I remember watching Star Wars for the first time. My parents rented them from the now defunct-Hollywood Movies video store before we got our own VHS collection set. We got one movie a week and I remember wanting very much to find out what happened next each time: especially once we got through The Empire Strikes Back. Of course, being eleven or twelve at the time in the 1990s so I obviously knew the ultimate spoiler: that Darth Vader was Luke Skywalker’s father. But I knew absolutely nothing else. Hell, I didn’t even know that Darth Vader had telekinesis in addition to his formidable cybernetics. I grew up with cartoons like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and G.I. Joe in addition to being inundated with Robocop and Terminator always looming in the background so I knew that cyborgs were a big deal, but I had absolutely no idea what the Force was or how it worked.
This obviously changed and it changed with the vengeance of the original title for Return of the Jedi. Here I was, here many of us from 1977 and onward were, left with Darth Vader’s redemption twist, his sad revelation, Luke’s bittersweet victory, Han and Leia’s budding romance, and dancing Rebels and Ewoks in the forest at the end, and the beginning of something new in the Star Wars universe.
And that was it, cinematically – officially – until 1999.
Except, for many more of us, it wasn’t the end.
Watching Ewoks and Droids as a child in the late eighties was my introduction to the universe of Star Wars, well before prepubescence and realizing that they were part of a larger cinematic galaxy, but what got me were the questions that the Trilogy left in my mind. What happened with Han Solo and Leia Organa? Did they have a family? And what about Luke Skywalker? Did he “pass on what he had learned” of the Jedi arts? Did Luke Skywalker create another generation of Jedi Knights after the deaths of Emperor Palpatine and Darth Vader? And what kind of galaxy resulted after the defeat of the Empire at Endor?
We were left with these burning questions for years. They never left my mind. I recall buying a notebook with a Return of the Jedi cover at Jabba’s Palace at a flea market, and looking at it always, going back to that time on Tatooine and trying to glean as many clues about that world as I could. It resulted in fanfiction, roleplays, and more speculation. That in itself didn’t mean much in and of itself. I was very interested in exploring movies after I had watched them, after they were over. I always wondered, for instance, what would have happened if Jack Nicholson’s Joker met Danny Devito’s Penguin in a Tim Burton Batman film, and I do recall attempting to write a sequel to Who Framed Roger Rabbit? in that same Return of the Jedi notebook I just mentioned earlier in this paragraph.
But I became very interested in the Force and, by extension, the Jedi Knights. I was also fascinated with just what Palpatine actually was. It was never mentioned in the films and I always thought that Darth Vader’s title of Dark Lord of the Sith, mentioned in other sources, was some kind of prestige class of whatever they both were, for lack of a better term. In the books, I found out that there were “Dark Jedi”: Force-sensitives or former Jedi that embraced the dark side of the Force but even that didn’t seem to fit Palpatine.
So yes, like many other fans I delved into the Expanded Universe of that time, or what LucasFilm owned by Disney now calls the “Legend continuity.” That is where I found the terms “Force-sensitive,” “Dark Jedi,” “Dark Lord of the Sith,” and so much else. And while there were little tidbits of information about the Jedi Order and what they were like in their prime, along with training methods and examples of Force abilities and techniques, there wasn’t much else. It was just like finding that notebook at the flea market: just scraps of knowledge that many of us were trying to put together in order to keep the magic of the Star Wars universe alive in our minds. It would not be much of an exaggeration to say that I felt like Luke Skywalker attempted to reconstruct some ancient order what remains I could find: trying to discover a much larger secret. Much of the more indepth information I gained came from Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn Trilogy along with Barbara Hambly’s Children of the Jedi and eventually even Tom Veitch and Cam Kennedy’s comics series Dark Empire.
But now I realize it was never only about finding more. As I said, it was about keeping the magic alive and being inside that magic, or having it inside of me. It was around this time, after the films, after being discouraged by the strangeness of Kathy Tyers’ The Truce at Bakura, neither the first nor the last Star Wars novel that perplexed me and so many others, that I found the Junior Jedi Knights series.
