One of the most important concepts in the Galaxy Far Far Away is the dark side of the Force. Confusingly, it’s been presented in two seemingly contradictory ways in Canon – a corruption of the Force, but also as a natural side of the Force. In this article I’ll explore how the dark side has been portrayed through the evolution of the franchise. In a future article, I’ll take a look at and speculate about the two conceptions of the dark side.
Once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny, consume you it will. -Yoda, ESB
In the movies, the dark side has been presented both as the representation selfishness and evil, but also a tangible entity. In the Original Trilogy, both Yoda and Obi-Wan warn Luke of the allure of the Dark Side and the consequences of falling to it. At no point is is suggested the Dark Side is an equal or natural side of the Force, but a corruption of it. Those who fell weren’t simply using the Force to their own selfish ends, but slaves to its power. Obi-Wan even (infamously) considered Vader and Anakin to be entirely different people, with the former a corruption of the latter.
The Prequel Trilogy introduced the concept of balance, but made it clear it was the Sith and their adherence to the Dark Side that created the imbalance. Anakin was the Chosen One prophesied to restore balance by destroying the Sith. As we all know, Anakin instead joined the Sith and became Darth Vader, destroying the existing Jedi Order in the process. The trilogy’s depiction of his fall further reinforces the idea the Dark Side isn’t a mere description of one part or side of the Force, but a distinct entity.
Anakin intervenes to stop Mace from killing Palpatine due to his belief that the Sith Lord could help save his wife, Padme, from the death he foresaw. However, despite initial shock and dismay at his part in Mace’s death he joins Sidious and goes on to wipe out the entire Jedi Order without hesitation (including killing children). Later, his actions led to the death of the very person he wanted to save and was maimed in a duel with the man who had been his closest friend. Once Anakin accepted the Dark Side, his entire personality changed.
The Clone Wars
After two trilogies, the relationship of the dark side with the rest of the Force seems clear – it is a corruption and something to be opposed. In fact, the term ‘Light Side’ has never even been uttered onscreen. It’s when we get to the Mortis arc in The Clone Wars things start to get a bit murky. We meet the Daughter, who aligns with the Light, the Son who aligns with the Dark and the Father who maintains balance between them (Mortis is interesting precisely because it’s an allegory for Anakin). In the very first episode:
“It is only here that I can control them. A family in balance. Day with night. Destruction, replaced by creation.“―The Father
This is the first time it’s ever been suggested in something George Lucas had a hand in that the Dark and Light Sides of the Force are equal or need to be balanced. In the next two episodes the Son seeks to destabilize the balance in favor of the Dark Side by corrupting Anakin (the whole arc is basically an allegory for the Chosen One and the Force). The third episode confuses things by going back to treating the dark side as a corruption:
The Father: I held hope that you could resist the dark side. But I see now… there is no going back.
The Son: Father.
[the Father stabs himself]
The Son: No! What have you done? It did not have to be this way.
The Father: Yes, my child, it did. You and I are tied together, and your strength runs through me. This way, I take your power.
The Son: [gasps] Please, don’t die.
The Father: I always knew there was good in you.
At the end of the series, the Yoda arc shows him facing his own dark side. At first he rejects it which only makes it more powerful; it is only when he accepts it as part of him that he is able to overcome it. Again, it’s suggested the dark side is a natural part of the Force. However, the lesson in Yoda’s arc isn’t that one should embrace both the dark and the light in equal amounts, but to recognize the dark part of yourself. To deny it’s existence gives it power.
The Clone Wars also introduced us to the Nightsisters, a Dark Side aligned cult on the planet Dathomir. Dathomir was unique in that it had a physical manifestation of the dark side which the witches harnessed in their ‘magicks’. Yet the most distinguishing feature of the witches was not their unique use of the Force, but their ability to use the dark side and still exist as a communal society in stark contrast to the Sith. As we learn in Dark Disciple, it takes considerable training and discipline on the part of the Nightsisters to avoid losing themselves to the dark side.
While his resurrection was controversial, the show also brought back Maul. His return gave a fascinating look at someone who was never given a choice to join the dark side. Instead, an unquenchable thirst for vengeance was instilled in him and resulted in the destruction of everything he might have cared about. In the end, the dark side didn’t so much consume as break him, as described in a previous article.
