"Peace keepers became soldiers. The Jedi Order was flawed. Now Obi-Wan was left with his memories and regrets."
In 1977, the world was introduced to Ben Kenobi, that crazy old man and wizard according to Owen Lars, a hermit who lived beyond the Jundland Wastes. While I was not sure about Ben being crazy, he certainly seemed like a wizard to my six year old mind.
He could imitate a Krayt Dragon, after all.
He first introduced us to lightsabers! He showed us the first use of the Jedi mind trick.“These aren’t the droids you’re looking for.”
Over the years, the backstory of Obi-Wan has been revealed through comics and novels to video games and the prequels. We have learned much about perhaps the greatest Jedi Master of all. The animated show Star Wars the Clone Wars gave us a Kenobi that we knew was there all along: heroic, courageous, humble, and selfless, the epitome of a Jedi.
Kenobi returns us to where it all began, on the desert planet of Tatooine. John Jackson Miller’s Kenobi begins where Revenge of the Sith ended, with Obi-Wan safely delivering the infant Luke Skywalker to Owen and Beru Lars. Obi-Wan reflects upon what he has done and the possible consequence for the whole galaxy.
“Years ago, we removed one child from Tatooine, thinking him to be the galaxy’s greatest hope. Now I have returned one- with the same goal in mind. I hope it goes better this time. Because the path to this moment has been filled with pain. For the whole galaxy, for my friends – and for me.”
Within the pages of Kenobi, we are able to know Obi-Wan’s thoughts through a series of meditations that offer a first person perspective. 2 In an attempt to commune with and learn from his master, Qui-Gon Jinn, Obi-Wan meditates and in the process, works through some serious regret, guilt and as he says, pain.
Regret and guilt that he had not seen this coming and prevented it all. Pain in knowing that he killed Anakin, his brother. (Let’s just mark that down in the win column for Obi-Wan against Anakin. So much for being the “Chosen One” at least in a lightsaber duel). Obi-Wan’s concern of returning a child to Tatooine and the consequence for the galaxy is one of Miller’s finest insights in the entire novel.
It’s a brilliant Star Wars observation.
George Lucas has said on several occasions that Star Wars is about symmetry and that the events of one part of the story should reflect in another part of the story. For example, Anakin’s blowing up the droid control ship at the end of The Phantom Menace is a reflection of Luke’s blowing up the Death Star at the end of A New Hope. That a child raised on Tatooine should prove to be the downfall of the Emperor and the redemption of Darth Vader also from Tatooine is genius on Lucas’s part.
Miller’s observation connecting that future to this moment of an infant Luke destined to become a legend is again brilliant. It’s all the more brilliant because Kenobi, as backstory, falls into the realm of a prequel.
Prequels are always challenging, novels or otherwise, because you can only tell so much of the story until you run into what we already know. The author and the audience know how the story ends.
Audiences naturally prejudge prequel characters. We are not neutral, and we go in with opinions already formed about characters. It’s hard to be sympathetic to a young Anakin Skywalker, because we know he will become Darth Vader and commit horrible acts of violence and cruelty.
However, it’s easy to sympathize with Obi-Wan, because we know what he has been through. We know what he is doing here on Tatooine, namely watching over and guarding the hope of the entire galaxy. He is still a Jedi even if he is on the planet farthest from the bright center of the universe. We know that his mission on Tatooine will be successful as Luke, with Obi-Wan’s help, will bring down the Empire. But in spite of all this prior knowledge we possess, Miller’s Kenobi deals with such a brief amount of time one tends to forget about it being prequel or backstory and enjoys it for just being a great story.
Obi-Wan’s meditations provide not only his thoughts on his current situation, but his reflections on what has occurred in the larger galactic conflict, and we the audience get crucial commentary from Obi-Wan’s certain point of view.
The Republic is no more. The Jedi Order is no more. All of the people he cares about are dead, most having been murdered by Sith!
He has lost everything.
