I Have the High Ground: The Stoicism of Obi-Wan Kenobi in Revenge of the Sith

When it comes to choosing a favorite Star Wars character, one can sense a great disturbance in the Force. Six theatrically released live action films, combined with innumerable books, video games, television shows, and various other media, have filled the franchise with dozens of memorable personalities that would leave even the most casual fan listing personal standouts.[1] Do you choose Han Solo, the lovable rogue who’s “too cool for school” mentality was softened when the Galactic Civil War forced him to play nice with principled idealists he would have previously laughed off? What about Yoda, the pint sized, backwards talking Jedi master whose wise knowledge of the Force delivers as much enlightenment to the audience as it does to the characters on screen?[2] Maybe you’ll dig a bit deeper into the Expanded Universe[3] and choose Mara Jade, a former “Emperor’s Hand” to Palpatine who broke her connection with the Dark Side, fought on the side of the New Republic, and eventually married Luke Skywalker? How about you just try to humor yourself and those around you and go with Admiral Ackbar, the legendary Rebel Alliance commander who resembles an upright amphibian that famously exalted “It’s a trap!”[4] Perhaps you want to be the ultimate contrarian and proclaim Jar Jar Binks the greatest Star Wars character of all time.[5] As I said earlier, there’s something for everyone to love in the Star Wars saga.

After much deliberation, I have decided that Obi-Wan Kenobi is my answer for this galaxy-spanning question. The late, great Alec Guinness first donned the stately Jedi robes in the original trilogy, with Ewan McGregor portraying an earlier, wet behind the ears version of the Jedi Knight in the prequel trilogy. Kenobi is one of only four characters (including Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader, C-3PO, and R2-D2) to appear in all six films, making him a reliable mainstay throughout the series. Obi-Wan may lack the easily recognizable iconography that sets Vader and the pair of droids apart but his role in the space opera is no less important. Kenobi’s maturation from Jedi apprentice, to knight, followed by master, and culminating in his spiritual form as a specter of the Force is among the most comprehensive evolutions the franchise has yet to see.[6]

Revenge of the Sith, the last film of the prequel trilogy, represents a transitional period of sorts for Kenobi. The Clone Wars are in their final days but the Republic is far from safe. Growing distrust between the Jedi and Chancellor Palpatine forces the characters we’ve grown familiar with over the course of the three films to choose a side. Padme Amidala, former queen of Naboo turned senator, believes in the battle to defeat the Separatists, the Republic’s long held code of ethics were abandoned in favor of expedient victory. Meanwhile, Anakin (her secret husband) sees the Clone Wars as a necessary progression of events that will allow the Republic to reassert its place in the galaxy. Lost in his own quandary is Obi-Wan, a classical Jedi who himself wanders the extent to which the Clone Wars have changed the Order and their role in the universe. All three of our leads aspire for peace but lack the consensus to make it possible. Tragically, it’s only Palpatine that can see all the chess moves in play and manipulate them to his own evil ends.

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All four of these power players come from distinct backgrounds that directly inform who they are and how they think. It’s important to remember that since his infancy, the only world Obi-Wan has known is one within the Jedi Order. We first see him in The Phantom Menace as Qui-Gon Jinn’s apprentice, setting him roughly at the same age as Anakin in Attack of the Clones. But instead of grappling with the inherent immaturity that a late blooming Jedi like Anakin exhibits, Obi-Wan must play the surprising role of conservative to Qui-Gon’s more brazen style of knighthood. Kenobi rebuffs his master’s desires to take on Anakin as a padawan, a move that dually showcases the padawan’s knowledge of Jedi protocol and marks a touch of jealousy to Qui-Gon’s interest in Anakin. But after Qui-Gon’s defeat at the hands of Darth Maul, Obi-Wan fulfills his dying master’s wish by taking on Anakin as his padawan. This move of responsibility separates him quite starkly from other young, male leads of the franchise (Anakin, Luke, and Han). Where they see their circumstances as one’s of bondage that demand immediate escape Obi-Wan sees an opportunity of enlightenment: a test of one’s humility in the face of seemingly impractical ethics.

