One of the very interesting aspects of The Rise of Skywalker novelization, written by Rae Carson, was how it explained further Palpatine’s return.
I’ll be writing about this more in-depth soon, but today I want to focus on this aspect of it: Darth Plagueis’s secret to immortality was finally revealed!
But first, let me ask you… did you ever hear the tragedy of Darth Plagueis the Wise?
The story is told by Chancellor Sheev Palpatine to Anakin Skywalker at the opera in Revenge of the Sith. Palpatine, having long operated in the shadows, was in the end game of his plan, and shared with Skywalker that Darth Plagueis the Wise was so powerful that he could keep people from dying… but not himself. He taught his apprentice all he knew, but then his apprentice killed him in his sleep. Though not revealed right at that moment, Palpatine – Darth Sidious – was the apprentice. And the story proved pivotal in turning Skywalker to the dark side, in an effort to save Padmé.
Notably, J.J. Abrams has stated that the opera scene is his favorite from the prequels, and one of the very first lines we hear from Palpatine in The Rise of Skywalker is a quote from that scene: “The dark side of the Force is a pathway to many abilities some consider to be unnatural.” But it turns out that the connections to that scene go far deeper, as the novelization explains.
The first mention of this in the book is actually about what Luke Skywalker thought about it! When the Resistance learns of Sheev’s return and holds their briefing meeting on Ajan Kloss, Beaumont Kin mutters something about dark science, cloning, etc. Rey believed Beaumont’s assessment of things, but she also realized Luke had made notes about this in the records left behind with the Jedi texts. Here’s what we read:
“Besides, Luke’s notes had mentioned that Sheev Palpatine had been obsessed with the idea of living forever. He’d claimed to Anakin that he’d discovered the secret of eternal life from his own master, Darth Plagueis, right before betraying and killing him. Luke had assumed it was a lie, meant to tempt Anakin to the dark side. But what if there was truth to it?” (49-50)
I think it’s fascinating to think about how Luke would have understood the stories he learned about the Jedi. We are of course familiar with things because we got to watch the movies, but Luke didn’t. So he learned all of these things in his explorations and adventures, including the story told to his father by Palpatine. It’s very interesting to think about how Luke assumed it was a lie, and it makes sense that he did! As far as he knew (and as far as we know, too) Sith can’t live on after death, at least not like Jedi can. Additionally, the dark side is selfish and deceptive, so of course Palpatine would lie (or at least stretch the truth) to try to serve his purposes.
Maybe some of us wondered if Plagueis was lying too… but the book later gives insight into how Palpatine stole his secret and used it to return. As Rey approaches Palpatine on Exegol near the end of the book, egged on by her grandfather to strike him down and take the throne, Rey was able to see Palpatine’s thoughts and had a vision of what had happened to the Sith Lord. And here’s what we read that is pertinent to Plagueis:
“[Palpatine’s] very own apprentice had turned against him, the way he himself had turned against Plagueis… whose secret to immortality he had stolen. Plagueis had not acted fast enough in his own moment of death. But Sidious, sensing the flickering light in his apprentice, had been ready for years. So the falling, dying Emperor called on all the dark power of the Force to thrust his consciousness far, far away, to a secret place he had been preparing. … The transfer was imperfect, and the cloned body wasn’t enough. Perhaps Plagueis was having the last laugh after all. Maybe his secret remained secret. Because Palpatine was trapped in a broken, dying form.” (219-220)
It sounds, then, like this was probably Plagueis’s secret too. Palaptine stole his plan, which seemingly goes like this: create a clone body that you can cast your spirit to right before dying. Plagueis, however, he didn’t do this in time. He was apparently surprised by his apprentice, whereas Palpatine anticipated Vader’s turn. But even Palpatine didn’t do this perfectly, since something was screwed up in the transfer process and his spirit wound up trapped in a broken clone body.
So, at risk of reading too much into this, I think there’s three interesting things we learned about the tale of Darth Plagueis.
- Luke assumed it was a lie. Luke learned about the story of Darth Plagueis the Wise and recorded it (which is how Rey learned about it), but Luke assumed that Palpatine had been lying about it as an effort to lure Anakin Skywalker to the dark side. A very plausible theory, and it makes sense.
- Plagueis’s secret likely involved transferring his spirit. This one isn’t explicitly confirmed, but it seems to be implied by a couple of statements: (a) that Palpatine stole his secret, and (b) that Plagueis was too slow. Basically, then, this implies that Plagueis’s secret to immortality was to develop a clone to which he could cast his spirit, but this obviously requires enough time to perform such an act… time that Plagueis apparently didn’t have before he died at the hands of Sidious.
- Palpatine stole that secret… but executed it imperfectly. So Palpatine wasn’t lying when he said that Plagueis found the ability to cheat death (even that wording of “cheat” has added meaning now), but it is precise and risky. Plagueis couldn’t do it in time, but Palpatine did. Due to the complexity of it, however, he wound up trapped in a broken body for many years.