Warning: spoilers for Star Wars: Episode VIII: The Last Jedi follow
The Last Jedi has been one of the more polarizing Star Wars films, which is saying something for a franchise marked with polarized fans. One of the complaints seems to focus on the choices made around the characterization of Luke Skywalker. Luke Skywalker is portrayed in the film as very bitter and jaded, and fans somehow think that that is unfair to the character. Yet I think it is in keeping with a grand Star Wars tradition of highlighting the difference between mastery and perfection.
In modern culture, there seems to be a conflation of mastery and perfection. When we say we’ve mastered a skill, all too often we mean we’ve honed it to a state of ease. Yet is that truly the meaning of mastery?
The Star Wars saga contains many Jedi Masters. Official canon states that one can become a Master by training a Padawan to Knighthood, or by being granted the title by the Jedi High Council. In ROTS, Obi-Wan Kenobi states that “It will not be long before the Council makes [Anakin Skywalker] a Jedi Master”. Anakin Skywalker is, at this point, merely 23 years old. Even granting his exceptional abilities, it is well within the realm of possibility that many Jedi would become Masters by the age of 30. That’s a lot of living left to hold the title of Mastery for, and correspondingly a lot of mistakes left to make.
This is supported by the events of the saga–most of these Masters are killed in the Clone Wars and the following Jedi Purge; those that survive are hunted down relentlessly; even two of the greatest, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda, are seemingly left learning and failing into death and beyond, as they doubt Luke can survive, resist dark side temptation, and believe that he must kill Darth Vader and the Emperor–all of which Luke shows them to be mistaken about.
It is no surprise then that Luke is still learning and failing well into his Mastery. Even in the Star Wars Legends canon, he was learning and failing for decades–though admittedly he was a bit less bitter and jaded in that version of events. One of my favorite moments is when Yoda appears to remind Luke of some lessons he already knew–in part, because both Masters share some poignant time together.
So mastery clearly doesn’t mean that one suddenly stops learning and failing. This should hardly be surprising to anyone who has received a Master’s degree from a postsecondary institution or has been declared a Master in martial arts circle—what those designations mean is that one has attained a certain level of knowledge, but all too often that hard-earned Mastery merely means a lifetime spent learning and failing and growing even more.
Mastery does not mean everything is easy, nor does it mean that one is suddenly perfect. Mastery means that one has learned some lessons, overcome some challenges, but more often than not Mastery means that the journey has, in some ways, only begun.