorians and the Prequels.
So let’s examine the first argument: Is the Force this mystical energy that flows through everyone, or is it a magic power that people with the right genetics get from space bugs?
The answer (and this will be a bit of theme) is that it’s both and neither.
One thing we know is that, for all that the Force flows through all living things, some have a greater connection to it than others. Is that because of a person’s midichlorian count, or is a high midichlorian count simply a byproduct of that stronger-than-average connection? I’m inclined to believe the latter. Midichlorians are an indicator of Force talents, not the cause. Obviously, that indicator makes a handy way to determine if someone has the potential to become a Jedi, and therefore became codified in Jedi methods and practices, to the point where their importance to the process was inflated. The reason you don’t hear the word “midichlorians” in the Original Trilogy or The Force Awakens is because, after the Fall of the Jedi, there was no dedicated bureaucracy in place to find potential Jedi. Well, that’s probably not true. I’m sure the Empire made use of the old Jedi methods, if only to insure the hegemony of the two Sith running the show. This was likely a very clandestine operation, and one the Rebellion probably didn’t know about, so for all practical purposes, “midichlorians” had fallen out of general knowledge by Luke Skywalker’s day. So, midichlorians are tied to a person’s Force potential, but in the same way endorphins are tied to physical fitness. A byproduct rather than the cause. So, far from being a true Heresy, midichlorians are just a small part of the larger accepted Orthodoxy.
Which brings us to our next point: the binary of the Light and Dark sides of the Force, the metaphorical representation of Absolute Good and Absolute Evil, vs what seems to be a more neutral Living Force.
According to the Jedi, once you use the Dark Side, even once, you are on the path toward Absolute Evil. The only way to remain on the side of Absolute Good is to actively and successfully resist that path – which, in practical terms, means resisting all negative emotions, and never EVER giving in to them.
That’s insane. No one, no matter how decent or pious, can remain free of our darker emotions entirely. Obi-Wan succumbs to anger and hatred at the end of Phantom Menace. It is clearly those two emotions that give him the strength to defeat Darth Maul. Does that put Obi-Wan irrevocably on the path to the Dark Side? Obviously not. His love and compassion for his master, along with his sense of honor and duty, is stronger, and he remains firmly on the side of Light. On the flip side of that, we have Darth Vader. At the end of Return of the Jedi, he allows his feelings of love and compassion toward his son to override his obedience to the Emperor. Before his death, the mask of a Sith Lord is removed, and the face of Anakin Skywalker, a Jedi, is revealed. If he’d lived, does that mean he would have been totally free of the Dark Side, and a Jedi again? The movie suggests that’s the case, but it likely wouldn’t have been that simple. While it was love and compassion that roused him to action, it was also his anger and hatred toward the Emperor, a fury that had been burning in him for decades by that point, that gave him the strength to rise above his mortal injuries and throw his old master to his death. Just like Obi-Wan’s anger toward Darth Maul didn’t make him a Sith, Vader’s love for his son would not have made him a Jedi.
Because it isn’t just simple anger that commits someone to the Dark Side. Anger, fear, hatred – yes, these things let a Force user touch the Dark Side and make use of it, but for one to become truly immersed in the Dark Side, one needs to know real rage, a deep burning hatred, and also true suffering. Anakin Skywalker may have called himself Darth Vader when he led the massacre at the Jedi Temple, but he did not truly become Darth Vader until Mustafar. It was there that he (in his mind) was betrayed by the only two people left in the galaxy that he loved, and it was there, in the aftermath of that betrayal, that the last vestiges of Anakin Skywalker were literally burned away. The pain of his injuries (injuries that would never heal) and his rage over Padme and Obi-Wan’s betrayals allowed him a deeper connection to the Dark Side than would have been possible otherwise. However, it was his hatred that made that connection irrevocable. From the moment he learned of Padme’s death at his own hands, Darth Vader hated nothing and no one more than himself.
