Obi-Wan Kenobi, bathed in the chilly glow of his blue lightsaber, stares at his former student. With the confidence of hard-won faith, he declares, “If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can imagine.”
Much, much later in a galaxy far, far away, the same voice intones another paradox: “In my end is my beginning.” Hmm, that sounds familiar. And another: “Only through time time is conquered.” And another: “…where you are is where you are not.”
It is Alec Guinness reading T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. Guinness played Obi-Wan in the original Star Wars trilogy, and I stumbled giddily upon his recording of Eliot’s poems while studying them for a class at Calvin last year. While listening, I like to imagine that I’m his Padawan and that the words are ancient Jedi wisdom, handed down not from the 1930s and 40s but from the legendary days of the Old Republic, their long-forgotten authors now one with the Force.
Last week, I read the 2017 short story anthology Star Wars: From a Certain Point of View, in which minor or invisible characters from 1977’s A New Hope narrate the film’s story from their own perspectives. And when I re-listened to Guinness’s Four Quartets recording recently, I began to notice that many of these characters really were acting as if Obi-Wan had indeed schooled them in the ways of Eliot.
In Griffin McElroy’s “Stories in the Sand,” a young Jawa named Jot scavenges droids in the “sparseness [and] intolerable dryness” of Tatooine’s deserts. His job is to wipe droids’ memories so they can be resold to new owners. An “endless, gritty expanse” surrounds his tiny life on all sides, a life full of empty work.
Here is a place of disaffection
Time before and time after
In a dim light: neither daylight
Investing form with lucid stillness
Turning shadow into transient beauty
With slow rotation suggesting permanence
Nor darkness to purify the soul
Emptying the sensual with deprivation
Cleansing affection from the temporal.
Neither plenitude nor vacancy. (Eliot, Burnt Norton, 90-99, emphasis mine here and below)
But then, one day, Jot finds a droid with an extra holoprojector, which he keeps (against the rules) and hides in a hidden chamber in the sandcrawler. He uses this new hideaway to watch the droids’ memories before erasing them, and in the process he starts to learn the stories of other people and places in the enormous galaxy beyond Tatooine. He becomes “insatiable,” filled with images of forests and cities and Imperial starcruisers, and he eventually stumbles upon an R2 unit that holds a very unique set of memories: a secret wedding; a woman asking for help; an enormous, deadly battle station. And the timestamps tell Jot that this story, unlike the others he’s watched on the holoprojector, is “happening right now.” It is a story in which he’s a character; a story he can participate in—and he does. He refuses to delete R2-D2’s memory, preserving these voices from the past so they can be found and acted upon by the characters of the future.
Fare forward, you who think that you are voyaging;
You are not those who saw the harbour
Receding, or those who will disembark. (The Dry Salvages, 150-152)
In another story—“There is Another,” by Calvin’s own Gary D. Schmidt—we see Yoda in exile on Dagobah, observing Obi-Wan and Darth Vader’s duel through the Force while hiding himself from Imperial detection. After sensing Obi-Wan’s death, Yoda feels “a stillness where he had once felt vibration,” and he’s overcome by loneliness and reminded of his failure. He attempts to console himself with the Jedi wisdom he’ll later teach to Luke: “Train yourself to let go of everything you fear to lose.”
Shall I say it again? In order to arrive there,
To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not,
You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.
In order to possess what you do not possess
You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not
You must go through the way in which you are not. (East Coker, 135-143)
Yoda’s loneliness is answered by the arrival of Obi-Wan in Force-ghost form, bringing an unusual request. Yoda believes that the galaxy’s hope lies not in Luke but in Leia, seeing “all the markings of a great Jedi” in the “strength and will and clarity” that she has and that Luke, regrettably, lacks. But Obi-Wan wants his old master to train Luke, seeing promise in the recklessness that scares Yoda away. The old Jedi is wary of the request, fearing a repeat of the failure that sent Luke’s father to the dark side. But Obi-Wan responds wryly, “I seem to remember an old Master of mine who liked to say something about trying,” and Yoda is reluctantly convinced.
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business. (East Coker, 186-189)
At first, I thought these lines from Eliot were making a point opposite that of Yoda’s famous “Do or do not; there is no try.” But upon further reflection, I think what Yoda means by “doing” is exactly what Eliot means by “trying.” It means acting in the right direction without worrying about the results. It means doing the work assigned to us and remembering that “the rest is not our business.” It means discipline.
Oh, and by the way, throughout this chapter Yoda plants seeds for food, and once they’re in Dagobah’s dense soil, “it look as if nothing at all had been planted there, as if nothing would come up from all that effort.” But, of course, it will.
For most of us, this is the aim
Never here to be realised;
Who are only undefeated
Because we have gone on trying;
We, content at the last
If our temporal reversion nourish
(Not too far from the yew-tree)
The life of significant soil. (The Dry Salvages, 226-233)
In many of the anthology’s other stories, minor characters contribute to the fate of the galaxy by choosing to serve individual people rather than systems or themselves. An imperial officer notices that Leia is lying about the location of the rebel base, but he refuses to speak up out of empathy for her, and so effectively joins the Rebellion (“Change of Heart” by Elizabeth Wein). A red R5 droid blows itself up so that Luke’s family will have to take R2-D2 home and have a chance to see his crucial message (“The Red One” by Rae Carson). And in the final moments before the destruction of their home planet, Bail and Breha Organa embrace and assure each other that their daughter—the hope of the galaxy—lives. (“Eclipse” by Madeleine Roux). The Empire uses fear to rule the galaxy and fails. Unimportant, everyday people act with mercy and the galaxy is saved.
… Do not let me hear
Of the wisdom of old men, but rather of their folly,
Their fear of fear and frenzy, their fear of possession,
Of belonging to another, or to others, or to God.
The only wisdom we can hope to acquire
Is the wisdom of humility; humility is endless. (East Coker, 93-98)