He wrestles with the knowledge that he had to kill his own brother, and he is...lonely. He longs for the social and emotional bonds of community.
When audiences were introduced to Obi-Wan in 1977, a Jedi being alone is all we knew. This is the existence he will have to adapt to in order to carry out his mission. What it means to be a Jedi alone is to still be a Jedi. This unflappable, unshakeable stoic figure, this Jedi Master that has been at the center of power in the galaxy is all too human and he struggles.
"I have never lived without the Jedi Order to fall back on, to help me when things went badly. What does it mean to be a Jedi alone?”
Miller explains the challenge of telling a compelling story of Obi-Wan while walking lightly around the story of Luke.
“Writing about Obi-Wan in the inter-movie era involves some problems for the dramatist. Showing Obi-Wan swatting away threats to young Luke is the most obvious of plots, of course, but it's also a foregone conclusion: nothing happens to Luke. You need other characters to get any mortal jeopardy -- and for the reader to care, the story needs to be about them, as well.” 3
At its core, Kenobi is a Star Wars western story!
Instead of horses, lariats and Native Americans, we have land speeders, lightsabers and Tusken Raiders. Like the Millennium Falcon and the Death Star, Tatooine is one of those iconic inanimate characters that are such a part of the Star Wars galaxy that it takes on a life of its own.
Westerns emphasize the harshness of the land. One must be tough, self-reliant and determined to survive in the desert. At the same time, Tatooine can be a place of beauty. A desert can paint pictures on a canvas sky of such intense color and beauty that few environments can compare. Double the intensity with the twin sunsets the planet is famous for, and even Obi-Wan has to stop to appreciate the beauty of Tatooine.
If Westerns emphasize the harshness of the land, they emphasize the even harder people that call it home.
All farmers struggle to exert some measure of control over the environment with water always being the main concern. Tatooine farmers are so tough they actually farm water from the very air they breathe! Tatooine demands this kind of toughness and resiliency. These are the very people that Obi-Wan must figure out how to live with even from afar.
The 1953 film Shane starring Alan Ladd was the inspiration for Miller in crafting the main story of Kenobi. A mysterious stranger rides into a small western town in the hopes of settling down. However, events take a turn as a ruthless cattle baron tries to take over the town and push the settlers around.
In Kenobi, Orrin Gault plays this role as the leader of the Settlers’ Call, a makeshift militia that offers protection from the Tusken Raiders. Gault and his thugs (mainly his children) attack the homesteads of those settlers that refuse to pay for protection. In a Machiavellian twist, Gault has his gang dress as Sand People when attacking the settlers in order to scare them into buying his protection through the Settlers’ Call! Gault comments that “...it was nice to reach a point in life where people did what you said.”
Ruthless cattle barons have nothing on Gault.
Annileen Calwell, a tough as nails shopkeeper and owner of Dannar’s Claim, or simply The Claim, takes an instant curiosity to this stranger known as Ben. Dannar died some years ago leaving Annileen to raise their two children, Kallie and Jabe, and The Claim serves as the general store for the farmers of the Pica Oasis, providing the necessities of life both material, as well as social. Ben provides that welcome respite from what can feel like suffocation from the passing of everyday human events that life on Tatooine demands. 4 Ben is that tall drink of water to a thirsty Annileen whose life is toil for most of her waking hours. It is Obi-Wan she wants but Obi-Wan must become Ben, that crazy old hermit that lives beyond the Jundland Wastes, if he is to see his mission through.
“I know I’m here for one reason. To protect Luke Skywalker. The only way I can act on a galactic scale is by doing nothing locally. Nothing at all. But the Obi-Wan part of me wants to help someone, to do something right. To be a Jedi! How can Ben exist if Obi-Wan won’t let him? ”
Doing nothing at all is not the Jedi way. It’s not Obi-Wan’s way.
