Not a trap. But don’t eat ’em.
Let’s start with this: nothing within canon itself sets dates explicitly. Nothing ever says “In the year of our Sith Lord, seventeen hundred and twelve…” Or, “It has been three years since…” The only character whose age is stated in a film is Yoda, who may have been using 900 literally or figuratively (that is, that could’ve been the day of his 900th birthday or he could be 902, 914, or 938). So every fan who watches these movies is operating under an assumption of when the dates are. Some people unconsciously absorb or casually accept tidbits scattered around the resources. I just happen to have been a great deal more methodical.
The moment that made me realize I had to create and enforce a dating system occurred to me over a decade ago when I read an online article that offhandedly referred to “seventeen-year-old Luke Skywalker.” This threw me into a tizzy.
First, the earliest interviews with Lucas and Hamill put Luke Skywalker at 20 years old in ANH. Hamill–age 24–even had a cutely self-conscious moment of thinking he might look too old to play someone that age. So the creator’s intention at time of creation was not to have a teenager in the role. In fact, the 1976 novelization published by Ballantine lists Luke as “twice the age of the ten-year-old vaporator” (p. 13, book club edition). I know the Del Rey timeline and 21st century sources fell all over themselves assigning Luke the age of 18, but consider this.
By necessity, Luke is exactly the age of the Empire. Since the Republic was gone before he was born, his “empire as the eternal way of life” statements make sense, coming from him. But Palpatine’s empire is not presented as a teenage dictatorship. Yes, of course an empire doesn’t need to be old to be powerful or destructive; the Third Reich only lasted 12 years, and Lucas did use Nazis as models. But the language of the expanded universe and the presentation of the films wants a somewhat older Empire.
Furthermore, Luke’s frustration at being stuck on the farm makes more sense coming from an older youth. Notice he complains to Owen, “That’s a whole nother year!” That means he wanted to go to the academy the year before, and Tatooine high school functions anything like it does in the States, then he would’ve been 18 then and 19 now–minimally. That combined with the 1977 statements that Luke was 20 seems to me that he can’t justifiably be any younger. However, what about my supposition that he can easily be older? Since Hamill was 24, I honestly think you could have Luke be any age up to 25. More years just means more frustration for him; they also lend weight to Biggs’ argument that Owen is going to feed Luke whatever line it takes to keep him on the farm.
(As someone who was 25 and dying slowly of stagnation in my adolescent bedroom, I feel this deeply.)
Let’s turn to the prequels, since the dating of the OT depends on the dates in the PT. My PT dating scheme is the more risky anyway, as there’s no doubt about authorial intention here. But hear me out about these insertions and see if they don’t make for a stronger story.
There’s more concrete information about characters’ ages with the PT: at the time of the E1 crawl, Obi-Wan is said to be “mid-20s” (so 25), Padmé is known to be 14, and Anakin is nine. In E2, Anakin says “I haven’t seen her in ten years,” and the assumption (which Lucas intends, I know) is that it’s ten years after the events of E1. But what if Anakin is referring to some adventure that he, Obi-Wan, and Padmé had three years after the events of Episode I? What if Episode II is thirteen years later?
Consider that Padmé never even interacts with Obi-Wan in Episode I. How does Palpatine explain referring to him as “an old friend” of the senator’s? The events of E1 don’t cover much more than a weekend; would you be comfortable if your boss volunteered a random dude you met once a decade ago to come stay in your house because you’re “such old friends”? But say Obi-Wan, 12-year-old Anakin, and 17-year-old Padmé had some hijinks–perhaps involving those disgruntled spice miners Mace Windu thinks would try to kill her? This is enough to grant Obi-Wan “old friend” status and offers stronger footing for the defiant relationship of Anakin and Padmé in E2.
This also makes Anakin a more respectable 22 years old in E2. Worth noting: Obi-Wan, at 25 years old, is not even under consideration for knighthood. Yet using the Lucas timeline makes Anakin have a tantrum about not being a master when he’s only 22 years old, three years before Obi-Wan barely attained knighthood! Yes, Anakin’s a prodigy and yes there are wartime exceptions, but that’s not enough to clear this hurdle: after a minimum of 24 years being raised by Jedi, inculcated in Jedi doctrine, with 12 of those years under the close personal tutelage of a veteran Master, Obi-Wan was not considered up for knighthood until an unusual circumstance intervened. The Council doesn’t even want to take Anakin in for training because he’s too old; even in wartime circumstances, it’s unreal that he’d be complaining about unfair treatment when he’s knighted after barely a dozen years of training with zero background.
I haven’t had any reason to quarrel with the Clone Wars being a three-year war. Anakin is knighted six months before Episode III begins. Depending of course on when his birthday is, that makes him somewhere between 24 and 25, which fits with the wartime conditions/prodigy element I acknowledged earlier–he’s now parallel with Obi-Wan’s evidently somewhat “early” knighthood (it’s easy to miss how against knighting Obi-Wan the council is in E1; you either have to assume he’s a remedial student or knighthood typically comes later than age 25!).
Padmé is now 30. The initially awkward age difference between her and Anakin is essentially erased by now. They’ve known each other on a fairly steady basis for a good 16 years, which highlights the deep emotional relationship Lucas wanted to give them but was unfortunately unable to capture on screen. And Obi-Wan, with gray in his beard, is 41, only seven-ish years younger than his mentor was at the start of E1 (Liam Neeson stated in an interview that he convinced Lucas to make Qui-Gon “about my own age,” or roughly 48). (I’ll also note here that E3 covers a period of six months the way there’s six months between E5 and E6.)
Having come full circle, I can now justify the 22 years I settled on for Luke: with Anakin’s adventure really starting in E2 at age 22, Luke launches on his father-finding quest at the same age, 22. And as Anakin was ~26 when he fell to the dark side, Luke is ~26 when he successfully resists, claims the light side, and saves his father. Anakin dies at age 51 (including the two 6-month periods), on a Death Star, as Obi-Wan had, as Anakin predicted he would.
Postscript: I regard the matter as settled there, but I want to pull the rabbit out of the hat. Keep reading!
What rabbit? The rabbit of Obi-Wan’s age. Alec Guinness celebrated his 62nd birthday during the filming of A New Hope and it was very easy to accept for two decades that Obi-Wan was in his sixties. Then the announcement that E1 was going to be set 30 years before E4–and Obi-Wan was 25. Wait…
A superfluous and in my opinion trumped-up novel came out in 2013, which “solved” this plot hole by saying that Tatooine’s harsh climate ages people super duper fast. And while I agree the folks on Tatooine are weathered (I believe the GFFA’s average lifespan must be far longer than ours on Earth; that’s a matter for the calendar post), it’s ridiculous to think it aged him that much.
So take my timeline. Obi-Wan is 25 at the time of Episode I.
Thirteen years later, he’s 38.
And 3 years after that, he’s 41.
And finally, 22 years later, he’s 63 . . . which is how old Alec Guinness was when A New Hope premiered in 1977! TA DA!