Oedipus the Jedi

In the opening screen crawl of The Empire Strikes Back, the film explicitly states that:

The evil lord Darth Vader, obsessed with finding young Skywalker, has dispatched thousands of remote probes into the far reaches of space....

Yet the reasons for Vader's obsession with Luke remain unknown to the audience. It can perhaps be presumed that, being responsible for the destruction of the Death Star in Episode IV, that Luke Skywalker's fame (or notoriety) has also reached the Empire - and Vader, as the symbolic figurehead of that organisation, is simply seeking retribution for this terrorist act against them. Vader's search for Skywalker is also enmeshed within the Imperial military's search for the Rebellion in general, so the precise reasons are not necessary for an understanding of what else is taking place in the film.

Anakin, Rex

Anyone familiar with Empire will inherently understand very clearly – just as Vader does – the real reason behind this obsession; in essence, the narrative simply maintains a continued obfuscation of Luke Skywalker's heredity, as it does from the moment Obi-Wan Kenobi first alludes to Luke's father in Episode IV. At the time, Luke is confused, thinking his father was "just a navigator on a spice freighter". Kenobi's revelation that "I was once a Jedi Knight the same as your father" is only the first among many Luke will come to confront throughout the series.

In particular, his inherent curiosity about, and eventual fear of, his father are poignantly linked throughout. Curiosity and fear are in this sense marked as a significant symbolic duality – just as Vader might be seen as a Jungian 'Shadow' of Luke, an 'inner demon' which stands against and opposite other parts of the self, yet another amalgam of curiosity and fear.

Beyond the Shadow, Anakin also embodies several features of the martyr or similar spiritual figure, many of whom in religion are prophets. The nature of Anakin's birth in this context is worth considering. At times misinterpreted as an 'immaculate conception', Shmi Skywalker states that Anakin's was a virgin birth – "there was no father" – which is not the same thing at all. In Catholicism, the immaculate conception refers to Mary, Christ's mother, who was conceived without sin in anticipation of her own position as mother of the son of God. The divine impregnation and birth of Jesus himself is properly known as the virgin birth, which is analogous to the midichlorian-catalysed conception of Anakin Skywalker.

The significance of a virgin birth is the removal of a traditional sense of mortality or impurity from the figure in question; in this case it suggests that Anakin is in fact the closest thing to a living embodiment of the Force that can exist, just as Mary in Catholicism is the closest thing that a mortal can be to purity and piety (which is why she is so important to that doctrine) and her son Jesus becomes the embodiment of God on Earth. This in turn lends legitimacy to the heredity of Luke Skywalker and his sister Leia, both children of the 'Chosen One', another of Anakin's titles and unique features.

While Leia is an interesting figure in the context, she does not fulfil the symbolic position that Luke does in regard to her heredity; Luke is the son and male descendant of Anakin, whereas Leia's true heredity is hidden even longer than Luke's. Nor does she exhibit the same anxieties about heredity as Luke does, nor the same propensity for use of the Force, which is the primary spiritual link between father and son. Symbolically she is secondary to Luke as the offspring of Anakin, even though they are twins. She presents an alternative aspect which, whilst intriguing, is not considered here.

In Episode I, Qui-Gon Jinn refers to Anakin being a 'vergence of the Force'; a concept which, while unexplained, suggests a concentration or coming together of the Force itself into a single point (as opposed to, say, a 'divergence', which would suggest a parting of ways or separation). Thus, Anakin can be seen as a manifestation of the Force itself, yet another characteristic he possesses which separates him from the rest of the denizens of the galaxy.

Then we come to the last of these unique properties, the prophecy. Said to be a chosen figure destined to bring 'balance to the Force', Anakin is yet again blessed, or burdened, with unusual prominence. But who chose Anakin for this task, or what the function of the choice is that created the Chosen One, remains unanswered throughout the saga. From all this, we glean the central significance of Anakin Skywalker within the mythos of Star Wars; it is as inescapable to the audience as the boy's inevitable fate.

In this saga, Anakin is king.

