The Star Wars films aren’t exactly complicated fare, particularly the original trilogy. (Not that there is anything wrong with that.) Luke Skywalker’s journey is pretty cut and dry, a solid line from farmboy to superbad in several short years. The Empire falls, the Rebels win, everyone is back on Endor in time for stormtrooper stew.
But how do you topple a galactic Empire, really? How do you get a boy who’s never known a life outside the sticks to become a galactic savior in the same amount of time that it usually takes to earn a bachelor’s degree?
The plan is likely less perfect than it appears.
At the end of Episode III, there are two new babies who are down two viable parents—mom’s died of a broken heart (or something) and dad has become a tyrannical right hand to the galaxy’s freshly minted dictator. They need homes but, more importantly, they need to be kept safe from interfering influence. Most of the Jedi have been wiped out, and resistance to the Empire is a bad bet when it’s on its way in; Palpatine has too many resources, he planned his takeover too carefully.
Yoda and Obi-Wan knew all this coming out of the Clone Wars. They knew that even with the handful of Jedi who survived the Purge at their disposal, they had no chance of taking on the new regime. It was better to let Palpatine get comfortable, to hide away and await a better opening. And considering the power that both Vader and the Emperor could claim mastery over, using Anakin’s kids were a good bet; after all, their dad was literally conceived out of raw Force trail mix and some of Shmi Skywalker’s genetics. They were bound to have similar power at their disposal, the better to knock off dear old dad with.
Here’s the problem with children—they grow up to be fully realized human beings. The Jedi knew what they were doing, taking infants from their parents to indoctrinate them into the old Order. Initiating kids before they could talk, becoming their true family, resulted in “better” Jedi. (Translation: Jedi who do as they’re told by the Jedi Council and their mentors.) But Anakin’s children were better off being raised out of contact with Jedi. That way, if someone managed to locate Yoda or Obi-Wan, the Only Hopes of the galaxy remained safe and secret.
There was a recent theory that Luke was intended as “bait” for Vader on Tatooine, which was meant to explain why his last name wasn’t changed… but that’s hard to buy for more than one reason. First off, it is highly unlikely that Luke is the only Skywalker in the galaxy. Looking at his buddy Biggs Darklighter, we can even see that Luke’s surname conforms to naming conventions for Tatooinian families. (In the Legends canon, there’s actually a character named Cole Fardreamer, which was a little too on-the-nose for my tastes.) In addition, the chances of Vader ever stopping back on Tatooine were always remote. The Empire had no vested interest in the Outer Rim beyond using it for resources and trade routes. Palpatine’s Empire was intended to usurp the core of the galaxy, where the Old Republic held sway. It’s practically certain that the pursuit of Tantive IV to recover the Death Star plans resulted in Vader’s first visit to Tatooine since Episode II.
Moreover, it assumes that Obi-Wan and Yoda wouldn’t have gleaned the obvious from Anakin’s downfall—that Vader would rather know his children and connect with them following Padmé’s death. Vader’s first words to the Emperor on the existence of Luke have him instantly making the suggestion to turn the kid to the Dark Side. Vader never had any real intention of killing his son, especially not if they could usurp Palpatine together. (This is a more explicit suggestion if you take the novelization of Episode III into account; when Anakin awakes as Vader and finds out about Padmé’s passing, he lashes out with the intention of killing the Emperor, but finds his strength in the Force to be a fraction of what it once was. Vader has been biding his time at Palpatine’s side from the beginning. The man promised to help him save the love of his life and she died, after all.)
So Obi-Wan and Yoda knew that the most important thing was to prevent Vader from knowing about his kids until they were strong-willed adults. Leia was pretty well protected, on account of having an entirely new identity. Luke was pretty well protected because it’s not like the Empire was asking for lists of citizens on worlds where they had the barest presence to begin with. And even if they did, Owen and Beru Lars could have easily bypassed that census every time a couple stormtroopers stopped by the homestead.
But Luke having the same last name as his father was bound to bring up a few flags once he started committing heroic acts on behalf of the Rebel Alliance. Which means that keeping the Skywalker surname? It was likely an intentional move. And that makes sense, if you think about it: the galaxy, by and large, is not aware that Lord Vader used to be Clone War hero Anakin Skywalker, but Anakin’s exploits in the War were likely broadcast all over the galaxy via the Holonet and other sources. The previous generation would remember Anakin as someone who worked hard to bring the Clone Wars to an end, a Jedi who likely met his demise after Order 66 came down. Two decades later, up pops a kid with the same last name who is doing great work for the Alliance, helping to overthrow the Empire. Even if galactic denizens don’t remember Anakin precisely, the name “Skywalker” already has positive connotations. It’s a boon to the Rebel cause.
Vader being aware of Luke’s presence is also, ultimately, a benefit to the Rebels. Once he realizes that the kid who blew up the Death Star is likely his son, he devotes an unnecessary amount of time to getting his hands on him when he really should be spending it snuffing out the Rebel threat once and for all. If he and the Emperor had simply let Luke go, they would have actually had a better shot at bringing down their dissenters. But that Skywalker allure has a surprising amount of power.
