“Why did Obi-Wan let his defenses down when he was fighting Darth Vader?”
Luca, my six-year-old, asked me this at dinner the other night, and it’s been preoccupying me since. The more I think about it, the more important the question seems to understanding the themes of Star Wars. It’s a pivotal moment in the movie, and in the entire original trilogy, with repercussions that reach back to the subsequent prequel trilogy.
One way to talk about it is negatively: what would have happened if Obi Wan hadn’t dropped his defenses? Obi-Wan knows that fighting Darth Vader is unavoidable, thus he has two choices: kill Darth Vader or be killed by Darth Vader. What would happen if Obi-Wan were to kill Darth Vader at this point? Would it change much? No. The Emperor would simply seek out—and, considering his vast resources and power, most likely take—Luke as his new Sith Lord. As it plays out, had Darth Vader been killed, he would not have been there to save Luke from the Emperor when the latter was attempting to kill him with Force lightning.
There is also the fact that the duel plays out in view of the young Luke and is certain to make a deep impression on him. It’s important for Obi-Wan to model the actions of a true Jedi. Killing Darth Vader would convey the idea that fighting to avoid death and killing if necessary are the most important considerations when one is facing an opponent—a conventional idea, but not necessarily one that reflects a deep understanding of the Force.
On the other hand, to be killed by Darth Vader would simply gratify Darth Vader’s anger and hatred, at the same time inspiring anger and the desire for revenge in Luke. It would foster a host of unhelpful emotions.
What Obi-Wan does is find a third way, a synthesis beyond and superior to killing and being killed that is as profound a statement of the series’ themes as we ever get. This consistent theme, fashioned from Taoist philosophy, is weakness as strength and vice versa, and it plays out in both the characterization and actions of the series’ good and bad guys. A totalitarian technocracy, the Empire is the epitome of temporal power. The rebels are continually either running away from the Empire or practicing a form of military Jiu-Jitsu on them. They exploit weaknesses and use the Empire’s power and the massive weight of their centralized, top-down structures against them—tripping up their top-heavy AT-ATs and using their Death Stars’ own massive reactors to blow them up. The plot of Episode IV expresses this theme as a desperately asymmetrical battle pitting the most powerful military force in the galaxy against a ragtag group consisting of an old man, a farm boy, and a wanted criminal, all riding in a broken-down spaceship.
But to understand why Obi-Wan’s letting down of his defenses is pivotal to the themes and plot of the series, we have to go back to the beginning of the story. Why did Senator Palpatine succeed in bringing down the Republic and becoming emperor? How could one man, even a Sith Lord, bring down an entire galactic system watched over by an organized stratum of Jedi guardians? The answer is that the Republic carried the seeds of its own demise already—it was rotten at the core. In Episodes I, II, and III, the Jedi are seen wielding temporal power—commanding armies of Clone Troopers and wholeheartedly engaging in what amounts to a diversion orchestrated by a representative of the Dark Side. It’s evident that this wielding of temporal power is to the detriment of their spiritual power. We see a haughty Jedi Council sitting in state in a literal tower high above the Republic’s seat of power—Coruscant, a city overrun by technology—obsessively counting midichlorians and going home at night to luxury high-rise apartments, out of touch with the people and out of touch with their own Force sensitivity to such a degree that this concentration of the most brilliant Jedi minds can’t even detect a Sith Lord under their very noses. The Republic is bloated, bureaucratic, and technocratic, infested by banking clans and trade federations—not so much a true republic as an empire in embryo.
The Jedi in this first trilogy seem to be part of the problem, not part of the solution. They can barely be roused to interest themselves in Anakin, who appears to be the fulfillment of an important prophecy, and give no real thought to his fate. The Jedi Council’s fatal flaw is that they fail to understand the prophecy. They fail to realize that the way balance is to be brought to the Force is by the total dismantling of a decadent Jedi Order that is no longer serving the will of that Force. This is how Anakin fulfills the prophecy, by destroying the Jedi. He brings not peace but a sword. In fulfilling the prophecy, Anakin himself is destroyed and his spiritual power broken into two complementary halves, embodied in Luke and Leia.
