In what Umberto Eco calls the medieval landscape of Star Wars – one populated by princesses, knights, farmers, and wizards – we can readily identify two holy fools. R2-D2 and C-3PO are so ubiquitous that their presence across all soon-to-be-nine episodes is easily taken for granted. How swiftly we forget that, for the first twenty minutes of the original film, before we even meet Luke Skywalker, they are essentially the story’s primary characters!
Why does Star Wars begin with R2-D2 and C-3PO? Like the fools who populate the margins of Shakespeare’s plays, the droids play a microcosmic role: their antics are a symbolic summary of the themes and action at hand. Indeed, as a pair of opposites who need one another (C-3PO calls R2-D2 his “counterpart”), they embody the harmonious tension that underlies all of Star Wars. Though they are often in conflict, both R2-D2 and C-3PO are necessary for an essential balance. They represent the “symbiont circle” described by Obi-Wan Kenobi in The Phantom Menace: “What happens to one of you will affect the other. You must understand this.” In this way, they are microcosmic of Star Wars in its entirety.
In the original film, R2-D2 and C-3PO embody the central thematic conflict. As the protagonist, Luke is torn between two belief systems: one that only believes in the immanent, the material, and one that prizes the transcendent, the spiritual. He is surrounded by pairs of characters who pull him in one direction or the other. He has two father figures: Uncle Owen, the ultimate pragmatist, whose life as a moisture farmer is devoted to mere material sustenance, and Obi-Wan, who is devoted to the invisible (“Your eyes can deceive you. Don’t trust them”) and ultimately gives up his bodily existence to become one with the Force. He also meets Princess Leia, who is defined by her commitment to the cause of the Rebellion, and Han Solo, who boasts that he sticks his neck out for no one. Those who can only see what is right in front of them are concerned only with self-preservation, but faith in the unseen inspires self-sacrifice.
C-3PO falls on the Owen/Han side of the equation. He spends much of the film complaining about his fear of bodily harm: being scrapped, melted down, sent to the spice mines, and so forth. Like Han, C-3PO is always concerned with immediate survival, while R2-D2 forges ahead on the mission entrusted to him by Leia, undaunted by the seeming impossibility of his task. C-3PO is an interpreter: his function is to focus on direct, immediate, face-to-face communication. In contrast, R2-D2 descends from the heavens with the image of Leia that fires Luke with longing for a life beyond his workaday world. Later, it is R2-D2 who brings Luke into contact with Obi-Wan, who teaches him the ways of the Force. (R2-D2 is blue – the color of the light side of the Force.) Uncle Owen, of course, passes right by R2-D2 and immediately tries to buy C-3PO, who can help him run his farm.
C-3PO and Uncle Owen are trying to eke out stable, comfortable existences for themselves; R2-D2 and Obi-Wan consistently disrupt their attempts by witnessing to something higher. “That wizard’s just a crazy old man,” Owen scoffs, and C-3PO complains incessantly that R2-D2 is going to get him into trouble. Yet by the film’s end, Obi-Wan, R2-D2, and Leia win out. Han overcomes his selfishness and returns at the eleventh hour to help Luke destroy the Death Star, and this shift in priorities is reflected in C-3PO, who – after spending the entire film worrying about the preservation of his body and grumbling about his counterpart’s penchant for endangering it – declares, upon seeing a damaged R2-D2, “You must repair him! If any of my circuits or gears will help, I’ll gladly donate them!”
This central conflict – between the immanent and the transcendent, the material and the ideal – continues to develop in new ways throughout the entire Star Wars saga. As the only characters to appear across all nine episodes, R2-D2 and C-3PO offer a unique way to track this overarching tension, tying the series together at the broadest level. They tell us what is lost when the story stalls – during the interim periods, the gaps between the trilogies – and what must be regained when the story resumes.
At the end of Revenge of the Sith, C-3PO’s memory is wiped. Though this seems like a mere plot contrivance at first glance, it is thematically apt. The Republic has fallen and the Jedi Order has been destroyed. From C-3PO’s point of view – the point of view that only sees what is right in front of it – all is lost. However, a small remnant remains, not destroyed but hidden from sight. Obi-Wan and Yoda go into exile, waiting to train Luke when he comes of age. Hence, R2-D2 – who lives by faith, not by sight – retains his memory.
In the period between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens, though, C-3PO remains awake while R2-D2 is dormant. The heroes win at the end of Return of the Jedi, but something is lost – their link to the transcendent, as embodied by Luke and the Jedi. Between the prequels and the original trilogy, good is outwardly defeated but inwardly preserved. Between the original trilogy and the sequels, good triumphs outwardly but decays inwardly. The title of The Force Awakens implies that the Force, like R2-D2, is slumbering, and this absence of the transcendent is perhaps the central fact of the sequels. The “despair” Lor San Tekka (Max Von Sydow) describes in the very first line of the trilogy is not just a response to the encroaching First Order, but the existential despair of a galaxy that has lost its point of contact with the Force. “Without the Jedi, there can be no balance in the Force,” and The Last Jedi posits that the Jedi are now responsible, first and foremost, for restoring hope – the counterbalance to despair.
When we meet him in The Force Awakens, C-3PO has a red arm (the color of the dark side) and is attending Leia, who has separated herself from her brother, her husband, and her son. Though the Rebellion defeated the Empire, it has failed to restore balance to the galaxy because it has been trying to do so without the Force as its ally. C-3PO does not have R2-D2 to balance him out. Accordingly, when R2-D2 returns at the end of the film, C-3PO loses the red arm. R2-D2’s entire purpose in the sequel trilogy thus far has been to guide the heroes back to the transcendent. First, he provides the map that leads Rey to Luke Skywalker; next, he inspires Luke to take up the responsibility of the Jedi again, using the same image (of Leia) that called him to a higher reality in the original film.
If The Rise of Skywalker makes good on its promises in December, we will see the ultimate resolution of the tension between the dark side and the light, the material and the ideal, the immanent and the transcendent. And, if J.J. Abrams knows what he’s doing, R2-D2 and C-3PO will be right in the thick of it, as they have been since the beginning.