How The Life of Every Major Dark Jedi In the 'Star Wars' Films Follows a Line through 'Inferno's' 9 Rings
Good writers borrow and great writers steal, but the truly best writers are the ones who can do so without anyone noticing. Somehow, this doctrine works best when it includes the writers themselves. Because while I find it hard to believe that Lucas had a copy of The Divine Comedy on his lap while drafting Han Solo as a green-skinned monster with gills, he seems to have stumbled back-asswards into a parallel of Dante’s vision of Hell. By my reckoning, the life of every major Dark Jedi depicted in the seven Star Wars films follows a line through some number of Inferno’s nine rings.
We’ll start with Palpatine, since he’s just about the only saving grace of the prequels. Palpatine starts his path in the circle of Greed; I assume puppeting the Trade Federation would be lucrative in the extreme. However, Dante’s Greed strictly concerns money, whereas we learn early on that Palpatine is greedy for power. Fortunately, he slips pretty comfortably all the way down to Fraud, passing through Anger and Violence and a dash of Heresy. What makes Palpatine such a good villain despite existing in such a bad set of movies is the very fact that we first find him up to his neck in sin, and enjoying it.
In fact, Palpatine’s sins cover most of the ten sorts of Fraud punished in that ring. The worst among these is that he is an archetypal corrupt politician, a hypocrite, an evil counselor to Anakin, and a sower of discord among the Republic. Around this time, he also leads apprentices through their sins. However, Palpatine is a Sith Lord to the end, and thus his path on the Dark Side lands him in Betrayal. I won’t laundry list; suffice to say that Order 66 would put Palpatine within spitting distance of Judas.
We’ll skip Anakin for now, because he takes his time strolling through Hell, and discuss everyone’s favorite unhinged twenty-something: Kylo Ren. Brief flashbacks show that Ren was a wrathful padawan. Furthermore, he was quick to convince his peers to follow his lead, which lands him in Heresy and Fraud - specifically of the evil counselor stripe, which is a common theme with Sith. This culminates with his founding the Knights of Ren, who had better show up in Episode 8, or Abrams is waking up one morning to a Gungan head in his bed. The Heresy angle is played up in his feeling that the Light Side is trying to reclaim him.
Ren falls completely when he betrays his own father Han Solo and kills him and saves the film in the process. As we’ll see with Anakin and Mace Windu, as well as Luke Skywalker later, the first act of Betrayal for a tempted Jedi is often what truly damns them to the Dark Side. For the record, Dante has it that betrayal of family is the tamest of the four types.
Ren affirms his fall in his next scene when he turns right around after killing his father and accuses Finn of betrayal, which, if nothing else, salvages Obi-Wan’s cringeworthy line in Revenge of the Sith that Sith only think in absolutes. Without getting into deep theological waters that I claim no expertise of, you can’t really commit a sin against evil, at least in Dante’s mind. Accordingly, Finn’s “betrayal” of the First Order is a good act. But Ren is blind to this, as much due to his youth as his sin, and thus all betrayal is Betrayal in his mind.
Now finally we come to Anakin Skywalker, a man of constant vice. His long fall to the Dark Side begins in Lust, which puts him at constant odds with the Jedi Code and inevitably leads him to Anger. He stews there before dipping into Heresy, putting the Republic Chancellor above the Jedi Council in terms of authority. His first act of Violence comes when he beheads Dooku. Though this is sticky; Dooku had fallen and was evil, and thus could not be murdered, but he had surrendered, and penance at the tip of a lightsaber is better than none at all. My gut says Dante would side with the latter interpretation.
As Anakin is less a thinker than a do-er, he skips right over Fraud - discounting his lies to the Jedi Council - and lands in Betrayal when he helps assassinate Mace Windu. Anakin slays a benefactor and rises as Darth Vader, and from there flows a whole river of sin. Fittingly, his son Luke would be tempted with a betrayal of benefactors: the Rebel Alliance. Luke is able to resist in part because he had never slipped farther than Anger.
What makes all of these character arcs powerful are these various ways that they harken back to a time when morals were written in stone. All our modern moral advancements haven’t had the time to set up shop in our hearts. The morality in Star Wars works because it obeys simple rules that brook no questioning, a perfect parallel to Dante’s medieval Christian ethics.
Which is why Anakin is not damned the way men like Palpatine are: He manages to repent and destroy Palpatine in the climax of Return of the Jedi. Again, with Dante, you cannot sin against evil. We can buy into his salvation because the ethics at play are simple and concrete. And if dogma chafes you, then consider that every betrayal in Star Wars by a falling Jedi results in worldly gain. Palpatine becomes head of the reforged Empire, Anakin becomes the Emperor’s right hand, and Ren deals a serious morale blow to the Resistance. Had Luke followed his father’s example, he would have gained the same level of power as Anakin did when he became Vader. In throwing Palpatine into the pit, Vader earns nothing in this world but his own death. Yet he also saves his own soul, exhibited in his Force ghost, and thus dies a martyr.
Though if we’re being honest, killing those Younglings probably earned Anakin a long stint in Purgatory.
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