How Star Wars Just Brought New Meaning to the Jedi and Sith

George Lucas drew inspiration from chi for the Force. Now, a new book takes what that means for the "light side and dark side" in a different direction.

Star Wars Ronin
Photo: Lucasfilm

This Star Wars article contains spoilers.

The morality of the Jedi is an oft-debated part of Star Wars lore. Are they divinely appointed arbiters or inept police officers? What is the nature of the Force, and why does it have a light side and a dark side? The new novel Star Wars: Ronin answers these questions in new ways by redefining the Force and the Jedi, and presenting heroes who don’t fit the conventional labels of Jedi or Sith.

Ronin is a reinterpretation of Star Wars — not an alternate universe with a neat explanation like Marvel’s multiverse stories tend to have, but more of a “what if” story. The franchise has done this before (in the comic book series Star Wars Infinities in the early 2000s), but not so much in the novel space.

The book is technically a tie-in to the anime anthology Star Wars: Visions, and its first few chapters even retell the first episode, “The Duel,” but with more backstory for the characters we already know (the mysterious Ronin himself, who wields red lightsabers to defend a town, and the bandit who attacked it) as well as new allies and foes. There’s the Traveler, a mysterious Force-user without a clear alliance at first, and Chie, a member of the Jedi clans who serve Imperial lords. To be sure, allegiances are key here, especially when the characters don’t line up on the Star Wars morality scale how we expect.

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The idea of the Force as inherent light battling against inherent darkness was “one of the first things I [threw] out of the window,” author Emma Mieko Candon tells Den of Geek.

“Light side, dark side, we have constant fan arguments about ‘what does it mean!’ Because the answer is it’s rather ambiguous and there are a lot of ways to interpret it. But also any shades of good and evil did not make sense if we’re bringing it back to a more Japanese context.”

Indeed, Ronin was a chance for Candon to examine the Star Wars universe through the lens of its Japanese roots. How would the Jedi and Sith act if they followed real-life samurai code? How would the characters’ understanding of the Force change?

“We all know the Force is an interpretation of chi [the concept of a vital life force]; that’s its origin. And similarly chi comes from Chinese folklore, beliefs, and religious sensibilities, specifically in Daoism and the way it’s interpreted through a lot of these East Asian and Southeast Asian countries.”

In the novel, Candon describes the Force as “white flare and black current,” but white and black aren’t associated with light and dark.

“In Daoism you have yin and you have yang,” Candon explains. “I was leaning way more into those interpretations of ‘light and dark’ as ‘white and black.’ White is positive energy, it’s really forceful, it’s the sun, it’s masculinity. Yang is that flow, the dark, the moon. There’s all these different ways you can interpret these two energies. They do coexist and balance with each other. In my mind it’s all been so obvious that that’s where the light side and the dark side originally came from, and I just pull it a little closer to where it started.

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“I had that general sense of neither of them are cut off to anybody. Everybody accesses them in different ways. People have different affinities. Because that’s part of the basic concept of what yin and yang mean. I didn’t want to dig too much into it because it is part of people’s practicing religion, and so when I’m bringing it back closer to that I’m also not perfectly representing how Daoism works. This is just an iteration of the idea of the Force that is a closer reflection of its source material.”

Throughout the Star Wars saga, the light and dark sides are presented as opposite poles, too. But rarely are the Jedi and the Sith treated like factions that can coexist. While the Sequel Trilogy touches on the idea of “balance” through “Force dyads” and family lineage, it’s ultimately about the light defeating the dark, and not really about opposite energies existing together. But Candon suggests a different way for the Jedi and Sith to live in Ronin.

“The Jedi are part of the government order and the Sith are rebels which felt more in line with how jidaigeki [Japanese historical dramas] like to tell their stories. They don’t typically like to frame things in terms of good and evil. They’re like ‘everybody here is trying and they’re all miserable.'”

The protagonist, for example, is this novel’s version of a Sith, but he’s not seeking personal power, and has deep and genuine relationships with those around him. Meanwhile, the Jedi operate under noble lords not for any particular moral reason, but more because that is the political structure around which their order is organized — and those lords can be foul or fair. Instead of being lionized, these Jedi clans are simply a training ground for another type of soldier. The Traveler, who left their Jedi lord, takes being called “the worst Jedi I’ve ever met” as a compliment.

The Sith, on the other hand, were a faction of Jedi who rebelled against one of the lords. The Ronin, who founded the faction, refused to take an order he didn’t think was right — an order to kill someone. His refusal led to the beginning of the rebellion that gave birth to the Sith. That’s similar to how Candon says samurai are described in historical dramas: someone “torn between his internal code, his sense of honor, and his realization that his sense of honor is being used to make him hurt people.”

The idea of “the hero who overcomes the darkness” popular in Western media simply didn’t apply to Candon’s desire to bring ideas about the Force and the Jedi back to their source material. “It was delightful to be able to do that because that’s a space I really like to play in and it was also very appropriate to what the project was,” Candon says.

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Other Star Wars books have interrogated what the morality of the Force really is. Shatterpoint questions what relevance light and dark have to a planet constantly at war, while other stories play with the idea of “gray Jedi” outside the Jedi Order (Knights of the Old Republic) or people totally ambivalent to the moral dimension of the Force (Twilight Company). But none tear up the foundations quite like Ronin.

Star Wars: Ronin is out now.