Part of me cringes at myself when I acknowledge that Star Wars has been an important and significant presence throughout my entire life. I grew up watching A New Hope, Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi on a regular basis, sometimes every day as a child. It wasn’t until The Force Awakens approached its release that I really recognized the significance, and then once again when Carrie Fisher died I was made aware of how the persistent presence of these characters and stories had really affected the formation of my consciousness as I grew up.

It sounds ridiculous, right? These popcorn movies relegated to nerd culture and considered kitsch by more “refined” and “cultured” tastes have literally implanted themselves into the roots of my mind. But I can’t deny the depths from which my emotions stir when I hear the sound of a lightsaber, see an X-Wing swooping in for a trench run, or hear Yoda’s voice lecturing on the nature of the Force.

Beyond the original trilogy, the prequels were also a big part of my childhood. I loved them at the time, but can recognize in retrospect why they were so critically panned. And even more, Star Wars video games have been a mainstay of my gaming life. Of all the stories and myths in our culture, Star Wars has been, by far, the most prominent throughout my entire life. I’ve never been ashamed to say I love it, but I can’t help but feel silly saying that it is important to me.

So I have some opinions, but I acknowledge that they come from a place of personal attachment that, to most, would seem pretty laughable. I certainly don’t consider myself a Star Wars expert though. I’m more familiar with the lore and the universe than most average Star Wars fans, but I’d probably do rather poorly in trivia designed for true fans.

That is simply a preface to the statement that I am nervous about a potential direction for the franchise, one that involves the concept of balance between the Light Side and the Dark Side of the Force. This concept of balance is exemplified in the concept of a Gray Jedi, which has been present in the extended universe of Star Wars for some time. This possibility of incorporating this idea into the core films is hinted at most strongly in The Last Jedi teaser trailer, in which Luke and Rey share an exchange about the nature of the Force.

“Breathe. Just breathe. Now, reach out. What do you see?”

“Light. Darkness. A balance.”

“It’s so much bigger.”

And, later, Luke says:

I only know one truth: it’s time for the Jedi to end.

So why does this not sit well with me? The concept of the Gray Jedi requires some context for how the Jedi and Sith, as more casual fans know them, approach the use of the Force. The Jedi and the Sith represent philosophical approaches to the Force (some call them religions). They have codes and centralized authorities regulating their respective “sides”—the Jedi for the Light Side, the Sith for the Dark Side. The two philosophies may even be conflated with the actual orientations of the Force, but in my understanding, they are necessarily separate from the actual Light and Dark sides.

This is important in understanding the two different definitions of Gray Jedi. I have issues with both of them, but one of them is rather nit-picky while the other creates a fundamental shift in the mythological significance of the Force.

First, the nit-picky one. One definition of Gray Jedi is a Jedi who does not submit to the doctrine of the Jedi Council, bowing only to the will of the Force rather than to the will of a council with an agenda. I have no issue with this concept alone —in fact, I think it’s a fantastic way to depict the issue with centralized religious authority. The issue I have is in describing such Jedi as “gray.” This implies a mix of light and dark, while this type of Gray Jedi does not necessarily walk a link between the two sides of the Force. In this definition, a Gray Jedi could still be completely devoted to the Light Side, which means the term “gray” makes little sense. However, it seems possible that the label could be a type of propaganda promoted by the Jedi Council to cast such insubordination in an unfavorable light. If this is the case, I think it would make the story richer, but I’m not sure if it goes that deep.

It could be that this adherence to a Jedi Code is what Luke was talking about in his final statement about ending the Jedi. But then what was up with the earlier exchange about balance?

The other definition of Gray Jedi is the one that makes me nervous about the direction of the franchise, that I feel could undermine the true mythological significance of the Force as George Lucas originally intended it and what has enabled Star Wars to have such an incredible impact on my life and on culture in general. This definition is, of course, a Jedi who has found a balance between the Light Side and the Dark Side, and walks that line in balance—this balance being seen as more noble and transcendent to the other two paths.

When I say “mythological significance,” it isn’t a personal way I frame the Force and its two sides. When George Lucas first developed the Star Wars universe and its stories, he specifically designed them in the vein of classical mythology. This is discussed by Joseph Campbell in his series of interviews with Bill Moyer titled The Power of Myth. Campbell was considered by many to be the leading authority on ancient mythology and its application to storytelling, including modern stories such as Star Wars.

Campbell’s work, particularly his most famous book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, influenced Lucas’s story in a significant way. It would be a great undertaking to highlight the archetypal mythology present in the Star Wars stories, and I’m sure that many people have done so. My focus is on the importance of choice in such mythology and how that choice relates to the Light and Dark Sides of the Force.

At this year’s Star Wars Celebration (an event similar to a yearly official Star Wars convention), Lucas said that Star Wars is and always was a story for kids. Yes, obviously kids of all ages (even the adult-aged ones), but more specifically, kids at the age of transition signaled by entry into middle and high school, years of puberty and change.

