Obi-Wan Kenobi’s “little friend”
Like many Star Wars fans, when I first saw Episode I – The Phantom Menace, I hated it. For all the usual reasons, of course. But there was one plot point that bugged the hell out of me, made me feel like the newer films were horribly anachronistic and non-canon with respect to the original trilogy. In Episode I, Obi-Wan Kenobi meets up with Artoo Detoo. Later, particularly in Episodes II and III, they go into battle together.
I was appalled. “If they have such a long history together,” I asked no one in particular, “why the heck doesn’t Obi-Wan recognize Artoo when the droid arrives on Tatooine in Episode IV?”
Turns out I was wrong about this. The simple answer: he does.
Imagine it from Obi-Wan’s perspective. He’s been in exile on Tatooine for years, hiding from the Empire and keeping watch over young Skywalker, acting as Luke’s mostly unseen guardian and protector. Some day, he hopes, the Rebel Alliance will gain enough strength for the remaining Jedi to resurface, join the fight and, with any luck, defeat the Empire. Until that time, he’s going to lay low.
Then one day, he hears a ruckus: a landspeeder roaring through the Jundland Wastes, and Tusken Raiders coming after it to attack the driver and loot the speeder. Obi-Wan might already be on his toes, if he spotted the unlikely sight of a space battle just beyond Tatooine’s atmosphere a day or two before. He arrives on the scene to find his unwitting protégé—and his longtime comrade, companion, and fellow Hero of the Clone Wars, Artoo Detoo.
What’s Obi-Wan to do? Right away he knows the cat’s out of the bag, but he doesn’t yet know just how far out it is. He doesn’t know if Luke knows anything more than Uncle Owen’s lies, and he certainly doesn’t know (though probably suspects) why Artoo is there.
So he plays it cool.
He keeps a straight face, feigning zero recognition of the droid. When he hears Luke say his real name—Obi-Wan, not Ben—he’s a little shocked, and resigns himself to telling Luke that he’s Obi-Wan… and soon Obi-Wan is giving Luke his father’s old light saber, cluing him in on the existence of the Force, and admitting to having fought in the Clone Wars. He takes it as a given that Luke will accompany him to Alderaan. The cat is well and truly out of the bag.
Even his denial of Artoo is not, in itself, a lie. Obi-Wan speaks quite truthfully when he states, “I don’t seem to remember ever owning a droid.” As far as I can tell from extensive online biographies, Obi-Wan Kenobi never did own a droid—and he definitely never owned Artoo Detoo. (I’d also like to think that Obi-Wan considers droid “ownership” to be slavery, and owning a droid to be antithetical to both his nature and theirs.)
So yes, I believe that Obi-Wan recognizes Artoo instantly, and it’s only the fact that we don’t understand what Artoo is saying that this is not revealed in the scene. Of course, it’s not that I’m saying the scene was written that way at the time, because it probably was not, but the way Alec Guinness plays Obi-Wan with such inscrutable mannerisms definitely could be interpreted as such.
Now, had Artoo managed to reach Obi-Wan’s home without Luke catching up to him, the reception might have been different:
Obi-Wan: (Opens the door, looks only slightly surprised, as if he’d been expecting this) Hello there, my little friend. It’s been a long time. Come in, come in! What brings you to this quiet corner of the galaxy?
R2-D2: (Beeps once or twice, then rolls Leia’s distress message)
Obi-Wan: (Frowns) Looks like we’re headed to Alderaan.
(Some time later…)
Luke arrives at Obi-Wan’s home, finds the door locked and no one home.
Luke: Well, we might as well go to Anchorhead and get your memory wiped.
C-3PO: Oh, very good, sir.