Darth Vader is your father.
But you knew that already, didn’t you? Despite the power of those words to evoke a reaction of surprise – a shiver of fear, a frisson of titillation – don’t they provoke as well a shock of recognition, a deep sense of rightness and truth? The immediate response – anger, horror, denial – gives way to a realization of absolute veracity.
Darth Vader is your father, and my father, and the father to us all. And we don’t like it one little bit, do we?
In Star Wars, George Lucas has created a legendary underpinning which our culture desperately requires, an archetypal, intuitive explanation of the crisis of adulthood and initiation today. Star Wars is the myth we have been needing for so long. Its very popularity, its iconographic status alone are enough to evidence the power of this simple story to speak to us, to evoke some deep-seated realization of truth from the bones of the American public.
Darth Vader is our father, and we are scared to death of him.
Americans are terrified of the dark — of death, of age, of evil, of hunger, of shame, to the degree where we prefer to believe that they don’t exist. We have presented ourselves for so long as God’s Country — infallible and omnipotent — that we believe it. We are so ashamed of ugliness, failure, and death that we try to deny their existence. We believe in heaven, but not in hell. We believe in angels, but not in devils.
In fact, the current upsurge in angel-mania is notable for concentrating on a side of angels seldom seen in the past. Gone is the Angel of the Lord, a fiery being with an avenging sword. The current crop of angels have as much in common with their ancestors as May Day celebrations have with Beltane fires and rites of old. They are cute and fluffy and safe — denatured and processed, Smurf-angels, the Care Bears of the Lord. As Barney has replaced Black Beauty, we seem to have lost our sense of the terrible inherent in the divine.
The stories we tell our children are as safe and powerless and comforting as the stories we tell ourselves. The Little Mermaid gives up her individuality and voice, in the Disney version, and is rewarded with her prince – not the pain and death that destroy the heroine of the original story.
Our dying do so in hotels and hospices, safely isolating the rest of us from the ugliness and grief and pain of it all. Our media shows us beautiful young or distinguished old people: The scrawniest, most strung-out street-corner whore on television is played by a beauty queen, her client by the most handsome guy in his high-school graduating class.
And why? Because darkness is scary. Death is scary. Getting old is scary, and so is being alone. Being wrong may be the scariest thing of all. And so we set our darkness aside, lock it away, claim that it is not human or emanates from the outside. It’s Saddam Hussein, or the Evil Empire of the Soviet Union, or a serial killer who we characterize as a monster, inhuman.
But the scariest thing about serial killers is that they are human — on a myriad levels, they are just like you and me. We try to claim that what exists in them does not exist in all of us, but each and every one of us has darkness under his skin. Ted Bundy was a remarkably charming and popular young man. That is scary.
And Darth Vader is scary, too.
Ours is a society in its emotional adolescence, a society that doesn’t want to admit its imperfections, face up to its need to grow older and grow up: and most of all, doesn’t want to admit that its scared, terrified, frozen stiff at the idea of death, at the idea of evil being within us, a part of us, a piece of you, a piece of me. The part of us that we, Americans today, wish to excise, or failing that, ignore. Denial is our national obsession, one of our defining traits.
We have abandoned mythology because of the essential truth of it: all the characters in a myth exist inside the same skull. They are aspects of the same person, and they tell a story of personal growth, initiation, adulthood and awakening – or, as in the case of the Little Mermaid, failure to do the same. That mythology, because it deals with the exploration and conquest of darkness, offends us. It accuses us of inadequacy, when we as a culture have traded love for need, balance for consumption, self-respect for self-esteem, and hard-won knowledge for easy comfort.
As a people, we would rather be fat, dumb and happy than wise. Wisdom, after all, comes at great cost. It is only to be had by mastering darkness.
In Vader, Lucas has created a powerful symbol of that darkness. He is an absolute icon of corruption: massive, cloaked, unstoppable. The bug-eyed mask, towering form, and cold mockery of Vader make him a figure out of nightmare: even his name has the sound of evil to it… the name — or title, as it turns out to be — must be a corrupted form of the words, “dark father.” Poor Luke is no match for him. At every encounter, this charismatic, thundering darkness defeats him.
Symbolically, this darkness is within our hero: the innocent Skywalker cannot hope to defeat Vader. As an untested child, he is helpless before Vader’s power. Even after losing his own innocence in the incident where he disobeys his teacher to attempt to rescue his friends, Vader is more than his match. Luke’s innocence is no equal to the darkness that is Vader – for Vader is, in himself, just such an innocent, corrupted. A fallen angel, a failed knight. Tarnished brightness, his human flesh – emotion, caring – wrapped in a shell of metal, a skin of evil. He was everything that Luke is – and he was not enough.
We are told, over and over again, how like his father Luke is. The struggle is whether the ancient evil will pervert the son as it did the father.
“I’m not afraid,” Luke tells Yoda. “You will be,” Yoda replies. “You will be.”
