Obi-Wan: The Man Who Never Lost Hope
"Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi, you're my only hope."
An orphan watches as the man who nurtured him to adulthood is murdered in front of him. As this last father-figure dies in his arms, the orphan swears to train a boy in memory of the man.
Ten years later, the orphan is a formidable warrior and peace-keeper with a powerful student by his side - but is still unable to prevent the slaughter of many of his religious order's members at the hands of a droid army on a desert world. The Galaxy is plunged into war.
Three years later, the orphan learns his student has broken his vows and pursued a forbidden marriage, murdered children in the care of his religious order, and helped elevate the man responsible for the father-figure's death to a position of absolute power. The orphan is forced to strike down his student and leave him for dead on a world of fire - apparently preventing the fulfillment of the prophecy that was his father-figure's singular hope. The orphan is now an outlaw who flees to the site of his student's birth and dwells there alone in shame.
That's Obi-Wan's story.
No character in the Star Wars saga has proven as durable a fan-favorite as Obi-Wan Kenobi. Despite the intense loathing most fans held the prequel series in, Ewan McGregor's performance and the writing for Obi-Wan were both highly lauded. Fans laughed when McGregor growled "blast, now this is why I hate flying!" while under heavy laser-fire - and fans leaned forward in their seats when Alec Guinness intoned, "you can't win, Darth. If you strike me down I will become more powerful than you can possibly imagine." Part of Obi-Wan's resiliency is obviously due to the fact that both actors that lent him their voice and face were possessed of an unmistakable aura of cool-ness. But there's something in Obi-Wan's story, particularly in light of the prequel trilogy, that seems to connect with audience members across time and space. Not coolness, because even Obi-Wan can't hold a candle to Han Solo in that game. Not wisdom, because Yoda clearly surpasses Obi-wan in terms of such things. Not power, because Anakin far outstrips Obi-Wan in terms of raw power.
What makes Obi-Wan so watchable is failure.
Not a surface level I-didn't-do-so-well-in-Math kind of failure, either, but really genuine failure that sits in your gut at night. Anakin gets his redemption and Rey gets her triumph, but not Obi-Wan. Instead of the vaunted Jedi Knight he seemed destined to be, Obi-Wan is the young man whose ship never came in, even as the tide washed away the ground he stood on.
There's something incredibly iconic about that, isn't there? Perhaps its because deep down, all of us are plagued by the fear that the ones we love will betray us (after all, they usually do to some degree). But to be forced not only to confront, but to destroy those bonds of love after we have lost everything else, that is a fate so terrible that it's hard to even imagine it without shuddering. And if that fate was the end of Obi-Wan's story, his story would resonate with us only as a tragedy.
But Obi-Wan's story is not a "tragedy" as we use the term casually. At least, it certainly doesn't feel like one. Very few children grow up hoping they can be like the central character of a tragedy, but Obi-Wan action figures have sold quite well over the years - because there is something chillingly powerful about that line that began it all, "Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi, you're my only hope."
Writer J.R.R. Tolkien characterized history as "the long defeat" of all that is good. For Tolkien, the human story was one of decline wherein human greed and selfishness led to the ongoing destruction of the good, true, and beautiful. Yet this defeat was punctuated in Tolkien's mind by moments of "eucatastrophe," good-catastrophes that temporarily halted the ceaseless march of evil and pointed towards a moment of ultimate reconciliation of all peoples at the end of time.
Re-watching the original Star Wars trilogy today paints Obi-Wan's reaction to Princess Leia's very differently than what appeared in theaters forty-some years ago. Obi-Wan clearly lies to Luke about Anakin's fall, giving Luke his father's lightsaber and saying "he wanted you to have it when you were old enough." Even accepting Obi-Wan's claim in The Return of the Jedi that Anakin died when he chose to become Vader, this statement about the lightsaber doesn't hold up. Obi-Wan lies to the young man he has watched over, perhaps because it is too difficult to stare Anakin's heir in the face and recount how he, Obi-Wan, failed as both a master and a friend. That's why, shaking his head, the old Obi-Wan refers to his time in the Jedi Order as "some damn fool idealistic crusade" that he dragged Anakin along on.
Here is a man who has lost faith in himself.
But then Luke asks about the Force, and suddenly a smile lights up Obi-Wan's face. "It surrounds us, it penetrates us," he tells Luke, "it binds the Galaxy together." And moments later, when R2-D2 shares Leia's message, Obi-Wan's expression changes again, now harboring a firm resolve. The man who lost everything, the man who as a teacher was forced to battle his student, now says to the child of that student "you must learn the ways of the Force, Luke."
From this point forward, we see a remarkable change in Obi-Wan. He has no real idea how he is needed, why he is needed, or what hope for stopping the Empire could possibly exist. He even admits to being too old for "this kind of thing." But he believes, if not in the Rebellion, at least in the Force. And he believes in the young man he is looking at. Here is a man who is at peace with himself, perhaps for the first time in his long life; because only those who have lost everything are truly free to experience the indestructible nature of hope.
Peace has passed understanding.
Of course, Obi-Wan hasn't lost everything. Not yet. There is one final confrontation he must face. He must once again come face to face with Darth Vader, but this time it must be with the certainty that he is too weak to face the Dark Lord again.
"At last, we meet again," Vader rasps as his heavy strides carry him across the Death Star's metal flooring, "when we last met, I was but a learner...now I am the master."
Obi-Wan's response is weak: "Only a master of evil, Darth."
Vader senses this and strikes, "your powers are weak, old man."
Somehow, though, these words seem to trigger a shift in Obi-Wan's sense of the battle. Perhaps he is remembering Mustafar, where he managed to ever-so-slightly outmaneuver Anakin. There is no hope for that here. Vader is right: Obi-Wan is too weak to strike the Dark Lord down.
Just as his own mentor, Qui-Gon, was too weak to strike down Darth Maul years before. And now, at last, it begins to make sense. All the years, all the defeats, all the lost battles Obi-Wan could never seem to win. Hope was never in the winning, it was in the waiting, it was in sacrifice.
"You can't win, Darth. If you strike me down, I will become more powerful than you can possibly imagine."
Those are the last words Obi-Wan speaks before becoming One with the Force. But his last act isn't to speak at all. Instead, Obi-Wan lifts his saber out of a guard stance and into a salute, a smile tugging at his mouth as he glimpses Luke out of the corner of his eye, and as the red saber of Darth Vader crashes through the brown robes of the orphan who raised him.
Understanding arrives, but it had to follow peace.
Only after Obi-Wan made peace with his failure - and Anakin's failure - could he understand that Anakin was never meant to bring balance to the Force by destroying the Sith: He was meant to bring balance to the Force by choosing the love of his son over the love of power.
But someone had to show Anakin (and Luke) that love first. Someone had to help them.
And Obi-Wan Kenobi was their only hope.