Walking into Dagobah and the Mythic Spirit of a True Beginning

Good versus evil, seemingly

The fight that seems so clear to Luke until it all becomes hazy.
The fight that seems so clear to Luke until it all becomes hazy.

Journey Within

In the murky, unsettling gloom of the swamp in Dagobah, Master Yoda issued the next quest in the Jedi Training: Go beneath into a pit and confront the dark side. Luke stares cautiously at the place, sensing the Dark Side. “What’s in there?” he asks. In a cryptic, haunting voice, Master Yoda informs Luke, “Only what you take with you.” Caution would be needed in the approach. The Dark Side was there. Vader was there. Vader needed to be defeated. But did he know enough of the force to defeat Vader? Defeat the Dark Side? Would Vader try to pull some feat of power he had not mastered? How many sessions would it take to learn the exact art of how to defeat Vader, stripping the universe of the evil once and for all? As he fell into that oppressive, dark cave, the dank, the foul odor of the Dark Side permeated the air.

Settled around him was the quiet, hushed waiting of the swamp. In the hush, Luke felt his nervousness subside, as eagerness warred with the steady, cautious movements. Vader had much to answer for, many innocent voices silenced too long by his stranglehold grip on the universe. Did not the millions of voices suddenly stilled on Alderaan still call out to him, demanding justice? Did he not see the bleak look in Lea’s eyes whenever someone should by chance mention Alderaan? His thoughts turned fast, coursing fire in their tread. Memory of the bodies of his aunt and uncle innocently slaughtered stirred and he felt his heart beat faster in anticipation. Vader neared. Vader would pay.

Even in the dark gloom of the swamp, the sheen of Vader’s dark, metallic suit played against the scaling moss, the pervasive mist, the damp ground, defying them. Uncle Owen, dead on his farm. He just wanted to live out his life as a farmer. He didn’t want to get involved in that Imperial nonsense. Luke would never see him again, never hear him issuing forth another thankless chore for the day. Vader took another step and fear flickered through him again as the domineering figure switched on his lightsaber. So like the Dark Side to strive for mastery over all, heedless of the innocents lost in the struggle. Pressing his lightsaber on, Luke blocked Vader’s advances. He would not fall. His hand steady on the base, an opening emerged before Vader. Justice was on his side. Justice swung the lightsaber. Luke felt a jolt of surprise at the cleanness of the sweep, the unexpected ease of light saber cutting through metal. A fitting end.

Yoda, why didn’t you make this Vader a harder test subject? Vader’s body crumpled to the floor and Luke drew closer. Maybe it was just a makeshift Vader, but he hungered to look on the face of the one who stole his family from him. The one responsible for so much evil. The shield for Vader’s face fell away. Closer. Luke stared at the face in the mask. That face. So familiar, though he had never seen Vader without the mask. That face was his own.

Only what you take with you.

Anyone who has ever watched – and for some, experienced – the cultural phenomenon known as Star Wars, this scene is just one more iconic part of the mythology of the Force. When I first saw this scene, I was in 8th grade. And I don’t remember how many times I had to watch that scene before I confirmed that the face in the suit was Luke’s face. At the time, the facial details seemed unclear. Was I certain that it was Luke? How come Yoda never mentioned this experience? Where was the commentary? The easy explanation? For that matter, if the face was Luke, wasn’t the idea of a person being their own evil somewhat easy and clichéd?

Only through time and many more viewings did the meaning and beauty of that moment gradually unfold for me. Luke, the quintessential everyman, displays our human foible of too quickly assuming a righteous anger, an us-as-the-good-guy who needs to save the day. How this moment functions is put the brakes on our snap-judgment assessment that we are the good guy needing to destroy the bad guy. Just maybe, it is ourselves we need to examine first. Recognize our own potential to be every bit as nasty as Vader. Be a little more cautious in dealing with “the enemy.”