Oedipus at Tatooine

Episode IV, the beginning of events which will lead Luke Skywalker into a confrontation with Darth Vader, begins at Tatooine. The planet is the place where Luke has been raised and where Anakin Skywalker was born. From this place, Luke stumbles upon a path guided by Obi-Wan Kenobi which leads to the destruction of the Death Star. This, in turn, leads to the events of Episode V, where we have been told Vader is obsessed with finding Skywalker.

In the Athenian tragedy Oedipus Rex, by the playwright Sophocles and famously adopted by Sigmund Freud in his theories of early childhood familial bonding, it is King Laius of Thebes who is obsessed with his son. In this version, a prophecy has indicated that Laius will be killed by the hand of his own son so, naturally, when his wife Jocasta has a son he commands the infant to be killed. Through a series of failures, the boy is eventually handed to a shepherd who takes it to the childless king of Corinth, who raises the boy as his own.

Oedipus clearly has parallels with Luke Skywalker, for they are both sought by powerful fathers they are unaware of, because their fathers view them as a threat, and have been raised without knowledge of their heritage by others who sought to keep them away from the dangers which their birthright might one day impose upon them. As Obi-Wan Kenobi explains to Luke in Return of the Jedi:

To protect you both from the Emperor, you were hidden from your father when you were born. The Emperor knew, as I did, if Anakin were to have any offspring, they would be a threat to him.

The fear that their father may commit infanticide is the clear motivation behind the removal of both Oedipus and Luke (and his sister Leia). The truth of their heredity is hidden from both young men because of uncertainty about the wisdom of revealing that fact, and from that grows both a curiosity and fear about the truth of their parentage.

Oedipus ignores a lot of genuine information provided to him in his anxiety about the prophecy which hangs over his head. Luke, on the other hand, is not only regularly deceived, but suffers constantly from a nagging sense that everyone knows more about his paternity than he does. His Uncle Owen states that Kenobi "died about the same time as your father," but shuts down his curiosity with, "I told you to forget it".

Obi-Wan himself who, despite being very much alive and dangling tantalising memories about his father and gifting the boy his lightsabre, nevertheless shrouds his descriptions in generalised statements, including the infamous suggestion that his pupil Darth Vader "betrayed and murdered" Anakin, which he later recants and justifies by suggesting "what I told you was true, from a certain point of view."

Both Oedipus and Luke cross significant thresholds when they discover who their father actually is, and the crux of their stories revolves around that revelation. The journey toward that discovery is what sets them upon the path to their ultimate fate.

Riddle in a Cave

Both Oedipus and Luke can be considered to lack insight into their situation, both by an actual lack of knowledge and also by their inability to perceive self-evident truths around them, symbolised by their eyes and sight. Infamously, Oedipus stabs out his own eyes when he discovers that the prophecy has come true; like the blind seer who he consults earlier in the play, 'insight' comes easier to the blind than it does to those with functioning eyes.

Similarly, Luke can be said to be blinded; both by those around him (such as Owen and Kenobi, who deceive him), and also by his inability to perceive truths, such as discerning who Yoda really is when he first travels to Dagobah. What he sees is a small gremlin-like creature who is a scavenger and irritant, the last creature he would think of as a Jedi Master. His ignorance and frequent impatience are evident, encapsulated in frustrated expressions like, "I don't even know what I'm doing here! We're wasting our time," and "you work the impossible." To his claim that, "I don't believe it", Yoda's reply is simple:

That is why you fail. 

He fails because he cannot see, equally because he is unwilling to see. Further to that, Yoda's instruction is hampered by Luke's clear lack of insight. From his ignorance – when he claims "I'm not afraid," Yoda responds, "you will be" – to his lack of perception – Luke almost answers his own foolish question when he asks, "how can you know my father, you don't even know who I am" – cause him to fall behind in his training.

The psychological connection between Luke Skywalker and his nemesis reaches its epitome in the cave on Dagobah. Nowhere else in the original trilogy is there a scene which so vividly symbolises what it is that Luke must confront, and how he must go about it. Similarly, Oedipus seeks the legendary sphinx, also in a cave, in order to glean a truth about the world and to claim his birthright. In the case of Oedipus, that birthright is the throne of Thebes, but in Luke's case it is the truth of his heritage. From their experience in the cave, each will step irreversibly on the path to that birthright; Oedipus toward tragedy, and Luke on the path toward becoming a Jedi, once the cave has provided the insight he needs into himself and what he must confront: not just Darth Vader, but the Shadow in himself, his fears and the path he might follow his father down.

