The guardian thresholds in Star Wars
Before the Adventure can truly begin with its true challenges and sense of Grandeur, the would-be Hero must first overcome, defeat or in some way elude Campbell’s “Threshold Guardians” (the threshold being the exit/entry from the familiar to the unknown).
These are characters or forces who attempt to knock back or sway or tempt the would-be Hero from their choice of taking up the adventure meant for them; in this way the Guardians are expressions or manifestations of the Hero’s subconscious and are often part of the Hero’s “refusal of the call” — another motif of the Departure and found, to varying degrees in all three our protagonists (LUKE: Alderaan?! I’m not going to Alderaan. I’ve got to get home — it’s late. I’m in for it as it is…. I can’t get involved — I’ve got work to do. It’s not that I like the Empire, I hate it — but there’s nothing I can do about it right now. it’s just a long way from here…. ).
Luke faces numerous such threshold guardians in his attempts to travel beyond Tatooine, and in most such situations, it is the quasi-magical influence of his mentor that proves his salvation and motivation. From the attack of Tusken Raiders, the close call at the Imperial checkpoint in Mos Eisley, and the confrontations in the cantina, it is Obi Wan’s abilities with the Force and his skill with a Jedi’s lightsaber that enable Luke to continue the journey.
But more significantly, his strongest threshold guardians are his literal ones: his Aunt Beru and Uncle Owen. While Beru knows her nephew’s natural-born adventurous spirit will ultimately take him from the farming life, it is through a blend of duty, paternal love and fear, that Owen Lars exploits Luke’s sense of obligation and inexperience to keep him under his control.
But, as Campbell notes, forces beyond the would-be hero’s decision-making, often called “fate,” lend a hand to keep the protagonist on their necessary path — as Kenobi tells him after Luke’s discovering the massacre of the Lars homestead, “You’d have been killed too if you had been there.”
Anakin likewise finds his greatest threshold guardian is familial. Yes, he must defeat the nefarious and cheating Sebulba in the pod race and, unknowingly, is dependent on his mentor to secure his freedom through both a gamble with task-master Watto and in a burst of combat with a mysterious lightsaber-wielding Sith warrior.
However, it is his love and concern for his mother, Shmi Skywalker, and her future that stands most strongly in his path, as illustrated again in a moment purely cinematic: the mise-en-scene of the solitary shot in which Anakin is positioned (and must choose) between Qui-Gon, his mentor, screen-left and is the representation of a possible heroic destiny and on the far opposite side of the screen, his mother in the doorway of their humble, familiar homestead.
It is the future Darth Vader’s own big-hearted good nature — and a mother’s love — that prove his greatest obstacle to overcome. And it will prove elemental to his fall from grace.
Rey, in comparison, is largely free to leave the wasteland that is Jakku; her sole, in-the-flesh threshold guardian, the malevolent power-broker UnKarr Plutt, is small potatoes and easily eluded through a simple act of theft. But Rey’s one notable guardian holding her back lays within herself, and, like both Luke and Anakin, is family related.
When mentor/father-figure Han Solo offers Rey a place on his crew (as he once did Luke) after proving herself a good, skillfull combat pilot, she declines. Rey claims a need to return to Jakku to meet her parents upon their return. Simply, Rey’s threshold guardian that needs defeating for her to undertake her hero’s journey are delusional.
On some superficial level, Rey may believe a reunion is possible (if only as part of a solvable mystery); but as a smart and clear-thinking, independently capable young woman, one can read between the lines of Daisy Ridley’s star-making performance to see that Rey`s parents’ likely fate — that they’re not coming back for her no matter the specific reason — is clearly something that she has long known but denied to herself.
It isn’t until Kylo Ren in Episode VIII tells her “the truth” about their likely ignoble death — a couple of junk merchants who sold her off for some quick money and easy drinks — that Rey can discover who she truly is, in and of herself, and progress as the hero of, at least, her own life. Kylo throws the cold water onto Rey’s face necessary to alter her perception of the time and space in which she exists, in which she can achieve greater things.
This marks one of the ways in which Rey’s journey skews a little from the Campbell design; it is something that is developed in what seems like very contemporary psychological terms.
In an interview as part of Vanity Fair’s preview of The Rise of Skywalker, J.J. Abrams said that this trilogy is about a new, young generation and debts from the past that must be held accountable and paid for. In this sense, Rey’s adventure will, as I will deal with next, continue to stray from “the past” — which Kylo Ren lives to see die — before returning to what might be called her destiny.
(In Part 2 of “Rating Rey the Joe Campbell Way”, we will follow, Luke, Anakin and Rey through the trials of Initiation in which we descend into an underworld and emerge anew from the belly of the whale.)
STAR WARS episode IX The Rise of Skywalker will be released to theaters on December 19, 2019 in the U.K. and December 20, 2019 in the United States and Canada
- Please note: I have tried to remain as true to the writing of Joseph Campbell as possible but have occasionally interpreted him in the broadest sense in dealing with particularities (and peculiarities) of the STAR WARS saga and its medium of presentation, the movies, as well as the
series fairly continuous and consistent filmmaking style.I have noted wherever I take such analytical liberties.
- I have been selective in the motifs discussed from each stage of the Monomyth only for reasons of space and length; the various films touch on nearly all of said concepts. For those interested in this rich subject matter, to which I can barely, and only superficially, do full justice even as a 3-parter, I encourage you to read Professor Campbell’s work, particularly The Hero with a Thousand Faces, or at least the Cliff`s Notes.
- Also, I have generally approached the unique structure of the Saga (3 linked trilogies) in a way that corresponds to Campbell’s Hero’s Journey 3 stage template; thus in my analysis, episodes I,IV, and VII correspond to the Journey’s Departure stage, episodes II, V, and VIII with Initiation and episodes III, VI and the forthcoming IX as the Return. I will also deal with the 1977 original film, on occasion, separately as it is truly the only “stand-alone” movie in the series (ie. it has a beginning, a middle, and without follow-ups, a definitive ending) and also because it is commonly (and correctly) distinguished as the most popular and successful interpretation of the Hero’s Journey story structure. It will also be considered as the Departure stage of the original trilogy as noted.
- However, though beyond the scope of this piece, as a trilogy of trilogies it can also be read thusly: the prequel trilogy = Departure, the original trilogy = Initiation, and the sequel trilogy =Return. Frankly, I think there`s enough interesting stuff at work here to warrant a book