How does the adventurous journey of the Star Wars sequel trilogy’s lead player stack up against those of her predecessors Luke Skywalker and his father Anakin according to Joseph Campbell’s influential concept of “the Monomyth” and the Hero`s Journey?
George Lucas has long acknowledged the influence of the work by Joseph Campbell (1904 -1987) , professor of literature at Sarah Lawrence and foremost scholar of comparative mythologies and world religion, upon the Star Wars saga (Episodes I through VI) , notably Campbell`s concept of the Hero`s Journey.
Campbell’s best-known book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (published 1949) — specifically its fundamental thesis, “the Monomyth” that comprises the creative concept of the Hero`s Journey — is clearly reflected in the narrative structures, character types and even plot-specific choices that comprise and drive the high Romance of the adventures of Luke Skywalker as well as the epic Tragedy that is the downfall of Luke’s father, the Jedi warrior Anakin and his transformation into Luke’s mortal enemy, Darth Vader.
But what of the central protagonist of the current “sequel trilogy” (made without Mr. Lucas’ direct involvement, officially)? How does the enthusiastically Force-empowered orphan Rey align with Campbell’s vision in The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi ? And if her trials, strange encounters, missteps, triumphs and glimpses into the Dark Side — her path from innocence to adulthood — hews closely to the Campbell model, what clues do the professor’s work lay down for Rey’s apotheosis in J.J. Abrams’ upcoming grand climax and resolution of the Saga in Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker?
Essentially, the Monomyth is defined by its strongest element, “the Hero’s Journey.” *
The Hero’s Journey is a paradigmatic template determined by Campbell’s research and findings (and, it should be noted, Campbell did have his academic detractors) that despite the particulars of their cultural origins, all of human mythology shares a common, even “Universal,” basic narrative:
In it, an individual living within the norms of their existence, their world in time and space, discovers the necessity to leave their familiar and comfortable world and, often with a duty or agenda, explores strange, sometimes “supernatural” realms. In it, they ally with specific characters while fighting monstrous enemies and ultimately survive a series of trials, conflicts and struggles.
These enable the now-Hero to return (against all odds), battling their way back to their own world, to impart his or her adventures’ boons to society — knowledge, wisdom, power — that are often represented in physical form (ie. a symbol) such as a treasure, a totem, the bodily remains of of significant, vanquished antagonist, etc..
Campbell structured the Hero’s Journey as a connected series of three stages: Departure, Initiation and Return. And within each of these movements, one finds a half dozen recurring motifs (or, roughly, “plot points” in modern Hollywood parlance).
Departure requires what Campbell labels “the call to Adventure.” This involves the arrival of a stranger who makes a proclamation or lets slip a secret of events happening beyond the experience of the individual to whom this information is imparted.
For Luke Skywalker, that call is the repeating fragment of a Princess Leia’s hologram projected by R2-D2.
For 10-year-old Anakin, it is that moment he recognizes the hilt of “a laser sword,” the legendary weapon of the galactic peace-keeping warriors, the Jedi Knights, hanging from the belt of a mysterious leader of unusual strangers he has invited into his mother’s house to get out of a Tatooine sandstorm.
For Rey, we’re seemingly given several related calls to Adventure. For critics who dismiss Episode VII as an uninspired beat-for-beat remake of the 1977 original (it isn’t), it’s her rescue of the out-of-place droid-on-a-mission, BB-8; but her calling can equally be seen in her introduction to someone vaguely connected with that droid, the AWOL stormtrooper Finn who seeks an escape from the hostile world of Jakku.
In purely cinematic terms, however (and even as a “meta” reading), Rey’s true call to Adventure is that audience-pleasing reveal in which she leads her companions to a notorious piece of junk she had just dismissed as a means of escape to flee the First Order fighters after her, Finn and BB-8 until she has no other choice: the Millennium Falcon.
There then follows “the meeting with a mentor.” Campbell describes different instances in a kaleidoscope of disparate world myths of the recurring figure who becomes the would-be Hero’s teacher, advisor, advocate and master of helpful weapons, lore, and hidden truths.
Luke seems destined to meet the man sought by the hologram’s distressing damsel and to whom her droid, R2-D2, leads him. Indeed, the phrase “Obi Wan Kenobi” has become synonymous with the word and concept of “mentor” in popular culture.
Anakin loses his mentor who not only discovers him but sees in him a prophetic power; when Qui Gon Jinn is killed in combat with the enemy, the Jedi Master’s padawan-learner, Kenobi decades younger here, takes his seemingly fated place.
Aging smuggler and former “war hero” Han Solo becomes Rey’s first mentor-figure as prefigured by the specifics of her call to Adventure. But Solo is less the conventional mentor-as-instructor (he is, in fact, taken aback by her skills piloting his old ship) than a father-substitute for the orphan; he gives her a blaster (instead of a baseball glove, in Norman Rockwell terms) and tells her how best to use it, shares practical smarts gleaned from experience and provides for her a particular kind of renegade confidence that she subsumes.
In The Last Jedi, Han’s brother-in-arms, Jedi Master Luke Skywalker reluctantly assumes the the more classical responsibilities of the mentor though without the certainty of Obi Wan or the gruff patience of Yoda in terms of his training — his mentoring of Rey is reluctant, fearful, challenging and, finally, hopeful.