The Lies of Obi-Wan Kenobi
14th May 2020
Reading Time: 12 minutes
"So what I told you was true, from a certain point of view."
Can you imagine if someone said this to you in a real conversation, while trying to explain away a lie?
"Well, technically, I didn't sleep at all that night, so when I told you I didn't sleep with them, what I told you was true... from a certain point of view."
Good luck with that. Honest communication requires a good-faith effort to ensure that the other person understands the truth. Trying to weasel out of a lie by appealing to a special interpretation of the wording you used does not prove your honesty; in fact it proves you're untrustworthy. So why does Luke accept this answer in Return of the Jedi? Why do we accept it, as the audience?
As we know from books like The Secret History of Star Wars, The Making of Star Wars, and The Annotated Screenplays, as well as the many other documentaries, histories, and comments on the creation of Star Wars, the Original Trilogy was not meticulously planned out from the beginning. It was not based on an epic novel like Dune. When Lucas wrote the first Star Wars, he didn't yet know that Vader would be Luke's father. So, when it came time to write Return of the Jedi, Lucas and Kasdan had to decide how to handle the discrepancy.
Their solution was the infamous "certain point of view" excuse. I feel that it falls a little flat and fails the story and the characters, but I'll discuss that in another post. If we accept all of the dialogue as it appears in the films, it's hard to escape the conclusion that, for whatever reason, Obi-Wan misled Luke about his father's fate.
Several years ago, I wrote a Facebook post about the questionable character of Obi-Wan Kenobi in the original Star Wars Trilogy, and how that character should have been expanded upon in the prequels. Fixing the Star Wars prequels is still an obsession of mine, and two of the biggest problems with them are a lack of compelling characters and a failure to bring anything new to the story.
Surprise is a critical element in storytelling, especially when the outcome is already known or easily predicted. The story has to stand on its own, and part of that is having something to offer that the audience can't easily foresee, yet which fits in with everything we already know. This idea goes back at least as far as Aristotle's Poetics:
Tragedy is an imitation not only of a complete action, but of events inspiring fear or pity. Such an effect is best produced when the events come on us by surprise; and the effect is heightened when, at the same time, they follow as cause and effect. The tragic wonder will then be greater than if they happened of themselves or by accident; for even coincidences are most striking when they have an air of design.
The only point in fleshing out a backstory like that of Star Wars is because there's something more to tell there, something we don't already know. Since we already knew how the story ended, the surprise couldn't be in how it ended. It had to be, somehow, in the way the characters arrived at that end. The surprise had to be in the journey, not the destination. We needed to see the events we already knew about in a different light.
From a certain point of view.
In looking at the potential for a prequel trilogy, there was a lot of backstory that was only hinted at - Luke and Leia's mother, for example - that were entirely blank slates. Other elements - the Empire, Darth Vader, Obi-Wan - had some definite constraints, but also plenty of gaps to fill in.
Of these, I think Obi-Wan is the most interesting to start with, because if we examine his character carefully, there's a lot there to work with for constructing a younger version of him for the prequels. When we look deeply at his character in the OT, this lie he told to Luke is possibly the most distinctive things he does, so why not build out his character by expanding on that?
Obi-Wan himself is both Luke's and the audience's primary source for most of the backstory, but even aside from that one big lie, he demonstrates a lot of willingness to decieve others. In the cantina scene in A New Hope, for example, he scams Han Solo into taking them to Alderaan by negotiating with money he doesn't have.
Now, Han's a smuggler who works for Jabba the Hutt. He's not bothered by the obviously shady nature of two men in a big hurry to get out of town. But he realizes that these two must be in real trouble, and they don't seem like the local usual suspects, so he tries to find out how much money they've got:
HAN Well, that's the trick, isn't it? And it's going to cost you something extra. Ten thousand in advance.
But Obi-Wan doubles down:
BEN We haven't that much with us. But we could pay you two thousand now, plus fifteen when we reach Alderaan. HAN Seventeen, huh!
When he says this, Obi-Wan doesn't even have the two thousand. A minute later he tells Luke to sell his speeder so they can cover it. As for the other 15k, he's either assuming Bail Organa will pay it when they arrive, or just hoping it'll work out somehow. He's not only making a deal with a pirate for money he doesn't have, he's counting on his ability to talk his way out of any problems this causes.
