literary britain

Obi-Wan Kenobi: Ideal Knighthood and the Courtly Love Tradition

Obi-Wan is the paradigm of Good during the Late-Republic, early Galactic Civil War, an island of Sanity in a sea of blood, an Utopia which might return one day, a beacon of Light in the darkest of times; He is our only hope.1

In this essay, I will prove that not only does Obi-Wan Kenobi embody the best qualities of knighthood, but also that according to medieval chivalric literature, he has the potential to love according to the courtly love tradition.

Chivalry and the Jedi

‘We are keepers of the peace, not soldiers’ (Windu, AotC).

Chivalry2 is embodied in knights whose actions are always trustworthy and admirable, who understand that strength and gentleness are not opposites, and who know the importance of standing by one’s principles, no matter how tempting the compromise. Obi-Wan remained loyal to the Jedi Code and to the Jedi Council, not ever giving in to the Dark Side. Unlike Anakin and the Sith, Obi-Wan controlled his emotions instead of letting them control him.

The Jedi Code is similar to codes of chivalry, implemented for the Jedi to strive to be better. These codes, similar to the Pentecostal Oath created by King Arthur, contain violence so it is only for the ‘right’ causes’. The Jedi use their power for good whereas, the Sith rely on their passion for their strength. They think inward, only about themselves. The Jedi are selfless. They only care about others. They use the Force for knowledge and defence, never for attack. This is one of the reasons why Obi-Wan left Anakin to his fate on Mustafar. After having severed his remaining limbs, he was not about to kill an unarmed and wounded opponent.

Similarly, in The Once and Future King, King Arthur thoroughly believes in human decency and insists that the knights believe in this just as he does: that they are not out for earning respect and honour, but wanting to do what was right. He believes in:

action for the sake of decency—for they knew that the fight was to be fought in blood and death without reward. They would get nothing but the unmarketable conscience of having done what they ought to do in spite of fear—something which wicked people have often debased by calling it glory with too much sentiment. But which is glory all the same. This idea was in the hearts of the young men who knelt before the God-distributing bishops—knowing that the odds were three to one, and that their own warm bodies might be cold at sunset (OFK, p. 295).

The debased ‘glory’ is reminiscent of Malory and his Morte knights who are so obsessed with their concept of honour, glory, and public shame, but at the same time ultimately criticize people who professionally glorify war. However, Obi-Wan, throughout his life strove to adhere to the upright, moral codes of the Jedi and valued the honour received through doing such deeds of merit. Obi-Wan is the paradigm of knightly virtue, epitomizing the best of chivalric honour and prowess, yet unfailing in his striving to root out violence. Instead of finding glory through his deeds, his humbleness causes him to ascend to a higher ground. He does the right thing because he ought to do so, not because he is socially constrained to. Without the Jedi Council, Obi-Wan alone felt responsible for upholding these virtues and maintaining peace.

The Jedi would, doubtless, agree with C. S. Lewis that honour is a mode of self-improvement. Chivalry, he states, ‘taught humility and forbearance to the great warrior’3

Humility is something that Obi-Wan has an abundance of. He allows Anakin to take credit for much of what they had accomplished together. He is far from arrogant and never boasts about his abilities nor his deeds. Lewis adds:

There is still life in the tradition which the Middle Ages inaugurated. But the maintenance of that life depends, in part, on knowing that the knightly character is art not nature – something that needs to be achieved, not something that can be relied upon to happen.

Lewis’s view of knighthood is similar to the core idea of chivalry itself: a means of educating knights on the proper modes of behaviour within society.

Adherence to the sworn word, to obligation, is crucial to the reliability and predictability that stand at the heart of loyalty. That virtue of loyalty is attached firmly to prowess in chivalric ideology. How can one be a truthful, upstanding person if they reach their means through lies and deception? Obi-Wan promised to train Anakin and he did just that. He lived with regret and guilt eating away at him for years, blaming himself for what Anakin became. Ever dedicated, he watched after Luke for nineteen years with the hope that one day he would be able to educate him. He even goes so far as to learn the Way of the Whills to return as a Force ghost to aid Luke. He is selfless and honourable. Everything he does is in hope of bringing hope and restoring peace to the galaxy which is what the Jedi predominantly stand for.

However, Obi-Wan is only human. Despite his Force abilities, his striving for virtue and peace is unattainable alone. Knowing this, he can only hope that the sacrifices he makes will bring hope to later generations, hoping that one day peace will prevail and order will be restored to the galaxy. By becoming a mentor, a teacher, he hopes to pass on his knowledge and promote education over aggression, impossible as this dream might be.

