ROLF MAURER UPDATING THE HERO’S JOURNEY
Exploring the Extended Universe: Musings on a Galaxy Not That Far Away, After All….
The Forgotten Power of Failed Heroes
“The world is full of people who have stopped listening to themselves, or have listened only to their neighbors to learn what they ought to do, how they ought to behave, and what the values are that they should be living for.”
—The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell; Bill Moyers, Doubleday, 1988, p. 181.
“Wait a minute! Kid, you saved my son’s life. Maybe you can’t use the Force. So what? Neither can I, and it hasn’t held me back.”
—Star Wars: The Crystal Star, Vonda McIntyre, Bantam Books, 1994, p. 402.
The second comment to a rescued member of a Sith-like youth movement maps out a complete turnaround for the saga’s resident swashbuckler: Han Solo is introduced as a harsh cynic about the Force in A New Hope, turns believer by Return of the Jedi, then ends up marrying a Force-sensitive by SW: The Courtship of Princess Leia (Dave Wolverton, Bantam, 1994). But as Ann Cripsin’s Han Solo trilogy of four years later demonstrates, from the outset, Solo was forced to make his own way in life, and, understandably, has a level-headed attitude about the Force and what advantages it confers to those receptive to it.
Compare this with the media frenzy just a few weeks back about the Royal wedding, where viewers on at least two continents were fawning over the nuptials celebrating an institution that should rightly be a thing of the past.
Somehow, we can more readily sympathize with Solo’s internal grousing in McIntyre’s adventure, which takes place about 14 years after ROJ , wherein, as a hero of the Battle of Yavin, he is getting sick of running diplomatic interference for Luke, whose galaxy-scouring recruitment zeal to resurrect the Jedi Order is making the New Republic and the rest of those not Force-sensitive it serves understandably nervous (especially since Hans’s three kids are the grandchildren of one of the two to last wield the Force politically). As revealed with more complexity in the prequel trilogy, as well as several of the Del Rey Karen Traviss entries in her Imperial Commando and Republic Commando series, the Jedi of the Old Republic are not regarded with such unalloyed or romanticized admiration as Prince William and Kate Middleton.
At least the populace in the Star Wars universe has a healthy suspicion of those who lay claim to authority from some intrinsic sense of entitlement. Here in the Milky Way, apparently people (humans, at least) actively pine for it.
A Cross-Pond Fixation With Being Led?
Other than the fact the Royal family is of particular symbolic value to Britons (while the Queen mother’s celebrated pitching-in during the Blitz can’t be underestimated), the question is why the appeal at all, particularly for Americans, whose cultural origins are supposedly steeped in an Enlightenment-era emphasis on egalitarianism and a general eschewing of dynastic, or divinely-ordained advantages? After all, didn’t the title of “President” come into being in place of “King” at the suggestion of Washington, himself, to avoid monarchical overtones?
What the State wants (as opposed to what it proclaims) and what the public wants (based, more often than not, on what it is conditioned to believe) are constructs rarely serving a shared need. Be it Constitution, Magna Carta, Bill of Rights, or other legislative innovations intended to revise how people and the government should relate to one another, the impact of the Judeo-Christian obsession with messianic figures, fairy tales and, specifically, the stations of the Hero’s Journey as dissected by Joseph Campbell (anthropological muse to the Lucas opus), lend the titled a persistent, comforting (if dangerously infantilizing) appeal that will not be denied in human affairs. The popularity of the recent Internet hoax posting comparing the Royal couple’s wedding attire with that of Prince Charming and the title character from Disney’s Cinderella (1950) suggests how self-reinforcing this yearning for superiors to be led by can be.
As one of the major influences on Star Wars, the Arthurian motif implies that because of some actual or perceived extraordinary character, only some are entitled to a full range of what would be considered human rights, by today’s standards, in exchange for ensuring the welfare of those lacking their rare qualities; by inference, it is the role of the latter to wallow in learned helplessness, lest they step out and suffer the fate of Luke’s doomed childhood friend, Biggs Darklighter, the Campbellian archetype of the Failed Hero, whose sacrifice demonstrates the depth of the challenge.
But instead of waiting for the hero’s glorious return from the quest with a boon for society, what if the fairytale ended with everyone living happily ever after–would there even be a need for traditionally-defined heroes and their nobles oblige?
True Leadership, Leading Ourselves
Sure, everyone needs heroes, but should that need preclude paying heed to what interests their popularized interpretations may serve? History demonstrates repeatedly that the opposite of the standard heroic model prevails–that it is the majority working collectively, rather than the privileged few, who have made life worthwhile for the greatest number–not always successfully, to be sure; but real heroism comes not from the assurance of success, but from the tenacity of the attempt. The legacy of Gandhi and Martin Luther King is not how much the world was bettered by their presence, but how much better it can be by ours. Brigadier General Smedley Butler, famous for his essay, “War Is a Racket”, which articulated the back-scratching collusion between finance, government and the military as the true driver of wars, camped out with some 40,000 WWI-era veterans before the White House during the Bonus Army protests of 1932 to demand advance service benefits so that they could survive the Depression. In contrast, the more celebrated Douglas MacArther participated in the government routing of those veterans and their families using six tanks. The long-term blowback resulted not only in a $2 billion congressional payout to veterans four years later, but the subsequent passage of the GI Bill of Rights that helped stimulate the most dramatic upward class-shift for a generation of American WWII veterans, who were able to attain a college education and a decent standard of living. Not bad for a bunch of clueless commoners.