Oh yes. It’s no coincidence that the writer of the Junior Jedi Knight series was Kevin J. Anderson, the creator of the Jedi Academy trilogy and as some members of fandom like to call him “The Superweapon of the Month Guy” and his wife Rebecca Moesta. However, I didn’t find out about the trilogy before reading his young adult series first. Here we had the adventures of the adolescent children of Han and Leia: Jacen, Jaina, and Anakin Solo in the era of the New Republic taking on the likes of the anti-human Diversity League, the remnants of the Empire, and a rival dark side Force-using school called the Shadow Academy created by one of Luke’s fallen students Brakiss. They and their friends at the Jedi Praxeum on Yavin 4 have been trained in the Force by Luke Skywalker, now one of the few remaining Jedi Masters in existence – and certainly the first of the new – and are seeking to become fully fledged Jedi Knights.
It’s no wonder I was hooked on this series at this age. It’s true that there were games like Star Wars: Dark Forces to look at as well and eventually Knights of the Old Republic, but in terms of media these were some of the best ways to learn about the Force and experience what it is like to be a Jedi Knight. The thing that many former children, or children even now, understand is a lack of power. There is always someone or something that seems to dictate or control what you can do. And if that isn’t enough, then there are plenty of bullying and self-esteem issues to consider. However, it isn’t hard to imagine what your life might be like if, awkward and gangly, or a body-type at the time you don’t want to be, or in a place and time you feel you don’t fit in, you had mystical powers. I mean, what would any of these things mean if you could levitate an object with your mind, see the future, move faster than light, or blast lightning out of your hands. And this isn’t even going into how amazing it would be to wield a sword of energy in your hands if you are so inclined.
Yes, in all of the above statement I am taking about your typical child and adolescent wish-fulfilment fantasy: and still many adult ones. On the surface, at least back then, being a Jedi was a lot like being a superhero in a movie or a comic book. As a Force-sensitive, like Yoda or Palpatine you could be appear to be much smaller, far weaker than you actually are. Or you could be that boy, Luke, taking your first step into a much larger world. And then, there is the outsider status feeling: the anger, frustration, resentment, and fear that draws many younger people, many of us, to the sense of power, a love of black, and the seeming lack of conventionality in being the Dark Jedi or the Sith, the bad guy, the villain.
Star Wars, for me, was a place where I could enact these fantasies vicariously, or feel them in a constructive, imaginary environment. At the same time, even disregarding those elements there is something particularly stylish and elegant about being a villain such as a Dark Jedi or a Sith Lord: about pretending to be weak and feeling like you have more power than you actually have. Or maybe, going back to feeling like a hero or at least someone with better intentions, you actually feel like you have value beyond the stereotypical attraction to physical strength, athleticism, beauty, and popularity: having knowledge, having a special power than gives you not so much a secret identity necessarily, but a “special destiny.”
Like I said, it all feels like “kid stuff” and it is tempting to call it a male fantasy, but I am fairly sure there are girls and women who have had, and have, similar sympathies. Certainly one thing I appreciated about the Junior Jedi Knights and even to some extent Jedi Academy was the inclusion of female Jedi. Tahiri Veila, Tenel Ka Djo, and Jaina Solo are female Force-using protagonists whom you also get to watch progress and deal with their own challenges and we do know about Mara Jade before them. It was a lot like watching Leia progress if she had chosen to use the same Force potential as her brother and father. Of course, these – along with the rest of what I’ve written above – weren’t particularly elements that I examined in those days or even had words for, and I suspect that there might be a lot of it that can’t really stand the test of time.
