After seeing Obi Wan’s Force-ghost on Hoth and following its advice Luke finds himself on Dagobah in the care of a strange wise Jedi Master. The true test of Luke’s nascent Jedi skills is when Yoda asks him to enter a dark cave to meet whatever he brings with him. Have the past 35 years shed any new light on this scene?
I feel Cold
The first thing Luke notices when he approaches the cave Yoda has pointed out to him is the cold. His first question about it is ‘what is in there?’ to which Yoda replies the well known ‘only what you take with you!’. Luke ignores Yoda’s advice that he will not need his weapons, to Yoda’s disappointment. Luke needs a while to find the true entrance of the cave and as he walks there he is surrounded by the symbolisms of fear and the temptation to give in to fear. The fear to fail, the fear to misjudge and the fear to allow oneself to be driven by fear in the very attempt not to let such a thing happen. The swamp surrounding Luke is filled with reptiles that represent a very particular combination of what is frightening and cold. There is a sense of fear for the deeply cold-blooded reptilian intelligence and smartness that can overcome even the greatest of heroes. Luke is at a crossroads and he will soon need to make important choices. If he is to truly train to become a Jedi, then he must accept he has only just begun on that path as much as he must also recognize that becoming a Jedi begs the question what purpose his training could have. Luke knows Yoda doubts him, worries he is to old, to reckless, to much like his father.
As Luke passes through a portal, that looks like a typical Jedi temple door, he encounters a vision of Darth Vader. Yet he does not respond as to a vision, without fear and with a will to understand its meaning. Luke engages it as a threat while the fear is easily readable in his face. As Luke strikes out at Vader, and recognizes his own face within Vader’s helmet that drops to the swamp floor, Yoda is overcome with a sense of failure. Later when Luke departs Dagobah, to save Han and Leia, Yoda will explicitly call out to Luke ‘failure at the Cave’ as a warning that Luke should heed. Often people think the cave scene is a foreshadowing of the reveal that Vader is Luke’s father during the final duel in Empire Strikes Back. But it was anything but that, Luke fails in the cave! It shows his training to be incomplete. But in which way did he fail? Was merely his striking out fearfully at Darth Vader his failure?
Overcome your fears to understand the vision
Yoda has been on Dagobah before, we now know. Actually he has been on Dagobah before together with R2, which makes the whole misleading comedy in Empire Strikes Back even more poignant. Luke is tested not just when he enters the cave, but actually from the very moment on that he sets foot on Tatooine. Yoda and R2 are playing Luke. Yoda’s own first stay on Dagobah was very different however. Yoda is led to the same portal, the same gate into the cave by Qui Gon Jin’s instruction and lights that shine on his path. Yoda does not fear reptilian cold-heartedness, and up to a certain extent the Jedi Order of the Republic has even embraced it in the guise of its total rejection of attachment. So now menacing reptiles around this time. What Yoda fears is the ‘fog of war’, the ‘shroud of the dark side’ that impairs his judgements and ability to use the Force. It is what he does not know about the Force that bugs Yoda. And like Luke two decades later, he Is about to be confronted by what he fears the most.
Soon after he enters through the portal the shroud of the darkside envelops him and presents him with a horrifying vision of the future. What he sees is a blend of conflict between Jedi and Clones, that is different from what will transpire, and Anakin’s dark deeds that he sees exactly as they will play out not much later, he sees a murder of Shaak-Ti and the electrocution of Mace Windu. Yoda sees the fall of the Jedi Order and the unstoppable rise of Sidious. Yoda feels the pain and the exasperation but he does not respond in fear, he does not fight the vision and instead he seeks to learn from it. It is a crucial lesson for Yoda, because it is his first step towards the realization that his training, even after over 800 years, is not yet complete. The vision in the cave is what sets Yoda’s feet firmly on the path that will eventually lead him to return to Dagobah and remain there in exile. Yoda realizes at that crucial moment that the most important question for him here at the even of the end of the Clone Wars is simply this: why is he a Jedi? What is his purpose? Yoda needs further experiences before he can start with giving an answer and that answer heavily involves Luke, the other Skywalker. For Yoda Dagobah is the beginning of the redefinition of what it is to him to be a Jedi and when he returns days later to the Temple he is beginning to drop the attitudes of the warrior monk, of the saviour of the Jedi Order. For he then realizes it is already lost.
