This week’s release of Star Wars: The Complete Vader got me thinking about the character and his role in the Star Wars mythology.
Darth Vader is a frequently invoked symbol of evil, particularly evil of an authoritarian nature. While most people would see a comparison to Vader as an insult, Vice President Dick Cheney famously stated that people might see him as the Darth Vader of the Bush administration. Perhaps some people see something favorable in Vader? I don’t, but I do think that arguably he’s a sympathetic character.
For one thing, Vader is the tool of powerful cosmic forces. He’s like Judas Iscariot in the sense that he does something terrible, but his actions are integral to the balance of the universe. Depending on your religious or philosophical beliefs, it could be argued that neither Vader nor Judas had a choice at all in their fate: Without Vader – and Vader’s evil – there would be no Chosen One.
Even if you want to argue that Vader had a choice in the role he played, you’d have to admit that his early experiences probably irrevocably warped his perspective. He was born a slave on a harsh, unforgiving world; a bright boy gifted with off-the-chart Force potential that he’d never be able to develop. His father was not around. He worked for a malodorous cheapskate. Life was not pretty. Not exactly a formula for success.
On top of it, Yoda was probably right when he said that Qui-Gon shouldn’t take Anakin on as an apprentice. He was too old, and had already had a lot of formative experiences that most Padawans never have to bear. If you want to go with the idea that Vader’s destiny was in his own hands (and I don’t), then snatching him up for training in the Jedi way might even be seen as cruel. The age restrictions were there for a reason: It’s unreasonable to expect an older kid to adapt to a challenging new lifestyle, especially when surrounded by other children who know nothing else. Who wouldn’t expect Anakin to be impulsive and strong-willed under the circumstances, especially someone with as much emotional baggage as Anakin?
Let’s take a look at his later years, too. Qui-Gon was the first real father figure Anakin had, and he’s slain in combat. Mom’s dead, too, and he’s forbidden to take revenge. The more things change the more they stay the same, right Ani? Further, as former slave, Anakin must be thinking that as a Jedi in training he’s just gone from one kind of slavery to another. He’s learned two things during his short life: people you love die, and absolute freedom will always be just out of grasp. Someone else is always going to be giving the orders. This is a guy who was made to rebel.
After Qui-Gon died, Anakin was passed down (again) to Obi-Wan Kenobi. He was a great Jedi, but with Anakin he had his hands full. Teenagers are difficult to deal with under any circumstances, but what about one with powerful Force abilities and life of slavery and death? Yeah. I wouldn’t envy anyone that job. On top of all of the other chaos in Anakin’s life, he falls in love.
Remember what it was like to be a teenager head over heels in love? You might have been forbidden to date by mom or dad, but what if you were told you would never date? Chances are you’d go a little nuts, too. I’ll be honest: I snuck in (and out of) my fair share of bedroom windows as a teenage boy, and I didn’t even have the Force. In short order, Anakin marries and nature takes its course.
From a divine providence point of view, Anakin has accomplished the first of three things he was born to do: Bring Luke and Leia Skywalker into the universe, but from a practical perspective, he’s betrayed the Jedi. Anakin might not have thought of it that way, though. Maybe he just thought of it as finally taking the reins and doing something for himself for once.
By the time that Palpatine gets to him, Anakin has already tasted a little freedom and found it to his liking. Palpatine is already a powerful Force user, and he tells Anakin everything he wants to hear, to boot. The Senator is the father figure that any teen in Anakin’s position would want, and Palpatine had to have known this. By the time that Padme is wounded, Anakin has no one else to turn to for help. Once again, his betrayal of the Jedi is an absolute necessity to set the stage for the real Chosen One, Luke Skywalker. This is the second of the three things fate decrees that he must do. Anakin has become Vader.
By this time, Vader has gained the authority and power he always thirsted for, and now he hates the Jedi. He blames them for the death of his wife and mother, however unreasonable that may be. He’s in a dysfunctional, codependent relationship with the Emperor Palpatine. He’s completely consumed by hate, but once again, it has to be this way for the sake of the balance of the Force.
Vader still has father issues, and it’s completely transparent by the time Luke comes along. He’s been through a string of father figures himself, and he wants a relationship with his own son – even if that relationship is sick and destructive. The child is the father of the man, and Vader’s own childhood was filled with slavery, war and death. Is it any wonder that Vader terrorizes his own son? In this, Vader is fulfilling the last of three things he was born to do: challenge Luke, and ultimately choose him over his own pseudo-father, Palpatine…and thus, the Force gains balance.
I’m not asking you to love Vader, but only to consider him as a man as much – or maybe even more so – a victim of fate as his own morally dubious choices. In some ways, the Saga is the story of his martyrdom, a man made into a devil for the sake of a cause greater than himself. For this, he deserves some sympathy.