Another thing is to consider how Obi-Wan uses the Force. I always thought it was telling that it was Obi-Wan, not one of the "bad guys", who introduced us to the Jedi mind trick. In general, it's probably a good idea to be skeptical of anyone who demonstrates the ability and willingness to modify people's thoughts.
In fact, the only other Force abilities Obi-Wan uses in A New Hope are similar mind-affecting ones. When he first appears to save Luke from the Sandpeople, he creates a loud and inhuman sound - perhaps the roar of a Krayt dragon - which scares them off. The script calls it "[a] great howling moan", but the sound design makes it seem like nothing a human could normally create.
After he deactivates the tractor beam, he uses a similar trick to distract some troopers standing nearby, and this time the script more explicitly calls it out:
Ben moves around the tractor beam, watching the stormtroopers as they turn their backs to him. Ben gestures with his hand toward them, as the troops think they hear something in the other hallway. With the help of the Force, Ben deftly slips past the troopers and into the main hallway. SECOND TROOPER What was that? FIRST TROOPER Oh, it's nothing. Don't worry about it.
Not once does he use the telekinetic powers other Jedi are so fond of. Maybe he just prefers not to - or maybe he can't. It might be interesting to consider how it might affect him if his ability to use the Force was fairly weak. Incapable of the kinds of telekinesis and acrobatics that other Jedi could use, he might be forced to get by on his wits. If we wanted to go even deeper, perhaps he harbored some resentment about this, imagining that the other Jedi looked down on him. Or, perhaps he simply preferred these methods to violence, seeing it as more in line with the Jedi ethos.
Either way, the mind tricks fit particularly well with his loose assocation with the truth, reinforcing that aspect of his character. He's not only willing to lie to accomplish his goals, he's willing to use the Force to help him do it. Perhaps he's even particularly skilled at these kinds of tricks, making him some kind of Jedi enchanter and/or illusionist.
A focus on persuading others to help him achieve his goals point to another strong theme for his character - he involves other people in his schemes. True, he wanders off alone to deactivate the tractor beam on the Death Star, but it seems that he knew he would encounter Vader while doing so. He never mentions that he can feel Vader's presence, but the fact that Vader can feel his makes it seem likely. Also, the way he insists on going alone and says goodbye makes it seem like he knows he won't see Luke again.
When Obi-Wan hears the Princess' message asking him for help, he brings Luke along. Why? To train him? After what happened the last time he tried to train a Jedi? What is it that motivates him to try to train Jedi when he's clearly not qualified to do it?
For that matter, what is Obi-Wan himself going to accomplish by joining the Rebellion? By his own admission, he's getting too old for this sort of thing. Has he been in contact with the Organas this whole time? Do they realize he's just been hiding out in the desert this whole time, laying low? From Leia's message, it doesn't seem like it. Maybe they expected he'd have built up some resources by then - it has been twenty-odd years.
Why did Leia even go to Tatooine with the Death Star plans, rather than to a Rebel base? She must have expected that he'd be able to hide them, help them evade the Empire, get the plans back to Yavin secretly. Maybe just the plans, maybe herself, maybe their whole ship. But he had nothing. No base, no ships, no underworld contacts, nothing. Whatever he spent those years doing, it wasn't building an autonomous resistance cell that was ready to spring into action when called on.
Yet, when she asks for help, he goes. He takes Darth Vader's son, cons his way onto a ship expecting someone else to cover the tab, and sets out to save the galaxy. Does he really think that he, alone, is so great that he can shift the balance? Or that he together with Luke can? He may be well-intentioned, in the sense that he wants to defeat the Empire, but his methods are hopelessly unrealistic.
This is the final piece of the Obi-Wan puzzle. He wants to be important, to matter, to contribute to the cause. But he knows, deep down, that he really can't do much on his own. At best, he's someone who can bluff his way through just about any situation, talk others who are more capable into letting him ride their coattails. Which works, until someone finally calls his bluff.