Miller conceived of the Obi-Wan/Ben identity crisis somewhat akin to Superman and Clark Kent. 5 Superman and Obi-Wan want to help, to use their abilities and strength to fight injustice. Ben and Clark Kent just want to fit in, to be incognito. To continue the analogy further, Annileen Calwell is cut from the same cloth as Lois Lane. Obi-Wan tells us that Ben is the name that Satine used to call him. 6 The Duchess Satine, ruler of Mandalore, was a love interest from Obi-Wan’s past. A mutual love that Obi-Wan and Satine denied themselves out of duty.
Clearly, Obi-Wan is fond of Annileen and his feelings are hovering on the edge of more than fondness, but the Jedi practice non-attachment. In an uncharacteristic line of questioning, Obi-Wan challenges this most fundamental Jedi trait.
“I know personal ties can work against us. We endanger them, sometimes, because of the nature of our duties. And worse, they become possessions, to be protected and obsessed over. I admit, I do wonder sometimes if that sells Jedi short. Not everyone is Anakin. And if the simple act of caring deeply for a person … is destructive in principle, then the Force has a peculiar view of what constitutes good and evil. Does the Force really understand what it wants?”
Obi-Wan’s observation here is the crucial moment in the entire novel, because it touches upon the fundamental question gripping the Star Wars galaxy currently and arguably from its inception: What does Balance in the Force mean?
With the release of The Last Jedi, we get the latest take on this perpetual question of balance. Luke Skywalker has exiled himself to Ahch-To, the home of the first Jedi Temple, where he simply intends to die and with him, the Jedi. Luke believes this sacrifice will bring back a resemblance of balance or at least remove the Jedi which have become an impediment to balance.
This issue of balance has been the quintessential struggle in Star Wars from the beginning; the Light and the Dark. Anakin as the Chosen One helped destroy the Jedi then killed the Emperor, thus restoring balance. Back in Kenobi, Obi-Wan, reflecting on the seemingly moral ambiguity of the Force, suggests that perhaps the Force is not as unassailable as he had been taught. How many people have died, suffered, and Obi-Wan reminds us, continue to suffer as the Force restores balance to the galaxy? Although the Jedi teach non-attachment, they failed to recognize that to which they were most attached: the Jedi Order, itself. This is what Palpatine manipulated: the attachment that the Jedi had to their order. It forced them to compromise, to make excuses and to be drawn into a galactic civil war that would force them to become something other than Jedi.
Peace keepers became soldiers. The Jedi Order was flawed. Now Obi-Wan was left with his memories and regrets.
Living a life without attachments is like living a life without stress. It doesn’t happen. That is why it’s called stress management. The Jedi, on the other hand, practice attachment management.
How attached were the Jedi to their order, or the Republic, or democracy? How attached were masters and padawans? How attached was Obi-Wan to Anakin? Yet when it came time to make a choice, Obi-Wan did his duty and confronted Anakin. Within these pages, Obi-Wan makes another choice, to stay on mission, watch over Luke and deny himself the relationship that Annileen is offering.
But does the Force know what it wants?
Being the Jedi that he is, Obi-Wan helps Annileen and her family out of an increasingly dangerous situation involving Orrin Gault. We first met an Orrin Gault that was perhaps a little sketchy but otherwise likable--Obi-Wan even praised him to Annileen at one point. Yet the true nature of Gault was slowly revealed like the harsh sand stripping away his true self layer by layer.
Gault was robbing Peter to pay Paul through a Tatooine Ponzi scheme. Debt and the fear of ruin drove Gault into ever greater risks and ever greater desperation. Obi-Wan figured out his schemes and ended them in order to help Annileen and her children. Obi-Wan offers Gault the chance of redemption, advising him to stop and turn back but no one stops and turns back when they are in a rabbit hole this size that they dug themselves.
We knew this was not going to end well for Orrin Gault.