Conversely, to truly bind oneself to the Light, a Jedi must be free of attachment, in complete control of all their emotions, and motivated by pure concepts of Justice and Truth. So far, we’ve only seen one person truly capable of that: Yoda, and only after his exile on Dagobah. The only way to remain in complete control of all emotion, to touch the absolute purity of the Light, is to remove oneself from all contact and involvement with other sentient beings. Otherwise, no matter how aloof one might be, an engagement with the society outside the Jedi Temple will inevitably lead to an emotional investment. While the average Jedi serving in the Clone Wars may have remained largely on the side of Light, there always would have been times when emotions would have guided them (especially in the heat of battle), causing them to brush up against the Dark.
So, in practical terms, absolute Dark and absolute Light are untenable at best. Yes, I have made the case that Darth Vader achieved an absolute connection to the Dark Side, but look at the result. Anyone serving under him, from the lowliest technician, all the way up to a fleet Admiral, faced death as the consequence of a single mistake. Vader’s rage and hatred were so complete, that it was only his obedience to the Emperor that allowed him to exercise even the smallest amount of control over himself. The minute one single thing went wrong, Vader flipped out and killed someone. As a management style, that’s… problematic. Someone so deeply rooted in the Dark Side is best used the way the Vikings used to use their Berserkers – as an unstoppable tank in battle, rather than a general.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: what about the Emperor? He was even more of a Sith than Darth Vader. If you can’t trust a Sith to command a Star Destroyer, how is one able to rule an entire Empire? I have an answer to that, but it’s kind of long, so I’ll save it for a future article. For now, just accept that the Emperor is a special case and let’s move on.
Bringing things around to The Force Awakens, the nature of the Dark and Light Sides of the Force outlined above is why Kylo Ren is nowhere near as powerful as Darth Vader. He’s angry, yes, but it’s a petulant anger, and one that is constantly in danger of fading away. He thinks he hates his father, but what he’s really feeling is little more than resentment. Based on what we see of him, it’s obvious he’s never known true suffering, or the kind of pain that helped turn Anakin Skywalker into Darth Vader. Just as Anakin was playacting as Darth Vader before two vital conflicts on Mustafar, so was Ben Solo playacting as Kylo Ren until two equally vital conflicts on the Starkiller base. He’d been led to believe that the key to unlocking his true potential in the Dark Side was killing his father, but that was a lie. Killing Han was a catalyst for Ben, just like the Jedi massacre was a catalyst for Anakin. But just like Anakin in the fires of Mustafar, Ben didn’t reach that deep understanding of the Dark Side until he lay in the snow on Starkiller base, his body broken and torn, and his legacy usurped by some scavenger girl from the edge of nowhere. It was then that he experienced the true pain, the real rage, and that deep unavoidable self-loathing that binds one irrevocably to the Dark Side. In The Force Awakens, we saw Ben Solo playing at a pale imitation of Darth Vader. In the next movie we will finally meet Kylo Ren, and see what he’s truly capable of.
So, if Ben Solo was a boy playing at being a Sith, was Rey just a girl playing at being a Jedi?
Yes and no. First, it’s important to realize that the word “Jedi” is just as meaningless as the word “Sith”. They’re titles invented by people, and therefore have no inherent meaning in and of themselves. One thing we learn from The Force Awakens and its story of Luke Skywalker’s great failure, is that any attempt to restore the old Jedi Order will always be doomed to fail, because the attempt itself is a mistake. The Jedi Order never should have existed, and was, as we saw in the Prequels, very much part of the problem.
Throughout the Original Trilogy, the Jedi are referred to as a religion. The Sith, in turn, are also part of this religion. The problem with religion, in this context as in our own real world, is that it is the means by which something pure and often beautiful is suffocated under the weight of ritual and dogma. By the time of the Prequels, the Jedi Order has become this calcified organization dedicated to the preservation of a clearly unworkable status quo. What undoubtedly started as an admonition to rise above the destructive urges of negative emotions (anger, hatred, jealousy, etc) has become a rejection of all emotions, save only the most sterile and aloof “compassion” for all living things. Personal connections are not only discouraged, they are explicitly forbidden. However, it is the personal connections that Luke has made with his friends that give him the emotional strength to resist the manipulations of the Emperor. If Anakin had been allowed to openly love Padme, if he hadn’t been made to feel guilty over his connection to her, then it may have been strong enough to help him resist in a similar fashion.
