If you don't know who Luke Skywalker is, then you must have been living under a rock for the last fifty years.
However, for all you rock people: a) welcome outside; the weather's great and b) we'll give you the lowdown of everyone's favorite Tatooine farm-boy-turned-Jedi.
Luke Skywalker is the protagonist of Star Wars. You might be a Han fan or a Leia lover, but Luke is the hero—no argument. He was based on the cinema's earlier adventure heroes, daring-doers such as Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon. Luke is young, inexperienced, and a bit impatient, but when push comes to shove, he's got the moxie and bravery to fight the largest military force in the galaxy: the evil Empire.
One of a Thousand Faces
Don't think for a moment that Lucas just happened upon the idea of a young hero named Luke. Nope. He did some serious research.
While drafting Star Wars, George Lucas researched the works of Joseph Campbell. Specifically, Lucas read Campbell's The Hero of a Thousand Faces and even corresponded with Campbell about his ideas.
Campbell's idea—which was influenced by Carl Jung's conception of archetypes and Sigmund Freud's idea of the subconscious—was that all of the heroic myths, spread across time and throughout culture, shared a single core structure.
He called this core the monomyth —mono - as in "one" or "singular" and myth as in, well, myth. Think of it this way: every myth starts out using the same script but then different cultures act like film directors and production teams and put their own stylistic and visual spin on the telling.
It took Campbell an entire book to lay out his theory, but for our purposes here, we can use the handy-dandy summary of the hero's monomyth he provided in the third chapter:
A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder (x): fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won (y): the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man (z).
Sound familiar? Yep, it's Luke's story. He lives in the "common day" world of a Tatooine moisture farm. Here, he does chores, has family dinners, and squabbles with Uncle Owen. Yawn.
After his uncle and aunt's death, he is thrust into "a region of supernatural wonder" with aliens, space ships, adventure, and a magical energy "force" called… the Force. He has fabulous encounters, gains skills and equipment, and fights the forces of evil in a "decisive victory" that sees the Death Star destroyed. He returns from his adventure a hero in the Rebel alliance. As for those "bestowed boons," well, the Rebel alliance gets to not die by planetary explosion. Seems a pretty kick-butt boon.
(Of course, you can expand Luke's hero's journey to include the entire Star Wars trilogy with Luke's quest ending in the defeat of the Emperor and his attaining the title of Jedi knight.)
A Portrait of the Jedi As A Young Man
At the film's outset, Luke is a young man who must grow into adulthood. His youth is evident not only in his boyish looks but his first bit of spoken dialogue:
OWEN: Luke! Take these two over to the garage, will you? I want them cleaned up before dinner.
LUKE: But I was going into Tosche Station to pick up some power converters.
OWN: You can waste time with your friends when your chores are done. Now come on. Get to it.
LUKE: All right. Come on.
Just listen to the way Luke says those lines. So much whine. We can instantly tell that this is a person who needs to grow up because power converters can't be that important. It's just a fancy name for batteries, right?
Like any normal young guy, Luke has hopes and dreams for the future, but his inexperience and lack of worldly knowledge make him feel powerless. As he tells Obi-Wan:
OBI-WAN: I need your help, Luke. She needs your help. I'm getting too old for this sort of thing.
LUKE: I can't get involved. I've got work to do. It's not that I like the Empire. I hate it, but there's nothing I can do about it right now. It's all such a long way from here.
OBI-WAN: That's your uncle talking.
Luke's feelings of powerlessness and a false belief in his inability to effect change are pronounced here. He doesn't think he can effect any change given his position in the universe, and as Obi-Wan points out, he is following the path laid out for him by his yawn-worthy uncle.
Luke doesn't (yet) have a sense of self-motivation—or, at least, not one powerful enough to stand up to his uncle and decide his own path in life. One of the major differences between a juvenile and adult mindset is making your own decisions… and Luke is clearly stuck in the juvenile "Oh, no! Decisions are scary!" mindset.
This, of course, will change as the story progresses.
