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Publisher: Bluejack

June, 2005 : Criticism:

Reintegrating the Shattered Divine

The Hero’s Journey of Anakin Skywalker

If you haven’t actually seen them at the multiplex, you saw them on your local Eyewitness News, presented with a wink and a guffaw: the fans dressed as Boba Fett and Darth Vader and Jedi Knights, waiting on line for hours or days in order to be the first to catch the final installment of George Lucas’ Star Wars odyssey, The Revenge of the Sith.

It’s easy to make fun of these people, but it’s not so easy to dismiss them. For while plenty of movies rake in mountains of dough and produce devoted followers who can quote entire scenes—if not the entire script—from memory, very few inspire followings for which the word “religious” is not too strong a description.

Nor is it necessarily an unsuitable one. Lucas, with his first Star Wars film, tapped into what scholar of comparative mythology Joseph Campbell called the “monomyth”,(1) the archetypal story of challenging the gods and discovering the divine in oneself that is the framework for all human religion, and indeed for many of the stories we find most satisfying. Theseus and Aneus, Jesus and Buddha, Hamlet and Frodo Baggins, Neo and Luke Skywalker—they all traveled the monomyth’s “hero’s journey,” which, in its broadest sense, involves an expulsion from the ordinary world; an odyssey through realms of danger and magic, of physical and spiritual challenges; and a return to the world with newfound wisdom that has the potential to make the world a better place.

Lucas may have appropriated the monomyth unconsciously with the first film of his saga—as Campbell says in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, his extraordinary and eye-opening book about the monomyth, “the symbols of mythology are not manufactured”; they are elements of deep-seated psychological longings that transcend culture. And it may be true that, after Campbell himself pointed out the literary and mythological importance of Lucas’s tale, the filmmaker—as some critics have complained—let that get in the way of good, simple storytelling. But none of that negates the truth of the connection. It’s why the awkward scripts and bad direction, particularly in the new prequel trilogy, cannot lessen the dramatic psychological impact of the Skywalkers’ story any more than an elementary-school Christmas pageant can lessen the beauty of the story of Jesus. It’s why the story of Star Wars feels less like an invention than it does a discovery unearthed from antiquity. Because fans instinctively recognize the greater story that Lucas sometimes only hints at, it’s not only easy to fill in the blanks he left but almost impossible for us not to.

The story of Luke Skywalker has been famously dissected and held up as a hero’s journey, and inevitably that of his father, Anakin Skywalker, will be analyzed from the perspective of legend, too. Certainly, there are mythological characters it’s too delicious not to liken Anakin to—Lucifer, for instance, who preferred to rule in hell rather than serve in heaven; Anakin’s rancor at what he perceives as an insult from the Jedi leadership, in Revenge of the Sith, when he is granted only junior membership on the ruling council, is particularly Luciferian. And on first glance, it looks as if Anakin’s hero’s journey can only be called a failed one—imagine if Prometheus had snuck into the realm of the gods to snatch fire from them and never returned.

Except Lucifer never returned from hell, and Anakin’s journey, after all, is not over until his son redeems him (and perhaps not even then). Even a quick glance at other mythologies shows Anakin to be more mythologically potent than Luke is—both men experience what Campbell calls the larger story of “the son against the father for the mastery of the universe”; Luke squares off against Vader, Campbell’s archetypal “ogre father,” and Anakin squares off against his spiritual father, Palpatine. But Anakin is also the product of a virgin birth (as are other heroes: Jesus, Phaethon), for instance, and is resurrected after death (like Adonis, Mithra, and Osiris). It may be that Anakin’s journey through the Dark Side is more akin to a crucifixion, an archetypal suffering that is a necessary part of the path to enlightenment; Campbell describes the Norse god Odin thus: he “gave an eye to split the veil of light into the knowledge of [an] infinite dark, and then underwent for it the passion of a crucifixion.” That sounds an awful lot like Anakin!

The point isn’t, of course, that if X number of elements from other mythological systems match Anakin’s story it’s more valid, but that the pattern is there, and more importantly, that Anakin’s story isn’t over at the end of Revenge of the Sith or even at the end of The Return of the Jedi. When Anakin reemerges out of Darth Vader at the end of Jedi, rescued by his son, that’s just the beginning of the end of his odyssey—he still needs to share the wisdom he’s gathered on his cruel pilgrimage with the rest of the world. Perhaps he’ll finally bring the balance to the Force he was prophesied to bring, by reintegrating the Light Side and the Dark in a way that recognizes that both are a part of human nature. That’s a philosophy Lucas has been hinting at with the prequel trilogy, that perhaps the Jedi have become too dogmatic, are indeed too self-sacrificing and too ascetic. As the only true wielder of an integrated Force, it’s Anakin’s mythological duty to spread the word of it.

If Lucas is as enamored of his story as his fans are, I don’t think he’ll be able to resist completing it. Three more Star Wars movies, anyone?

Footnotes

1.   See the Wikipedia entry on monomyth, available at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monomyth. [Back]


Copyright © 2005, MaryAnn Johanson. All Rights Reserved.

