Exile and Return (of the Jedi): Yes, Luke, You Can Make Friends after 30

Cyrus R. K. Patell
6 min readApr 30, 2023
Detail from the 40th Anniversary rerelease of Return of the Jedi.
Return of the Jedi 40th Anniversary Poster (detail). Lucasfilm/Disney

My college roommate and best friend, JK, paid for my ticket to see Return of the Jedi when we saw it on opening day in Boston in 1983. We were in the lovely interregnum between finishing our college requirements and graduating. We’d seen The Empire Strikes Back, the sequel to 1977’s Star Wars, three years earlier at the close of our freshman year, so it seemed only fitting to round out college with Return.

He had to pay for my ticket because of a bet. After I received a “C” in my first term in multivariable calculus (to the shame of my father, a mathematical statistician), I declared to Jonathan that I would still graduate summa cum laude when all was said and done. Harvard’s rules didn’t require GPA perfection to graduate with highest honors, and I’d done the math (as it were). We made a bet over whether I would do it, with the loser paying for the winner’s ticket to the third Star Wars movie.

The first step on the journey from “C” to summa was to reframe my aspirations. Crucially, I decided that, no, it wasn’t worth proving (to myself, to my father?) that I could get an A or A– in the second half of multivariable calculus. Instead, I fulfilled the rest of my quantitative thinking requirement by taking “Astronomy 14,” a course for non-majors that nevertheless had problem sets. As part of the course, I spent a number of delightful nights alone in the campus observatory using the telescope. I still remember the excitement of seeing Jupiter and four of its moons lined up in a row.

This year, it’s our fortieth college reunion, which means it’s also the fortieth anniversary of the release of Return of the Jedi. To celebrate the anniversary, Lucasfilm has put the film back in theaters, and today I am going to see it with another buddy, JT, with whom I became friends unexpectedly in my middle age.

When I think about becoming friends with JT, I often think about that Seinfeld routine about not making friends after you’ve turned 30: “Whatever the group is you’ve got now, that’s who you’re going with. … You’re not interviewing, you’re not looking at any new people, you’re not interested …” (Season 3, Episode 34, “The Boyfriend”).

Closing routine from Seinfeld, “The Boyfriend”

Turns out Jerry was wrong. Or maybe he was right, and Josh was the exception that proves the rule. JT and I met at NYU’s campus in Abu Dhabi through a shared love of the New York Mets, and became even closer friends after he and his family returned to the NYU mothership in New York. We would later discover many more mutual interests, including Star Wars.

One way of thinking about the story of my friendships with JK (who has lived in the Middle East for the past three decades) and JT (whom I met in the Middle East) is to think about the archetype of exile and return. I’m a born and bred New Yorker, lucky enough to have gotten a job thirty years ago at NYU, and after a sojourn of more than a decade in a desert city, I’m now back in New York. Just in time to catch Return of the Jedi with JT and family at the Essex Crossing AMC.

The title for the third Star Wars film was originally intended to be the title with which it was eventually released: Return of the Jedi. But during production the title was changed to Revenge of the Jedi. Producer Howard Kazanjian would later recall: “George came to me and he said, ‘The title of Episode VI is Return of the Jedi.’ And I said, ‘I think it’s a weak title.’ He came back one or two days later and said, ‘We’re calling it Revenge of the Jedi.’”

Original movie poster for the third Star Wars film, originally called “Revenge of the Jedi.”
Early Poster for the Third Star Wars Film. Lucasfilm/Disney.

But five months before the release of the film, despite the fact that considerable publicity had been done using the title Revenge of the Jedi, Lucas changed his mind and returned to the original title. It didn’t matter to Lucas that a toy licenser like Kenner would have to destroy $250,000 worth of packaging. “Philosophically, it’s correct,” Lucas explained to his marketing people. “‘Revenge’ has a ring about it that I think isn’t right for this movie. It’s negative, and Jedi don’t seek revenge. A Jedi Knight can’t understand that as a concept of behavior.”

The title of the third film calls attention to an important fact about the narrative arc that Lucas creates in the original trilogy: over against the logic of tragedy evoked by the climactic scene of The Empire Strikes Back, Lucas superimposes the logic of exile and return, which is commonly associated with the genre of romance in Western literature and which lies at the heart of the monomyth that Joseph Campbell discusses in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, one of Lucas’s primary influences in creating the first Star Wars film. Early in that first film (now officially called Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope), Obi-Wan Kenobi presents Luke with the lightsaber that once belonged to Luke’s father, Anakin, and he describes it as “an elegant weapon for a more civilized day.” What we discover by the end of Empire is that the surviving members of the Jedi Order — Obi-Wan and Yoda — are in self-imposed exile. It turns out, however, to be exile with a purpose, devoted to guarding the seed from which the Jedi Order might once again return.

Exile-and-return narratives tell the story of the making of the hero, while tragedy tells the story of the unmaking of the hero. Often, however, the distinction between them isn’t that hard and fast. The genre to which we assign the story of Anakin Skywalker’s transformation into Darth Vader depends on our point of view. It’s a tragedy as far as most of us are concerned, because it represents a fall into the Dark Side. But Emperor Palpatine would see it precisely the other way around, though that is a perspective that the films don’t really allow their audiences to have. Likewise, for Kylo Ren in the first film of the sequel trilogy, The Force Awakens (2015), the events of the original trilogy represent a tragic arc, in which a great man is defeated, his mission left uncompleted. “I will finish what you started,” Ren says, staring at the burnt remnants of his grandfather’s helmet. In The Rise of Skywalker, however, Kylo corrects his understanding of his grandfather’s arc. In returning himself to his identity as Ben Solo, he does indeed help to finish what his grandfather started: returning balance to the Force. Ben Solo’s story is yet another invocation of exile and return.

I’m not a character in a Star Wars fiction (despite what ChatGPT recently indicated when I was testing it by asking it to write a piece about cosmopolitanism and Star Wars, using the series Andor and quoting the scholar Cyrus Patell), but sometimes I like to think about exile and return as a way of making sense of my own trajectory.

The Empire Strikes Back introduced both the logic of tragedy and the conflict between father and son to the Star Wars story in 1980. I refused to see my 1979 “C” in multivariable calculus as tragic or defining (though I’m not sure my father agreed, since I later found out that he waffled about my grades when work colleagues had asked him how my first semester at college had gone).

I often tell the story of my “C” to students who despair when they receive poor marks despite putting in effort or who fear that a bad grade has doomed their college careers and future prospects.

I tell them: No one is perfect. Redemption is always possible. You can alter your destiny.

And to those of you who are past thirty: you can still make friends.

Portions of this essay are adapted from “Reversal and Recognition, Exile and Return,” the third chapter of my book Lucasfilm: Philosophy, Filmmaking, and the Star Wars Universe (Bloomsbury).

Poster for the 40th Anniversary Rerelease of Return of the Jedi. Lucasfilm/Disney

Cyrus R. K. Patell is Professor of English at New York University. His most recent book is Lucasfilm: Filmmaking, Philosophy, and the Star Wars Universe (Bloomsbury). www.patell.net.



Cyrus R. K. Patell

Professor of English, NYU. Author of LUCASFILM: FILMMAKING, PHILOSOPHY, AND THE STAR WARS UNIVERSE (Bloomsbury 2021). www.patell.net