In the newest trailer for Star Wars: Episode VIII — The Last Jedi, Rey is told by the sinister Supreme Leader Snoke, “fulfill your destiny.” And if this pushy “destiny” line sounds familiar, it should. Star Wars movies have been obsessed with the notion of destiny since 1977. But here’s the thing: it’s not only the bad guys who try to gaslight the heroes with fatalist bullshit.
The idea of someone having a destiny in ridiculously popular fantasy narratives is pretty damn old: Some dude named Arthur was destined to pull that sword out of that stone just like certain princesses are doomed to touch spinning wheels and pass out for centuries.
But the entirety of Star Wars isn’t only based on fairy tale structures. Despite George Lucas’s obsession with the Campbellian notion of the monomyth and the archetypal “Hero’s Journey” story structure, every installment of the saga subverts these Western fairytale structures by having the best, most interesting characters act in opposition to fatalism. In other words, the true badasses of Star Wars — like Luke Skywalker — reject the idea of destiny outright.
If we count the new Last Jedi trailer, the word “destiny” is uttered 14 times in Star Wars movies. Twice in A New Hope, four times in The Empire Strikes Back, six times in Return of the Jedi, and once in Revenge of the Sith. No one says it in The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, Rogue One, or The Force Awakens. Its return The Last Jedi trailer is something of a comeback.
The first person to float the concept of destiny in a Star Wars movie was none other than Obi-Wan Kenobi. In A New Hope, as he parts ways with Luke to break the tractor beam on the Death Star he says:
“Your destiny lies along a different path from mine. The Force will be with you, always.”
At a glance Kenobi’s advice seems to be harmless. He’s encouraging Luke to think of his life as separate and unique. However, Kenobi’s obsession with destiny results in him giving Luke a lot of bad advice for the remainder of the trilogy. His intentions are clearly good, but Obi-Wan’s hang-ups with destiny are short-sighted. In Return of the Jedi, Ben Kenobi doubles-down on his belief that Luke must do certain things because those things are unavoidable, specifically fighting his Father…to the death.
“You cannot escape your destiny. You must face Darth Vader again.”
This is a lot different than the pep talk Obi-Wan gives Luke in A New Hope. Now, the word destiny carries a more paternalistic tone, like Obi-Wan knows better.
But does he? Obi-Wan is so sure that Luke’s destiny is to kill Darth Vader, while Luke believes he can turn Vader back to the good side. Luke ends up being right, despite Obi-Wan envisioning a different destiny.
On the other side of the Force, Darth Vader and the Emperor — similarly to Snoke in the new trailer — try to use destiny as both a carrot and a stick to get Luke to do what they want. In The Empire Strikes Back Vader tries to mess with Luke’s head a little in the middle of a lightsaber fight:
“Your destiny lies with me, Skywalker. Obi-Wan knew this to be true.”
Oh shit! Two guys who basically don’t agree on anything — Kenobi and Vader — both try to use fatalistic rationale to get Luke to do their bidding. Is Obi-Wan any better than Vader with this destiny crap? Perhaps, because he means well. But because Vader is motivated by his love of Luke, perhaps his intentions are better? Later in the same film, via a long-distance mind-chat across space, Vader says this:
“Luke…it is your destiny.”
In a sense, Vader is using Obi-Wan Kenobi’s playbook here. Get Luke to do what you want, by encouraging him that it’s going to happen eventually anyway. Deep down, Luke Skywalker figures out he probably doesn’t have a “destiny,” but it takes a tango with another fatalist bullshit artist to come to that realization. Because the guy most obsessed about “destiny” is easily Emperor Palpatine.
In Return of the Jedi, the Emperor encourages Luke to do his dirty work — in this case, kill Darth Vader — by twisting around everything Luke has heard about destiny to simply mean getting a job as the Emperor’s personal assistant has been the endgame all along. Infamously he cackles about destiny twice.
“It is unavoidable, it is your destiny.”
“Now, fulfill your destiny and take your father’s place at my side!”
