Lately, I attended a lecture proposing that greed, or avarice, is the central vice – the original sin, if you will – of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth. Each of the books (The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion) centers on a coveted treasure, and evil springs from the desire of those who lust to possess and hoard it. Tolkien’s vision of vice clues us in to his vision of virtue, which, as a counterpoint to greed, hinges on hospitality, generosity, charity. This is why Lord of the Rings opens with a birthday party at which Bilbo gives gifts rather than receiving them. Sméagol, in contrast, tries to claim the One Ring for himself by calling it a “birthday present.”
Naturally, my mind turned to another modern myth, wondering if the same test that so illumined the moral cosmos of Middle-Earth could be applied to George Lucas’ galaxy far, far away. Does Star Wars also have a central vice? And, if so, what might this tell us about its vision of virtue?
In The Clone Wars, a priestess guiding Yoda along a mystical odyssey to immortality refers to “What in your existence some call evil, otherwise known as fear.” Naming fear as the root of evil may seem a counterintuitive claim at first. Surely it would be more accurate to say that evil in Star Wars springs from the desire for power and control, as embodied by the fascistic Empire. Yet from beginning to end, the underlying cause of evil – Star Wars’ original sin – is fear.
The centrality of fear to Star Wars’ moral cosmos is underlined by two crucial conversations that bookend the nine-part saga. In The Phantom Menace, when young Anakin is first brought before the Jedi council, they quickly identify that he is afraid of losing his mother. “Fear is the path to the dark side,” warns Yoda. “Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”
Throughout the prequels, Yoda’s maxim proves true: fear is the path to the dark side for Anakin and the galaxy at large. Anakin’s fear of losing his mother gives way to anger and hatred when she dies. His fear of losing Padmé is the driving force behind the Faustian bargain with Palpatine that transforms him into Darth Vader. At the same time, the transformation of the Republic into the Empire is motivated by fear. The creation of the clone army is a response to the fear of civil war; the creation of the Empire is an attempt to seize control and create what Palpatine calls “a safe and secure society.” The movement from Republic to Empire is completed by the creation of the Death Star, the ultimate instrument of fear. The government that was created to stave off fear now weaponizes fear to maintain control. As Grand Moff Tarkin puts it, “The last remnants of the old Republic have been swept away… Fear will keep the local systems in line – fear of this battle station.”
The centerpiece of the original trilogy, and of the entire nine-part saga, is Luke’s descent into the cave on Dagobah, where he confronts his fear. “I won’t fail you,” Luke insists to Yoda. “I’m not afraid.” Luke’s denial of his own weakness recalls the hubris of the Jedi council, who were blind to their own fear and, as a result, unable to resist or even recognize Palpatine’s schemes. Yoda, however, sees through Luke’s misplaced arrogance: “You will be [afraid],” he replies. “You will be.”
The drama of the sequel trilogy unfolds because Luke and Leia fall victim to fear over the fate of the next generation. Leia responds to a vision of her son’s death by renouncing her own calling to be a Jedi; rather than training Ben herself, she sends him away to Luke, severing the bonds of familial affection that could have held him back from becoming Kylo Ren. Luke, in turn, fails his nephew because he fears his potential for evil, and then proceeds to turn his own back on the galaxy for fear of failing again. Like their father, Luke and Leia are haunted by visions of loss and act out of fear to prevent it – and, like the Jedi council before him, Luke detaches himself because he is afraid of his own fear. “Let go of everything you fear to lose,” Yoda counsels Anakin in Revenge of the Sith, but mere detachment is not a solution to the problem. Fleeing into self-protective isolation seems like a way to be free from fear, but is ultimately just another way to be governed by it.
In The Rise of Skywalker, Luke passes on what he has learned to Rey. In so doing, he completes the reformation of the Jedi and brings about the redemption of the Skywalker family from its bondage to fear. As Rey, beset by visions of a dark future, faces her own temptation to flee into self-imposed exile, Luke repudiates the Jedi council’s ethos of detachment. “I was wrong,” he confesses plainly. “It was fear that kept me here.” Fear, as Yoda taught, is the path to the dark side, but unlike the council, Luke does not teach Rey to flee from it or deny its existence. Instead, he offers a new vision of what a Jedi ought to strive towards: “Confronting fear is the destiny of a Jedi.”
Though it is typical to identify courage as the counterpoint to fear, in Star Wars, one need only look at the exploits of hotheads like Han Solo and Poe Dameron to see that courage, taken alone, can be misguided. The only virtue that truly overcomes fear is not courage, but faith. When Han charges wildly down a Death Star corridor yelling and firing his blaster at Stormtroopers, he has courage, but when Luke disengages his targeting computer and allows the Force to guide the shot that destroys the Death Star, he is acting in faith.
In Star Wars, the heroes are rarely tempted to cowardice. Instead, over and over again, they are tempted to seize power to ward off a feared outcome, and it is this same temptation that Rey must resist when she confronts Palpatine on Exegol. As always, he preys on her fear for her loved ones and offers her the power to save them. In The Phantom Menace, fear motivated Padmé to vote Palpatine into the Chancellor’s office and take power into her own hands to ensure her people’s safety, but here, Rey refuses to take the throne as Empress and seize power to save the Resistance. Instead, she follows the examples of Qui-Gon Jinn, Obi-Wan, and Luke: her faith in the Force enables her to die a martyr’s death.
Just as Rey succeeds where Padmé failed, Ben succeeds where Anakin failed. Consumed by fear, Anakin turned to the dark side to save Padmé, but Ben returns to the light to save Rey, the one who told him, “You’re afraid that you will never be as strong as Darth Vader.” Paradoxically, Ben overcomes his fear and becomes stronger than Vader not by clinging to power, but by giving it away. After he is restored to right relationship with the mother and father who were separated from him by fear, Ben charges courageously into the citadel on Exegol and gives his life to save Rey from death.
As with any temptation, fear can never truly give what it promises. When the Jedi act out of fear, they are blinded to their own failings. When the Republic attempts to secure freedom from fear, it becomes an Empire that rules through terror. All of the Skywalkers’ anxious toil to ward off the futures they foresee only brings those futures closer to fruition. It is only through faith that Rey and Ben achieve the power to save the ones they love.