As a metaphor, the cave represents Luke's own subconscious, and is a deep reservoir of symbolic meaning – when he asks "what's in there?", Yoda replies enigmatically, "only what you take with you." The only thing in the cave are the fears growing in Luke's own mind. The same curiosity and fear driving his anxieties about his heredity. So he ventures forth, and unsurprisingly the form his fear takes is the imposing figure of Darth Vader. But it is in this most classic moment that several aspects of Luke's journey unravel, for when he decapitates Vader, the fearsome helmet rolls across the cave floor and explodes, revealing Luke's own eerie face beneath.

Image (c) 1980 Twentieth Century Fox

Image (c) 1980 Twentieth Century Fox

That Vader represents the darker aspects of Luke's own nature is quite apparent. The 'Vader as Shadow' metaphor is clear, and by taking his weapons into the cave and confronting his fear with violence, Luke has failed the test – which Yoda's later sigh confirms. But what else has Luke confronted in the cave? He does not yet know it, but he has just imagined a patricide; the killing of his own father. Like Oedipus, this fact is not yet known to him, but will be soon in what is perhaps his most intensely terrifying experience.

The metaphorical imagery of Luke's attack on himself, his surrender to confronting his fear with violence and reaffirming his lack of insight is furthered by the smoking eye of his doppelgänger within Vader's mask. At best, he can only 'half-see' what is happening to him, lacking a great deal of perception about the world into which he is venturing. He remains an apprentice, a learner, and ignorant of many truths.

This struggle with insight is mirrored in a later scene when Luke sees a vision of his friends; "I saw a city in the clouds... they were in pain." Yoda cautions him to remain removed from their troubles and focused on his incomplete training. Despite Yoda's accusation that "you are reckless," Luke obliges his assessment and rushes off to help his friends against his master's advice. Sure enough, Vader has been torturing them in order to attract Luke's attention through the Force; Han later laments, "they didn't even ask me any questions," after a session with some nasty-looking equipment. The whole point of the exercise is to cause pain, so that Luke will sense that pain through visions in the Force and rush to rescue them; which is precisely what he does.

That Luke refuses to listen to Yoda even after all his failures, including pulling his own X-Wing out of the swamp, epitomises his metaphorical blindness; an almost willful ignorance of the 'truth' of the wisdom presented to him by Yoda. Ultimately, he pays the price for this during his confrontation with Vader, who soundly defeats him and cuts off his hand, necessitating a mechanical replacement. Unlike Oedipus, his first confrontation with his father (the brief and impersonal space combat in the Death Star trench notwithstanding) does not end in patricide.

Yet neither does Luke succumb to the temptations offered by Vader; his claim that "together, we can rule the galaxy as father and son" is rejected, even at the potential cost of Luke's own life. He falls, another metaphor for his descent from his purpose, and in that moment separates himself both physically and symbolically from his father, who as Kenobi later puts it, "ceased to be Anakin Skywalker and became Darth Vader; the good man who was your father was destroyed." Injured and shamed, Luke calls upon the friends he had abandoned his training to help, and they answer his call even when Kenobi will not.

More machine than man

One of the more interesting and surprising revelations in Episode III was the means by which then-Chancellor (and later Emperor) Palpatine attempts to draw Anakin into his web of manipulation. The problematic rendering of his wife as mere focus for his anxieties aside, Anakin is told a story, "the tragedy of Darth Plagueis the Wise", parts of which the audience can safely assume to be Palpatine's own:

It's not a story the Jedi would tell you. It's a Sith legend. Darth Plagueis was a Dark Lord of the Sith, so powerful and so wise he could use the Force to influence the midichlorians to create life. He had such a knowledge of the dark side that he could even keep the ones he cared about from dying.
Unfortunately, he taught his apprentice everything he knew, then his apprentice killed him in his sleep. It's ironic he could save others from death, but not himself.

