The Nature of the Force (Return of the Jedi)

*NOTE: This is the third in a series of posts I've wanted to do for a long time. It explores our (the audience's) understanding of what the Force in Star Wars is as it is revealed to us movie by movie, according to release date. I'm using release date because I believe if I use episodic I'll lose the gradual understanding we as fans have developed over the bast 40 years. Enjoy.

By the end of The Empire Strikes Back, Luke is devastated by the revelation Darth Vader is his father and his missing hand, Han is frozen in carbonite and held captive of Jabba the Hutt, and the Rebel Alliance seemingly on the run after the Imperial victory on Hoth. We learned a great deal about the nature of the Force, especially from the angle of the dark side. The dark side, we concluded, feeds off of hatred, and its primary source is fear. Great and new powers were established, such as becoming a ghost after death. A Force user can extend himself beyond both space and time, seeing and controlling things across great distances, and experience premonitions of the past, present, and future. The abilities of the Force continue to grow in Episode VI, Return of the Jedi.

Quick Training and Mind-tricks

From the movies alone, we have little to no knowledge of how much time has lapsed between Episode V and VI (or IV to V, for that matter). If we allow ourselves to cheat a little bit and utilize non-movie sources, we will find that only a single year has past from the time Luke gets a new hand and when he arrives at Jabba's Palace back on his home planet of Tatooine. This is an important detail, especially considering that Luke, with great ease, is able to disarm the two guards at the entrance of the Palace, use a mind-trick on Bib Fortuna (Jabba's minister), and take down a giant Rancor without a lightsaber. Later, his incredible speed and ability during the fight at the Sarlacc pit show that indeed, young Skywalker has grown strong in the Force. In a year, Luke has seemingly become a full Jedi Knight, able to perform great tasks. His clothes even resemble that of a Jedi, albeit darker, but closely resembling Ben's outfit. It is not known exactly how long it takes to train a Jedi. Not much time seemed to take place on Dagobah when Yoda trained Luke, but Luke put up a fight in Cloud city (and Force jumped) with limited training he had received. With now a year under his belt, he has achieved much. What is known through Luke is that, for whatever reason, it is possible to learn how to join and use the Force in a short period of time. We will keep this detail in our back pockets.

Something that is to note in Luke's encounter with Jabba is Luke's attempt to use a mind-trick. Ben did say way back in Episode IV that a weak-minded individual could be manipulated through the Force. Jabba is immune to Luke's power, signalling a stronger mind. This limitation was not terribly important to me until I began to ask, "How does a Force trick work?" Our current theory on the Force is that a user joins with the energy field to manipulate objects that are also connected to the Force. Fine; moving rocks and choking people seems to be in-line with that enough, but what is it about the mind that a user is manipulating? It is brain-cells and neurons? If that's the case, there shouldn't really be a limitation. A more intelligent brain isn't all that exceptionally different from a normal brain. There may be different connections of varying strengths between some modules of a brain, but that shouldn't matter. If that was true, however, then a user a user would need to know the exact biological and physical set up of every single species in the galaxy in order to manipulate neurons and cells. That's not a limitation because of the weak-minded, but of the user's own knowledge.

What is more likely is that Ben was talking less about the brain being directly manipulated, but the very perception of reality being changed for the subject. This is a little philosophical, but I think it's important we establish what this power truly is. From what we know, a Jedi can make people say things they normally wouldn't say on their own. I believe what a Force user does, in this instance, is not so much change the physiological structure of atoms, but put thoughts in a person's mind. Something of a Jedi's version of inception. These other people upon which mind-tricks are being played are connected to the Force by their very existence. Is it not possible that a Force user could utilize the Force to render the thoughts of another to be different? To slightly change their motivations, what they see, what they feel? I think it is not only possible, but probable. Vader did not play a mind-trick on Luke when he captured Han and Leia in Cloud City, but he altered current events in such a way as to cause Luke to have dark visions of pain in the future. I think a mind-trick works similarly, where a Force user uses the connective aspect of the Force's energy field to alter how people experience things. This, too, seems more in line with how a Jedi operates than re-configuring brain patterns.

(Limited) Points of View

After the fights on Tatooine, Luke returns to Dagobah to keep his promise and complete his training with Yoda. Yoda can feel Luke's strength, and tells him he knows all that he needs. In essence, Yoda cannot give Luke any further instruction he does not already possess. But, Yoda does say that Luke must confront Vader before he is to become a full Jedi. To come face to face with the dark side is the ultimate test of a Jedi. But why?

Confronting his father would be the greatest test Luke ever faces. Throughout the dialogue, Yoda warns Luke of the Emperor's powers, that if Luke is not careful, the temptation to the dark side would forever consume him. This is an interesting insight. "Once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny." As the Jedi see it, the dark side is not just corrupting, but permanently so. It does not simply consume you, but your entire destiny. I think Yoda is trying to say once you surrender yourself to the fear and hatred, the Force ceases to be your ally, and becomes your slaver. Or, more specifically, the dark side will move you to do things you cannot control. If you have ever experienced rage, it's somewhat blind. You don't know or care exactly what you're doing; you only wish to destroy.