So now we know why Luke and Leia were likely placed on Tatooine and Alderaan respectively. But fans classically have a pretty big beef to pick with Obi-Wan Kenobi on his “certain point of view” rewrite of history, where Luke is concerned. And sure, it sucks when trusted mentors lie to us. But from Obi-Wan and Yoda’s perspective, there were no other viable options. If that kid was going to grow up without a Jedi Temple, without a master, then he had to be indoctrinated to the fold fast and hard, with no inkling of doubt. The message couldn’t be wishy-washy, they didn’t have time to account for Luke’s feelings—he had to steer it straight from the start. And that’s exactly what Obi-Wan works toward.
It’s not just hiding Vader’s status as Luke’s dad—Obi-Wan lies or omits or slants the truth on everything. He knows that Owen has been fiercely protective of Luke, that the boy knows nothing about the Jedi or his heritage. So he makes a grand entrance, saves Luke’s life, and invites him over for tea. (It is entirely possible that he has been biding his time for a moment exactly like this one, where he could swoop in and save the kid, so he’s immediately trusted.) While Luke fixes up his protocol droid, Obi-Wan has to be the bearer of bad news: his uncle is a liar. He doesn’t make a big deal about it, he just dangles a string in front of Luke. An “I knew your father for real, and I’ll tell you about him” string. And then he mentions that he and Luke’s dad belonged to this super cool club of peace guardians back in the day called Jedi. Suddenly, Luke’s boring old navigator-on-a-spice-freighter dad was a warrior, and one of the best pilots in the entire galaxy—oh, and Obi-Wan has heard that Luke leans in a similar direction. Fancy that.
While he’s at it, he should probably give Luke his dad’s rad laser sword! The one that his uncle (the liar) didn’t want Luke to have—he was too worried that the kid might want to follow Obi-Wan (aforementioned awesome justice-and-peace-keeper) to do something idealistic and great… just like Luke’s dad did back in the day.
We can all see what Obi-Wan’s doing at this point, right? Hi, I’m a mysterious old man with mystical powers who used to fight for the Right with your pops in olden times. By the way, your uncle sucks.
But Luke, for all his whining about power converters, is a good kid. He’s not going to two-step off and leave the only family he’s ever known without their blessing. Obi-Wan doesn’t push it at this point—he’s too good for that. Instead, he waits for another opening, and it shows up in short order. They find the Jawa Sandcrawler, the lot of them slaughtered by stormtroopers. Luke puts two and two together and realizes that they’re probably headed to his home. Obi-Wan calls out to him as Luke bolts for his landspeeder: “Wait, Luke! It’s too dangerous!” He has about all the gusto of a gaffi stick. He’s not really trying to stop Luke from going at all because he knows that what the kid is about to see will do all his work for him.
It does. When Luke returns from the sight of the burned corpses of his aunt and uncle, Obi-Wan doesn’t even have to pitch the journey again. Luke is on board, with all of it. (Don’t forget, before all this Luke was thinking of joining the Imperial Academy. He was ready to join the Empire if it meant a ticket off of Tatooine.) He wants to help this Rebel princess, he wants the Jedi training, the danger, the excitement, a galaxy’s worth of possibilities. Screw the Empire, they killed his family.
By the time they get to the Death Star, Luke adores the old guy. He’s a mentor, a friend, he’s snarky to pirating scoundrels like Han Solo. “Ben is a great man,” he snaps at the smuggler after Solo gives him a hard time about following Obi-Wan’s orders to the dotted ‘i’s. Based on what, Luke? What he told you? The five minor things he’s taught you on this journey? His winning smile and modest fashion choices?
Obi-Wan knows that Vader’s going to sense his presence on the Death Star, and he had to always figure it was a possibility that he and his old apprentice would cross lightsabers again. He knows he won’t win this time. But he’s sure to reposition the fight directly in front of the Falcon, and once Luke emerges… he just smiles to himself. As Vader cuts him down, he’s probably thinking, Big mistake, buddy. Now I’m a martyr.
We know that he has the ability to project his entire person to Luke as a handy spirit guide, but for the first few years there, he only appears in bits and pieces. He’s a voice in the kid’s head, a spectre who prompts him to visit the Dagobah system. He doesn’t show more often than he has to because that’s a more effective form of manipulation. If he can have ghost chats with Luke every Sunday, some of the magic will wear off. But if he only appears occasionally—preferably when Luke has a major decision to make—then his words will always be heeded.
Luke’s next mentor is Yoda, and though he gives the kid a rough time, I’m not so certain that he’s as disappointed with Anakin’s son as he pretends to be. If anything, he works by chastising Luke for Anakin’s failings preemptively, attempting to discourage another fall to the Dark Side. He tells Luke that he’s reckless, impatient, that he cares too much, that he focuses too much on the future. Every single one of these complaints describes Anakin Skywalker to a tee. Luke has some of these problems at the most mild level, but he’s nowhere near pops. Even with that in mind, Luke receives none of the coddling that Jedi Temple initiates were granted. Yoda is hard on him because he doesn’t have time to let the lessons sink in. He’s running a boot camp for one. Luke doesn’t have to be a perfect Jedi—he has to be a proficient one.