The hook for Anakin is in preventing the death of his wife, and his own failed engagement with his curiosity and fear, but the real revelation lies with the concept that Plagueis and, as we later learn, Palpatine himself possess the ability to make life from the Force; a simple explanation for the 'vergence' mentioned by Qui-Gon Jinn in Episode I. Therefore, it is very likely that Anakin is in fact not so much a 'divine' or 'natural' creation of the Force itself, but an artificial being created by Palpatine.

It follows that if Anakin was not a natural 'vergence' at all, as the Jedi assumed, but a being created specifically by Palpatine with the knowledge that the boy's unusual strength in the Force would be detected by the Jedi at some point and brought into the fold, then perhaps his destiny was always likely to be closer to the mechanical warlord he became than the saviour of the Jedi. With Palpatine's arguable reliance upon his literal powers of foresight, it is not a stretch to consider that Anakin's fate was decided by Palpatine before he even came into being.

A visual theme follows an association between the natural and the artificial throughout the original trilogy; the rebels are always seen in environments and colours that lend themselves to an organic flavour: the Massassi temples on Yavin, the inhospitable but nevertheless natural ice world of Hoth; the desert sands of Tatooine; on Endor the rebels are all cloaked in forest camouflage, whereas the Imperials remain in their stark black-and-white armour despite the fact that their precursors, the clone troopers from the prequel trilogy, are seen to adapt various colour schemes to their uniforms, such as on Kashyyyk. Even Leia's adopted family name is Organa.

The most prominent symbol of the Galactic Empire in Star Wars is the Death Star; a planet literally made from steel and artificial light. The iconic Star Destroyers are a rigid triangular shape, whereas the Mon Calamari cruisers of the Rebel Alliance are a non-uniform, bulbous and organic starship. Then, of course, there is Darth Vader, "twisted and evil", whose own severed, robotic stump Luke glances at during the apotheosis of his transition into Jedihood, before he glances back to his own black-gloved mechanical hand, a clear and literal illustration of the path he is heading down should he continue to give in to his anger, as visceral as having seen his own face behind Vader's mask during what Yoda called his "failure in the cave".

After all, it is Palpatine himself who says to Anakin, "the dark side of the Force is a pathway to many abilities some consider to be unnatural," and then three movies later commands his son, "now, take your father's place at my side," as Luke stands triumphantly over Vader, clenching his own artificial fist. The subtext is clear; surrender your natural self, to be artificially made more powerful. But like any machine, a more efficient model is never far away.

Oedipus, too, represents the unnatural. Sophocles' tragedy is a confrontation of the taboo of incest, and that Oedipus engaged in it unknowingly matters little to his shattered mind in the denouement. His terror is not sated by his prior ignorance. He has expressed consternation at suggestions that he is not the biological child of who he thought his parents to be, and that anxiety leads him to insist on discovering the truth of his situation when it manifests, even at the extreme protestation of his wife/mother Jocasta.

The Star Wars trilogy also flirts with the theme of incest in regard to the romantic relationship between Luke and Leia in Episodes IV and V, resolved in Episode VI where they discover the truth of their heredity. The resolution of the underlying love triangle between Luke, Leia and Han conveniently absolves the cycle of any difficult confrontation of the incest taboo, as the Oedipus myth explicitly does. However, it is in the figure of Darth Vader that the theme of the unnatural manifests itself most directly; the artificiality of his conception, the mechanical nature of his descent into evil, his iconic breath a constant reminder of his dependence on technology and artifice to survive, and his surrender to a natural death upon his redemption.

In the same context, Luke avoids patricide by simultaneously resisting the urge to defeat his fears with violence; in casting away his lightsabre and confronting the Emperor as a Jedi, he fulfils his own destiny rather than the one made for him by Palpatine, and refuses to kill his father. In doing so, he learns from the mistakes he made in the cave, and from his rush to confront Vader before he was ready, regaining his sight – manifest at the end of the film by his being granted the ability to see the Force-essences of Obi-Wan Kenobi, Yoda and Anakin Skywalker united.

Oedipus Vader

The journey of Luke Skywalker regularly invokes the term 'destiny', with Darth Vader in particular using the word when goading him; "we can destroy the Emperor, he has foreseen this; it is your destiny", and to join and accompany him is Luke's ordained destiny. By making such claims, Vader suggests that his destiny has echoes of prophecy, and that as a Jedi (or former Jedi) he can 'see' Luke's destiny in much the same way as Luke himself is blinded to it.