I suppose my issue, aside from developmental experiences, was that like many people I didn’t really know the origins of the Jedi. I had grown up reading and watching X-Men. I thought that Jedi and Force-sensitives were a lot like Marvel’s mutants: people with extrasensory abilities that were their own people and decided to help others who didn’t have those powers while constantly dealing with “anti-mutant” sentiment and rival mutants. To be honest, I’d read nothing to dissuade me of thinking that the Jedi Knights hadn’t been something of a hereditary peacekeeping force, or at least a culture of people acting as such for the Republic and that they had families and friends and always had to face prejudice. If anything, Kevin J. Anderson and Tom Veitch’s Tales of the Jedi comics series, dealing with the ancient Jedi about four thousand years before the Rebellion only cemented this for me: with Jedi families and scattered ancient Masters.
I remember thinking to myself: why did the Jedi bother to serve the Republic at all? Especially after getting murdered by its predecessor while the galaxy did nothing to save them: even collaborating with the Empire and helping them die? I guess I just started to think to myself: just why did the Jedi need to protect non-Force sensitives or help a galaxy with their powers that almost never did anything for them? Why not rally around their friends and family, and protect themselves as a family?
When it comes down to it, the reason I liked Junior Jedi Knights was because you got to be there, in a way, when the protagonists get trained, when they go on their adventures, and when they actually learn how to use their powers responsibly. Moreover, at least from my perspective, there is sense of friendship and family between the characters. It felt like it was a continuation of the feeling towards the end of Return of the Jedi: of a camaraderie and always going back for your friends even if the dark side seems to have won them over.
I liked Jacen Solo and his genuine interest in learning about the Force and in nature itself. Jaina was a nice tomboy character that didn’t put on the airs that her mother did when Han Solo met her and Anakin was the younger prodigy who almost made up for the first person who had that name: and a symbol of his mother’s forgiveness towards her own father. This isn’t even mentioning Zekk, a former homeless orphan who discovers he has Force potential and gets trained by Luke with the others, only to fall to the dark side but also attains redemption and while his love interest in Jaina may not get reciprocated they never abandon each other as friends. Tahiri seems to be a Force-using member of the Sand People who meets Anakin and then a long-lost Jedi Master named Ikrit, and Tenel Ka is the “straight woman” to Jacen’s bad jokes who nevertheless possesses a tremendous amount of integrity as the heir to the Hapes Consortium. Also, Lowbacca – Chewbacca’s nephew and a Jedi Wookiee – was a bad ass concept.
I will admit that I didn’t like what the following Yuuzhan Vong series did to these characters. I didn’t appreciate Jacen becoming a holier than thou supposedly pacifist Jedi Knight or Jaina having a tremendous sense of entitlement and reducing the dark side to temper tantrum issues. I especially had issues with Anakin’s death and the destruction of the Jedi Praxeum. There was something interesting going on with Matt Stover’s idea of the Force in Traitor and Jacen growing up realizing that there was no light or dark sides of the Force – that this Manichean concept of black and white did not apply to sentient nature – but this was later retconned in the Legacy of the Force series as a heresy that inevitably led Jacen into becoming a Sith Lord in a very tone-deaf manner that was supposed to parallel his grandfather’s fall in the Prequel Trilogy. Jacen also had a secret relationship with Tenel Ka as Queen of Hapes that led to the birth of their daughter Allana that also helped this along. Suffice to say, it became a mess fast. But Luke Skywalker did recreate the Jedi Order and the protagonists of Junior Jedi Knights were relatable and something I looked forward to watching.
And then, 2015 and The Force Awakens happened. Kathleen Kennedy of LucasFilm, with the Lucasfilm Story Group, regulated the original Expanded Universe media into a “Legends” canon and proceeded to make way for a new one based off of the New Trilogy. Jacen, Jaina, and Anakin no longer exist in the main storyline, and neither does Luke Skywalker’s New Jedi Order.
In a lot of ways, I can’t really argue with the decision. After all, it is a little haphazard to deal with three children from the Skywalker bloodline in one movie and their names a little awkward. Even the New Jedi Order itself as it was created in the Jedi Academy trilogy and expanded onward with such members as the Dathomiri witch Kirana Ti, the clones Dorsk 81-83, the old Bespin hermit Streen, the former dark Jedi Kam Solusar, the librarian and lore bard Tionne Solusar, the Corellian Jedi Coran Horn, the former Imperial turned Rebel commando Kyle Katarn, the Mon Calamari healer Cilghal the maverick Kyp Durron and so many others was perhaps even more awkward and unevenly balanced with so many back stories that just wouldn’t fit together or leave room for anything new in a film expansion. It could have, but it would have been a different direction.