In Episode IV, Yoda and Obi-Wan, disenfranchised, old, and living in obscurity, seem to have relearned humility and regained wisdom1. The first time Obi-Wan confronted a Sith Lord, he killed him in anger after witnessing the killing of his master, Qui-Gon Jinn. There followed a series of misadventures culminating in his nearly killing his own padawan. The Obi-Wan who squares off against Darth Vader is not the same person. He’s a man who can distinguish what’s important from what’s not. Yes, he is fighting Darth Vader, but fighting is almost incidental to his true purposes. First, he is buying Luke and the others time to escape. Second, he knows that he can’t escape fighting Darth Vader because they are on his turf and it is his will. Third, because he is aware that Luke will be a witness to the fight, he is taking the opportunity to impart an important lesson, laying the groundwork for his training with Yoda, and this is the theme that reverberates throughout the original trilogy and makes sense of the confusion of the first trilogy: in confronting temporal power, one should not attack it with more power, but instead retreat into the greater, spiritual power of the Force. Put your blast shield down, switch off your targeting computer. When Obi Wan says “I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine,” he’s not saying that he’ll morph into some uberpowerful demigod; he’s saying that, in death, he will cease to be an individual expression of the Force and become pure Force—his will and that of the universe will become one.
He is imparting a similar lesson to Darth/Anakin, reminding him of the superiority of spiritual power to temporal power, of weakness to strength. Had Obi-Wan clung fiercely to life, as is the way of the dark side, and fought, he would have likely died a painful and unnatural death at the hands of his pupil. Because he “let go” (Obi-Wan’s frequent postmortem exhortation to Luke, along with “run”) of life (and here it’s important to remember that he wasn’t really killed by Darth Vader; rather, he seems to have effected some kind of willed exit from temporal existence into the realm of the Force) he avoided that fate and gained magnified, eternal life. Is it possible he was intentionally laying the groundwork for Darth Vader’s conversion at the end of Episode V?
Psychologically, every child has to symbolically kill his parent in order to mature; myths and fairy tales all tell us this. The product of a virgin birth, Anakin has no father, but Obi-Wan is undoubtedly a father figure to him. Anakin’s growth as a person stopped at the moment he lost his first battle with Obi-Wan on Mustafar; Darth Vader is the personification of Anakin’s arrested development, symbolizing not only his being locked in a moment of fear and anger, but also the trauma of being nearly killed by his “father.” Mythologically, it is the role of the parent to be killed, not to kill; Zeus kills Kronos, not the other way around. Is it possible that Obi Wan understood this and thus allowed himself to be “killed” to make it possible for Anakin to move past that trauma?
Luke indirectly kills his father when he requires his help to survive the Emperor’s attempt to kill him. Luke gives his father the opportunity to sacrifice himself for the life of his son—the natural role of a parent. In thus dying—literally, but also figuratively to his role as Darth Vader—he is reborn to a mature acceptance of life and understanding of the Force.
The problem with the incongruous protagonists of Episode IV—Luke and Han—is that they know of no other way to fight power than with power (“Bring ’em on, I’d prefer a straight fight to all this sneaking around.”). To find a more workable way of dealing with antagonistic power, they have to rescue a princess with a map to the Death Star’s vulnerability—in other words, regain their feminine principle, with its knowledge of weakness2. This “strong weakness,” dramatically exemplified by Obi-Wan’s dropping of defenses, sets the pattern of action by the series’ protagonists, culminating in Luke’s courageous, and successful, pacifism in his confrontation with the Emperor and his redemption of his own father.
Anyway, that’s what I think. Luca says I’m full of BS. That kid kills me.
1 When Yoda says to Luke, “Wars not make one great,” he’s not just being cute, he’s speaking from experience as a veteran of the humiliating and pointless Clone Wars.
2 Standard disclaimer RE essentialist characterizations of women vs. men, etc.