Three (and a half) Ways of Looking at Rey’s Lightsaber

In a move somewhat pre-empted by her using it in all of the promotional material, Lucasfilm have announced that as of The Last Jedi, the lightsaber formerly owned by Skywalkers Anakin and Luke officially belongs to Rey. [1] While I had assumed that this was the case as of The Force Awakens – Luke has the lightsaber he built himself, after all – I did start to wonder what this actually means. You see, since watching The Force Awakens and seeing that lightsaber I had been thinking about how it functioned as an entangled object. The term ‘entangled object’ originated with the “material culture turn” in anthropology around the turn of the millennium, but I know the term through its use by James Whitley as a concept in relating ideas in the Homeric epics to the archaeology of Early Iron Age Greece – that is, the way in which objects drive the plot through their entangled relationships with characters. [2] Whitley illustrates his argument with an example from a different epic, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings:

“Artefacts can exert a malignant force, as in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings […] It is the Ring itself (the object that links this tale with all the earlier tales, including the Hobbit [sic]) that, in many ways, drives the narrative, and has greater agency than many of the human (or hobbit, elven or dwarvish) characters.” [3]

How, then, does this lightsaber function as an entangled object? It exerts a Force (pun absolutely intended) in that for Rey touching it triggers a vision; it shows agency in choosing Rey over Kylo Ren. To a degree, it binds the three Star Wars film trilogies together (if not each individual film); but in doing so it passes between those we might consider the principal characters or the heroes of the films – Anakin, Luke, and Rey. If we think about the lightsaber itself as a character, we can look at the role it plays in the stories of Anakin and Luke to see what Lucasfilm might intend by announcing that they now consider the lightsaber to be Rey’s.

The standard assumption must be one of familial ties: the lighsaber belonged to Anakin, then to his son, Luke, and now to Luke’s daughter, Rey. Personally, I’m more inclined to think that if this is the case Rey is only symbolically Luke’s daughter; I’m even more inclined to think that this, along with the other hints that Luke is Rey’s father, is a bluff – although that may be because I am tired of the Star Wars saga’s obsession with fathers. With regards to The Force Awakens, I think it is fair to see the passage of this lightsaber to Rey as her inheritance of the saga as a whole. Indeed, the scene in which Kylo Ren tries to call the lightsaber to him but it goes to Rey instead argues that it is a symbol of heroism, not familial ties. Rey is heir to the Jedi, not just heir to the Skywalkers.

Can we get more out of this object than simple meta-narrative associations? I think so. Here are some thoughts regarding the significance of Rey’s lightsaber in the wider Star Wars narrative.

The relationship between past and present

When Obi-Wan Kenobi originally gave the lightsaber to Luke in A New Hope, he lied in order to conceal its past and what happened to Luke’s father. Luke loses the lightsaber when that past is revealed by Darth Vader, the Sith persona of his father, Anakin Skywalker. The lightsaber provides Luke with a connection to a false past that is destroyed when he is defeated by Darth Vader, and so he must lose the object that connects him to that past. In building his own lightsaber, Luke signals that he has come to terms with this past and that he seeks to erase the lie and return his father to the light side of the Force. The resurfacing of the lightsaber in The Force Awakens symbolises that the past cannot be concealed forever; however Rey initially rejects it, refusing to come to terms with her own role in the ongoing saga. Giving the lightsaber to Rey in The Last Jedi signals another level of coming to terms with the past – its incorporation into the future. It may also suggest that Rey’s past – which has been concealed from her by her abandonment on Jakku – contains a lie, or that it will be revealed when she, too, loses this lightsaber.

The necessity of failure

Anakin uses this lightsaber throughout Revenge of the Sith both as a Jedi an in his betrayal of the Jedi when he becomes Darth Vader. In his climatic battle with Obi-Wan his former master severs all of his (remaining) limbs before taking the lightsaber and leaving Vader to die – he is rescued by Emperor Palpatine and given his iconic suit. Luke uses the lightsaber for training and self-defence, before prematurely challenging Darth Vader, who easily bests him, severing Luke’s right hand and leading him to lose the lightsaber. He then reveals his identity as Luke’s father and offers his son the chance to rule the galaxy alongside him. Rey has, thus far, been more successful in her battles with this lightsaber, defeating Kylo Ren. But its history is not a fortuitous one and involves the loss of several limbs (including those of Mace Windu and the Wampa ice monster, which it was used to sever). However, the losses inflicted on Anakin/Vader and Luke when they wielded this lightsaber were significant milestones in their development as characters – does this mean that we will see Rey lose a limb, or at least the lightsaber, as a necessary failure in her path as a Jedi?

Anakin was always immature

Rather than looking at what the inheritance of this lightsaber means to Rey, we might instead flip our perspective and consider how this reflects back on Anakin. For both Luke and Rey, this is the first lightsaber they use, primarily while training. Luke loses it when he pre-emptively ends his training; constructing his own lightsaber marks the completion of his training. But for Anakin, this is the last lightsaber he uses as a Jedi. While holding it he enters a transitional movement, going from Jedi to Sith; but he cannot overcome his former master and loses it. We might look back on Anakin and say that despite all the time he has spent training to be a Jedi, his use of this lightsaber means that he is just as much an amateur at the end as Luke and Rey are as they begin their journeys. It is even arguable that here we see the deception of the Jedi Council when they say that Anakin is too old to begin his training – he, and every Jedi, are too young; even at maturity they will be no better off than Luke or Rey in their late teens/early twenties. This is the lightsaber of a novice; Anakin, whether because of the Jedi training or his susceptibility to Palpatine and the dark side remained a novice Jedi until he turns on Palpatine in Return of the Jedi.

Not a conclusion

These were just some casual thoughts on the role of this lightsaber as an entangled object in the Star Wars saga. I expect that I would be able to write something more substantial once The Last Jedi is actually released. Nevertheless, I hope this initial discussion serves to highlight how we can think about the role of an entangled object in modern epic literature.

[1] https://www.themarysue.com/anakins-lightsaber-is-now-reys/?utm_content=buffer1e781&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer

[2] James Whitley (2013), “Homer’s Entangled Objects: Narrative, Agency, and Personhood In and Out of Iron Age Texts.” Cambridge Archaeological Journal 23:3, pp. 395-416. It’s available for those with access here: https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/cambridge-archaeological-journal/article/homers-entangled-objects-narrative-agency-and-personhood-in-and-out-of-iron-age-texts/2F89A1CCFBDEBC3B4C7DF44E38D433F5#

[3] ibid. p. 398.

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