The Great Books and the Rise of Skywalker
“The historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order.” – T. S. Eliot, Tradition and the Individual Talent
A girl sits surrounded by computer screens. There are big and small screens, some old, some new, some so used and worn that they don’t seem to be working, others glowing green with information. Beyond the circle of computers that surrounds the girl, there are more machines, stretching into the distance. Some are small and whirring, some as big as a house, many painted with bright colors, asking for attention. But the girl is not looking at the huge machines, nor is she looking at the screens that surround her. Instead she is looking at what she holds in her hands: an old book with wide, hand-written pages, so ancient the corners of the cover are crumbling, and the pages are creased and smudged from many generations of readers. But she reads intently what is on those pages, oblivious to the technology that frames her.
The scene I’ve described could easily be from a lecture about our modern world that a literature teacher might give to her students: if you could choose a whole world of screens, or one ancient book, which would you pick? Do you have the courage to be the girl who still reads the old stories when the machines have entranced all the others? In fact, as a literature teacher myself, I’ve probably posed this kind of question to my students more than once.
But this scene isn’t from a literature teacher’s lecture. It’s one of the first scenes in the new Star Wars movie, Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker. The girl is our protagonist, Rey, a Jedi in training, and the book she holds is one of the last sacred Jedi texts left in the galaxy. She is reading it to learn the ways of the Jedi from those who first wrote them down, and over the course of the film, she gets to try out what she has learned. (Don’t worry; I won’t spoil the ending.)
One of the most enduring themes in all of the Star Wars movies, from the original trilogy to the present one, is the mantra “pass on what you have learned.” Yoda first says this to Luke in 1983’s Return of the Jedi, and says it again to him in 2017’s The Last Jedi. When Yoda first tells Luke this, Yoda is on his death bed, and he knows that with him dies the last of the Jedi who remember the Old Republic, the old Jedi Temple, and all that the Jedi had been for a thousand generations. Luke, Yoda knows, will be the one man in all the galaxy who can pass on the ways of the Jedi to the next generation. When Yoda says it again to Luke in The Last Jedi, Luke is in a rough spot: he has tried to pass on the ways of the Jedi to his nephew Ben, but Ben has turned to the Dark Side. In despair at his failure, Luke has refused to train Rey, who wishes to become a Jedi and save Ben from the Dark Side. Luke tries to explain to Rey that the Jedi have a history of failure: first Obi-wan’s and Yoda’s failure to stop the Empire from rising, and then his own failure to keep Ben on the right path. But Yoda reminds Luke that despite our failure, we are still called to “pass on what [we] have learned,” and one of the things we can pass on is the constant possibility of failure, and the hard lesson that often “the best teacher failure is.”
Many interpreted The Last Jedi as a film about how we need to reject the past in order to properly progress into the future. But as I argued a couple years ago, the film is ultimately about the worth of the past, the worth of tradition, even in the face of the failures of each generation and the teachers therein. As an educator nearing middle age, this resonated deeply with me.
Because that’s what we’re called to, we teachers: to pass on what we’ve learned from those who came before us, and those who came before them, and so on. This passing on is what tradition is. (Traducere in Latin literally means “to pass on.”) And as The Last Jedi shows, sometimes we teachers—indeed all of those in the older generations—can become so consumed with our own failures that we fail to keep the tradition alive. The Dark Side tells us: “Forget the past; kill it if you have to.” But this way lies folly, and worse. In defiance of this dictum, Rey plays the part of the great book preserver; in a “blink and you’ll miss it” moment, Rey steals the sacred Jedi texts from a library about to be burned, and keeps them safe from both despairing teachers and past-killers alike.
This is why I so love the scene of Rey reading the ancient book at the beginning of The Rise of Skywalker. It’s an image of a girl who has defied all to preserve the living past, who will not let the old wisdom die. And she does not just preserve these things like dusty heirlooms; she makes them a part of herself through careful study and dedicated practice.
Further, Rey finds herself a teacher: Leia. This is, perhaps, the most beautiful surprise of The Rise of Skywalker. We learn that Luke did indeed pass on the ways of the Jedi to Leia and that in Leia lives the knowledge that passed from Yoda to Luke. (Indeed, when Yoda in Return of the Jedi tells Luke to pass on what he has learned, he is hinting that Luke ought to teach Leia.)
There’s a lot of talk about Star Wars these days, lots of debates and criticism. I, for one, appreciate that among the many other themes and considerations of the last two Star Wars episodes, we have seen a vivid portrayal of the classical idea of preserving the wisdom of the past, especially the wisdom found in the ancient books. T.S. Eliot urged his readers to develop in themselves “the historical sense,” wherein all of the past was in a sense kept alive within the reader in the present. At a crucial moment in The Rise of Skywalker, Luke says to Rey, “A thousand generations live in you, now.” This is the work of education, both formal education and life-long self-education. Each generation, the thousand generations that have come before have a chance to be kept alive, to be passed on. It is deeply human to do so, and deeply dangerous to deliberately forget. It is also wise to see (as Yoda does) that much of the wisdom we gain from the past is the wisdom of failure, of humility. “The only wisdom we can hope to gain,” Eliot writes, “is the wisdom of humility.” Pass on what you have learned.