Star Wars: What We Can Learn from the Skywalker Saga & the Hero’s Journey
Both Anakin and Luke Skywalker take the idea of a Chosen One - but how do the two Star Wars trilogies so far approach it?
Note: This article contains spoilers for all of the previous Star Wars films.
Den of Geek’s already discussed how the “Chosen One” story arc, in which a protagonist’s heroic quest is given to him/her by destiny, has been lazily used and also ditched in kids’ and young adult media. Since then, it’s continued to appear as recently as the critical and commercial flop Pan (a film we liked more than most). As pointed out then, The Hunger Games series has provided a great example of a proactive protagonist in Katniss Everdeen, while The LEGO Movie simultaneously skewered and made anew the Chosen One myth, emphasizing that everything is awesome, and should be used accordingly to its full potential.
But in December, what may be cinema’s most lucrative franchise returns to dominate cinema screens and our wallets. Star Wars, as originally created by George Lucas, is known as owing a debt to the filmmaker’s study of Joseph Campbell’s writings on mythology, including his signature work The Hero with a Thousand Faces, credited with popularizing the “Chosen One” story arc. But have the films themselves really stuck to a rigid heroic storyline, or are they more subversive under their classic melodramatic sheen?
I should say that yes, Joseph Campbell is the man behind the ubiquitous “Hero’s Journey,” a concept which anyone who’s taken a creative writing course has almost certainly heard of. “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man” as he describes.
But here’s the thing: Campbell was a mythologist, not a screenwriting guru. His work showed that the world’s various mythologies shared at least some common thoughts, an idea he dubbed a “monomyth” after James Joyce. This doesn’t mean all stories ever are exactly the same underneath, or that following the Hero’s Journey exactly as written is a foolproof formula for your story to succeed, but too many stories and scripts have run with it anyway. The proliferation of Chosen Ones is the latest lazy manifestation of this, substituting plot for character.
Star Wars doesn’t fall into this trap. No matter how much George Lucas drew from and admired Campbell, both the Original and Prequel Trilogies place the idea of heroic destiny under great scrutiny. The character-driven narrative and stakes which are as much personal as galactic are what make it outstanding.
Since the idea of a Chosen One revolves around the protagonist, and the Saga’s main characters are the Skywalkers, let’s look at the two trilogies side by side, to see the paths of Luke and Anakin, how both struggle with destiny and how it brings them together in the end.
Starting with one of the Hero’s Journey’s most crucial components, The Call.
Luke definitely faces a Call, but Lucas doesn’t take any shortcuts via a Chosen One route. Although Luke is the son of Darth Vader and therefore important for the remaining Jedi to protect from the Sith and raise as a Jedi, those are only details we learn after A New Hope, the initial film. Yes, Luke bears the inheritance of great Force sensitivity (“The Force is strong in my family”) but no explicit prophecy surrounds his quest to save Princess Leia and destroy the Death Star, and Obi-Wan doesn’t pressure him with any idea of fulfilling destiny beyond gifting him his father’s lightsaber.
The Call in A New Hope is simply a young princess’ desperate plea for help as the Empire, which oppresses both her and Luke, closes in. And this is capped off by his Aunt and Uncle being killed. “You must do what you feel is right, of course” are Obi-Wan’s words, and Luke goes with him because he chooses to.
Now Anakin, he’s much more of a Chosen One than Luke ever was…
And yet, though the Prequel Trilogy literally calling Anakin a Chosen One implies his immaculate conception via the will of the Force, it’s rarely straightforwardly heroic, and I’d argue a damn good example of how terrible actually being a Chosen One would be for someone. For my money, such thematic focus is the only way a Chosen One narrative can organically work.
Now, let’s leave aside whatever you may think of Jake Lloyd’s acting in The Phantom Menace and analyze Anakin’s character. He, a precocious, exuberant young boy, and his mother are both slaves on Tatooine until maverick Jedi master Qui-Gon Jinn arrives. Although he suspects “There’s something about this boy” and confirms it both with an all-time high midi-chlorian count and Anakin winning the pod race, he lets Anakin decide what to do with his newly won freedom.