Knights and Courtly Love

Knights […] live by loyalty, the needed completion to prowess; if love of a lady is not the centre of their lives, they accept, or even praise love as a spur to prowess, as its just reward (Kaueper 295).

Lewis refers to courtly love as ‘a highly specialized sort’ of love. Courtly love is a medieval literary tradition which has been adapted and changed through the ages. It involves the selfless, loyal devotion of a lover, usually someone outranking them in social status and therefore unattainable. Such devotion sparked military prowess, courtly behaviour, and great deeds and could explain his unfailing adherence to the Jedi Code.

As in Castiglione’s Courtier and Andreas Capellanus’s The Art of Courtly Love, such love is essential part of nobility. This point of view is promoted by Malory in Morte Darthur. In order for a society to remain stable, it must be backed by a High Order of virtuous knights who are of noble birth. According to Geoffroi de Charny, a medieval practising knight, romantic love encourages prowess and striving for honour. Military prowess was the defining factor that earned a knight honour and renown. ‘Honour originates, is merited, and increased sword in hand by those whose lineages leads them to such deed’ (Kaeuper, p. 284).

Romantic love spurs this prowess. Men should love secretly, protect, serve, and honour the lady who inspires knights to undertake worthy deeds which bring them honour and increase their renown. The activities of love and of arms should be engaged in with the true and pure gaiety of heart which brings the will to achieve honour. Romantic love promotes prowess and striving for honour, yet the prowess and striving will always take first rank.

Consummation of love is never expected; therefore, their love is of a higher sort. It close to the Neo-Platonic ideal in which the spiritual bond between two people brings them closer to God, Enlightenment, or in Obi-Wan’s case, the Force. Such a love would fortify his spiritual path. Spiritual marriages are not alien to chivalric literature. For example, Lancelot and Guinevere shared one in Malory’s Morte D'Arthur.

Therefore, like as May month flowereth and flourisheth in many gardens, so in like wise let every man of worship flourish his heart in this world, first unto God, and next unto the joy of them that he promised his faith unto; for there was never worshipful man or worshipful woman, but they loved one better than another; and worship in arms may never be foiled, but first reserve the honour to God, and secondly the quarrel must come of thy lady: and such love I call virtuous love (Malory, 405).

Guinevere aids Lancelot in his spiritual quest at the end of the Morte by resisting his offer to run away with him. And as he pledges himself to religious devotion, becoming a monk as she joins a nunnery, their spiritual bond grows. Their connection, despite time and distance, is never severed. When he becomes a priest, they are able to communicate with each other through the Holy Ghost. Before her death, she tells Lancelot in a dream vision to come to the nunnery at Amesbury where he would find her body.

This is the exact sort of spiritual marriage could potentially exist between Obi-Wan and Sabé or Obi-Wan and some other woman, only it would be referred to as a Force bond4. Despite years of separation and distance between them, their love only grows. Similar to the love of Petrarch to Laura in Canzoniere, the love ascends to the spiritual plane. Their spirits are forever entwined and will not sever. Akin to Dante and Beatrice in Dante’s The Divine Comedy, death cannot even separate them.

This love aids in the betterment of both parties in their spiritual journey. Obi-Wan has the potential to serve as an example of the courtly love paradigm, about which even medieval poets could write epic chivalric romances.

Fuchs, Barbara, Romance (London: Routledge, 2004).

Kaeuper, Richard W., Chivalry and Violence in Medieval Europe, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).

Kellman, Martin, T.H. White and the Matter of Britain: A Literary Overview, (Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press, 1988).

Kim, Hyonjin, ‘The Myth of Gentility and Gentleness’ from The Knight Without the Sword: A Social Landscape of Malorian Chivalry (Cambridge: D.S.

Brewer, 2000) p. 100. Lewis, C. S. The Allegory of Love: A Study in Medieval Tradition (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1936).

Logan, George M. and Gordon Teskey, ed., Unfolded Tales: Essays on Renaissance Romance (London: Cornell University Press, 1989). 

Malory, Sir Thomas, Le Morte Darthur: Sir Thomas Malory’s Book of King Arthur and of His Noble Knights of the Round Table, 2 vols. (London: Macmillan and Co., 1900), II.

Minta, Stephen, Petrarch and Petrarchism: The English and French Traditions, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1980).

White, T. H., The Once and Future King (London: Collins Clear-Type Press, 1972).

1 Adapted from Kellman’s assessment of King Arthur as portrayed in T. H. White’s The Once and Future King.

2. C. S. Lewis, ‘The Necessity of Chivalry’, Present Concerns: Essays by C. S. Lewis, ed. by Walter Hooper (London: Harcout Brace Jovanovich, 1986), p. 14.

