How Has Our Opinion of Obi Wan Kenobi Evolved?
Jedi Master Obi Wan Kenobi is one of the best-known characters in Star Wars. We first knew him as a wise mentor to Luke Skywalker from an ancient time who became a powerful Force being – an almost legendary figure beyond the scrappy troubles faced by Luke, Han and friends.
But as the decades have passed and Star Wars has grown from three movies to twelve plus multiple TV shows, how we see Obi Wan Kenobi has changed. Much of his early life was revealed in the Prequels and Star Wars: The Clone Wars, with interim details hinted at in Star Wars: Rebels and, of course, now a limited TV series based solely around him.
What was once a distant mystery based on a few cryptic lines uttered with gravitas by Sir Alec Guinness is now a vast canvas of detail brought to life by Ewan McGregor in live-action and James Arnold Taylor in animation. But do we think more highly of Obi Wan, knowing so much more about him?
Obi Wan Kenobi in the Original Trilogy
We first met Obi Wan Kenobi in Star Wars: A New Hope, or simply Star Wars as it was called in 1977. He was a mysterious, elderly man who rescued young Luke Skywalker from a Tusken Raider attack and was then revealed by Princess Leia’s message to be much more than Luke thought. A warrior, a wizard, a… Jedi knight. Wow. But in 1977 none of us really knew what that meant. Kenobi had a mystical weapon called a lightsaber and he had access to mysterious powers through something known as “the Force” – which Luke had clearly never heard of before.
Obi Wan Kenobi played the role as the wise mentor to our young hero, setting Luke on his path and sacrificing himself so that Luke and friends could escape. His ghostly voice guided Luke in the final battle over the Death Star, hinting that he wasn’t really gone.
Through The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi we saw Obi Wan Kenobi several times as a Force ghost, showing up at key moments to guide Luke Skywalker toward his destiny. Obi Wan was an old man, and despite the gravitas of Sir Alec Guinness there was a sense of defeat in the Jedi Master, a sense of loss that was slowly revealed through the trilogy. As an audience we liked Obi Wan, but he was just a supporting character in what was clearly Luke’s story and we really didn’t know much about him.
Was Obi Wan really as wise as we thought?
One of Obi Wan Kenobi’s most controversial moments was in Return of the Jedi when he tried to justify his lies about Luke’s connection to Darth Vader. His infamous line, “Many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view,” has become fodder for endless criticisms of Kenobi and certainly cast him in a darker light than the self-sacrificing old warrior of A New Hope. Now we saw a Kenobi who would lie to the young man he was supposedly guiding toward the Light Side of the Force, a Kenobi who had been unable to stop Darth Vader, and a Kenobi who seemed unable to take responsibility for what he’d done.
There’s no question Obi Wan Kenobi was still a popular character by the end of Return of the Jedi, but his light didn’t shine as bright or as pure as once it had. There was still a lot of mystery in his past and he had clearly made mistakes that he regretted.
Obi Wan Kenobi in the Prequel Trilogy
It wasn’t until the next generation that Star Wars fans were treated to a full exploration of Obi Wan Kenobi as a young man. In Phantom Menace we not only saw the Republic and the Jedi Order at their height, we saw young Obi Wan as a Jedi apprentice (or “Padawan”) to Qui Gon Jinn. Played with gusto by Ewan McGregor, this Obi Wan Kenobi was a brash youth eager for lightsaber combat and dismissive of what he called “pathetic life forms” as he roamed the galaxy, including a slave boy from Tatooine named Anakin Skywalker.
But the arrogance of youth was quickly tempered as Obi Wan Kenobi faced disaster in the form of Sith lord Darth Maul just as war broke out on Naboo. Obi Wan managed to defeat Maul, but not before the Sith lord struck Qui Gon a mortal blow. With his dying breath Qui Gon urged his Jedi apprentice to take Anakin as his own Padawan and to train him as a Jedi.
Grief-stricken, Obi Wan agreed. And the Skywalker Saga got underway.
