Greatest Fictional Characters: Obi-Wan Kenobi
In every great myth the hero has a mentor, a wise sage who guides him toward his ultimate destiny. For one of todays most enduring and popular myths, that mentor figure is Obi-Wan Kenobi of Star Wars. In many ways he doesnâ€™t really stand out from other magical guides like Merlin and Gandalf. In fact you could say that Obi-Wan is actually derivative of a number of other mentor figures from mythology, save for one very important and unique trait: Obi-Wan is a total failure.
Thatâ€™s right, I said it – Obi-Wan sucks at his job. Donâ€™t get me wrong, I love old Ben Kenobi. Heâ€™s my favorite character in the Star Wars universe, always has been. But unlike his fellow wizard sages in literature and film, Obi-Wan has made grave mistakes that had consequences for trillions of people across the galaxy. Is he a great swordsman? Yes. Is he a hero? Yes. But even heroes screw up from time to time, and Obi-Wan has picked his share of whoopsie daisies.
As played by Ewan McGregor in the prequel trilogy, Obi-Wan was the bright spot in otherwise mediocre films. Showing him grow from student to teacher to a member of the Jedi Council, McGregor managed to bring his wry Scottish charm to George Lucasâ€™ bland, uninspired writing. Here we see the young Obi-Wan, trying to train a hot headed Anakin Skywalker. We know heâ€™s ultimately doomed to fail, though watching how he drops the ball is rather fascinating.
Hereâ€™s something you may or may not have ever noticed in Attack of the Clones: Obi-Wan, who is the closest thing to a father Anakin has, never comforts Anakin in regard to the brutal death of his mother. Iâ€™m not crediting Lucas for that brilliant move, I think the moment simply never presented itself in the writing of the script. Still, itâ€™s a truly devastating omission. In the moment when Anakin needed Obi-Wan the most, his teacher not only doesnâ€™t offer a shred of comfort but instead continues to nitpick everything the boy does.
Obi-Wan is a truly terrible mentor to Anakin. He never really wanted the responsibility, nor was he ready for it. Instead Obi-Wan was guilted into taking on Anakin as a padawan by Qui Gon Jinn before heâ€™s even completed his own training. Whereas Qui Gon was a patient and supportive teacher, Obi-Wan is short tempered and quick to criticize. Unlike his master, Obi-Wanâ€™s beliefs are deeply rooted in ancient Jedi tradition. He is ill equipped to handle Anakinâ€™s many emotional problems and, while he does the best he can, ultimately contributes to his students eventual fall to darkness through a sheer lack of empathy.
That may be true, you say, but Obi-Wan does redeem himself with Luke, right? Sorry, but no. Yes, old age has softened Obi-Wan up by the time he matures into Alec Guinness, but heâ€™s still making the same old mistakes he made with Anakin. He lies to Luke, not trusting his new student with the vital information that Darth Vader is his father. When Luke wants to save his friends on Cloud City, Obi-Wan agrees with Yoda that itâ€™s better for them to die than for Luke to not complete his training. When Luke declares that he will not kill his own father, Obi-Wan doesnâ€™t believe that Anakin can be turned back from the dark side and declares Lukeâ€™s intent a waste of time.
In the end, Luke only defeats the Emperor and saves his fatherâ€™s soul by rejecting the ancient ways that Obi-Wan kept shoving down his throat. He absorbed the wisdom his mentor had to impart to him, but realized that he had to forge his own way. While expanded universe fiction may no longer be canon it is still, for the next year at least, all we have to tell us what happens post Return of the Jedi. What does Luke do? He gets married. He has children. He doesnâ€™t return to the old Jedi doctrine verbatim, he starts a new tradition for his students and the generations to come.
So why do I love Obi-Wan so much if, ultimately, heâ€™s kind of a screw up? Because itâ€™s his flaws that make him fascinating. He is wise, but like even the best of us he thinks the old ways will always be what is best and doesnâ€™t consider that his traditions may not work any more. He trains Anakin to be a great warrior but neglects to teach him to be a good man. He uses lies and manipulation to push Luke toward his destiny instead of truth. He has the best of intentions, but he is blinded by ancient, out of date teachings.
Obi-Wan Kenobi is, ultimately, more of a human and relatable mentor figure than most because of his imperfections. He is wise but stubborn. He is a giving but rigid teacher. Heâ€™s short tempered when he should be patient, cold when he should be compassionate. Luke was right to revere him, but was wise to forge his own path.