For someone who wants to influence events on a galactic scale, and who believes he never got the chance he deserved, being exiled and ignored would be the most humiliating punishment possible. It would be proof that the other Jedi were right about him after all - he didn't really deserve to be one of them. Vader hunted down and killed all the other Jedi, but Obi-Wan wasn't worth the trouble. It wasn't just that his failures got all the Jedi killed that broke Obi-Wan; it was that he wasn't worthy to die with them.
Obi-Wan must have brooded over this for decades, and however good his intentions originally were (the Empire can certainly be criticized on a number of legitimate issues), Obi-Wan's focus when telling Luke about his father was not about empowering the young man. Instead, he was jumping on an opportunity to get back in the game, using his arch-enemy's son as his meal ticket.
It's even worse when you consider what Obi-Wan did once he was on the Death Star - he sought out a one-on-one duel with Vader, probably knowing he couldn't win. Was his goal simply martyrdom? Or was it his cruelest trick of all, his final revenge - goading Vader into killing him to permanently estrange the man from his son?
So... why did he lie to Luke?
Obi-Wan had decades to think about how his conversation with Luke would go one day, so there's no excusing him by saying he wasn't sure how to explain it all. And he had plenty of alternatives to lying.
It's not a small lie, either. Obi-Wan isn't lying about how long it's been since he brushed his teeth; he's telling a foster kid that his father isn't just dead, but was murdered. And not just murdered, but murdered by a high-profile enforcer of the Galactic Empire who also happens to be Obi-Wan's personal nemesis. It's the kind of lie that could seduce an orphaned youth down the path of terrorist radicalization.
One of the most brilliant things about Empire was how it cemented Luke's relationship with his father as one of the central themes of the series. It's clear from Luke's breakfast conversation with Uncle Owen that he cares a lot about who his father was, and much has been written about how Star Wars is mythology for a fatherless generation. It's a pain point for Luke, one that could be exploited to manipulate him by someone with an agenda.
It's possible that Obi-Wan simply didn't think Luke was ready to hear the whole truth. That seems to have been Yoda's motivation for not telling him:
YODA Unexpected this is, and unfortunate... LUKE Unfortunate that I know the truth? Yoda opens his eyes again and studies the youth. YODA (gathering all his strength) No. Unfortunate that you rushed to face him... that incomplete was your training. Not ready for the burden were you.
If that were Obi-Wan's motivation, it might've been better to just stop at telling Luke that his father was a Jedi, not a navigator on a spice freighter, and leave out the part about Vader murdering him. Even this interpretation isn't a good look for Obi-Wan, though; Luke may be young, but he's clearly an adult. Deciding what he is and isn't ready to know is the very definition of manipulative.
Although Yoda is equally guilty of co-opting Luke to settle his personal grudges, Yoda gets more of a pass because he never actually lies to Luke. It's even plausible that he intended to tell Luke about his father at some point in his training, when he was sure Luke was able to deal with it. But Luke never asks Yoda about his father (at least, not on screen), and unlike Obi-Wan, Yoda never claims to have been personally close to Luke's father.
What then can we say about Obi-Wan that could've been expanded on in the prequels? Far from being a calm, rule-abiding, saber-wielding warrior, prequel Obi-Wan should have been just as cunning and wily as he was in ANH. He should've used charms, illusions, and lies to accomplish his goals, which were good goals but poorly thought out. He's not evil, just tricksy and mischievous...
Maybe even in his younger years, he was always watching, waiting for the opportunity to do something big and finally show them all what he was capable of. Maybe he thought Anakin was that opportunity.
"I thought I could instruct him just as well as Yoda. I was wrong."
Taking on the training of a Jedi seems like serious business. Lots of ways it could go wrong. So why would a young Obi-Wan even attempt it, when there were better and more responsible teachers around? Because his focus wasn't on doing what was best for Anakin, but on what was best for himself. He thought he could show them all that he was just as capable as Yoda of training Jedi. Except, oops, his student went on to hunt down and kill them all. Awkward.
I always pictured the young Vader/Anakin a lot like Poe Dameron in the sequel trilogy - a brash, charismatic hotshot pilot willing to defy authority and do whatever he thought was right. A rebel in search of a cause. The perfect target for a charming rogue on a mission to save the galaxy, who promises to train him as a Jedi when they team up for a series of adventures. A man whose good intentions may lead them all down the path to the Dark Side...
Now we're starting to talk about a character who might be worth telling a story about.