Was Obi Wan the right master for Anakin Skywalker?
There’s been a lot of discussion over the years about whether or not Obi Wan Kenobi should have been Anakin’s master. Obi Wan was himself still technically a Padawan when he agreed to take on young Skywalker, and while his defeat of Darth Maul certainly proved his worthiness to become a Jedi knight, he was practically a child himself and perhaps not ready to take on such a responsibility.
We don’t have any canon material examining Anakin’s early days in the Jedi Temple, but they probably didn’t offer the boy many fond memories. Unlike other Jedi younglings who were taken from their families as toddlers and knew no other home, Anakin would have arrived at this strange place with a strong sense of who he was and where he came from. He was resistant to authority, impulsive and emotional – and would not have even been able to train with children his age. It was probably a very sad time for Anakin Skywalker.
Given his unique circumstance, and given the possibility that he might indeed be the Chosen One of prophecy as Qui Gon Jinn had insisted, the Jedi Council would have been wise to assign Skywalker to an older Jedi master like Plo Koon, or even Yoda himself.
It’s true that Obi Wan Kenobi matured quickly and became a great Jedi – perhaps even one of the greatest Jedi – but being a knight is different from being a master. There are many scenes where Obi Wan clearly loses patience with Anakin, where he uses sarcasm and even sass as teaching techniques, and where their relationship seems more one of unbalanced equals than master and apprentice. In Revenge of the Sith Obi Wan tells Anakin that he thought of him as a brother: perhaps the galaxy would have been spared its descent into the Dark Side if Obi Wan had possessed the maturity and experience to think of Anakin more like a son.
Obi Wan Kenobi in The Clone Wars
The relationship between Obi Wan and Anakin was explored in much greater detail in the animated series Star Wars: The Clone Wars where Anakin is now a full Jedi knight and has a plucky young Padawan of his own. Obi Wan continues to grow in power and wisdom, but one of his greatest strengths as a Jedi is also one of the reasons why he was perhaps a poor master to Anakin: his absolute dedication to the Jedi Code.
Anakin’s greatest weakness (according to the Jedi) was his proclivity to form emotional attachments. His emotional bond with his apprentice Ahsoka drove him to rash decisions. His bond with his mother Shmi caused him to murder an entire village of Tusken Raiders. And his bond with his wife Padme pushed him into accepting the Dark Side of the Force and becoming Darth Vader. Many Jedi sensed the danger lurking within Anakin’s passionate heart, and perhaps a master with a more balanced perspective might have helped him navigate his feelings more effectively.
Did Obi Wan Kenobi cause Darth Vader?
Obi Wan Kenobi, however, lacked this ability. His dedication to the Jedi Code was admirable, as evidenced by his complex relationship with Mandalorian Duchess Satine Kryze, and we can genuinely say that Kenobi acted with both wisdom and strength as he forged his own emotional path. But his approach was exactly the opposite to what Anakin Skywalker needed. Anakin wasn’t capable of ignoring or suppressing his emotions, but that’s the only way Obi Wan knew how to deal with them.
In one of the most underrated but telling scenes in all of Star Wars, we get a glimpse of just how far apart Obi Wan and Anakin were when it comes to emotions. In Clone Wars Season 6 Episode 6, The Rise of Clovis, Kenobi can tell that Anakin is troubled and he visits him in his room at the Jedi Temple. As the audience we know that Anakin is consumed by jealousy over Padme’s old flame Clovis getting too close to her, but the young Jedi is incapable of admitting this to Obi Wan because he knows that emotion is forbidden. In turn, Obi Wan can’t even bring himself to sit facing Anakin as he tries to talk about emotions, confessing his own feelings for Satine and encouraging his former apprentice to open up.
The entire conversation is clearly uncomfortable for Obi Wan, and we can suspect that this might even be the first time the two men have ever spoken aloud about what they both know to be true. Obi Wan Kenobi is hamstrung by his own rigid adherence to the Jedi Code and can’t find the words or the empathy to help Anakin navigate his emotions.