But Qui-Gon’s pretty different from the chaste and cautious Jedi Council, which is suspicious of anything which it can’t totally control. Despite being ten years younger than Luke when he begins training, they reject Anakin as too old. They only agree to accept him to honor Obi-Wan’s vow to the dying Qui-Gon, the master Anakin really needed. The Jedi, including Obi-Wan, see danger in Anakin’s prodigious talents rather than potential, something to be rigidly contained within a prophecy to destroy the Sith rather than realizing that Anakin needs to replace what he lost – love, specifically the love of his mother Shmi.
Thus, our look at both heroes moves onto temptation…
As we’ve seen, Luke is no Chosen One bound by destiny when he accepts the Call and trains to become a Jedi. Indeed, the idea that Luke has a “destiny” to fulfil belongs chiefly to the villains. In The Empire Strikes Back, with the crushing revelation that Darth Vader is in fact Luke’s father, Vader frequently urges Luke to join him as apprentice and destroy the Emperor, “the only way” to end the Civil War.
And then in Return of the Jedi when Yoda and Obi-Wan’s secrets are revealed, they urge him to confront Vader again and destroy him, warning him he cannot “escape his destiny.” But Luke insists he can’t kill his father. He was originally tempted by fear for his friends and frustration at his lack of progress to fight who he thought was just a villain to be vanquished. Both the eerie episode in the Dagobah cave and learning that said bad guy was his own father, once a great Jedi, teach him caution.
When we meet Anakin as Obi-Wan’s adolescent padawan in Attack of the Clones, the gaping hole in his life remains unfilled, unable to act on his promise to go back and free his mother, or stop dreaming about her. He also has two extremes of mentor, neither of which is really healthy. On the one hand, he has the Jedi Council warning him to hold back his ambitions, follow instructions, and reject all attachments. They don’t discourage him maliciously of course, wary of the arrogance that excellence can breed, but Yoda, Obi-Wan, and Mace Windu repeatedly discuss Anakin behind his back.
On the other, he is good friends with Chancellor Palpatine, who (as part of his manipulations) comforts Anakin by telling him he’ll soon be “invincible,” that “you don’t need guidance” and essentially that as Chosen One he can have everything he wants. Including those he loves. With Palpatine building up Anakin’s expectations of power while the Jedi simultaneously keep him down, his frustrations inevitably grow. Instead of being able to accept what he’s lost and what’s beyond him, being the Chosen One means he can’t deal with things being out of his control. So he acts rashly and angrily, immaturely claiming that Obi-Wan never listens to him, that he’s even “jealous” of his talents.
Then there’s the dream-visions both he and Luke have. Anakin has nightmares of his mother in pain, tries to save her, and fails. Luke has similar visions of his friends suffering on Bespin, and by rushing to save them and destroy Vader, he suffers but learns from it.
Anakin doesn’t have an Empire-style humbling to convince him that the pursuit of absolute power is wrong. After he finds his dying mother and kills a band of Tusken Raiders in revenge, he is shocked at his anger and yet exasperated that he didn’t have enough power to save Shmi. He’s supposed to be the Chosen One. Doesn’t that mean he should be “the most powerful Jedi ever” if he is to destroy the Sith and bring balance to the Force?
During Revenge of the Sith, Anakin has similar visions about Padme dying in childbirth, he clearly falls for Palpatine’s story concerning Darth Plagueis and cheating death. Upon learning Palpatine is a Sith Lord (as well of the apparent possibility to save Padme), Anakin still tries having him arrested in the most proper way possible, but at the crucial moment, he chooses his own interests, and spares the evil Sith Lord over the well-meaning but restrictive crux of the Jedi, by disarming Windu. Anakin knows how the Jedi have been trying to use him against Palpatine, but not until it’s too late, until he feels he can’t go back on his path to evil, does he realize how Palpatine has used him.
From there Anakin rationalizes his increasingly monstrous actions, slaughtering both Jedi and Separatists, in pursuit of power he feels he not only needs, but also deserves – he reinterprets being the Chosen One as bringing peace to the galaxy by himself, without the Jedi or ultimately the new Emperor. Anakin was fed up with the dysfunctional Galactic Senate to the point where he supported a dictatorship led by “someone wise…if it works.”
