“Henceforth, you shall be known as Darth Vader.” – Darth Sidious
Within the storytelling world of Star Wars, and without, there has always been an uneasy balance concerning the nature of Darth Vader’s identity. Is he Anakin Skywalker, simply answering to the name of Darth Vader? Or has Darth Vader emerged as a separate identity, distinct from the Tatooine-raised Jedi?
At first blush, the latter seems to be the answer, supported by the characters themselves. Obi-Wan Kenobi resolutely admonished Luke Skywalker for believing that some trace of Anakin Skywalker survived behind the mask of Vader:
“Your father was seduced by the dark side of the Force. He ceased to be Anakin Skywalker and became Darth Vader. When that happened, the good man who was your father was destroyed.” – Obi-Wan Kenobi
The use by Kenobi of the word “good” as the identifying adjective of the man whom Anakin Skywalker used to be is noteworthy. This was the perspective offered in 1983, and it was repeated somewhat recently in the Rebels Season Two episode “Twilight of the Apprentice,” when Ahsoka Tano confronted her former master. In that incredible reunion, Vader told Tano that Anakin Skywalker was dead, a fact she accepted in the midst of their iconic duel as the Sith temple collapsed about them.
Yet, going back to the end of Return of the Jedi, we can recognize that Kenobi was wrong by the sheer fact that Luke was right. Good still existed within Darth Vader. Not because Darth Vader had good within him, but because the man who gazed out from under the black mask was always Anakin Skywalker.
The prequel trilogy made Anakin Skywalker more than just a name spoken of in the past tense in the original trilogy. He was introduced as a spirited ten year old who refused to break under the hardships of slavery. After all, as Weird Al Yancovic deftly put it, he was originally just a small fry. Anakin proceeded to grow into a heroic Jedi over the course of two movies up until his fall. Add in approximately a hundred episodes of The Clone Wars television show and a slew of other expanded universe properties, and unsurprisingly this Skywalker fellow became beloved for who he was before he became Darth Vader.
Revenge of the Sith is unflinchingly brutal for Anakin fans, as it depicts their hero not just becoming a villain, but one who would slaughter children without hesitation. Consider other major film properties, or television properties, and ask yourself, has the hero in any of these properties ever been put on the record as a mass murderer of children? It’s a shocking realization with an understandable reaction to such an abhorrent act being, “Not my Anakin!” But this is tragedy, and in the Shakespearian manner, the tragic figure often commits acts that are reprehensible as part of their fall, such as killing one’s daughter or loyal friends.
Beyond the storytelling elements of Anakin’s fall and assumption of the title Darth Vader, the Star Wars galaxy generally supports the idea that the Dark Side corrupts, but it does not magically replace an existing personality with another. We need only to look at our other Dark Side users in the existing media of film, television, and books. Chief among them in the films are the Sith Lords, Palpatine and Dooku. Neither are ever shown to have dueling personalities, or personalities that disappeared and were replaced by a Dark Side identity. In the Revenge of the Sith novelization, Palpatine welcomes the opportunity to drop his deception of simply being the chancellor, but it’s not the forgoing of an identity, but a façade. Maul, on film, is never given much of a chance to establish his personality beyond a desire for revenge, though it’s a little more complicated when we factor in The Clone Wars. That show is a rich resource for examining what it means to be a Dark Side user, including how the Dark Side fueled magic of Dathomir was used to physically transform Maul and Savage Opress to facilitate sinister objectives.
The Clone Wars television show, however, goes a long way toward undermining the idea that Anakin Skywalker “ceased to exist” as much as Obi-Wan Kenobi desired it to be so. Over the course of its seasons, Skywalker’s character exhibits personality traits that will eventually lead him to the horrifying excesses of evil conducted as Vader, most often in situations connected to Anakin’s sense of attachment and fear of loss of Padmé or Ahsoka. For instance, the Jedi tortures prisoners using the Force or allows himself to be induced to violence by simple jealousy when Padmé attracts the attention of former flame. The Mortis Arc is significant because “Ghosts of Mortis” has Anakin confronted by his future evil deeds and his assumption of the mantle of Darth Vader. Anakin’s response, and his proceeding motivation to act, build from an acknowledgment that these are his acts, not someone else’s.
The Clone Wars also provided us the example of Asajj Ventress and Quinlan Vos, who are paired together in Christie Golden’s Dark Disciple, a novel based on unused scripts for the show. This story is an intimate example of not just the fall of a Jedi to the Dark Side, but the return to the Light Side by a dark acolyte. It never establishes a change in the identities of either character, but instead touches upon how the use of one side of the Force or the other positively or negatively affects the individual. For Vos, who ends up falling to the Dark Side, he is drawn to it out of revenge for the death of his master. While his personality seemingly shifts, it’s an emotional shift, not an identity shift; he never stops being Vos, so much as someone ruled by a hatred happily embraced. Like Skywalker, Vos is saved; it is a salvation that can only happen because his Jedi identity remained in existence. Alternatively, Ventress’ departure from the Dark Side is painted as the leaving behind the negative emotions that fuel that side of the Force. Good, which had always existed within her, blossomed and overcame the darkness.
Ultimately, Star Wars has presented those who fall to the Dark Side not as becoming someone else, but rather as the same individual giving in to the worst parts of themselves, becoming corrupted by the dark emotions that provide access to the power of the Dark Side. Anakin does not cease to have any connection to the loved ones in his life, Kenobi and Padmé, but the virulent emotions that he has allowed to control him alter his perception of who they are and how they behave. It is not Darth Vader who howls in anguish upon news of Amidala’s death, but Anakin. It was this confrontation of loss again by Anakin which allowed Luke Skywalker to find the good within his father. Had Vader been someone else, an entity with no attachment or connection to the brash young Jedi dressed in black, then Luke would have died on the Death Star above the forest moon, seeking rescue from the Emperor’s force lightning from a stranger.
For all the debate one might have over whether there are two identities or one, the answer remains in Revenge of the Sith, straight from the lips of his new Sith master. Anakin Skywalker did not become Darth Vader, he became known as Darth Vader. Anakin was always there, waiting for his son to save him.