From the moment Luke ignited his father’s blade, lightsabers have held meaning. Power. Awe. Despite the plethora of lightsabers that now populate the galaxy, they still hold a certain sway over us.
Albeit there are more duels now, thanks to animation, novelizations, etc., then we can count on hands and toes, the cinematic duels hold a special place. They hold meaning. To the story. To us. To the galaxy.
Episode I- Duel of the Fates
An apt name for what is often regarded as the most aesthetically pleasing duel, the fight between Obi-Wan, Qui-Gon, and Darth Maul is the battle that really sets things between the Jedi and Sith into motion.
The beginning of this battle is where the Sith truly announce themselves to the galaxy at large. What better way to do that than a Sith Lord who looks like a literal devil? No longer can the Jedi deny that darkness is growing, nor can the Republic deny that something is wrong. Be damned if they do. (Spoiler alert: they do)
This duel is also personally meaningful for Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker. For the former, he comes perilously close to the dark side, something that he will learn and grow from. As Kenobi continues on his Jedi journey, he is the epitome of what it means to be the Jedi. He is pure light because he walked so close to darkness.
For Anakin, this is duel is a precursor to everything to come. Just like this fight brings upon Qui-Gon’s noble end (see what I did there…), so does it tell of Anakin’s future. Anakin’s life is not going to go as planned. He is not going to save his mother. He is not going to save his wife. He is not going to save the Republic. Instead, he becomes the death he fears. The death of hope, as fate would have it.
Episode II- Galaxy Be Damned
Although probably the weakest of all of the duels, there is still great importance in the clash that takes place between Dooku, Anakin, and Obi-Wan, and later between Yoda and his former apprentice.
For Anakin it shows two of his most important character traits,. Foremost is his passion. Anakin lives by passion, but this is the first time we see it take a really negative turn. Throughout the film, the young Jedi has jumped out of a speeder, confessed his love for a Senator, and found loopholes within his Master’s orders. Those all show his passion to do good and help others, as well as to live a life filled with joy and happiness. That is the good side of his passion. This duel shows the bad side, the dark side if you will. He is brash, arrogant, and believes his own hype. He believes he can do it all on his own, which is why he attacks Dooku before Obi-Wan can even lay out a full plan.
This doesn’t end well for young Skywalker. He loses a limb, is kicked to the curb, and seems to be down for the count. What brings him back, pulls him up, and drives him forward is Obi-Wan. His relationship with Obi-Wan. This is the second important character trait of Anakin. He is driven to action by his relationships with those he cares about. And that never ends well either.
When Yoda joins the fray, the battle takes a turn. Now, instead of being a display of Anakin, it becomes a display of the Jedi vs. the Sith. The Jedi, Yoda, battles the Sith, Dooku, head on, just as the Republic battles the Seperatist head on. This is the flaw in the Jedi. They think they do not rely on the Force for power, yet their actions say otherwise. Solving problems at the end of a lightsaber It won’t be until Return of the Jedi until a Jedi is able to change this. To choose a different way to win.
Episode III- Battle of the Heroes
This could be called the Battle Within the Heroes as much as it can be called the Battle of the Heroes. For both Anakin and his former master, this duel is as much internal as it is external.
The planet burns. Their friendship burns.
The infrastructure is breaking. Anakin’s life is breaking.
Obi-Wan cannot bring himself to finish off Anakin. Anakin cannot bring himself to fully succumb to the dark side.
This is the battle that had to happen to set up everything in the original trilogy. Luke’s story is incomplete without this duel. There is the practical, a la he would not have lived with Owen and Beru (instead staying with Padme on the run from Vader, or being raised as a creature of the dark side) which means his hero’s journey would have had nowhere to start. But more importantly is the subtle emotional links that the Battle of Heroes has with the original trilogy.
Obi-Wan’s love for Anakin is why he cannot kill him, but his love for Luke is what allows him to make a different sacrifice, the sacrifice of himself, for the better of the galaxy. The visceral, personal aspect of this duel is seen once again in the Empire Strikes Back, where Vader has to face off with the only man who means more to him than Obi-Wan, Luke. Then it all comes to a head on the second Death Star, where we see the inverse of the Battle of Heroes (and I don’t just mean with the whole “high ground” situation). Instead of a Jedi trying to kill Anakin to end Darth Vader, you have a Jedi trying to save Anakin by killing Darth Vader.
This battle, this moment, is the pivot point for the entire saga.
Episode III- The Best Day of Sheev’s Life
It would be asinine to ignore the fact that there is something much larger happening in the galaxy than just the struggles of the Skywalkers. The Republic is dying.
No, the Republic is dead. And Sheev Palpatine is having the best day of his life.
Think, for a moment, about the fact that the Sith had been sitting back, plotting, playing the long game, subtly moving the pieces, for hundreds to thousands of years. And who is the “Chosen One” of the dark side, the one who will bring the Force to its knees to bow to his will? Sheev Palpatine.
You really cannot blame the guy for being a little ecstatic.