Clearly, Obi-Wan disagreed with the Jedi prohibition toward personal connection and emotion, for all that he went along with it. More than any other Jedi we see, it’s clear that Obi-Wan cares for people, not just as an abstract whole, but actual individual people. He has friends outside of his Jedi colleagues, and he forms strong bonds with the clone troops under his command. This is because, for all his lip-service to the Jedi Way, Obi-Wan Kenobi learned to embrace the Living Force.
The Living Force is both Dark and Light, but it’s also neither – it is the One Force, that can only be tapped when someone is at peace with all of their emotions, positive and negative, and has learned to trust those emotions. How often in A New Hope does Obi-Wan instruct Luke to “trust” and “reach out” with “[his] feelings”, compared to Yoda’s insistence on “control” in The Empire Strikes Back? Yoda is trying to indoctrinate Luke into the dogmatic ritual of the old Jedi Order, while Obi-Wan is teaching him to embrace the Living Force. The popular reading of Luke’s moment at the end of Return of the Jedi is that he rejects the dark emotions of the Sith in favor of the enlightened control of the Jedi, making him victorious over the Emperor. An alternate interpretation is that he understands his anger towards his father, makes his peace with it, and, because of the love he feels for his father, is able to forgive him. He embraces the Living Force, which lifts him above the sterile duty of the Jedi and the blind rage of the Sith, placing him forever outside the reach of the Emperor.
Luke’s attempt to rebuild the Jedi Order suggests that he himself misinterpreted what happened during his confrontation with the Emperor. He believes it was the triumph of the Light and the Jedi Way over the corruption of the Dark and the Sith Path that saved him. This led to him teaching that binary concept to his students, which opened Ben Solo to the manipulations of Snoke and the temptations of the Dark Side. Had he understood the concept of the Living Force, and the way in which it allowed him to transcend that binary, he could have spared himself, his pupils, his loved ones, and the galaxy at large, a great deal of needless suffering.
All of which leads us back to Rey. A criticism I’ve heard repeatedly is that Rey shouldn’t have been able to exhibit Jedi powers without any training, but it is her lack of Jedi training that allows her to so quickly exhibit those powers. Because what is Jedi training, exactly? At no point do we see Yoda actually teach Luke how to perform the Jedi mind trick. How could he? It’s just the two of them on Dagobah – where would they find someone weak minded to learn on? However, one of the first things Luke does in Return of the Jedi is mind trick someone. It’s my belief that once a Force talented person is told these powers exist, they have the capacity to use them. Everything else is just practice. Sure, Yoda spends a lot of time teaching Luke various meditation and concentration techniques (essential for that control that’s so important to the Jedi Order), but all of those things really just serve to focus Luke’s will.
Rey’s will is already focused, and she has learned to trust her feelings. If not, she never would have survived growing up alone on a planet like Jakku. Once she’s told that she has Force powers – and has it proved to her when she resists Kylo Ren – she simply uses them. She trusts her feelings, her will is focused, and she is (though she doesn’t realize it) at one with the Living Force. The powers then come naturally to her. Now, to be fair, a First Order stormtrooper – someone who has been conditioned to obey from birth – is probably the easiest person to mind trick. She’s likely going to need to practice a bit if she wants it to work on anyone else. Same for her ability to wield a lightsaber. Most of that undoubtedly comes from the fighting skills she’s already acquired. If she doesn’t practice, she’s going to find it a bit more difficult to defeat Kylo Ren at the height of his powers than it was to defeat a mortally wounded Ben Solo.
If Luke has learned the right lessons from his exile, and he imparts those lessons to Rey, then when Rey eventually achieves victory over Kylo Ren and Supreme Leader Snoke in Episode IX, it won’t be a victory of the Light Force over the Dark Force, it will be the final eradication of an obsolete binary concept by the true power of the Living Force.
Let the hate flow through you in the comments, where you can tell me how much of an idiot I am. You’re wrong, but that’s okay. I haven’t embraced the Living Force, so your hatred will only make me stronger.