Or rather, that's what the Jedi think.

After Yoda dies, Ben shows up to have a long-overdue conversation with Luke. He defends his claim that Vader murdered Luke's father was true, "from a certain point of view." Luke is rightly incensed. Ben says that the truths we cling to strongly depend on our our point of view. I'm not, for the sake of this analysis, interested in the thematic points here. I'm more interested in the fact that a Jedi half-way lied to protect his student. Ben (by Yoda's insistence) believed hiding Vader's true identity would allow Luke to train in the Force so that when he would confront Vader with the truth, Luke would be prepared for it. But the very notion that Ben would defend his statement, not as a master's prerogative, but his own truth, has implications about the nature of Jedi. I don't know if this one situation is indicative of an isolated and unique situation, or indicative of Jedi as relativists.

The reason this is important is because we are trying to understand the nature of the Force, and much of what we have learned comes from lessons from the Jedi. If Jedi's are relativists, some of our conclusions may be founded on shaky ground. After all, Jedi abhor the dark side, a key part of the Force. Their aversion to it would muddle their evaluation of its nature. However, I think it is safe to say that most of what have learned is either not a matter of dark-vs-good, and the conclusions we've rendered on the dark side were more or less confirmed by Darth Vader in Cloud City.

But, Yoda's claim that the dark side will forever consume you, and Ben's claim that Vader cannot be saved ("more machine now than man") are dubious. The comments from Ben on viewpoints and Yoda's good-natured secrecy leave me skeptical that they fully understand the truth of what the dark side really is. Luke insists that he could feel good in Vader. The brief and honest moment at the end of Episode V where Luke and Vader are communicating with each other, and Vader not slashing every officer on deck when the Millennium Falcon escapes, speaks to Luke's feelings. We will approach this later.

Presence and Predetermination

A users connection to the Force is greatly based on an internal sense and feeling. Darth Vader says, "[A] presence I've not felt since..." in Episode IV. He's not just feeling a strong Force user as when he attempted to take down Luke in the Death Star trenches. This is a specific presence, something familiar. We once again see this presence-specific feeling with Luke and Vader as the Rebel strike group attempts to infiltrate the moon of Endor. They can feel each other, and know it's the other. Now, we have little clue if individual's have "Force signatures." I think that's unlikely. Instead, we can rely upon the solid idea of the Force as an energy field. When a Force user is trained well enough, he or she is connected constantly to the Force, to feel the presence of all things. When another being that they recognize is also connected in a strong way (as Vader and Luke are), they know who it is. It's less of a signature and more similar to a shadow. Shadow's aren't exactly images of people, but they have distinct characteristics.

Vader of course, can feel Luke, and he goes to the moon to get Luke, who has willingly surrendered himself. During their conversation, father and son share a candid moment:

LUKE: Search your feelings, father. You can't do this. I feel the conflict within you. Let go of your hate. VADER :It is too late for me, son. The Emperor will show you the true nature of the Force. He is your master now.

Ben and Yoda were convinced the dark side consumed Vader, forever dominating his destiny. Vader's comments may just possible confirm this. But, if you listen to how he says this in the film, Vader does not seem to say that he has no power over his actions. Rather, his choices are unforgivable; he has no one left. The Emperor is his only source of power and strength; the master dominates his life, not the dark side. Vader letting go of his hate is not a matter of inability. Rather, the dark side seems like the only course available to Vader, because of the evil things he has done. I do not think this is a matter of semantics. Yoda was insistent on a domination of destiny; your life-path is predetermined. Vader's tone and comment suggests that his not predetermined, but seemingly limited. I maintain Ben and Yoda, because of their point of view, were mistaken about the nature of the dark side and its affect on a user. But, if I am correct in my evaluation of Vader's comments, I will grant their mistake is honest.

Redemption (and a New Power)

The Emperor, I think, knows this. He knows the power he has over Vader. Since we saw Vader board the Tantive IV he has been a power to fear. He crushes Rebel pilots, ruthlessly punishes failing officers...but his obedience to his master is doglike. I think the Emperor, if he can tempt Luke to take just a little taste of anger, can do the same to the young Jedi. Remember, the dark side is seductive: faster, more aggressive. The Emperor wants another Skywalker by his side to do his bidding, and he need only tap into a cloud of hatred that only swells as Luke watches the Rebel fleet be decimated.

