Darth Sidious has returned. Has the dark side managed to achieve immortality?
The opening crawl of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker reveals that Palpatine, perhaps the greatest Sith Lord in a thousand years, has returned. Was he not destroyed by Anakin Skywalker at the end of the old war? Is it not the Jedi, alone, who can achieve eternal life? Has the dark side managed to achieve immortality??
To find out, open the historical holocron to take a look (canon-only, sorry, Legenders, put your EU books down) at what is known about achieving immortality…
Immortality. Eternal life. To be able to affect the course of events in the world without the limitation of death, that all life has, is the ultimate power to wield. In Star Wars: A New Hope, the topic of power is discussed several times. Admiral Motti claims the Death Star to be the ultimate power in the universe. In a touching, teachable moment, Vader reminds him that the Force is even more powerful. The Force is so powerful, that when Vader duels Obi-Wan later in the movie, the old Jedi warns his former apprentice:
“You can’t win, Darth. If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine”
What of Vader? If Obi-Wan had dealt the killing blow, would Vader have become more power than he could imagine?
The answer to this is: no.
It’s never explicitly stated in the films that dark side users cannot live on after death, however, in the original novelization of Star Wars (1976), Ben’s warning is more detailed and the dark side/light side relationship to death is clear:
“If my blade finds its mark, you will cease to exist. But if you cut me down, I will only become more powerful. Heed my words.”
(Note: Even though I just smack talked about Legends, the original Star Wars novelization is in a different category. Ghost written by Alan Dean Foster, it’s the only Star Wars novel with George Lucas as the author, making it canon.)
It’s clear from these two angles of the same moment, that while death is not an obstacle for the Jedi, it’s the end of the road for the dark side. In the prequel trilogy and The Clone Wars animated series, it’s revealed that this ability is a lost art which has only recently been rediscovered by Qui-Gon Jinn and passed on to Yoda, who passed it on the Obi-Wan.
(Note: Somehow, Anakin learned how to do this, but that’s above my pay grade)
Come Closer, I Have Good News
So how did Palpatine, or Darth Sidious, manage to break this rule?
He actually didn’t. This comes from the Jedi and the Sith having very different concepts of what constitutes eternal life and, therefore, ultimate power.
During the opera scene in Revenge of the Sith, Palpatine dangles before Anakin the prospect of staving off death through the power of the dark side.
“The dark side of the Force is a pathway to many abilities some consider to be unnatural”
Anakin, concerned over the possibility of losing Padme, is desperate for this power which only Palpatine can teach him.
In The Empire Strikes Back, as Yoda instructs Luke on the ways of the force, he tells him:
“Luminous beings are we. Not this crude matter.”
Herein lies the differences in approaches. For a Jedi, eternal life is not tied down to the material plane. The mortal coil is shed and the true essence of a living being is opened to abilities never thought possible. Eternal life is just the opposite for the Sith. For it to have any meaning, life must be here on ground. Power must be physical and it must be able to affect the world and its inhabitants physically.
Once Anakin has pledged himself to the dark side, Palpatine back-peddles, tells the newly minted Darth Vader:
“To cheat death is a power only one has achieved but if we work together, I know we can discover the secret.”
Is the “only one” Palpatine refers to himself, or his master Darth Plagueis? The answer is not clear, even when Kylo Ren discovers the Emperor alive on the planet Exegol, Palpatine is barely clinging to life.
Palpatine, through dark science and dark magic, has indeed, cheated death, but at a terrible cost: for the better part of thirty years, he has been a decaying shell. His direct power over the galaxy he once dominated is gone. Only through the intermediary of his creation, Snoke, can he exert himself, his presence unknown to the ranks of the First Order and the wider galaxy itself.
While Palpatine is patient, his patience has its limits. Nothing but the ability to take full and direct control over the galaxy will suffice. To do so, he lures his granddaughter, Rey, the only vessel powerful enough to contain his immense power. It’s through her, that he can return to his former glory.
The Force Will Be With You. Always.
Meanwhile, across the galaxy, the Force ghost of Luke Skywalker is able to communicate with Rey, at will. He is able to raise his X-Wing from the water. Before that, the ghost of Yoda is able to call down lightning. Obi-Wan and Qui-Gonn both communicated with the material plane, affecting the course of galactic events. At the end of all things, Rey is empowered by the spirits of all these Jedi and more as she destroys the Emperor and his existence, once and for all.
Of the two approaches, it is the Jedi path that provides true immortality and power, but it requires the ability to let go of the corporeal and trust that something greater awaits on the other side. In our world, there is a pose in yoga call Shavasana. In the West, it’s known as Corpse Pose, or Final Resting or Relaxation pose. During this pose, the yogi lies down, lets go and practices the moment of death so that when death does finally come, the yogi is at peace and actively crosses over with confidence and joy as opposed to holding onto life out of fear. The Jedi embrace the former and the Sith embrace the latter.
In the end, it’s the willingness to let go of the “crude matter’ that allows for eternal life. Therein lies true power.