Anakin’s failure to properly deal with his emotions is the single most important reason why he chose to become Darth Vader. Years of trying to suppress what he saw as his true self no doubt fueled his anger and resentment toward the Jedi Order and made his murderous actions in Order 66 easier to execute.
Obi Wan was many great things, and yet he failed
Obi Wan Kenobi was a great Jedi in that he upheld the Code, he worked tirelessly to uphold freedom and protect the innocent, and throughout the long war he never lost his moral center. There are a lot of things to admire in him, from his fighting and tactical prowess to his charm and sass. Young Kenobi is a dynamic figure at the height of his powers, and yet his character arc is ultimately tragic.
There’s no doubt that Anakin Skywalker was a troubled young man who was, due to his incredible Force abilities, always a potential threat to the Jedi. If Qui Gon Jinn had lived and been his master he might have been steered differently, but because he was guided into adulthood by the brilliant, talented but ultimately limited Obi Wan Kenobi, he chose the dark path. Obi Wan did his very best, but lacking the appropriate skills and perspective he failed.
Obi Wan Kenobi in… Obi Wan Kenobi
It’s a long way from the talented, charismatic and active Obi Wan Kenobi of the Prequels and Clone Wars to “Old Ben” of A New Hope, and for years we’ve wondered what happened to this character between the trilogies.
What a treat, then, to get another look at Obi Wan Kenobi in the Disney limited series named after him. Here we see Obi Wan as a broken man hiding on Tatooine, only too aware that his greatest defeat was not the loss of the Republic but the loss of his best friend Anakin. Telling himself that he’s doing something important by watching over Luke Skywalker, Obi Wan ignores the dark fate befalling the galaxy as the Empire gains power.
Not even the arrival of the Grand Inquisitor and the murder of a fellow Jedi is enough to draw Kenobi out of his depression. It takes Alderaan Senator Bail Organa showing up in person to beg Obi Wan to rescue his daughter Leia for the old Jedi to even consider rejoining the fight.
But the Grand Inquisitor is far from Kenobi’s only threat, and as he desperately tries to reawaken his former skills he faces off against the Inquisitor Third Sister bent on revenge, as well as the dark lord himself, Darth Vader. Vader is obsessed with besting his former master and the dynamic between him and Kenobi is a tip of the hat to the Prequels.
A lot happens in Star Wars: Obi Wan Kenobi and the talented actor Ewan McGregor is joined for six episodes by an amazing cast led by Moses Ingram, Rupert Friend, Indira Varma, O’Shea Jackson Jr, Sung Kang and even Hayden Christensen. The Deborah Chow story is a small scale, intimate examination of one man’s torment and his path toward new hope.
Star Wars has often explored the idea of redemption, but usually in the form of a Sith Lord turning from the darkness and back to the light (think Darth Vader, Asajj Ventress, Kylo Ren, and now Third Sister) – this is the first time we’ve seen one of our heroes undertaking a similar journey.
Obi Wan doesn’t need redemption for evil acts he’s committed, but rather for what he perceives as his own failures. His discovery that Anakin is still alive ignites in him a sudden sense of hope, a chance to undo his greatest defeat and bring his best friend back to the Light Side. It’s hardly a spoiler to reveal that he doesn’t succeed, and Darth Vader continues as a Sith Lord, but the drama is still poignant and Obi Wan’s character journey is a worthwhile one.
Obi Wan Kenobi’s legacy in Star Wars
Obi Wan Kenobi has been part of the Star Wars story since the very beginning and after nearly fifty years he’s been transformed from a secondary character into one of the central figures in the drama. There’s much to like about him, but also some things that have drawn criticism from some fans. He is, in short, a much more complex character than he once was, and I for one think that makes him a better character.
There was certainly something appealing about the wise yet mysterious figure we all met in 1977’s Star Wars, and had Obi Wan Kenobi never become anything else he’d still be an iconic character. The Obi Wan we know now is much more human, much more relatable, and while he may have lost something coming down off his “Force mountain” I think he’s gained so much more.
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