At times during the fight between Luke and Vader, Luke resists the urge to fight. There's even a point where he is so angry he almost kills Vader, but not before he realizes what he is doing. He sees through the Emperor's strategy. Vader has caused so much grief and pain in his son's life that it would be easy to be vengeful. But, he believes in good, in the ability to thwart the dark side with serenity and peace, as Yoda instructed him on Dagobah. He knows that his path is his to take, not the Emperor's, not the dark side, not even the Force, but his. Once again, we can confirm that, though the dark side is strong, and has great sway over those who are seduced by it, it is not all-powerful or dominating forever. This is most strongly confirmed in one of the greatest redemptive stories of all time.

The Emperor attempts to kill Luke for resisting make him "pay the price for his lack of vision. With a power we could not have conceived before, lightning pours forth from the Emperor's fingers. Pardon the pun, but this is absolutely shocking. The Force has done great things these past movies. Converse with the death, see the future, manipulate and see objects over great distance. But this moment is the first instance of a Force user actually generating something new. The Emperor is literally creating something that was not there before. I barely understand it, but the most I can say is this: the Emperor is so strong in the Force, so connected to the energy field, that I believe he is drawing power and energy from that field and redirecting it in a concentrated burst of lightning. The new energy isn't technically new, but born from the Force itself. There's not much else I can say except this is by far one of the most interesting developments in the Force's nature.

Alas, it is not enough to kill him. Hearing the cries of his son, Vader grabs his master and throws him down to an explosive death to save Luke. Luke was right; there was good in Vader, and it was possible to turn him. The two men, in the midst of confusion, speak in peace with one another after Luke take's the dark lord's helmet off. Underneath, we see the scarred Anakin Skywalker, redeemed by his son. Before he dies, Anakin asks Luke to tell Leia that he was right. That Luke was right about Vader--there was conflict. A great struggle between the hatred Vader had for the world, and the good that resided within him.

Balance is Restored (and Ghosts)

I think this speaks to a wider aspect of the Force. I think it is fair to say that as the Rebel Alliance and the Empire struggle, as Luke and the Emperor struggles, as Anakin and Vader struggled, so too does the dark side and the good struggle. There is a conflict between them. Indeed, I'd say there is a balance. I do not recall a time in the movies where this word is used, so I border on speculation here. But, when Alderaan was destroyed Ben felt a great disturbance in the Force. We attributed this to the fact that all living things shared a bond, and that when so many died in that instance, the bond was disturbed, shifting things toward death. I think it's fair to say that before this shift, things were in balance. Death was present, but kept within its proper limits.

The Force must have balance. If it did not, then Ben would have felt more disturbances. I don't know what the equilibrium point of this balance is, though. Is the Force at peace when good is stronger than dark? Or simply when dark does not increase in huge amounts? I do not think it is possible to know right now. We can only conclude that balance itself is part of the natural and undisturbed state of the Force.

As a final note, at the very end when the Rebel Alliance celebrates, we see the ghosts of Yoda and Ben. I suppose it makes sense of Yoda has it, especially considering he trained Ben. But then, all of a sudden, we see another man. We are led to conclude that this is the un-scarred Anakin Skywalker. How he has the power to come back as a ghost is...puzzling. In Episode V we had no idea if only Jedi had the power, or both dark users and Jedi, but only a few, or a common ability? Anakin/Vader were not aware that Ben could still help Luke from the afterlife, apparently unaware of the ability. His ghost presence is therefore confusing.

I have no explanation. My best guess is that, from the time Anakin died, Ben or Yoda must have communed with Anakin's "spirit" and taught him the lessons in the afterlife. Another possible explanation is that his presence was there not by Anakin's ability, but by the Force, or Ben, or Yoda. We are still confused on how users become ghosts, or how they learn that ability. One thing is clear: it looks like only good Force users have that power. Vader is not a ghost, only the redeemed Anakin, Jedi Knight.


We have learned a great deal by the end of this trilogy.

  • The Force is an energy field, generated by all living things, who are held together by the Force itself

  • It is possible to enter into this field, and use it in numerous ways such as

  • Complete immersion (supposedly) to become a ghost after death

  • Move and manipulate physical objects, even over great distances

  • Feel the presence of someone

  • Generate energy/things from the Force (Emperor's lightning)

  • See images/visions of the past, present, and future

  • Feel movements and disturbances in the Force, even over great distances

  • The Force has a dark side, fueled by hatred, originating in fear

  • The dark side is tempting, not stronger, and can cloud your life, but it does not dominate your destiny

  • It does not take long to master Force abilities

  • Jedi mind-tricks do not manipulate the brain, but the experience a subject has in their mind

And, from this film directly, the Force is in a natural state of balance. The dark and the good exist in a peace, where when one side (or at least, the dark side) becomes too dominant, the Force is disturbed. The conflict exists. And I think it is right to say that if the natural state is balance, the Force will find a way to resolve and balance itself back out, which is in line with an early assertion of a sentient aspect to the Force.

In a couple weeks or so, we will take what we know, and see how much, if any, is confirmed or rejected from the second body of Star Wars canon: the controversial prequel trilogy.


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