Kenobi defends his former apprentice to his fellow Jedi council members when Anakin’s loyalty to the Order comes into question. He reminds them of the ancient prophecy that contends that Skywalker’s abilities could bring about “balance in the Force.” Again, Obi-Wan’s concentration on the long game makes him a model member of his fraternity. Even his skill in battle proves to be key determinants to his naturalistic approach to life. Unlike Anakin (who takes great pleasure in flying), Kenobi shows great reluctance inside the cockpit in Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. The random, chaotic nature of space battles leaves the normally cool and collected Jedi master at his wit’s end. Additionally, his pairing against General Grievous on Utapau further distinguishes him from the cold, mechanical disposition of the Separatist leader. While Grievous brags about fighting with the lightsabers of Jedi he’s slain, Obi-Wan is able to hold him off with only his own single lightsaber. The duel eventually gives way to a chase, as our hero is able to keep pace with Grievous’s electric-powered machine by simply riding an animal native to Utapau.  Kenobi catches up to the General and nearly dies before using a blaster pistol to kill his enemy in a moment of desperation. Ever the traditionalist, Obi-Wan tosses the pistol aside while remarking, “So uncivilized.”

Kenobi’s ability to try his hardest in the face of overwhelming opposition gives way to the most affecting scene of Revenge of the Sith. The Jedi’s trust in Anakin is irrevocably shattered when Yoda and he return to the Jedi Temple to see for themselves the destruction Anakin and his battalion of clone troopers have wrought. After the pair disable the faux distress signal that would have lured remaining Jedi into a trap, they witness the disgraced Skywalker live up to his newly minted moniker of Darth Vader. Obi-Wan, being aware of some form of secret relationship between Anakin and Padme, goes to her apartment to get a handle on his former apprentice’s whereabouts. Padme tries to defend her lover, forcing Obi-Wan to disclose the horrifying truth of Anakin’s turn to the Dark Side. When Padme asks if Obi-Wan plans to kill Anakin, he pauses before saying, “He has become a very grave threat.” Prior to departing, Kenobi reveals his awareness to the couple’s forthcoming child, leaving with a heavy “I’m so sorry.”  In so many ways, this scene is a truly quintessential one for Obi-Wan. Firstly, his insistence to pursue a mission in which the deck is stacked against him grants him a stoicism that is severely lacking in the prequels. Secondly, his pursuit for the truth, both factually and emotionally, make him stand out from a cast of characters so willing to disregard it for nothing more than the potential for self-preservation. Finally, Ewan McGregor’s own performance[7] (tinged with regret but anchored by purpose) makes Obi-Wan one of the most balanced and complete members of the Star Wars franchise.

It becomes clearer with every subsequent viewing that Obi-Wan Kenobi should have been the lead of the prequel trilogy. The calamitous events surrounding him had the potential to more thoroughly challenge Kenobi’s adherence to the teachings of the Jedi, with the end still concluding in his bitter exile. However, Lucas has always insisted that Star Wars, at its core, is a story of father and son, inevitably minimizing the wizened Jedi master to the role of uncle. But even with what we have, Obi-Wan’s character arc still serves as a worthwhile counterpoint to Vader and Luke. Remarkably, the handling of Kenobi in the prequels actually informs who he is and what he stands for in the original trilogy. He may have been a victim of the Sith’s revenge but he still gets the chance to help facilitate a new hope.

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[1] This isn’t even to mention the onslaught of new characters the newest iterations of the franchise promise to deliver. BB-8 is already a smash hit and the movie featuring him (or her) is still a month away.

[2] His role in The Empire Strikes Back is so strong that I’m willing to chalk up his entire involvement in the prequels as a mulligan. I’m convinced the lightsaber duels he (and us) had to suffer through were a collective Jedi mindtrick.

[3] Now referred to as “Legends” material.

[4] He even took the courtesy to warn us for OTHER movies.

[5] But seriously, it that’s you, it should be you, not Yoda, exiled until the end of your days on Dagobah.

[6] Additionally, the evolution of his hair is fascinating in its own right. https://www.google.com/search?q=obi+wan%27s+hair+in+the+prequels&safe=strict&rlz=1C1CHKZ_enUS558US558&espv=2&biw=1366&bih=667&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiFpuub2Z_JAhUEph4KHd7xDd0Q_AUIBigB

[7] Of course informed by the towering precedent of Guinness.

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2 thoughts on “I Have the High Ground: The Stoicism of Obi-Wan Kenobi in Revenge of the Sith

  1. I really enjoyed your analysis of the character of Obi-Wan. He always seemed to have an interesting development in the prequels and I too wish he had been the protagonist of episodes 1-3. I thought Ewan Mcgregor’s performance in the final fight between Anakin and Obi-Wan in episode 3 was really compelling made me wish we got much more of a focus on Kenobi’s character. Too late to change that now, but its fun to imagine how the prequels could have been different. Thanks so much for the read!

    Like

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