Nevertheless, across all genres, the entertainment industry assiduously does its part to dissuade contemporary moviegoers that they can hope for nothing better than to serve as passive passengers aboard society’s railroad, rather than be its conductors or engineers. The 2002 comedy Barbershop inserts a slyly disempowering exchange between a barber (played by Cedric the Entertainer) and a customer wherein civil rights activist Rosa Park’s signature refusal to give up her bus seat to a white man is dismissed on the grounds that she was simply “tired”. In reality, her resistance, as a member of the NAACP, was a pre-meditated gesture that decisively challenged institutionalized racism in American society.
If the mainstream isn’t glamorizing those unworthy of attention, like members of the House of Windsor (whose wealth had more to do with a history of war profiteering, domestic and international plunder, than any defensible accomplishments), or disparaging genuinely admirable figures like Parks, it focuses on the impact of still others with an undeservedly myopic lens.
Lord Vader’s Antipode?
In so many words, Solo affirms in Crystal Star that it is what you do with what tools you have that makes all the difference in life, not just the quality of the tools–and in our world, Helen Keller is an astonishingly inspirational example of this.
Readily acclaimed for her determination in overcoming her loss of sight and hearing as a child to establish recognition for the rights and education of those similarly afflicted as an adult, Keller, for most, is defined by the play, “The Miracle Worker”. What is not as widely related is that once Keller was able to advocate for the rights of those with sensory disadvantages, she turned her attention to the cause of the class- and economically disadvantaged, as well, campaigning against war, for labor rights, as well as the voting and reproductive rights of women, among other concerns.
Of course, besides resources or determination, in what direction you choose to let them take you is also important. If Keller and Vader were ranked on an aspirational integer scale, with each figure’s ability to draw strength from their circumstances and faculties, while most people might hover around zero, it’s clear who would be well along on the positive and negative sides.
Room for Jedi On Avalon?
Anakin’s metamorphosis into Darth Vader is due in no small part to the fact that his mother’s bondage back on Tatooine went completely unaddressed during his ten years of Jedi training on Coruscant between Phanton Menace and Attack of the Clones, much less the continued tolerance by the galactic government and the Jedi of slavery in the Republic.
Aside from Yoda expressing some typically tea leaf-reading-vague reservations, how could the boy’s sponsors not see this as a major distraction to his training, not to mention making the lure of the Dark Side all the more appealing? In a classically tragic sense, then, it was the hubris of the Jedi, embodied by Qui-Gon, in seeking to balance the energy field that informed the order’s existence, that led to its downfall.
Yet, this sort of seeming unconscious contextualization of ethical standards is at the core of Arthuriana through various iterations, be it Thomas Malory, Howard Pyle, or T.H. White. If “balancing the Force” is comparable to the establishment of a harmonious order akin to Camelot, than, like the latter, isn’t the fatal flaw in such a pursuit its greater emphasis on protecting the status quo than on fomenting fundamental social justice? Isn’t that why the rank-and-file despise the self-absorbed Jedi? Like medieval knights steeped in the tenets of chivalric conduct, they may come to the aid of the wronged, whether serfs or nobleborn, while doing nothing to address the systemic wrongs a feudal system relies upon to extract labor and opportunity from the many for the benefit and power of the few.
It’s Not Just About You
Perhaps the problem is the overemphasis on the Hero’s Journey as an exercise in primarily personal development, without regard for any concommitant responsibility to help those around us, those strangers on a train, to pursue their own journeys, as well.
Between the screen and the printed page, Star Wars‘ epic oscillation from Republic and Empire and back again now spans millennia, rather than just generations. But the real evil of the Dark Side is not measured by how dramatic the scale of suffering and death, or how craven the grasp for absolute power it inspires, but in how far its practitioners are willing to use it to harness, or divert countless others’ own right to–and rite of–self-discovery.
In light of the current labor and social revolts in Wisconsin, Europe and the Middle East, the sobering truth emerges that such exploitation can flourish equally in a civil society as in a rank dictatorship.
Whatever counterparts to Star Wars’ extremes one may select for comparison with the real world, perhaps a worthier path to balance, geopolitical stability, or however one might phrase it, does not lie in some set-it-and-forget-it track of unrealistic guaranteed security or endless economic growth, but as part of a fluid continium of mutual human possibility, where we serve as one another’s heroes
c.2011 Rolf Maurer, printed with permission of the author