A perfect example of this system comes when Luke is preparing to leave Dagobah and rescue his friends on Cloud City. At this point, Obi-Wan abandons his mystique and shows up as a fully-formed sparkle apparition (and sure, the Force is super strong on Dagobah, so that probably helps, but I’m still not giving him a free pass) and agrees with Yoda’s assessment of the situation, knowing that his comments will carry more weight because Luke cared very personally for him. But it’s hard to believe that they are so vehemently against Luke going to rescue Leia—she’s their next best hope if Luke fails. So why tell Luke that he shouldn’t go?
Because Yoda and Obi-Wan have always known that the instant Luke comes face to face with Vader, the truth of his parentage is out. That is what they’ve been desperate to prevent.
It’s important for Luke’s journey that he not feel an emotional, familial attachment to Vader, as far as his mentors are concerned. Emotional attachment was a huge component to Anakin’s fall, and if Luke is similarly situated, he could be even worse than his father. So when Yoda tells Luke not to rush into the trap Vader has set for him, he again reinforces Luke’s failings, his hubris. He tells Luke “Remember your failure at the cave,” talking of the cavern where Luke fought an apparition of Vader only to find himself beneath the mask. It’s an odd chastisement because, to any shrewd onlooker, it should be clear that it’s not possible to “fail” in the cave. The cave is not a test with a Pass/Fail marker, it’s a place where the sheer concentration of Force energy brings inner demons and truths to the forefront. (We see further evidence of this during Yoda’s first trip to the cave in the Clone Wars television series.) The fight Luke has in that place forces him to confront a powerful fear—that he will turn to the Dark Side and become another Vader. Yet Yoda is framing this encounter as a failure on his part.
“If you choose to face Vader, you will do it alone,” Obi-Wan tells Luke. “I cannot interfere.” Yeah, ’cause he thought you were gonna possess his body and guide the lightsaber for him, bro. Thanks for your help.
At this point, Luke has so many voices in his ear insisting that he’s close to losing, it’s no wonder that his reaction to Vader’s big reveal is to turn tail and run as fast as he can. Yoda says it himself before dying: “Unfortunate that you rushed to face him. That incomplete was your training. That not ready for the burden were you.” That was what he and Obi-Wan had been working to prevent all along—the burden of knowledge that would turn Luke’s quest of revenge against the man who “betrayed and murdered” his father into a personal journey of acceptance and love… that could far more easily get him killed or see him heading off to Sith Night School. Luke wasn’t meant to develop this way. He was meant to be a Force-trained hit man. Get in, kill Vader and Palpatine, get out. Learn the truth some other time. It is only after Luke has managed to find out the truth anyway that Obi-Wan admits to fibbing his way through the history portion of their lessons. And even then, he insists that Vader is pure evil. Fact is, he can’t possibly know that for sure… but he needs Luke to believe it, so he’ll do the job they trained him for.
I’ll go out on a limb and suggest the meanest possibility of all; it’s entirely probable that Obi-Wan and Yoda never believed that Luke would survive his destiny. That he might die doing the job, or only complete half of it, leaving Leia there to pick up where he left off.
And yet it is all the aspects of Luke that his teachers frame as failure that ultimately lead to the success of their plan. Luke refuses to take emotion out of the equation, and as a result, he draws out what tenderness is left in Vader. And his “mistake” at the cave on Dagobah ends up being the exact lesson he required to prevent his own fall; at the end of their duel on the second Death Star, as he looks on Vader’s severed mechanical hand and then considers his own, he realizes that going down this path will lead to the future he feared, to a repeat of Anakin’s tragedy. If he hadn’t reacted exactly as he did in the cave on Dagobah, he might never have learned that vital lesson.
The rhetoric that Obi-Wan and Yoda created for Luke was designed to frighten him into success. It was a tactic they felt was necessary because they’d both made the mistake of trusting Anakin, of being blind to his faults. But rather than treating Luke as his own person, they assumed he was destined to take on all the flaws of his father. What they never quite understood was that Anakin’s fall was not a clinical error that could be corrected by a human-being-turned-Force-wielding-scalpel. It was a tragedy of neglect that could only be addressed with a form of love that outstripped Anakin’s more destructive brand.
But knowing all this does make sense of Obi-Wan’s desire to tell stories from “a certain point of view.” Lying wasn’t a quirk, it was a calculated effort to make Luke Skywalker into a tool for a long-dead Order. These actions still ultimately led to victory, but it’s intriguing to think what sort of tale might have emerged had both masters deigned to tell their pupil the whole story.
Happy May the Fourth! This article was originally published January 26, 2015.
Check out all our Star Wars coverage, including essays, rereads, and news on Episode VII