I’m not supposed to say this, and I wasn’t supposed to say it then, but it’s a film for 12-year-olds. It was designed to be a film, like mythology, of “this is what we stand for.” You’re about to enter the real world. You’re 12-years-old, you’re gonna go out into the big world, you’re moving away from your parents being the center focus. You’re probably scared, you don’t know what’s gonna happen, and here’s an idea of things you should pay attention to. Friendships, honesty, trust, and doing the right thing. Living on the light side, avoiding the dark side—those are things that it was meant to do.

George Lucas, at Star Wars Celebration 2017

According to Campbell, this age is incredibly important and the source of many mythological systems of initiation. In most ancient cultures, children (particularly boys) entered into adulthood following a distinct event, an initiation or rite of passage which signaled the end of their childhood and beginning of their adult life.

According to Campbell, this has mostly been lost in modern society. He attributes many of our modern difficulties to a lack of an orienting ritual for children entering adulthood. I’m not sure if I completely agree with that, but I do believe that a lack of ritual initiation into adulthood has created a rift for our modern culture.

At Star Wars Celebration, Lucas talked about the purpose behind the stories being aimed at children. While a movie is obviously not a replacement for ritual initiation—a difference between telling a myth and living a myth—but storytelling can help to bring the same orientation that such rituals instilled. Lucas described the stories as offering this sort of orientation for children. At an age when they are starting to individuate from their parents, navigate trickier social waters, take on more responsibilities, and enter into an age of rapid change from child to adult, Lucas wanted to offer them the concept of choice.

The concept of the Force and its two paths, at least as I understand it, is a symbolic depiction of another dimension of our universe. Not necessarily a magical dimension as it is depicted – though there’s plenty to be mined there too – but rather a dimension of morals and ethics. Like the Force, ethics and morals exist beyond just the material world we can see with our eyes. And like the Force, we may see their effects with our eyes in how our choices directly affect others, but the inception of these choices exists in what can literally be seen as a different dimension of our world. (If you have no patience for this sort of mystical interpretation, just imagine I’m saying that our contemplations and decisions are perceived within the interior realm of our minds). Lucas explained that he intended these stories to illustrate these ethical dimensions.

Lights vs. Dark, Good vs. Evil, Positive vs. Negative—it all might seem so obvious, but I truly think that this is only because they have been depicted in the stories we’re told our entire lives. Our system of archetypes and mythology has been developed and refined over millennia of telling tales, and one might even argue that it has gotten convoluted or diluted in modern society. It seems to me that Lucas was trying to distil the simple and deep message of myth that is our choice to relate to others in certain ways. Will we choose to treat others as equals, worthy of our love, compassion, and help (the Light Side)? Or will we choose to see people as objects and pawn of our own personal conquest, to be dominated and controlled (the Dark Side)?

The choice between these two paths is an incredibly important aspect of the mythology of the Force. The two sides of the Force are at the heart of the original trilogy, without any ambivalence being shown between the two.

With the importance of this choice laid out, it is probably obvious why the concept of the Gray Jedi, to me, threatens the fundamental purpose of the Force as a myth. What does it mean, then, to be balanced between the light and the dark? Do you help people half of the time and dominate them the other half? Do you practice compassion to only select individuals and view others as objects to be controlled?

I don’t mean to imply that there is no room for nuance in ethics. I think a lot of the polarization of today’s culture is the result of a lack of nuance. But in my view, this nuance is subsequent to the fundamental choice of how we relate to others. There is a lot of room for exploration of ethics within the realms of light and dark.

This is why I think it’s important to separate the nature of the Light and Dark sides from the Jedi and the Sith. These are only philosophies of relationship to the more fundamental nature of the Force. A force-user dedicated to the Light need not subscribe to the Jedi Code. In fact, the Jedi Order seemed to be quite an imperfect system of relating to the Light Side—the fall of Anakin to the Dark Side is evidence of this, and one of my favorite aspects of the story of the prequels. In short, consider what would have happened if Anakin were able to be honest and open about his feelings for Padme with the Jedi Council, seeking help and counseling from wise Light Side users, instead of suppressing his emotions and hiding his relationship, opening him to opportunity to be seduced by Darth Sidious. This highlights that the choice is personal to each person and cannot be dictated by another source, and how codifying this personal relationship will always have pitfalls.

Part of me is thrilled that Disney is incorporating so many ideas from the old Extended Universe. They’ve proved that even though they plan to commoditize Star Wars for all its worth, they’ll do their best to keep the fans in mind. The concept of the Gray Jedi is part of that EU canon, which is rich with great ideas to incorporate that fans will love. I just hope that in doing so, this aspect that I find so significant isn’t lost by some half-baked theory of balance between the two paths.

I will say that if they find an eloquent and insightful message regarding balance, I will be happy. I don’t necessarily think our modern myths need to adhere to the same old fundamental story. There is a lot of territory to be explored in this positive and negative dynamic. Maybe they can push the mythology to a new and elevated perspective? Despite my nervousness, I really am excited for The Last Jedi and will give the writers the benefit of the doubt until they give me real reason not to.

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