Predictably, though, the Jedi still had to put in their opinion. Yoda, though wise and a great Jedi, is still unable to see where the Jedi went wrong. Instead of trusting the Force to guide him, he walks in with the sheer will of force, and the Force, throws two royal guards to the side, and initiates the fight. Same mistake, different day. It would take another 30 some years until the Jedi stopped trying to solve things at the end of a lightsaber (well, at least for a moment), and all the way until The Last Jedi until a Jedi, the Jedi, found a way to inspire hope without violence.
Episode IV- Leaving Hope
Twenty years changes a lot, but some things will always stay the same, as evident by the rematch between former friends on the Death Star.
Vader is still a bit arrogant, Obi-Wan is still a full-blooded Jedi. The years have aged the two, yes, but at the core they are the same two men who fought on Mustafar. Except for the wild card up Obi-Wan’s robe: Luke.
Obi-Wan is one of two people living at this time who knows how important Luke is, and he is willing to give everything for it. And therein lies the truest change. Obi-Wan has something to fight for instead of something to fight against, which allows him to make the ultimate sacrifice at the climactic moment. As is the will of the Force.
This is the moment of beginnings and endings. The story of Obi-Wan and Anakin comes to an end, and the story of Luke Skywalker begins. This moment, above the binary sunset or the murder of his family, sets Luke on his journey. It gives him a reason to keep moving forward: Obi-Wan’s death must not be in vain.
Episode V- Duel of the Family
It is the most epic (and misquoted) line in the galaxy, “No, I am your father.”
Suddenly, everything has changed. Luke, who so longed to meet his father, gets to meet him for the first time right after he cuts of his hand. Vader, who wanted to destroy any link to his past as Anakin Skywalker, has one loose thread.
Yet, just as Episode II’s duel showed Anakin’s arrogance, Empire’s duel shows Luke’s heroism. It is his nature. Just as Anakin would have always had to struggle with his inner darkness, Luke has to learn how to focus his heroism and desire to do right. That is the real battle here.
Unfortunately, Luke has to learn this lesson the hard way. He rushes off to save his friends only to see them beat up and torn apart. Then, as he stands up to Satan himself, he learns the most harrowing truth. But still his inner hero prevails. He leaps from Vader into a nothingness, not knowing if he would live or die. For dying would be far better than ever turning to the dark side.
That, ladies and gentlemen, is how a hero is born.
Episode VI- The Duel of Darkness
As the Duel of the Fates was the grand announcement that the dark side was back with a vengeance, the duel between father and son on the second Death Star was the re-establishment of the light side.
Luke has now gone through more trials, yet like his father they have pulled him closer to the darkness. Now he is literally closer to the heart of darkness than ever before, so he must choose which direction he goes.
At first, this doesn’t look like a good thing. While he says, “I won’t fight you, Father,” his actions say something different. He fights. He tries to bring peace at the end of a lightsaber, just like the Jedi of the Clone Wars. He tries to protect the ones he loves by his own strength, just like his father. Things are not looking good for the young Skywalker.
Luke, however, is different than the others before him. He realizes he has to be after he slices of Vader’s arm to see “more machine than man.” That is what Jedi as warriors leads to; Luke has to be something more. Something bigger. Something better.
And so he throws away his blade and truly becomes a Jedi like his father before him.
Episode VII- The Lightsaber in the Snow
Anakin’s (or Luke’s) (or Rey’s) lightsaber is most often compared to Excalibur, the fateful sword at the center of of King Arthur lore, for it marks the hero. In The Force Awakens, this hero is Rey.
Unlike Anakin or Luke, we do not have a full arc for Rey’s story, so any interpretations of her overall journey must be taken with a grain of salt. What we do have, however, is her duel with Kylo Ren.
Let’s set the scene. A snow planet. White. The color of hope and goodness, bastardized by The First Order. A planet. Once a beacon of life, like the Republic, being torn apart by fires within. A man. A patriarchal murder with a penchant for darkness.
A girl. A scavenger. A nobody now finding her place in the galaxy.
Both have something to fight for; for Kylo it is what he sees as his rightful heritage in the stead of Darth Vader. For Rey, her family. Not her blood family (at least not as far as we know), but for her found family, which is arguably far more important.
When all seems lost, and darkness and fire are consuming the world, Excalibur, fate, reaches out to Rey. And as she ignites the lightsaber, she accepts her destiny.
Episode VIII- No One’s Ever Really There
Many have argued that Luke’s characterization in The Last Jedi is not the Luke we all know and love. That he would have rushed off to save his friends. But, honestly, that’s not true.
Luke has always been brash. He decides to become a Jedi because of the anger inside of him after his family’s murder. He rushes off to save his friends despite two Jedi Masters pleading with him not to, and in Return of the Jedi he is meer strikes away from killing the father he always sought, who he had promised not to fight.
In that moment, Luke learns what he cannot be. But that does not necessarily mean he learned what the Jedi could not be. So he once again makes the mistakes of the past by trying to solve the problems of the galaxy at the end of a lightsaber.
In those final moments on Crait, he finally learns that lesson. The character who wanted to learn how to be a Jedi finally fully realizes that “wars not make one great.” He stops the Jedi trying to solve things with violence. Instead, he wins by meditating. That is the Jedi way.
It is no coincidence that Luke projects his blue saber, the one we see in the final moments of the film broken in half. Let the past die. Let the way Jedi used to be stay in the past. The future is bright as the Rey’s of the suns of a desert planet.