We were, however, shocked to find out how Orrin Gault’s story concluded. He was forced to become the very thing that he identified as the enemy, as an abomination. He was enslaved into a clan of Tuskens working to maintain their beat down old vaporator. There was a brief moment of unsettling discomfort as the realization of Gault’s fate became clear. In a Tatooine version of the Walking Dead, Gault awakes to view the world through two metal tubes and wrappings covering him, as if he was buried alive. He had become a Tusken!
To understand any conflict multiple perspectives and points of view, certain or otherwise, must be considered. The exploration into Tusken life on Tatooine is quite revealing. Miller includes a prologue in which he observes, “Kenobi flees with the baby to the remote world of Tatooine, where years earlier Anakin’s fall truly began when he vengefully massacred a native clan of Tusken Raiders.” Years later, Darth Vader would visit carnage upon the Tuskens, slaughtering another clan still seeking vengeance for his mother. 7 Young Anakin’s merciless meting out of death profoundly disrupted Tusken life. It threw their world into chaos and allowed for the rise of a new war leader, A’Yark.
A’Yark is the fiercest warrior in the clan. We also find out after painstaking attention to a lack of pronouns, A’Yark is female. She seeks vengeance and wages war on the ever encroaching settlers.
The Tusken Raiders, so named by the settlers, after their ruthless attack on Fort Tusken, adopted the name for themselves as a badge of honor that demonstrated their power over the settlers. In taking this name Tusken, they were showing they could take anything from the settlers. If this is a Western, then the Tuskens are the Native Americans or indigenous peoples. Often, native people were portrayed as thieves and beggars, as well as savages. Miller certainly ticked all of these boxes.
Within this characterization, however, the challenge of prequel raises its ugly head.
Miller cannot just create new names for such well-established characters. They are Tusken Raiders, and we all know it. The task of backstory is, after all, to explain how what we already know came to be. That the Sand People would embrace, co-opt even, the name the settlers used to refer to them seems unlikely. Sand People or Tuskens, either one are names that come from the settlers. With a riff on the term Sand People, we might have gotten something simple like People of the Sand as insight into how they self-identify rather than take on the Settlers’ names for them.
That the Tuskens embrace that name as a symbol that they can take anything from the settlers just reinforces the stereotype of them as thieves. The origin of the term Tusken in the guise of power and domination of Native over Settler is unfortunately neither convincing nor compelling.
What is compelling, however, is the culture of the Sand People. A’Yark tells us that “Living beings helped only themselves – that was the Tusken way.” If there is a Tuskenway, then there is a Tusken culture.
Their myth of the two brothers, the twin suns, shapes Tusken identity. It informs Tuskens what it means to be Tusken. The younger brother revealed himself by removing his wrappings, and the older brother attempted to murder his younger brother for this blasphemous transgression but failed. Forevermore, the younger brother ceaselessly chases his older brother seeking vengeance, and the Tuskens are witness to that chase every day. There is Settler toughness, and then there is Tusken toughness. Tatooine demands this to survive.
The tale of the twin suns with the older brother attempting to kill the younger brother for violating taboo but failing thus allowing the young brother to seek vengeance is, of course, a metaphor for Obi-Wan and Anakin. 8
The revelation that the Sand People never remove their wrappings but simply keep adding more layers upon layers continually enmeshing wrappings into skin gave me pause and the shivers. It begs the question: What do Tuskens look like without their wrappings? We do not know. Yet the visual of a Tusken without wrappings is like a Wookiee without fur. 9
Again with the shivers.
This aspect of Tusken life was revealed through what is called a captivity narrative. These are stories common in Colonial North America where a settler or colonist, often a woman, was captured by Native Americans and held captive, either for ransom or as a slave. The woman escaped or is rescued and then related the "savagery of the Natives" thus confirming what the colonists already believed as a way to justify violence against them. A young human girl had been kidnapped by the Tuskens years ago. Her biggest complaint was that she wanted to remove and clean her wrappings--an act the Tuskens consider taboo.
