What’s in a name? Power, identity and legend


Names in Star Wars range from the ridiculous to the sublime, combining marketing fun and in-jokes – Elan Sleazebaggano, I’m looking at you – with the pantomime stylings of Sidious, Grievous and Tyrannous. From a linguistic perspective, many names across the saga offer subtle clues and insights into character. Palpatine, for example, is likely derived from the word ‘palatine’ meaning a high-ranking court official dating back to Roman times. But names also reveal deeper truths, indicating a current position in a character’s journey, their relationship with the self and to the world around them.

In Rogue One, Jyn Erso is discovered in prison under an alias, one she’s adopted to disguise her parentage, something that’s explored in greater depth in the prequel novel Rebel Rising. After the death of her mother and her father’s return to the service of the Empire, Jyn abandons her last name for her own safety. In so doing she relinquishes part of her identity and lets go of her link to her parents in little increments. About halfway through the novel, having realised she’d been abandoned by her erstwhile guardian Saw Gerrera, Jyn finds herself living with a mother and her son. A year passes and she becomes part of this family unit, going so far as to give their name as her own. For Jyn, it’s a name that represents belonging and, in keeping with the underlying themes of Rogue One, hope. That hope, though, is fleeting and this name, like her own, becomes a distant abstraction. Key to her arc in the film is reconciling her identity, forgiving her father and making sense of her past in the shadow of the Empire. Her narrative journey is fulfilled when Director Krennic demands to know who she is, and she responds, “You know who I am. I’m Jyn Erso, daughter of Galen and Lyra”.

Casting off one’s name is an important tradition for the Sith in pledging themselves to their dark master. The Sith Code teaches its devotees to embrace their passions for strength and, ultimately, to achieve victory in their goals. Becoming such an apprentice is a transformative experience, a spiritual death and then the birth of another identity. It’s often focused around the abandonment of a former name through a dark christening. Think back to the moment Anakin is rebaptised as Darth Vader, a name he dutifully accepts, going so far as to later tell his son that the name Anakin Skywalker “no longer has any meaning for me”.

A dark baptism

Names have power and, in folklore, knowing the true name of a person or being allows one to have influence over another. But Maul was only a boy when Sidious began his training, meaning he had no pre-existing identity to fall from. Maul’s birth mother, Talzin, practiced dark magicks, while their world of Dathomir was steeped in the Dark Side of the Force, so this was the only life he knew. But Darth Maul does fall, both figurately and literally, and finds himself in a hellish landscape of fire and metal, his own personal underworld. Here he is tormented by his inner demons, his mental health unravels, and his identity is fractured. He is found years later by his brother and brought back to Dathomir where he undergoes another transformation. Having restored his mind and his legs, Mother Talzin says “Arise, Maul, reborn son of Dathomir”. She rebaptises him not as a Sith, but as a witch.

Maul’s journey becomes a succession of falls and ascensions and when we meet the character again in Rebels it’s beneath the surface of Malachor, another kind of underworld. He presents himself to Ezra Bridger as the crone archetype, a kind of dark counterpoint to Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back. He tells Ezra to call him “Old Master” and monologues about how he hates the Sith for all they’ve done to him. Yet in trying to guide and seduce Ezra to his side, he espouses Sith teachings, showing that this was all Maul ever had. Changing his name couldn’t break the circle, he was bound to it, cursed by it. We see this most poignantly when he says, “I once had a real name… Now I am called Maul”. This simple truth reveals that his entire sense of self was as the apprentice of Sidious.

The rebirth of Maul

What of characters who deliberately hide their former selves in shadow? Where Anakin’s hate and anger were directed outside of himself, his grandson, Ben Solo, was filled with self-loathing; his ego, self-esteem and sense of identity twisted by Snoke. The Last Jedi sees Ben obsessed with killing the past, something he’s spent his entire adult life trying to accomplish. He abandons his former name and heritage and shrouded it all in Kylo Ren. This new self was supposed to be the spiritual successor to Darth Vader, a dark and ruthless sentinel that lacked such a thing as mercy. But Ben remains bound to his name and the image of the self it still represents. “I know where you come from. Before you called yourself Kylo Ren,” Lor San Tekka tells him early on in The Force Awakens. From this we can assume that Kylo Ren was a self-appointed name, not one that was given to him by Snoke. It’s as much a mask as the one he wears to hide his face and emotions. When both are removed, his true nature is revealed. And when Rey calls him Ben in The Last Jedi, Kylo Ren is nowhere to be seen.

Names have the power to grow beyond an individual, beyond a family, and become legends as we’ve seen with the Skywalkers. The title of Episode IX, The Rise of Skywalker, would seem to confirm this. It’s at this intersection of identity and legend that the last in the Skywalker saga will likely sit, transforming what had been a name into an idea, a virtue perhaps, offering a guiding principle to replace the stringent Jedi code.

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