3. For more on Force bonds visit Wookiepedia.

Further Reading:

Here’s my previous Obi-Wan Meta: Obi-Wan Kenobi: Light in the Darkest of Times Obi-Wan Meta

“The streets of London have their map, but our passions are uncharted. What are you going to meet if you turn this corner?” —Virginia Woolf, Jacob’s Room (1922)

   Dairy Cottage in the Batsford Arboretum and botanical garden, Gloucestershire, England. The Estate was inherited by Baron Algernon Mitford, an extensive Asian traveller heavily influenced by Japanese and Chinese gardens. The arboretum contains the national collection of Japanese Flowering Cherry Trees.  

  Mitford was succeeded by his son David, father of the infamous Mitford sisters (six daughters satirised by The London Times as “Diana the Fascist, Jessica the Communist, Unity the Hitler-lover, Nancy the Novelist, Deborah the Duchess and Pamela the unobtrusive poultry connoisseur”).  Poor Pamela, she does come off very dull. I hope she hurried down to this fellow’s office and whacked him with her handbag whilst shrieking, “NOT SO UNOBTRUSIVE NOW, AM I?”

   Anyway, Nancy the Novelist did indeed become a well known author; with works including Love In a Cold Climate, The Pursuit of Love, Madame de Pompadour, and The Sun King; and Deborah, the only surviving sister, is still Duchess of Devonshire; living in Edensor, Derbyshire. (Edensor is my icon) **cottage image from anguskirk on flickr**

  This is the view looking up West Street from Lamb House in the Town-Of-All-That-Is-Perfect-and-Wizardy-and-Medievally Magical; aka Rye, East Sussex, southern England. Look at the cobblestone streets and the crooked chimney!! At the top of Mermaid Street take a right and you’ll be here.

   Eighteenth century Lamb House has strong literary connotations. Henry James, (1843-1916) an American-born writer and key figure of nineteenth century literary realism lived here. James, who spent the last 53 years of his life in England, is best known for books Daisy Miller, The Portrait of a Lady, The Bostonians, The Ambassadors, and the famed short story The Turn of the Screw. 

   Lamb House was later home to authors E.F. Benson (who immortalized the town of Rye in his Mapp and Lucia series, and also represented England in figure skating. Brilliant.) and Rumer Godden (Black Narcissus, The Lady and The Unicorn, The Doll’s House, The Diddekoi, The Rocking Horse Secret, A Kindle of Kittens, The Dragon of Org, Great-grandfather’s House and many others)

    (UGAgardener flickr)

Rupert Thomson is the author of nine novels, including The Insult (1996), which David Bowie chose for one of his 100 must-read books of all time, and Death of a Murderer, shortlisted for the Costa Novel of the Year awards in 2007. His most recent novel, Secrecy, was hailed as “chillingly brilliant” (Financial Times) and “bewitching” (Daily Mail). According to the Independent, “No one else writes quite like this in Britain today.” Thomson has also been compared to JG Ballard, Elmore Leonard, Mervyn Peake and even Kafka. In short, he’s an established and successful writer with an impressive body of work to his name.

After working seven days a week without holidays, and now approaching 60, Thomson, you might think, must be looking forward to a measure of comfort and security as the shadows of old age crowd in. But no. For some years he has rented an office in Black Prince Road, on London’s South Bank, and commuted to work. Now this studio life, so essential to his work, is under threat. Lately, having done his sums and calculated his likely earnings for the coming year, he has commissioned a builder to create a tiny office (4ft 9in x 9ft 11in) at home in his attic, what he calls “my garret”.

The space is so cramped that Thomson, who is just over 6ft, will only be able to stand upright in the doorway, but he seems to derive a certain grim satisfaction from confronting his predicament. “All I want is enough money to carry on writing full time. And it’s not a huge amount of money. I suppose you could say that I’ve been lucky to survive as long as I have, to develop a certain way of working. Sadly, longevity is no longer a sign of staying power.”

Thomson is not yet broke, but he’s up against it. The story of his garret is a parable of literary life in Britain today. Ever since the credit crunch of 2008 writers have been tightening belts, cutting back and, in extreme cases, staring into an abyss of penury. “Last year,” said novelist Paul Bailey, speaking to the Observer in 2010, “was sheer hell”. Off the record, other writers will freely confide their fears for the future, wondering aloud about how they will make ends meet. Hanif Kureishi, for instance, recently swindled out of his life savings, told me how difficult his life had become. Never mind the money, the very business of authorship is now at stake.