There is one common, universal, undeniable connection that all of humanity, regardless of color, creed, or any other label we use to separate ourselves. We want our lives to matter. We want to leave a legacy, not just a headstone. Fortunately, there is one surefire way to make sure your legacy lives forever. Become a martyr. While Star Wars is full of martyrs, from Galen Erso all the way up the ranks to one Luke Skywalker, martyrs come in all shapes and sizes. So, what makes a martyr? What validates that one did not simply die, but to do so in a way that impacts people, whether that scale be large or small.
As points of reference, let’s look to the two simplest examples present in Star Wars. First, Anakin Skywalker. Anakin gives his life not to save the galaxy, but to save his son. That selfless act, however, has galactic affects. His son, Luke, becomes a martyr some years later on Crait. While Luke was there to apologize to the student he failed, he had to know this story would spread. He’s Luke Skywalker. A legend. Moreover, he knows that stories of his power and prowess are told throughout the galaxy, as shown in The Legends of Luke Skywalker.
Going simply off this data set, it seems that a martyr must do two things. First, the focus must not be becoming a martyr; to do so would invalidate the message of the act. Anakin Skywalker circa Clone Wars revels in the fact that people know his name. If his redemptive act was aimed at restoring that name, the message is non-existent. Secondly, one must be aware that his or her actions will have an impact on the larger narrative of the galaxy. Luke acted in such a way, while importantly maintaining the selflessness modeled by his father before him.
With those standards in mind, let’s explore the bookend acts of martyrdom of the Star Wars films, per release order, that of Ben Kenobi and Ben Solo.
Kenobi’s sacrifice set the standard for Star Wars, and had an impact on what happened both in universe and with regards to future Star Wars storytelling. For the purpose of looking at the establishment of martyrdom in Star Wars, let’s focus on the in-universe impact, particularly on the people who witnessed the act: Vader/Anakin, Luke, Leia, and Han Solo.
With the context of the prequels and Clone Wars, the real narrative of the duel between Kenobi and Vader has shifted from teaching Luke to resolving the issues between the two. For Kenobi this resolves the selflessness requirement twofold. As it regards Anakin, he is allowing Vader to “strike him down” while simultaneously showing him how futile the action is. For Luke, obviously, he is teaching the most important lesson of the Force, that it is more powerful than one can possibly imagine.
Canon has yet to provide insight on what the galaxy does or doesn’t know about Kenobi’s sacrifice, therefore the second requirement can be a bit tricky. Kenobi was certainly aware that any action taken by a Jedi has ripple effects, as he saw time and again throughout the Clone War. Nonetheless, when considering the characters that witnessed his sacrifice, we can see that it changed everything.
For Vader it was a lesson in humility, one he would reflect later in giving his life to save Luke. On that note, it also shows him that there really is something beyond “this crude matter” and its limitations. After having spent 19 years quivering at the feet of Palpatine in the vain effort to learn how to cheat death, here it gets recontextualized. This circle is completed when he reflects his former Master’s action in Return of the Jedi.
To Luke this sacrifice opens a world of possibilities as it regards the Force and the Jedi. Just like Vader will allude to Kenobi’s actions on the second Death Star, Luke will on Crait. Leia is impacted enough by the selflessness of Kenobi to name her only child after a man she never met. In Rise of Skywalker, she connects with said son as he battles on a Death Star in order to give her life to him, showing Ben Solo that there is more to the Force than he knows.
Prior to her giving her life for her son, Han does so in The Force Awakens, albeit, knowing Han, he likely isn’t considering how similar his martyrdom is to that “crazy old wizard.” Which is a great segway into discussing….
While Han isn’t conscious of the connection between his and Kenobi’s sacrifice, the visual language of Rise of Skywalker makes it pretty clear that Ben Solo’s is connected to his father.
Even down to the last moments of their lives, as they place a loving hand on one they thought dead.
However, while Ben Solo’s sacrifice is of great import, can he be considered a martyr? The act is selfless without a shadow of a doubt, possibly even more selfless (which is a very ironic thing to write) than Kenobi’s. Kenobi gave his life with the intention of teaching, sure, but he was also buying time for the heroes. When Ben Solo gives his life the fight is already over. Palpatine’s dead(?). The Resistance won. He has absolutely nothing to gain. But he still gives his life to Rey because he loves her, be it romantic or not. Plus, unlike Ben Kenobi, there’s no one around to spread the story. It’s just them, and only one of them lives to even tell the tale if she decides to.
As was the case with Kenobi, it is the second stipulation, understanding that the act of martyrdom will be a story spread throughout the galaxy, that is the real qualifier. Also as it was with Kenobi, the context of life experience is critical. Ben Solo grew up around legends. He saw the impact and influence the stories of his family had first hand. In fact, not being able to escape that is part of the reason he turns to the dark side. If anyone can understand legend, it’s him. One also has to imagine that Han and Leia told him the story of his namesake, and thus he knows what being a martyr looks like. Put the cherry on top that one of the legends he grew up around was Luke Skywalker and you have the hat trick of what it means to be legend, martyr, and Jedi (all three of which it can be argued he became in the end, but that’s a meta for another day).
Ben knows how the story of Rey will spread across the galaxy. The hero that stood down Palpatine, who literally cheated death, and brought him to his real (?) end. It’s like taking the legends they told of Luke Skywalker and giving it emotional steroids. Herein we see yet another connection between the martyr Bens. It is not their story that it’s about, but rather those for whom they give their lives.
Perhaps that in and of itself defines what it means to be a martyr in Star Wars. It’s not simply caring for someone and then dying, nor is it just knowing the story will spread. Instead, it is to know that those for whom you are dying can bring more to the galaxy than you can. That the story isn’t about you, but about them.
And, really, isn’t that the story of Star Wars anyway?