The Blank Slate
There's one major advantage to Luke's youthful inexperience. Not for Luke, obviously, but for the audience. Mark Hamill notes:
"The character of Luke Skywalker is the one sounding board you have, and like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz or Jim Hawkins in Treasure Island, there's that one character that people look to see the reactions to everything else. He's very simple, very naïve, very straightforward."
Dorothy needs Glenda to explain how Oz works, because it's insane (especially compared to boring ol' Kansas). Jim needs someone to explain life aboard a ship because he lacks worldly know-how.
Like these characters, Luke finds himself in a strange world when he ventures beyond the moisture farm and he has to have it explained to him in user-friendly terms. Take this scene when Obi-Wan hands Luke his father's lightsaber:
LUKE: What is it?
OBI-WAN: It's your father's lightsaber. This is the weapon of a Jedi knight. Not as clumsy or random as a blaster. An elegant weapon for a more civilized age. For over a thousand generations, the Jedi knights were the guardians of peace and justice in the old Republic. Before the dark times. Before the Empire.
This scene is as useful for us as it is for Luke. After all, no one had even heard of a lightsaber before 1977. Later in the same scene, Obi-Wan will explain the Force to Luke. And, by the time Luke says, "I want to learn the ways of the Force and become a Jedi like my father," we've been given the details and have a sense of what that sentence means.
Thanks for being so naïve, Luke.
As the movie progresses, Luke grows and begins to find his place in the world. First, Obi-Wan trains his young padawan:
OBI-WAN: Remember, a Jedi can feel the Force flowing through him.
LUKE: You mean it controls your actions?
OBI-WAN: Partially, but it also obeys your commands.
OBI-WAN: I suggest you try it again, Luke. This time, let go your conscious self and act on instinct.
LUKE: With the blast shield down, I can't even see. How am I supposed to fight?
OBI-WAN: Your eyes can deceive you. Don't trust them. Stretch out with your feelings.
Through this training Luke learns about the Force and how to control it. As we would expect from a novice, he has to fail a few times before becoming any good at it. This Luke is still a student; he's a boy just trying to figure things out.
When we get to the Death Star, Obi-Wan goes on his own to shut off the tractor beam's power control, leaving Luke behind. For the first time in the story, Luke's left without an authority figure to tell him what to do. When he decides to hatch a plan to break Princess Leia out of jail, Luke's acting on his own and taking charge of his decisions for the first time in the film. Get 'em, Luke.
During the Death Star escape, Luke grows and learns through his experiences rather than from a teacher. He learns about the odds the Rebels face, he learns he has the strength to stand up to the Empire, and he discovers that garbage chutes do not make the best escape routes.
When Obi-Wan dies (sob!), Luke has to continue drawing lessons from his experiences rather than falling back into the student-mode he operated in when Obi-Wan was still alive and kicking.
Luke eventually takes the lead of the final trench run to destroy the Death Star. As he plummets through the trench, he turns on his targeting computer—as every other pilot has before him—but hears Obi-Wan's voice:
OBI-WAN: Use the Force, Luke. Let go, Luke.
DARTH VADER: The Force is strong with this one.
OBI-WAN: Luke, trust me.
REBEL: His computer's off. Luke, you switched off your targeting computer! What's wrong?
LUKE: Nothing. I'm all right.
Mirroring the training scene from earlier, Obi-Wan "tells" Luke to trust his instincts. It's unclear whether Obi-Wan is actually speaking, or if Luke just remembers his guidance. Noting this scene in his analysis of the film, James F. Iaccion says,
For Luke, to recognize Ben's presence and, most important, to act upon it suggests that he has found the inner "parental" strength to continue. No longer does Luke feel abandoned or alone; now he has his space-father to help him become a true Jedi knight.
No longer a student, Luke must use what he's learned to overcome the situation. By doing so, he destroys the Death Star and saves the days for the Rebels. The final scene shows Luke—like the hero of a thousand faces before him—returning to the Rebellion triumphant. He's grown through his adventures, and he's found the place in the world he so desperately wanted.