Star Wars is not the first to present this concept as part of its mythology and it won’t be the last. One of the basic premises of Lord of the Rings is the way the power of the ring has the potency to corrupt those around, most especially the bearer. While there is always the external danger as presented by characters like the Nazgul, opposing armies and the ever vigilant Eye of Sauron, the greatest danger comes from the fellowship and the temptation they face by their desire for the ring. The enemy they must face on the initial stage of the quest is themselves. Often touted as being heavily inspired by World War II and lessons gleaned from that experience (a claim emphatically denied by Tolkien), this work refrains in my opinion from relying too heavily on a simplistic us-versus-them kind of story. Some of the opposing armies are depicted as having been unfortunate victims of Sauron’s lies and Sam’s own description of a fallen soldier draws the reader’s attention to possible similarities that might have existed between the “good guys” and the “bad guys.” Consequently, as much as I admire Sam Gamgee in the book, Tolkien notes that in his letters, it is Sam’s dismal treatment of Gollum that ultimately prevents Gollum from being redeemed. Again, it is hard to miss the way this mythology puts the breaks on the assumption that the good guys are always right.

While many critics of mythology say that false stories have no place in our lives, it is hard to argue this is a valid point when people fall into the grievous blunder of demanding that others live out some version of what they think as right when they themselves don’t hold themselves to that same high standard. Too often, proponents of a certain kind of living try to sway others to their side by pointing out the wrong in those not like them. Worse is when they carry signs insinuating that not being like them means some damnable fate like roasting in a place of high temperatures (which is actually quite tempting if you’re Sam McGee). Unfortunately, proponents who use the Bible and their religion are missing one of the main points of the Bible they espouse. Simply, the true spiritual journey begins now with the pointing out of another’s flaws and making them like you, but in examining every part of your being and seeing what parts of yourself needed to be eviscerated. When Christ came, he preached a message of repentance and taught that people should focus on changing themselves before they changed others.

Yet even before Christ’s time, another, still incredibly fascinating experience is recorded by the prophet Isaiah. A high priest, Isaiah records the experience of seeing God. His revelation upon seeing the God he served did not lead to the revelation of how messed up everyone around him was, but first how far off he was. “Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.” Please note that this was a man already dedicated to serving God and trying to do what is right. Regardless how you choose to interpret this story – as real, as myth, as mumbo jumbo – there is a very earnest similarity between Isaiah, Luke and Frodo. For all have in some sense gone on a journey in which they experienced the startling revelation that it is themselves they need to change, not others. It is their own selves that they need to be suspicious of.

The teaching of Jesus is that you only begin to truly follow him when you recognize your error and repent. However society has constructed what it means to follow Jesus, it is interesting to note that this is where the story is supposed to begin. The Greek term used for this kind of happening was metanoia, which meant complete change. A really vivid example of this is seen in Francis of Assisi. Story goes that he used to be the kind of person obsessed with cleanliness. Hated disfigurements of all kind. Yet following his conversion, he happened upon a leper one day. Instead of being repulsed as he once might have been, Francis goes over and hugs the leper. Later, as he’s walking away from the leper, Francis turns back around only to find no trace of the leper at all. Thus marks one of the beginnings of his new identity, his own myth quest.

While religion might have bored everyone into a coma or bullied them into a polite standoffishness at best, part of the allure of films like Star Wars and Lord of the Rings is the way they tap into that mythos and sense of a deeper kind of life that can yet be lived. Watching Luke struggle in Dagobah and seeing the deep emotional attachment many like myself have formed to this original trilogy, I wonder if I’m not alone in the hunger to be trained in the ways of the Force. For to be religious, we do not aspire, but to be spiritual – to connect to a deeper reality – is not one desire we walk readily away from. Yet for all the romance of Dagobah, there is a harshness that awaits in this place. A kind of self analysis that looks past the artifice we might unknowingly cling to as means of survival.

The mist rises in the swamp and the fetid odor makes us long for the comfort of the familiar. Of set meals, set routines, and set expectations. Yet a battle awaits and it is not our political opponents or rivals at work or even the jerk who cut us off in traffic we must face. For the true battle is not against those too like us in their learned prejudices and acquired hates. But always, the battle is against the sleeping, ignorant, apathy within. The battle is with the worst of what we could be going up against the greatest potential of what we have yet to become. We afraid. "What's in there?" we ask. A voice whispers in our ear as the Dark Side approaches.

Only what you take with you.

Perhaps today, we will leave behind some of the worst that we have unwittingly become. Perhaps today, we will learn again to hold to the Light Side of the Force, the side that is love and grace, truth and mercy. Learn again what it means to have the Force as our ally…to know again the power of love rising within. Perhaps today, we will take more than what we took before.

The Iconic Scene

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