Sacrifice has always been a key element in Star Wars. Shmi sacrifices the ability to watch her son grow up in order to help him escape slavery. Vader sacrifices his position of power to save his son. Luke sacrifices his freedom to atone for the wrongs he’d done to his sister’s son and to let the Jedi Order end. Leia sacrificed absolutely everything for the galaxy- her marriage, her son, and any hope of a normal existence.
That’s a lot of sacrifice going on.
In the sequel trilogy, there was a need to end the larger conflicts, to wrap up storylines, and to bring the saga to its definitive conclusion. Therefore, the sacrifices made in the final trilogy reflect the larger stakes at hand.
**Spoilers about The Rise of Skywalker below**
After Luke had spent nearly a decade in exile on Ahch-To, he was propelled by Rey (and his allegiance to Leia and her cause) to rejoin the fight. He chose to do this from a distance, however, projecting himself across space to Crait: distracting his nephew so the Resistance could escape the First Order. He knew this act would kill him. He willingly sacrificed his very life for the Resistance, but also for his nephew. Kylo Ren knew that Luke had put the ones he loved and the fight for freedom over his own mortal existence. The best masters not only teach through failure but also by example, and one can surmise that later events might have been influenced by Luke’s fateful actions that day.
Leia used every bit of her Force energy to reach out her son, to stop him from killing Rey and entombing himself irrevocably within the dark side. Though she’d had understandable doubts about her son’s chance at redemption, she fought to keep her hope in him as fiercely as she did in the galaxy’s ability to break free from tyranny. She gave her life to save not only Rey’s life but also her son’s soul. It was an act befitting both of a mother’s unconditional love and our Princess’ courage.
Unconditional love and courage are at the forefront of the last act of sacrifice in the saga. Ben Solo was inches from dying after Palpatine had drained him of most of his life force and then threw him violently off a cliff. Ben climbed up the cliff and limped and dragged himself to Rey. She was dead, and he likely felt her death when it happened. The woman he loved, who had never truly given up on him, who had wanted to take his hand, who had sacrificed her own life to save the galaxy, was dead. A decision had to be made, and quickly. Ben knew that using the last of his life force to save Rey would guarantee his death. She wouldn’t have enough left to save his life in return. His death would be as irrevocable as his descent into darkness nearly was. As he grasped her lifeless body to him, the wheels are clearly turning behind his eyes, and he resolves to give her his life force.
By using his “new powers” to save the one he loved from death, he redeemed himself fully in the eyes of both the Force and Rey. He also redeemed his grandfather’s legacy. When Rey opened her eyes and saw him, truly saw him, she knew that he was in fact Ben Solo again. Their shared smile was one of joy and real affection. Rey finally took his hand. Ben’s hand.
Sacrifice is never easy for those who must make it, nor is it always easy for the recipient (nor the outside observer) who might have wished for easier solutions and an unambiguously happy ending. We might think that the mythological structure has been broken when the hero (or antihero) sacrifices his life, except the purpose of myth is to acquaint us with the realities of life and death and to convince us that finding happiness despite those disparate occurrences is a worthwhile pursuit. Much has been said regarding the link between George Lucas’ admiration of Joseph Campbell and the hero’s myth embedded within Star Wars, and so I shall end with a quote from the latter:
“The happy ending of the fairy tale, the myth, and the divine comedy of the soul is to be read, not as a contradiction, but as a transcendence of the universal tragedy of man. The objective world remains what it was, but because of a shift of emphasis within the subject, is beheld as though transformed. Where formerly life and death contended, now enduring being is made manifest – as indifferent to the accidents of time as water boiling in a pot is to the destiny of a bubble, or as the cosmos to the appearance and disappearance of a galaxy of stars. Tragedy is the shattering of the forms and of our attachment to the forms; comedy, the wild and careless, inexhaustible joy of life invincible.”Excerpt from The Hero with a Thousand Faces, by Joseph Campbell