The Radicalization of Anakin Skywalker
Author’s Note: Before I get into the main topic here, let me just give a shout-out to Out of Stock, which has published a little flash piece of mine titled “For Consideration” – go check it out! And check out the rest of the site, too – lots of cool stuff in there, all inspired by weird stock photos.
Each spring semester for the last few years I have themed my Expository Writing 2 class around the idea of heroism and the hero’s journey. I feel it serves as an accessible and (hopefully) interesting avenue by which my students can learn how to do in-depth literary analysis without resorting to the tired old Literature Anthology and the incessant blizzard of 19th century short fiction and lyric poetry.
Anyway, just this past weekend I had a paper submitted to me regarding Anakin Skywalker and his status as hero figure. I will decline to discuss the precise particulars of the student’s work here (inappropriate violation of his privacy), but in conversation with this student regarding the paper, I found myself revisiting the character of Anakin and the interesting parallels one can draw between him and many contemporary phenomena.
The Star Wars prequels get tarred for being shallow, awkward, poorly paced, and suffer from poor dialogue and stilted performances – all this is deserved – but at their root, they are describing a pretty interesting thing: a good guy (Anakin) becomes a bad guy (Vader). How the films accomplish this change in practice is too rapid (Anakin’s turn is too sudden to be believable), but the idea in theory is actually quite astute. What the prequels are trying to demonstrate – what they are saying is the thing that changed Anakin from a good man to a genocidal lunatic – is that Anakin lacks any constructive outlet for his emotion and, suffering from emotional trauma such as he is, he is easily radicalized by a manipulative ideologue.
Consider this: Anakin lives the first years of his life as a slave. For all his brusque exterior, he is still just a little boy living in bondage in a harsh environment. He is made to take part in terrifying death races for the amusement and profit of his master. He is taken from his home, from his mother, at a young age. This represents enormous emotional trauma for a child and it is trauma that he bears throughout his life. We can look at little Ani and say “hey, this kid seems fine – look, he saves the day!” but that isn’t how emotional trauma works. People can act fine, but inside they are suffering.
Accordingly, throwing this kid into the arms of the Jedi is very, very bad for him. The Jedi don’t do emotional trauma. They seek to suppress, neutralize, and erase strong emotions, preferring instead the peace and balance of the Force. This is all well and good for small children who grow up in the context of the Jedi temple, but for a kid with Anakin’s background, it is the very worst environment. Yoda is the only one who realizes this – he is against training the kid, against the kid being taught in the way of the force. He’s too angry and the Jedi can’t deal with this. Yoda himself, throughout the prequels, is the only Jedi who sees things going wrong but he is completely at a loss at how to help. This, of course, is the great flaw of the Jedi, noble as they are – they expect spiritual perfection and have no tools to help the hurting. Telling Anakin to “learn patience” and telling him “it will all work out in the end” just comes across to this angry young man as the voices of people who cannot sympathize with his problems.
And that, of course, is even presuming he is able to recognize his own problems. Since the Jedi don’t appreciate or understand the power of emotions, how could they hope to approach the complex problem of deep-seeded childhood trauma? Their solution is always to push it away, plow it under, erase it under a wave of peaceful contemplation. Ani, though, is too damaged for this to work. Of course, rather than thinking they are failing him (which is true), he develops believing he is failing them (which only exacerbates his problems).
Enter Palpatine. The Sith, of course, understand the power of passion and emotion and trauma quite well – it is their exclusive domain. Ani is a ripe target for his manipulations because, for once in his life, Ani finds himself faced with somebody who actually seems to understand his problems. Palpatine, of course, uses this connection to mislead Anakin and warp his understanding of the world: it’s not you, it’s them, Ani. Your failures are their plan. They are holding you back. They need to be removed from your way.
There is just enough truth in all of this to actually work. Anakin believes him. Now, granted, the films do a pretty poor job of actually expressing this phenomenon, but I really do think this is Lucas’s actual intention. The fall to the Dark Side is simply another word for something we hear in the news all the time: Radicalization.
These young men who join ISIS, these kids who tattoo swastikas on their biceps, these angry loners who go in and shoot up their high schools: these are as much victims as villains. These are kids who are, in many cases, angry at the world around them. This may be as a result of trauma or economics or circumstance, but nevertheless, they are wounded individuals. They also live in societies that cannot and will not allow men to explore their emotions or traumas in healthy ways – the only suitable response is anger and the only satisfactory catharsis anger affords is violence. Somebody has only to whisper in their ears and say “that pain you’re feeling? I understand. I can help. I can tell you who is to blame.” Of course they jump at it. Who do they have to balance them? What do they have to lose?
This is the ultimate tragedy of Anakin Skywalker, and it is a tragic fate he shares with an all-too-long list of young men who succumbed to their hatreds because of the wicked words of someone far, far more evil than they are. Leave a wound untended for long enough, and it will fester, and then there will be lightsabers and assault rifles and the blood of innocents.
This failure, I believe, is what Yoda contemplates on Dagobah. He has no answer for his failure until Luke – another angry young man – comes along. Luke breaks the rules, though, and Yoda is concerned this is yet another failure. He thinks Luke will succumb to the same radical poison that turned Vader. But it doesn’t. Why is probably a different post for a different day, but it is the root of Yoda’s line on his death bed:
No more training do you require. Already know you that which you need.
Luke has figured out something that not even Yoda was able to puzzle out – how to take a wounded heart and make it healthy and whole again.
Given the world we live in, it is a secret we should all spend a long time seeking to uncover.