TL;DR – If Obi-wan Kenobi had stepped up as Anakin Skywalker’s father figure after Qui-Gon Jinn’s death, the galaxy would have been waaay better off.
I get into details about events during the Star Wars films here. If you haven’t watched them, then you need to do that before you do anything else. Seriously, it’s time for some soul-searching about the content you’re prioritizing…
Once again, Star Wars Day (AKA: May the Fourth Be With You) – an intergalactically-recognized high holiday for all my nerd people – is upon us. This year I’d like to shed some light on what I see as a critical psychological and interpersonal dimension to one of Star Wars’ key character arcs: Anakin Skywalker’s metamorphosis into Darth Vader.
Passions run deep when it comes to Star Wars lore, as evidenced by the fact that Ahmed Best – the actor who portrayed Jar Jar Binks in the prequel trilogy films – received death threats and was considering suicide because he received so much criticism from fans. We won’t rehash the pros (there aren’t any) and cons (don’t get me started) of “The Jar Jar Issue,” but a fun side note here is that Best has experienced a kind of redemption during this season’s “The Foundling” episode of The Mandalorian by playing the Jedi knight who rescues Grogu from the Jedi Temple in the wake of Order 66. On that topic, the entire show of The Mandalorian is basically a father-and-son space western with all kinds of sweet angles on masculinity, fatherhood, and relationships – but that’s a blog post for another day. Back to Anakin…
George Lucas has repeatedly pointed out that the central theme of the Star Wars narrative is family, and in particular the role of fatherhood in the cosmically dysfunctional Skywalker family. Anakin’s story is somewhat unique among this clan in that he was born on Tatooine to a slave mother who claimed that “there was no father.” At the time, Qui-Gon Jinn reasoned that the boy’s birth was the result of a kind of convergence of the force involving midichlorians (again, let’s not relitigate the prequels. They’re out there, it’s canon, let’s move on) and decided to take Anakin with him for Jedi training. Parallels with the birth and life of Jesus Christ abound here, but instead of veering into scripture, let’s focus on the central point: Qui Gon instantly took to Anakin and came to love him as a son. On Anakin’s side, he had a close, attuned, and loving father figure for the first time in his life.
**Quick dive into some relevant psychology research to frame the rest of my argument**
There is a long history of heated debate among researchers and policy-makers regarding the very real phenomenon of father hunger/fatherlessness in this country. Different researchers have wildly different and opposing frames on whether or not fathers are important in the lives of our children and how best to include them in the family picture. The short version of what the research in this area has shown is that yes indeed fathers’ involvement in the lives of our children – even in the first year of life – is very important and has been shown to predict a number of really awesome outcomes for children including:
- Better emotional regulation
- More vocabulary words upon entering school
- Increased willingness to take controlled risks
- Less involvement with the juvenile justice system
The list goes on, and one key point of disagreement among researchers in this area has to do with whether it’s a parent’s gender per se that matters in terms of raising healthy children. Well-validated research has shown a tendency for fathers to have a more “jazzed up” gross motor play style and to encourage their children to engage in more controlled risk-taking than moms in what’s called the paternal activation relationship. So while yes, of course, being male, female, trans, queer, etc. definitely factors into how someone enacts the parental role, what the research has consistently shown is that it’s the number of present and attuned parents – the more, the better – that a young child has which more strongly predicts their child’s (and the parents’!) well-being.
Shmi Skywalker Lars is depicted as a loving and attentive mother to Anakin when he left her at 9 years old, and in their subsequent time together Qui-Gon adopted the role of a father figure with Anakin, who became his padawan pupil in the ways of the Jedi. Notably, Anakin had never had a positive paternal role model and he seemed to thrive under Qui Gon’s tutelage in part because of Qui Gon’s flexibility and empathy with Anakin’s deeply troubled and conflicted soul. Then suddenly, during an epic fight that literally changed the balance of good and evil in that galaxy so long, long ago and far, far away – Darth Maul shishkebabbed Qui-Gon Jin (why didn’t he force ghost disappear like Yoda and Obi-Wan??), after which Maul was sliced in half by Obi-Wan. Obi-Wan proceeded to take Anakin as his padawan learner and while, of course, the young Skywalker thrived in terms of developing his ability to wield the force, his new Master Obi-Wan had a more rigid adherence to Jedi doctrine and wasn’t as sensitive to Anakin’s deep wounds at being born a slave and his struggles with Jedi doctrine. Anakin feared what would become of him now that Qui Gon – his attachment object – was gone.
The book, Skywalker: A Family At War (read it – it’s amazing!) addresses this series of events and relationships in way more depth but summarizes it like this:
“..if the Jedi [Qui Gon] would have survived and taken Anakin as a padawan, then the boy would have been raised under the watchful, calm tutelage of a seasoned teacher who… would have empathized with Anakin’s restlessness with the strict Jedi Code, offering solutions beyond the scope of Obi-Wan Kenobi’s regulation-driven mind.”
To be clear – I believe that Obi-Wan did love Anakin and tried his best to train him, but in a more brotherly or avuncular way – NOT in a paternally-invested type of relationship. From there, the darkness and trauma in Anakin’s past drove him to take further liberties with the Jedi code by falling in love with Padme and seeking more power from Senator/Emperor Palpatine as a means to keep her safe. I maintain that if Qui Gon had survived and was able to provide the much-needed warmth, attunement, and playful physicality to Anakin as a father figure, that Anakin would have (see the bullets above) been:
- Better able to talk out his distressing feelings
- Better at regulating his difficult emotions including anger (see: force choking, slaughtering an entire Tuskan Raider tribe, blowing up Alderaan, etc.) and anxiety about Padme’s safety
- Less likely to seek out romantic attachment with Padme
- Less likely to fall in with a bad crowd like Palpatine and the Sith
So there you have it – if Qui-Gon had been able to stick around (or Obi-Wan had been able to get the proverbial “stick out” by being more flexible and loving) and serve as a father figure to Anakin, then Darth Vader would never have existed. And just maybe Alderaan might have been able to remain a top tourism and leisure destination for galactic tourists…
– Dr. Dan Singley
Paquette, D., & Dumont, C. (2013). The father-child activation relationship, sex differences, and attachment disorganization in toddlerhood. Child Development Research.
Baver, K. (2021). Star Wars Skywalker: A Family At War. Lucasfilm Ltd.