But for Vader himself, or more accurately Anakin, 'prophecy' is the term which appears to guide his fate more prominently. The Emperor in particular is fond of utilising the power of foresight, claiming to have foreseen events at several points, most notably in his predictions of Luke's behaviour in response to his compassion for Vader and desire to redeem him in Episode VI:

He will come to you, and you will bring him before me.

And so it goes. Hence, while a vague and malleable 'destiny' seems to guide Luke's fate, an apparently more formal and direct 'prophecy' surrounds Anakin and, later, Vader. While both Yoda and the Emperor possess the ability to see the future, it is the Emperor who attempts to most directly rely upon it for his schemes, claiming that "everything that has transpired has done so according to my design" (though this begs the question; if he has foreseen it in advance, is it really his design, or something else, like the 'will of the Force' or some other power?).

Yoda, on the other hand, acknowledges that even prophecy is not ultimately clear, stating that it is "difficult to see; always in motion is the future." Both Anakin and his son possess more limited forms of prescience; Luke is able to 'see' his friends in danger on Cloud City in a vision, though the details are vague; Anakin suffers from recurrent dream-visions which suggest his wife is in danger and may die, driving his desire to save her life by submitting to Palpatine in the hope of gaining his knowledge. This latter fact alludes to the possibility that Palpatine, having likely created Anakin himself, may have implanted the suggestion driving his prophetic dreams as well; after all, foresight is arguably one of the Emperor's foremost powers.

Furthering this theory is an occurrence during Han Solo's torture on Cloud City; Darth Vader leans in especially and unusually close to him, perhaps as a means of projecting or magnifying his evident pain into the cosmos, so that Luke will sense it wherever he is in hiding. This perhaps indicates that it is something a Sith or Jedi can do, which further suggests that Palpatine may have been capable of doing something similar to Anakin himself during his vision-dreams.

The prophecy which haunts and harries Oedipus suggests that he will one day kill his father and wed his mother and it is away from this disaster that Oedipus persistently acts to remove himself, until through a series of fateful encounters he finally realises that he has fulfilled the prophecy despite his best efforts. Oedipus fears the prophecy that shrouds his life, whereas Anakin alternately fears his prophetic dreams but appears to allow the prophecy of his being the Chosen One to inflate his pride, insinuating that Obi-Wan is "holding me back", and that with better guidance he could be "the greatest Jedi ever".

So what of the elder Skywalker? While Anakin was not actively removed from his 'father' for fear he would be murdered by him (quite the opposite appears to be the case), the nature of his birth is problematic nonetheless in regard to outside intentions foisted upon his ultimate 'destiny'. As Mace Windu states:

You refer to the prophecy of the one who will bring balance to the Force. You believe it to be this boy?

Mired in the mythology of the history of Star Wars itself is the mysterious 'Journal of the Whills' and the prophecy of the 'Son of the Suns', a saviour who will arrive in a time of great despair. While the particularly alliterative title was likely intended to refer to Luke Skywalker when it was originally conceived, growing up on a planet with twin suns, it could equally refer to Anakin himself, who was born on Tatooine. Prophecy, destiny and balance recur thematically throughout the series on a regular basis.

This sense of prophecy in particular, and its inevitable fulfilment, yields strong overtones in both the journeys of Anakin Skywalker and Oedipus. Where Oedipus ultimately finds himself something of a victim of his seemingly predetermined fate, in Anakin there seems to be a similar sense that any completion of the prophecy runs counter to his original intent or nature. Anakin, unlike Oedipus, seems largely unaware for the most part of the prophecy that surrounds him (other than granting him a sense of grandeur); but it is only after events begin to fulfil themselves that their paths truly diverge, with Oedipus becoming tortured by the outcome, whereas Vader could quite easily be said to have a degree of resignation about his situation. It is perhaps telling that for someone who was born a slave, Vader later tells his son, "I must obey my master," and is even happy to consign his own son to the same fate, shortly after telling him the Emperor "is your master now."