Lucas, in fact, tells us outright what’s going on in the nightmarish sequence when Luke, as a pupil of Yoda, enters the cave and faces Vader, and, cutting off Vader’s head, finds it to be his own. “What is in there?” he asks Yoda, and Yoda replies, “Only what you bring with you.” It’s something of a totem-dream, an initiation — an initiation which is completed when Vader dismembers Luke — marking him, in the grand tradition of initiations — and Luke receives an artificial hand, reminiscent of the power-armor that sustains Vader’s life. Luke doesn’t know it yet, but with the loss of that hand and the acceptance that Vader is in truth his father, he is halfway to adulthood, or halfway to destruction. He has survived his initiation, and when we next see him, in the third movie, he has become what he only sought to be before. Luke is suddenly gifted with the grace, the presence, the power of the Jedi Knight, and that strength enables him to defeat a lesser evil — Jabba the Hutt, and correct some errors he has made up to that point.
But he’s still not done. Vader tells Luke that only by embracing his anger can he hope to become powerful enough to destroy Vader. And this is true – the only way to destroy the darkness is to become it, because Star Wars is a myth. And in all myths, all of the action takes place within a framework that represents a single human soul. What Luke has to learn is that he must not destroy that strength. To fear, to hate, to rage against that darkness – is futile. It is raging against oneself. To destroy it is to destroy oneself.
The only way to beat Vader is to love him.
And when next he meets Vader, going in purity and strength, no longer an innocent but a young adult in the fullness of his power, he rises above that evil, subjugates it, wounds Vader as Vader has wounded him. He triumphs — and that triumph is not enough, because there is a greater evil beyond Darth Vader. Vader, after all, is an extraordinarily attractive evil. Charming, imposing, possessed of a presence and even a certain grim sense of humor, he draws audience applause and even cheers on occasion.
The Emperor does not draw cheers. The Emperor is not attractive. He is scabrous, vile, loathsome. And once we as the audience meet him, we realize that we were wrong all along, and that Vader is not the man to beat. This — force of hunger, conquest, destruction — this evil Emperor is the true evil, which Vader merely serves, which Vader abases himself before.
An evil against which Luke cannot prevail, alone, despite all the strength of his goodness and courage. He can conquer his own evil — Vader — the darkness within his own flesh and bone, but the external evil symbolized by the Emperor is beyond and above him. Until, in extremis, dying, he calls out to that darkness that is his own: “Father, help me!”
And his own primeval power, earned through blood and fire and loyalty in the face of destruction, his own darkness, evil no longer because it is no longer rejected by the light, the darkness to which he is at last both initiate and master, once accepted, once loved, rises up in might and glory and destroys the Emperor with casual fury.
Lucas knows that he is writing mythology. The first movie begins with a variation of the phrase “Once Upon A Time…” and progresses inexorably through the saga, telling the story that has to be told.
We as a culture have denied ourselves the power inherent in that darkness, the animal strength of our souls, the depth and the insight it can provide. We’re afraid of it, and we push it away, and spurned, that darkness turns on us, determined, as Vader was determined, to destroy or corrupt us. When we alienate that part of ourselves, we not only rob ourselves of maturity, of comprehension, of acceptance: we also increase the odds against us.
It’s hard, and it’s scary, and it’s dangerous – but Darth Vader is our father. And if we turn from him, he will destroy us. And if, by some miracle, we survive him – we will never be strong enough to face the evil above and behind him. We will be, like Luke, petulant, whiny children, children without confidence, sense, or any worth beyond a promise that we will never quite manage to fulfill.
And, in jealousy and pique, Darth Vader will kill us if we do not join him.
Nothing, after all, likes to be ignored.
Join Me Or Die! was initially made available in 1997 by Elizabeth Bear and re-presented at BSC with her permission. All rights remain with the author.
Elizabeth Bear is an American science fiction and fantasy author, born September 22, 1971 in Hartford, Connecticut. Her first professionally-published fiction appeared in 2003; since then, she has published eleven solo novels (Hammered, Scardown, Worldwired, Blood and Iron, Whiskey and Water, Ink and Steel, Hell and Earth, Dust, Carnival, New Amsterdam, and Undertow), one novel in collaboration with Sarah Monette (A Companion to Wolves), and a story collection (The Chains that You Refuse). Her twelfth solo novel, All the Windwracked Stars, received a starred review, Publishers Weekly hailed it as “rewarding and compelling.” With Emma Bull, Will Shetterly, Sarah Monette, and Amanda Downum, she is one of the creators of Shadow Unit, an ongoing virtual television series instantiated on the web. Her web site is at www.elizabethbear.com, and she maintains a popular LiveJournal at matociquala.livejournal.com.
She won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 2005 and the 2006 Locus Award for Best First Novel for the Jenny Casey trilogy (Hammered, Scardown, and Worldwired). In 2008, her short story Tideline won the Sturgeon Award and the Hugo Award for best short story of the year.