Studying Skywalkers is an exclusive column that investigates the characters, themes, and lessons of Star Wars from an educational, literary perspective. In this installment, StarWars.com looks at the role of the dark side mentors in the saga.
An examination of Star Wars reveals some strong examples of mentors and mentorship and brings to the forefront moments that help us learn more about these fascinating characters. We have explored the heroes of the films, as well as burgeoning relationships in Star Wars Rebels, but an important question was brought to my attention recently that deserves further examination: what about the dark side mentors?
Clearly there are relationships in Star Wars amongst the villains of the series, but do they qualify as mentor/pupil relationships? At the core of what makes a mentor (a teacher or instructor that fosters growth and change in the student while passing along wisdom and knowledge), the answer seems clear, but since a Sith only deals in absolutes, perhaps this should be discussed further.
Inevitably, the primary mentor of the dark side would be the emperor himself, Sheev Palpatine, a.k.a. Darth Sidious. Palpatine took on a number of apprentices in the Star Wars universe — Darth Maul, Darth Tyranous, and Darth Vader all had unique relationships with the Sith Lord that could fall under the umbrella of mentor. While known for their power, cunning, and ruthlessness, each villain was submissive to Darth Sidious, bringing a twist to the mentor/pupil relationship.
Darth Maul — The agile, acrobatic Zabrak from Dathomir was given to Palpatine at birth by the Nightsisters and was trained in the ways of the dark side. Like his master, Maul is resilient and has the uncanny ability to cheat death, surviving a potentially fatal encounter with Obi-Wan Kenobi on Naboo. Maul even showed leadership abilities gleaned from Darth Sidious as he attempted to enslave Mandalore. However, this was not met with aplomb by Sidious, who sought to end Maul’s resurrection since it did not fit in with his master plan. Far from encouraging personal growth, Sidious’ enslavement of Maul occurred even after his apparent death.
Darth Tyranus — Known as Count Dooku to many in the Star Wars universe, the penultimate Sith Lord to Darth Sidious appeared to have the qualities of his mentor throughout much of the Clone Wars. The two manipulated the galaxy together, with Sidious passing on his wisdom, counsel, and knowledge in order to orchestrate his machinations. Sidious allowed for personal growth and critical thinking in his older apprentice, but only so far as it fit his grand design. As with Darth Maul, Darth Tyranus proved to be expendable in his master’s quest for absolute power.
Darth Vader — The powerful, vengeful apprentice of Darth Sidious — encased in the black armor that personified his own anger — had perhaps the most intriguing mentor/mentee relationship with the Sith Lord. Vader’s story is the fulcrum of the Star Wars saga, and much of his rise to power is through the tutelage and mentorship of Palpatine/Sidious. While Anakin was growing in wisdom and strength as a pupil of Obi-Wan Kenobi, Palpatine, through subterfuge and cunning, mentors the young Jedi to slowly become disenfranchised with the Jedi way and to embrace a different, more intrinsically-motivated approach to the Force.
In a literary sense, the mentor guides the pupil to find personal solutions to challenges and to promote an awareness of self through personal reflection, maturity, and growth. Anakin finds the answers to his problems while being guided in his decisions by Palpatine, and the results are cataclysmic for the galaxy. There can be little doubt that Darth Sidious mentored Anakin Skywalker to become Darth Vader and helped shape his personal philosophy as a Sith Lord.
While Star Wars had many positive examples of mentors building up characters to become the best version of themselves, the dark side, perhaps poetically, subverts the idea of such a mentor (much as each Sith apprentice is subverted) in order to meet the tyrannical agenda of the machiavellian Darth Sidious. No matter the guise, the Sith Lord promotes personal growth through passing on knowledge and wisdom, but strictly for his own personal gain. While not traditional, the stratagems used are extremely effective and ensure a rich palette for which Palpatine enacted his schemes and efficiently ensnared the galaxy.
Dan Zehr is a high school English teacher with an MS in Teaching and Learning, and is a member of the Rogues (as Blue Leader), a network of teachers that incorporate Star Wars in the Classroom. He also runs Coffee With Kenobi (with co-host Cory Clubb), a Star Wars podcast that analyzes the saga through critical thinking, interviews, and discussion.