In Sophocles, the prophecy which surrounds Oedipus states that Laius shall have a son who will be the end of him; essentially, that the king's fate is decided already. Oedipus, however, has many opportunities along the way to avoid his fate but nevertheless makes all the right choices to ensure that it takes place the way the prophecy has suggested. In classical mythology, prophecies are almost universally designed to be misunderstood, certainly by characters and often by the audience as well.

Interestingly, the prophecy surrounding Anakin is unconditional; it too suggests that the Chosen One will restore balance to the Force, whether he wants to or not. This removes a great deal of agency from Anakin, and makes him seem much more the pawn of a predetermined fate than does Oedipus. Perhaps this also helps explain Anakin's acceptance of a master-slave relationship beneath the Emperor, even considering his childhood. Regardless, it is difficult not to get the sense that the 'prophecy' which surrounds Anakin's life is far more enshrined and predetermined than the sense of 'destiny' which surrounds his son.

Part of this 'fate' is surely by design and resides in the fact that the target audience for the Star Wars prequels, the sole trilogy in which the prophecy exists, are viewing said trilogy two decades after the conclusion of the first, knowing already and full well that Anakin Skywalker must descend into darkness to become Darth Vader; we have all literally seen his future. Thus, the prophecy in this context cannot fool the audience, only the characters within.

There are two ways of looking at the resolution of this prophecy, and the most common is to look forward, to acknowledge that when Luke confronts his father in Episode VI and defeats him, that it is his own son's suffering that triggers the long-dormant Anakin Skywalker to overcome his literal Shadow – in the form of the black armour encasing him since he became Darth Vader – and rescue Luke, having been himself rescued. In doing so, and in killing the Emperor and mortally wounding himself, he brings about the end of Sith rule and restores the triumph of good over evil.

In this sense, Anakin fulfils the prophecy in the way in which Obi-Wan defines it in Episode III when he says:

With all due respect, Master, is he not the Chosen One? Is he not to destroy the Sith and bring balance to the Force?

The explicit claim that he must 'destroy the Sith' is an element that only appears in this one statement, to which Windu immediately replies, "so the prophecy says", inferring he has his doubts about its authenticity.

There is another interpretation, however, one which relies less on dichotomies of absolute good and evil and hinges instead on the word 'balance'. When the prophecy is first mentioned, the Sith have returned and Darth Maul's appearance motivates the Jedi to acknowledge a rising darkness that they have failed to foresee. In Episode II, Yoda fears that the Dark Side is clouding their ability to perceive the machinations of the Sith, and Mace Windu further questions, in Episode III, the wisdom of asking Anakin to report on Palpatine to the Jedi Council – regardless of whether he is the Chosen One of the prophecy or not.

While Yoda further notes that the prophecy may be misunderstood, and Windu does not trust Anakin and doubts his status as their saviour, both assume that the prophecy is ultimately intended to be to the benefit of the Jedi, or none of those factors would in fact be relevant to its outcome because the Chosen One may not be acting in their best interests or, at least, interests they can currently perceive.

So the Jedi Council's interpretation of the prophecy is one that benefits the Jedi; they assume that the Chosen One will bring a balance which restores good or defeats evil. Yet that is not the essence of balance. It can be posited that, rather than by ending the tyranny of Sith rule in Episode VI, the true nature of Anakin Skywalker's fate as the one who will bring balance to the Force occurs in Episode III. It is at that time that he actively accepts his part in Palpatine's plans to dominate the Republic and destroy the Jedi, and interestingly all mention of the prophecy ends thereafter.

In the process, Anakin personally leads the attack on the Jedi Temple, and erases the legacy of the Jedi Order, killing the younglings and any hope that the Order itself will live on after the rise of the Sith, to "do what must be done", as Palpatine says; a prophetic statement if ever there was one.

While the Jedi view this occurrence as a tragic betrayal on a colossal scale, and the beginning of the "dark times" as Kenobi later refers to the proceeding period, the outcome is, nonetheless, balance.

When Anakin finally rises as the black-armoured figure of Darth Vader and surrenders to his Shadow, Palpatine and he are master and apprentice. As far as the films are concerned, the only remaining Jedi are Yoda and Kenobi; also master and apprentice.

There can, quite simply, be nothing closer to balance than that.