But as Obi-Wan duels with him, admitting that he hasn’t been the mentor Anakin needed (“I have failed you”), it’s also emphasized however tragic Anakin’s downfall is, his grievances don’t excuse his actions. He did it all for his own purposes, no matter the original good intentions. And with his christening as Darth Vader and Padme’s death, the bitterest ironies are complete. Anakin, from life on Tatooine, as a Jedi knight, and then as Vader, is never truly free his entire life, and now he’s enslaved himself to the very evil he swore to destroy, and his pursuit of power ended the same life he was trying to protect.
Do not want, indeed.
Atonement with the Father
Now for where the two heroes converge.
Anakin’s fall makes clear that if the Jedi are to finally defeat the Sith, they must nurture a hero whose goal isn’t to be all-powerful, led on by an exceptionalist prophecy. That’s just trying to beat the Sith at their own game. All the Star Wars films concern the folly of pursuing absolute power in some way, whether it’s someone being tempted by the Dark Side or the Empire building a Death Star. To paraphrase Princess Leia, the more you tighten your grip, the more power slips through your fingers.
Anakin’s dark choices were about rebelling against a life which gave him no choice except to be the pawn of others. He wasn’t an empty character, but the Prequels demonstrate how destiny blocks actual character rather than encourage it.
That’s where Luke comes in to save the day and his father’s soul. Luke’s greatest victory in the series is that despite the temptation to kill Vader and give in to the Dark Side, he avoids the same “quick and easy path” as his father and spares him instead. Star Wars rightly recognizes the Hero’s Journey’s potential for dark individualism, with the utter destruction of your enemy completing your self-actualization. It becomes a hero’s journey into villainy, and Luke nearly succumbs to his hate in essentially bludgeoning Vader into submission, desperate to save his friends like Anakin was to save those he loved.
He’s only prevented from killing Vader by the Emperor’s reminder to fulfil his destiny, a shackle which Luke valiantly casts off (Nice Job Fixing It, Villain). And it’s his mercy towards Vader that ultimately saves Luke from the Emperor’s onslaught, inspiring his father’s redemption by ending his wicked master. So Anakin technically does fulfil the prophecy, but not through lone supremacy: it’s only achieved through the love and mercy of his son, and by sacrificing himself.
Sequel Trilogy and Conclusion
So with all that said, and Lucasfilm presumably set to produce Star Warsfilms every year forever under Disney’s ownership, will the upcoming Sequel Trilogy feature a Chosen One, starting with The Force Awakens?
I’m guessing probably not, but J.J. Abrams’ mystery-box mentality means not much plot’s been weaned from any of the film’s trailers, except that Rey and Finn are to be the next generation of heroes in a changing-of-the-guard with Luke, Han, and Leia.
It’d be a shame if the future films resorted to the Hero’s Journey, because what I’ve hopefully shown here is that Lucas, plus the various writers and directors on the original six films, created a very convincing, tragic, and triumphant story of two paths of heroism: one is shackled by expectations of prophecy with the other freed by choice. Not to mention how heroism is completed by sparing and redeeming your enemy rather than conquering or destroying them for your own power and security.
I expect many will disagree with me regarding the Prequels’ effectiveness, but however well you think they work, I think Lucas deserves credit for portraying why a Chosen One narrative could almost never work when played straight. The hero’s micromanagement by fellow “good guys,” the stress of expectation on the hero himself, and the possibility for the situation to be manipulated and turned bad by evil interests would ultimately destroy him.
And I don’t think I’m just going through the Prequels’ good intentions either: Revenge of the Sith especially is proudly operatic stuff, following a well-meaning and ambitious young man tragically failing to become the hero the galaxy needed, with horrendous consequences. Only an independently-owned mega-franchise allowed Lucas to do that, and I hope Abrams hasn’t neglected Star Wars’ more melodramatic side in making The Force Awakens.
It’s not enough to use things like the Hero’s Journey just as a template. That quick and easy path leads to forgettable stories. Star Wars endures because Lucas studied and consulted with Campbell, yet made Star Wars its own distinct, functional story beyond the philosopher’s classifications of monomyth. You can identify elements, but they aren’t all there is to the Skywalker saga.