But I miss them. I miss reading Jedi Academy in reverse from the library at my grandparents’ house and in the hospital that one time I had tests for why I was losing so much weight when I was twelve or so: for an eating disorder that I did not have. And I miss the mystery and innocence of Junior Jedi Knights when visiting my relatives or just reading at recess. It’s funny how, in missing my old friends from the Old Trilogy, I made new ones and I guess I took it for granted that they would always be there. Of course, I know that they are. The Legends books still exist and the memories I built around them are also still in mind: if no longer a part of my own present reality.
Yet there is something heartbreaking about the premise of The Force Awakens after reading and participating in the Old Expanded Universe. Whereas Luke had to deal with a small number of fallen Jedi from his ranks in the Old EU, in The Force Awakens the Jedi Order was destroyed before it was even reborn by his own nephew. As of right now, we don’t even know who those prospective Jedi used to be, or could have been. Maybe some of them were characters from the old EU and they never got to reach their full potential. And Luke Skywalker isn’t the new Jedi Grandmaster. He might even argue that he’s not even a Jedi Master anymore. His goal to pass on what he had learned ended so catastrophically in a full circle manner: his father having betrayed the Old Order and his sister’s son destroying the new. It is even more devastating when you consider how the Jedi of the Old EU had families and friends, to the point where Luke had been married and eventually had a son. Then you look at The Force Awakens and realize that Luke is living on a planet in what seems to be self-exile: his dreams pretty much destroyed by someone he trusted. Han and Leia don’t have Jacen, Jaina, or Anakin and instead had one son who becomes Kylo Ren and even they don’t stay together.
There are no Junior Jedi Knights anymore in the main canon. If there were any, they are in Clone Wars and Rebels and even their status as living Padawans or Initiates is in flux and more doubt. It’s funny how when I moved past a lot of the Old EU, even when it was still canon, it still hurts – actually hurts – knowing that this much darker universe never experienced those adventures of inspiration, optimism, growth, or exploration. From a certain point of view, it wasn’t just Luke’s dream that got killed on the cutting room floor.
But that is a pessimistic perspective and it’s your focus that determines your reality. The fact is, while all those things might be gone, they aren’t really. The books still exist and there are still young Jedi, fallen Jedi, and Sith characters with which young fans can relate. And we don’t know the details behind the past of The Force Awakens, never mind its future. Rey can continue to develop as a character and perhaps bring that one element back to Luke with which he had always represented: hope. Maybe Luke hasn’t been idle in his exile. We could see more Jedi. They might not be as monastic and supposedly insular as the ones George Lucas made in the Prequels, but that would be an improvement.
And seeing the growth of Kylo Ren will be interesting. You can see that he has been influenced by elements of Legends, along with the other characters. A few of my friends once said that some aspects of Ren remind them of me when I was younger and I want to see if, he too, can grow past that stage in his life and become something far, far more: even if it’s more evil.
Neil Gaiman, in A Game of You, once posited that young boys want secret identities to feel stronger than they actually are – to be someone else – while young girls want secret families of royalty and notability to feel something similar. I think it’s a generalization, and perhaps ones that can be linked to literature such as it is, but it’s interesting to see how both ideas have influenced Star Wars. In the Old Expanded Universe, the Solos became a lineage that they wanted to downplay in order to live somewhat normal lives, and eventually the Prequel Trilogy made the concept of the Chosen One and the unique potency of Anakin Skywalker’s bloodline. But in both, the Jedi were always special and maybe now Rey can be that character who will help carry on Luke’s dream – our dream – and bring back that brotherhood, that sisterhood, that sense of magic to the universe and give us fans of all ages something else to believe in once again.