Identity Crises

October 2, 2009

Legend has it that knowing the true name of a demon gives you power over it; the most famous example of this in folklore is the tale of Rumpelstiltskin, but the idea of names having power exists in many cultures and contexts, such as the name of God in Judaism or name of a nix (say) in Scandinavian folklore.

In the everyday world, too, names have power. A surname for a man symbolises an unbroken lineage; for a woman, it represents that transformation in identity that comes with marriage.

More importantly, the name is the first stamp of society upon the individual. It’s the little tag attached to your persona, that mask you wear that functions as your interface to the society at large. In fact, the word persona itself is Latin for the mask worn by an actor in ancient plays.

This is where Star Wars comes in. The role of the persona is a prominent theme in the saga, where both masks and names conceal and comment upon the true nature of various characters.

Chronologically, our first introduction to this idea is the Padme/Amidala dichotomy presented in The Phantom Menace. Here, the mask is in the form of her kabuki-style make-up, symbolising the fact that the Queen is a role, not an individual. Positions of power and authority must, to some extent, erase the individual personality of the person holding that office — the ego must surrender to the persona, else you have a tyrant in place of a leader.

Queen Amidala: Padme as leader

Queen Amidala: Padme as leader

In A New Hope, however, we have a different situation: General Kenobi, exiled on the desert planet of Tatooine, has foregone his Jedi name “Obi-Wan” for the less assuming alias “Ben”. To him, “Obi-Wan” symbolises a time in his life when things were very different, and it carries with it much baggage: sadness, loss and regret — things he’d just as soon forget.

In both cases, the question that arises is, what is the relationship between persona and Self? Is Padme the handmaiden or the Queen? Is Kenobi a Jedi Knight or an old hermit?

With The Clone Wars, this question is placed in a new light: if you’re a clone bred as cannon-fodder, whither your identity? This is the problem we all face to some extent as we define ourselves as individuals despite the claims of society, but when you’re literally a product created on a factory floor, how can you possibly assert your unique existence?

The linchpin of the saga in regards to this theme, however, is Revenge of the Sith. Anakin surrenders his humanity (both figuratively and literally), adopts a new name and crafts a new identity for himself. He bristles at the persona required of a Jedi, wishing instead to serve his own ego. But by falling to the impulses of his ego, he has (ironically) been fully consumed by a new persona: that of a Sith Lord.

Anakin as the villainous Darth Vader

Anakin as the villainous Darth Vader

What is the solution, then? If the battle is between ego and persona, is there ever truly a winner? Anakin/Vader, Ben/Obi-Wan and Padme/Amidala all learn a valuable lesson in their own ways: transcend the dichotomy and instead embrace the Self.


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