A’Yark can speak a little Basic conversing with Obi-Wan. While A’Yark may not fully comprehend the Jedi, she knows Obi-Wan is powerful and to be taken seriously. Obi-Wan was not the first Jedi among the Sand People, after all. Sharad Hett, in the Knights of the Old Republic graphic novel, also written by Miller, gets a brief mention that creates some familiarity between A’Yark and Obi-Wan and allows them to communicate. Yet the native speaking the settlers’ language (it’s rarely the other way around) and the natives adopting the settlers’ name for them are all subtle symbols of domination and, unfortunately, the direction things were headed. Still, the Tuskens endured and survived and retreated further into the harshness of Tatooine, taking Orrin Gault with them.
His story now wrapped up.
Kenobi’s climatic conclusion was something many Star Wars fans have envisioned for years: a real life Krayt Dragon comes upon the scene! With all of the fake Krayt Dragon calls, a real one was bound to show up.
And Obi-Wan kicks its ass. (Let’s also mark that down in the win column for Obi-Wan. So much for being a scary Krayt Dragon).
Obi-Wan helps Annileen and her family leave Tatooine for a better life, but a life without Ben. Obi-Wan, in helping Annileen have this better life denies himself the love they might have shared. After everything he has been through, it would be hard to fault him for choosing love. He chooses duty, honor and sacrifice. He is on mission to protect Luke, whom Obi-Wan considers to be the Chosen One in light of Anakin’s betrayal.
Star Wars: Rebels later revealed this through Obi-Wan and Maul’s final confrontation. Seeking vengeance against Obi-Wan, Maul has come to Tatooine. Maul says to Obi-Wan:
Why have you come to this place?
Not simply to hide.
Oh! You have a purpose here.
Perhaps you are protecting something?
After Obi-wan cuts Maul down, Maul asks, “ Is it the Chosen One?” Obi-Wan replies, simply.
Maul dies, permanently this time. (Let’s just mark that down in the win column for Obi-Wan as well. So much for being a (former) Sith Lord).
Of additional note is Miller’s short story prequel “Incognito” which takes place right before we meet Obi-Wan in Kenobi. It is the story of Obi-Wan and Luke’s journey to Tatooine, foreshadowing the transformation into Ben that Obi-Wan will have to undergo if he is to be successful in his mission on Tatooine. This story, though not included in the hardback edition, is included in the paperback edition.
As a follow-up, Miller revisited the Tuskens in “Rites” included in the collection of short stories, From A Certain Point of View. Miller recreates the iconic scene from A New Hope when the Tuskens attacked Luke while he was searching for R2-D2, but this time, we get the Tuskens point of view. A’Yark is still the war leader and she knows Obi-Wan is to be taken seriously. This is why the Tuskens all fled when old Ben appeared.
Throughout his life, Obi-Wan was dedicated to the Jedi Order, even when the Order was no more. He stumbled and he failed, but he never broke. He denied himself love on more than one occasion. He was heroic, courageous, humble, and selfless, the epitome of a Jedi.
Perhaps the greatest of all.
1 Miller, John Jackson. Kenobi Del Rey Mass market Edition 2016, p. 8
2 Jennifer Heddle “The Success of Star Wars: Kenobi” as revealed on Rebel Force Radio Podcast, Sep 27, 2013 http://www.starwars.com/news/the-success-of-star-wars-kenobi
3 Faraway Press, The Online Home of John Jackson Miller, “Star Wars: Kenobi”http://www.farawaypress.com/fiction/books/swkenobi.html
4 Marilyn Manson, lyrics from “The Fight Song”
5 Faraway Press, The Online Home of John Jackson Miller, “Star Wars: Kenobi”http://www.farawaypress.com/fiction/books/swkenobi.html
6 Star Wars The Clone Wars, episodes “The Voyage of Temptation” and “The Duchess of Mandalore, Season 2.
7 Star Wars: Darth Vader Volume 1 — Vader (2015).
8 Faraway Press, The Online Home of John Jackson Miller, “Star Wars: Kenobi”http://www.farawaypress.com/fiction/books/swkenobi.html