Not only is this phrasing nearly identical to the Snoke line in The Last Jedi trailer, it also proves that destiny, as described by characters in Star Wars, doesn’t exist. The Emperor likes telling everyone that he has “foreseen” almost everything that happens in all the movies he appears in. But, to paraphrase a snobby admiral, he didn’t have enough clairvoyance to predict Vader was going to kill him, or that the Rebellion would succeed. In other words, if we think destiny is real in Star Wars, then different people have conflicting opinions about what his destiny is supposed to be. And, every one of those people, from Vader to Obi-Wan to the Emperor, are just projecting their own biases and baggage onto Luke when they talk about destiny.
Throughout all of Star Wars, the wise Yoda does mention destiny twice. But he has a wildly different take on the concept. And it’s the same exact line in both The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.
“Once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny.”
Yoda only associates destiny with bad habits that lead to evil And that’s because Yoda represents where the determinist Western fairytale stuff in Star Wars gets subverted by more easygoing eastern philosophies. When Luke asks Yoda whether or not Han and Leia will die in The Empire Strikes Back, Yoda says:
“Difficult to see, always in motion is the future.”
Yoda doesn’t think the future has a shape, indicating he outright rejects the idea of destiny unless you’re on the path to darkness. His ideas about the future also dovetails his first lecture to Luke in The Empire Strikes Back, where he berates the young Jedi about his obsession with what will happen as opposed to what is happening.
“This one, a long time have I watched. All his life has he looked away to the future, the horizon. Never his mind on where he was. Hmm? What he was doing? Hmm.”
Yoda eschews destiny-based views of the future in favor of a worldview closer to that of Zen Buddhism. In the book Smile at Fear, the late Buddhist meditation master Chogyam Trungpa speaks about the concept of being okay with what is actually happening.
“We are not talking about magical power. Rather, we are talking about the strength that comes from connecting with reality, which is much more powerful than any fantasy.”
Ironically or not, the most fantastical, unrealistic character in Star Wars — Yoda — has the greatest connection with reality, at least in terms of how his focus informs his worldview. One of Yoda’s pupils, Qui-Gon Jinn from The Phantom Menace told young Anakin Skywalker that:
“Your focus determines your reality.”
This single piece of advice was more helpful than anything Obi-Wan told Luke Skywalker. And of course, had Qui-Gon Jinn lived, he may have based on more of this Zen wisdom to Anakin and prevented that whole Darth Vader thing from even happening.
One huge player in the Star Wars galaxy — Kylo Ren — has gambled his life on the idea that he has a dark side destiny. When Kylo faces Rey and Finn at the end of The Force Awakens, he lays a claim on the Skywalker lightsaber saying “it belongs to me!” Just because that lightsaber belonged to his grandfather (Darth Vader) and his uncle (Luke Skywalker) doesn’t mean Kylo Ren is destined to own it.
In fact, he’s interesting specifically because he is someone who seems to believe he has a dark side fate, destined to follow in Vader’s footsteps. But, nothing that has happened to him seems to indicate this is true.
He killed his father, Han Solo in a desperate attempt to make his evil destiny happen, which, many believe, just pushed him further away from it. Plus, that family lightsaber flew over to Rey, not him, meaning the destiny of that object is totally up in the air. Literally.
In The Last Jedi, Luke Skywalker has gone into hiding, probably to avoid people constantly telling him what his destiny should or shouldn’t be. Interestingly, this move parallels he and Leia’s conversation in Return of the Jedi when she told him to run as far away as possible from Darth Vader. In that film, Luke proved he had agency to make his own decisions, despite being manipulated by a lot of baloney about destiny.
For Rey, it’s good that she’s found Luke to hopefully help her parse our all these morons who believe in predetermined paths her life must follow. Presumably, he will also show her how to master using a lightsaber.
Still, is there a Star Wars character who is even more Zen than Luke or Yoda? Perhaps.
“Kid, I’ve flown from one side of this galaxy to the other. I’ve seen a lot of strange stuff, but I’ve never seen anything to make me believe there’s one all-powerful Force controlling everything. There’s no mystical energy field that controls my destiny.”
That’s right, the most centered person in all of Star Wars, the ultimate master of his own fate was the person who couldn’t use the Force if he tried. Han Solo.
The Last Jedi* opens everywhere on December 15.