Luke Skywalker. The very name is enough to get Star Wars nerds and blerds alike frothing at the mouth for a number of reasons. But who was he? What are some real world analogues to him? How powerful, in comparison to other main characters, was he really? Join me as we dig into the original protagonist of the Star Wars Universe, Luke Skywalker.
To do this right, we have to establish a baseline. We know from the new owners of the Star Wars Franchise that the entirety of the old Extended Universe (EU) is no longer canon. None of it. So that’s out. So this is going to be based on the only concrete, canonical sources; the films. Why not include the new canon novels in this? Because they’re re-walking the same trail the original EU did, which means they’re unreliable since they may be ditched again in the future should Disney decide to do another partial reboot of the franchise. Also, the films are the media by which the vast majority are familiar with Star Wars franchise, as well as being the least malleable part of the lore.
What do we know about Luke Skywalker? Luke Skywalker grew up with his Uncle Ben and Aunt Beru on Tatooine. A lot of people assume that farming equals poverty, but this is not the case. The conditions Luke Skywalker grew up in were closer to that of the white farmers of Rhodesia during the 1960s and 1970s than poor dirt farmers in the American dustbowl. How do we know this? Luke is a trained pilot, and his family is well off enough that even though they buy second hand droids, they can afford to buy Luke a T-16 Skyhopper. The T-16 Skyhopper being a military trainer craft, equipped with an FCS (fire control system) and weapon that allowed Luke to kill womp rats. Luke is also a strong if not guaranteed prospect for the Imperial Academy, something his Uncle is trying to block his entry into, and is acknowledged by his longtime friend, Biggs Darklighter, as being the best bush pilot in the outer rim. So Luke is not a poor, uneducated farmer. He’s a young man who’s grown up with relative privilege, on a dangerous frontier. He’s still a teen, and whiney at times, but that doesn’t change his actual background; one where he’s already acclimatized to violence and danger as seen in his reaction to the potential presence of Sand People.
We also know that Luke spends a considerable time not studying the Force and effectively forgets about Jedi stuff until he nearly dies on Hoth. How do we know this? Well, he’s risen to the rank of Commander in the Rebel Alliance in their air wing, and is now confident pilot who only just remembers that the force is a thing when he needs to get his lightsaber back. He’s effectively spent three years not doing much Force related training or thinking between the end of Episode IV and start of Episode V. This really shows in his assault on Cloud City; where he goes in with the weapon drawn that he’s comfortable with, a blaster. The weapon of a pilot officer, not a Jedi’s lightsaber. In the rough year between the end of Episode V and start of Episode VI, he’s recovered from the loss of his hand, and done some training with Yoda, finally learning more about the Force, and finally moving to being more Jedi-esque.
Now, in the space of one year, Luke has done some training, but as a Jedi, he’s barely a Padawan. This is borne out as he is ultimately defeated in battle by the Emperor after barely managing to temporarily incapacitate Darth Vader. Luke was sent into a fight by Yoda and Obiwan not because they knew he was ready, but because they had no other weapon to send. Luke was a Jedi only in the sense that he was the last non-Sith not living in hiding, and that he was, by default, the only Light Side Force user left around. While Yoda and Obiwan were confident in the strength of his connection to the Force, Luke was an semi-skilled user, at best. To put it in context, Luke was the equivalent of a conscript, rapidly trained and thrown into a fight with the hope he’d succeed.
In the days of the Old Republic, becoming a Jedi Knight was a serious undertaking. Training began in early childhood, followed by mentorship as a Padawan apprentice under an experienced Jedi Knight. It was something that took decades to achieve. And the results show. Anakin Skywalker was a much more powerful combatant and nuanced Force user than Luke was in Episode VI. The older Youngling gunned down in front of Bail Organa in Episode III during the massacre was working at around the same level as Luke would be in Episode VI. By the time Episode VI was over, Luke was the only “Jedi” left standing (openly), so his mastery was a matter of perspective. In the land of the blind, the man with one eye is king.
So how does Luke compare to his fellow Force using protagonists? Anakin and Rey? Well, poorly to be honest. Anakin benefited from a full apprenticeship and was already more Force sensitive than Luke at 19 as a child of nine. Rey on the other hand, is apparently some sort of Force savant. Her connection to the Force is unprecedented, although she never used the Force consciously until she was 19. With both Anakin and Rey however, they both show more skill and proficiency with the Force, by Episodes III and VII respectively, than Luke ever did on film. Anakin is a fully fledged and blooded Jedi Knight; and Rey is able to replicate Force powers (such as mind reading) that she is exposed to, and manages the Jedi Mind Trick on her own with no prompting or known examples, as well as pulling a lightsaber to her. Luke can jump, Mind Trick, and get his lightsaber at a distance; after undergoing training.
So what does this mean? Well, it means that Luke Skywalker isn’t all that. Not by a long shot. He was a last ditch effort by the Jedi to get someone, anyone, into the field to fight for the Light Side of the Force. By sheer luck, the sudden redemptive effort by his father, he succeeded and wasn’t fried to a crisp by Force Lightning. Then, unprepared, he attempted to train others in the use of the force. This would be like putting a private in the position of all of the staff NCOs and all of the Officers all at once, and expecting them to produce trained and skilled soldiers. Sure, they know the idea around how things are supposed to work, but they have no ideas about the in depth parts. So it’s no real wonder that he failed to create something permanent.
Overall; Luke Skywalker is a character out of step with his equivalents. Whether a fluke of the limitations on the original films, or by planning, he is not the character that most paint him as. At the end of Episode V, he has spent more time training to be, and being, a pilot than a Jedi, and his Force skills never blossom like the others do, even after training. He’s also not the archetypical “farm boy” or “whiney teen” as he’s often described based on North American ideas around these things. He has the longest Hero’s Journey of the three (taking three movies to find his hero legs and Force powers), and is relatively underpowered in comparison. Luke is not the powerhouse he was in the old EU, and that’s for the better by any means.