While many in the fandom dislike Dark Disciple (which was a novelization of an unaired Clone Wars arc), the story itself gives a very important look at the themes present in the franchise. In the course of the story, Quinlan Vos is tasked with assassinating Count Dooku, something that goes against everything the Jedi represent. Through it, he allies and eventually falls in love with Dooku’s former apprentice, Asajj Ventress. Ventress attempts to teach Vos the Nightsister’s ways, but the allure of the dark side, combined with newly unrepressed emotions, proves too much for the Jedi and he succumbs (with the revelation from Dooku that Ventress had lied about her responsibility for his master’s death). Vos joins the very man he was sent to kill and it is only through the sacrifice of Ventress combined with the strength of their Force bond formed from romantic love that he comes back to the light.
It is not, however, the overall story that is most interesting here, but the detailed depiction of Vos’s experience with the dark side itself. The dark side isn’t presented as a passive aspect of the Force, but a malevolent and active one. Once Vos uses it, it becomes progressively harder and harder to resist its pull until he gives himself to it fully. Once he does, his personality changes dramatically. He abandons any semblance of compassion and joins Dooku, the very man he was supposed to kill.
The result of his turn parallels Anakin’s, as does how they come back to the light – a deep connection to another person. It is only the sacrifice of Ventress, a person he has formed a loving bond with, that proves stronger than the dark side.
The Sequel Trilogy has added some new wrinkles to the presentation of the dark side. The principle antagonist, Kylo Ren, is a man who sought to emulate his grandfather and become a new Darth Vader under the direction of Snoke. He willingly gave himself to the dark side, yet found himself unable to fully do so no matter how hard he tries. This caused intense conflict within him and made him emotionally unstable and unpredictable. Kylo stands as a stark contrast to his grandfather and Quinlan Vos in that he remains relatively in control of himself.
It isn’t until he dispenses with his goal to become his grandfather that he is able to fully embrace the dark side. He replaces it with a commitment to severing all ties from the past in the belief it would give him complete control of his own destiny. The first step being to kill his master, Snoke. After Rey refuses to join with him, he swears to destroy her as well as well as the Resistance (whether he’d actually be able to kill his own mother remains to be seen).
Kylo Ren represents a new take on the dark side. Where his predecessors, such as the Sith and Snoke saw it as a means to control others. Kylo appears to see it as a means to gain total control of himself. Snoke attempted to manipulate him, much as Palpatine manipulated Kylo’s grandfather in order to gain power. However, Kylo took his father’s warning that Snoke would ultimately crush him to heart and realized his master was just another chain. When the opportunity presented itself, he severed it.
What is the Dark Side?
Canon has introduced several new takes on the dark side outside the movies. Philosophies, such as the Lew’elan Tide, don’t believe there is such a thing as the dark side. Rather they see it as simply the trough in a wave and not inherently evil. For them, it is seeking to impose one’s will on the Force at all that is bad.
The entity known as the Bendu attempts to balance both sides of the Force, but does so by avoiding ever taking sides unless directly threatened (or insulted). After the fall of the Empire, a mysterious group known as the Acolytes of the Beyond forms. Apparently led by Palpatine’s former advisers, they’re recruited from alienated youth much like Ben would be years later. They’re beliefs and goals are largely mysterious, but it is clear they believe the Force controls the fates of all and only a person in control of the dark side can free themselves. (Interestingly, they also worship Vader.)
What is the nature of the dark side then? Is it simply another side of the Force or something unnatural? Up until the start of Canon, it would appear to be something wholly unnatural and a corruption. Yet Canon has presented it as both a corruption and just another side of the Force. For every philosophy such as the Tide or the Bendu, we’re given a stark example of it’s corruptive nature, such as the Sith artifact Lando found aboard Palpatine’s yacht which mentally and physically corrupted anyone near it. How can the dark side be natural when we’ve seen how unnatural its affects can be?
A Possible Resolution
I suspect the answer is actually rather simple – the term ‘dark side’ is actually being applied to separate concepts in-universe. There’s the natural ‘side’ of the Force, which is simply part of the normal cycle of life, but also something that shouldn’t be there – a taint or cancer so to speak. The natural state of the Force is comparable to the Taoist concept of Yin and Yang – opposite, yet complementary. At the same time, the ‘taint’ is conceptually analogous to the Christian concept of original sin.
In a followup article, I will examine how this idea explains the seemingly contradictory nature of the dark side as well as explore the origins of the taint, how it’s affected the history of GFFA and how it might pertain to the Sequel Trilogy.