Why a Jedi?
Yoda has asked Luke from the very first moment he is on Dagobah why Luke wants to become a Jedi. It is the one question, the key question that Luke is evading. He wants it, but he does not know why he wants it. With flipping on his lightsaber and striking out at the vision of Vader, Luke is rejecting the vision without even wanting to understand what it means. What he fears is not so much that he might have something in common with Vader, what he fears is that he does not know why he is seeking to become a Jedi.
Another Jedi apprentice also struggles with this question. Ezra Bridger, who is exactly the same age as Luke, faces the same test. In his case the location is not Dagobah but a Jedi temple on his home planet Lothal. Also in his case does the challenge begin only after passing through an appropriate portal. Ezra too must first face his greatest fears, in his case the loss of his master and the murder of his friends, deeply resonating with the loss of his parents. But in the end it comes to the same question, and it is Yoda who asks him these questions: why do you want to become a Jedi?
Ezra finds a, probably temporary, answer when pushed by Yoda. And Yoda judges that it is still possible for Ezra to become a Jedi. During his trial Ezra also initially fights the visions but he learns as they keep coming. The turning point comes when he allows the vision to take over and the killing blow of a illusory Inquisitor passes through him without effect.
Luke never gets to that point because after decapitating the illusory Vader he runs. Luke is not open tot he vision and what it might teach him. Luke wants to run away from the questions that all of this pose for him. And so he runs away towards his friends in need … not unlike what his father would have done.
Seeing the future and Finding an Answer
Luke needs to find an answer as to why he needs to become a Jedi. Obi Wan and Yoda both have one answer for him: to confront Vader and destroy the Sith. The tragedy of the Old Jedi Order is that they have never understood. Anakin faces such a foreshadowing vision as well, though not on Dagobah, nor in a Jedi Temple. For Anakin this moment comes on Mortis, yet what he sees is not a possible future, but it is his future. He receives this vision also as a temptation while his fears are being played upon. But the surroundings is a fiery hell like Mustafar. Yet Anakin also recognizes that what is questioned here is what he must become. In the Mortis Arc he chooses the darkside in order to prevent what he will become. It shows the deep tragedy of Anakin Skywalker who cannot escape his fate. His memories of his future are erased and history can resume its normal course.
Luke will need a different experience to understand that he needs to find the answer to the question why he wants to become a Jedi. What he sees in the cave is a possible future, one that does not come to pass. Neither does he decapitate Vader, nor does he become Vader. Luke’s memory of his failure in the cave does not need to be erased, for he rejected the vision. His turning point comes when his father reveals himself to him, that is what sets his feet on the path that leads him to become the Jedi he was supposed to be. Vader’s parentage of Luke closes the door on Obi Wan and Yoda’s aspirations of Luke confronting Vader and destroying Sidious. But it opens another door, that towards Vader’s re-attachment to his son and his daughter, to Anakin finally hearing the call of Padme to come back, coming back to feeling alive.
Your weapons you do not need
Luke expresses what it means to be a Jedi at the end of Return of the Jedi. It means being a Jedi like his father before him, it means throwing away his lightsaber and not striking out at Sidious, it means reviving Anakin Skywalker who throws down Sidious in a final act of liberation. In order to bring down the Sith Empire the new Jedi, Luke Skywalker, does not need his weapons. Even Anakin Skywalker, who brings balance, does not do so by utilizing a weapon. Sidious is not strangled, shot or decapitated, the Sith are simply discarded and a thousand years of obsession with that Phantom Menace comes to an end. Is the lightside of the Force stronger? No, it is merely different. Luke Skywalker is the first Jedi who allows himself to be different and that sets Anakin Skywalker free.