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Darth Vader – the good guy who lost

By Mark S. Lawson - posted Friday, 17 May 2013

When the bones of King Richard III were found under an English car park last year, the Richard III Society had another opportunity to press its case that the English king of the Shakespeare play had little to do with the real historical figure.

But what about that other arch-villain of fiction who has, I believe, received similar bad treatment at the hands of the modern playwrights - scriptwriters and producers - and whose reputation should also be rehabilitated: the villain of the Star Wars series of films, Darth Vader.

Vader has copped a lot of bad press since the first Star Wars film was released in 1975, but with the script for another film (Episode VII for the fans) now being written it is time to take another look at the general's reputation. For that reputation, and even his personal appearance may be have been distorted out of all recognition by historians and Hollywood.


Just as Shakespeare added deformities to Richard III to make him more menacing, the black suit, black full-face helmet and heavy breathing were probably added to the Vader character by later writers. Just as Tudor historians and playwrights anxious to stay out of the royal prisons of their time laid every crime they knew about at Richard III's doorstep, so historians of the new republic hoped to avoid the republic's detention centres (motto: you will feel the force) blamed everything they could think of on General Vader.

In fact, Vader's one real sin may have been to lose the war to hold the empire together and have the history written by the winners. These were the unlikely triumvirate of Luke Skywalker, Leia (described as a Princess) and Hans Solo, with both Skywalker and Leia later declaring themselves to be Vader's son and daughter– a declaration given a more dramatic spin by writers and historians.

Much could be said about the various crimes of which Vader has been accused, but here we will discuss only the elimination of the order of Jedi Knights which certainly happened and was a terrible incident. However, Vader has a defence Throughout history, elite military corps such as the Jedis have always proved troublesome to the empires that employed them. Examples include the Varangian Guard (Byzantine Empire), the Praetorian Guard (Roman Empire), the Janissaries (Ottoman) and the Moscow Streltsy. Other organisations that may have some parallel to the Jedis are the orders of knight-monks of the middle ages, such as the Hospitallers and the Knights Templar.

In the 15th and 16th centuries, the Janissaries were the fighting elite of the Ottoman Empire (Turkey, Greece and most of the Balkans). Christian boys taken from their families and forcibly converted to Islam, initially they were not permitted to marry or have any other life.

By the early 18th century, however, Janissaries had families – membership had become hereditary – and they had become a powerful part of the government, able to dictate policy and change sultans as they wished through palace coups. To make matters worse, they had lost their military effectiveness – the musket, bayonets and cannon of the European armies were much better – but they resisted all attempts at modernising the military, because any change meant a loss of privileges. Eventually the Sultan Mahmoud II decided to rid himself of the Janissaries once and for all, which he did, violently. Most of them were eliminated in street battles, and the rest banished or scattered by one means or another.

There we have the most likely scenario. The Jedi were an elite intergalactic gendarmerie cum para-military group whose tactics of messing around with light sabres and believing that they could influence people through "the force" had long past its use-by date. But they were still a powerful political bloc and they had also acquired a financing arm (motto: defaulters will feel the force). The Templars started out as Crusading knight-monks, but because they were an international order their various chapters became something like a medieval American Express. If you wanted to shift funds across borders you got a money order from the Templers. They were also remembered in a lot of wills of those concerned about getting their spot in heaven.


Like the Templars, the Jedis amassed considerable wealth which was put to use in financing various activities, including the activities of certain highly placed republic officials. In part because of their financing activities, the Jedi were tolerated as a cheap form of military until a real war broke out with the Sith bloc, and Chancellor Palpatine had to reform the imperial armed forces quickly. This meant the Jedi had to go, with one side benefit being that loans to the previously mentioned high officials could be wiped off the books (the Templars were eliminated in 1312 essentially because Philip IV of France owed them too much money).

General Vader was sent for and did his duty He was a hard man, certainly, but those were hard times. Unfortunately he was not hard enough to take on the rebels who decided to take advantage of what was then a weakened empire. His efforts were also fundamentally undermined by the disastrous imperial reliance on Death Stars. The winners made sure they wrote the history, and that is the whole problem: whether you are good or bad, if you lose, you will be written up as bad.


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Mark Lawson's book 'The Zen of Being Grumpy' has just been published by Connor Court.. There is further discussion of the Vader issue and the real story behind other films on .

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About the Author

Mark Lawson is a senior journalist at the Australian Financial Review. He has written The Zen of Being Grumpy (Connor Court).

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