About MaryAnn Johanson

MaryAnn Johanson is one of the most popular and most respected film critics publishing online—Time magazine likes her "snarky, well-informed commentary [and] breezy style," and Variety calls her "one of online's finest" film critics. She keeps a weather eye on Hollywood at The Flick Filosopher.

COMMENTS!

Jun 6, 19:55 by Bluejack
Anakin Skywalker: lightbringer. Will Lucas return to the trough?

For MaryAnn Johanson's duscussion, here's a link to the article.
Jun 7, 07:03 by Libero Della Piana
The article above gives the impression that Lucas inadvertantly tapped into the mythic themes of Joseph Campbell. Actually, Lucas studied with Campbell, who at one time called him his "greratest student." 1985's famous "Power of Myth" PBS series was filmed at Lucas' Skywalker Ranch.

My question is how muuch of the story arc was really known by Lucas at the time "A New Hope" was filmed?
Jun 7, 19:48 by MaryAnn Johanson
I don't think it matters whether Lucas tapped into the monomyth inadvertantly or deliberately -- what matters is that he did tap into it. Because he did, he didn't need to know all the details of his story in advance (reportedly he didn't know whether Leia was Luke's sister until late in the filming of *The Empire Strikes Back*) -- they would have worked themselves out somehow.

MaryAnn
Jun 8, 07:22 by James Pfundstein
I was much more interested in the reported "sequel" trilogy than the "prequel" trilogy (and I have to say that my misgivings were justified, although I haven't seen _Sith_ yet). If Lucas does make more movies, I hope he turns the scriptwriting duties over to someone who can do the job. The best of all the movies is clearly _Empire Strikes Back_-- penned by the legendary Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan. Lucas' own scripts done have the same snap to their dialogue, and they're full of unfortunate inventions like the Ewoks and Jar Jar Binks.

I agree that the mythical stuff is the best part of the _Star Wars_ series. But I think the movies were originally intended to be a kind of future history. (Hence, for instance, the stultifying detail about Trade Federations and galactic politics in Episode One: The Phantom Plot.) I don't think they succeed very well on this front.

JMP
Jun 8, 13:11 by Jocelyn Shratter
Lucas, a few years after the original trilogy, made a movie called Willow, which he then followed with a book trilogy he wrote with Chris Claremont. The book trilogy(I think called the Shadow War) also dealt with a hero(ine) who was destined to bring balance to her world. However, (warning: spoiler if you ever want to read the series) in order to bring balance to light and dark, good and evil, she first had to embrace and become the dark and the evil, in order to understand and overcome it. Watching RotS, that immediately sprang to mind. Obi Wan said Anakin was supposed to destroy the Sith - and he does, destroying the Emperor and himself. But he could only do that by embracing the Dark Side, thus being able to fully reject it and all it promised, as well as being far enough in the Emperor's trust to be able to kill him. No Sith apprentices remain to carry on the tradition (to me it was implied that the Sith had continued in hiding by apprentices carrying it on when masters were destroyed).

As for Luke, he doesn't have to balance the Force, as his father has already balanced it (for now. . .bwahahaha!). And he doesn't have the influence of the ancient beauracracy and self-importance of the corrupted Jedi Council to mess up the new generation of Jedi, and the new incarnation of the Galaxy. Until the cycle begins again, and needs to be rebalanced.
Jun 8, 16:29 by Mark Armstrong
I had a thought which occurred to me whilst watching the Phantom Menace for the first time. Could the force not be in balance due to the fact that the Jedi have destabilized it too far in their direction (forgetting good and evil for now).

It seemed to me that the prophecy about bringing balance to the force could be very much a two edged sword, much like the Oracle Of Delphi's prophecy to Croesus that "If you go to war you will cause the destruction of a great empire" without revealing that it was his own empire that would fall. This was probably implied by Yoda in the recent movie when he states that the prophecy may have been misunderstood.

Jun 8, 21:03 by travitt hamilton
I think the misunderstood prophesy thing is that Anakin brings balance, but not in the way the Jedi expected. Or maybe just not on the Jedi timetable.
Jun 9, 20:30 by MaryAnn Johanson
I agree completely that this idea about bringing balance to the Force has been utterly misinterpreted by the Jedi (who I think have indeed become too dogmatic and smug in their positions of power). Clearly, Anakin *does* bring balance to the Force: he reduces the ranks of the Jedi to two (Obi-Wan and Yoda)... which is exactly the number of Sith (Anakin and Palpatine).
Jun 9, 21:04 by John Doe
Anakin does more than that. At the end of Return of the Jedi, there are no Sith and no Jedi. There is only Luke. He has claimed the title of Jedi, but he is not a Jedi of the Temple.

That is why Yoda said that if he left Dagobah to save his friends on Cloud City that he would sacrifice all for which they had fought and suffered. After the Empire is brought down at the end of Return of the Jedi, this is proven false. His friends thought that they were fighting for a political goal: the restoration of the Republic. And Luke was able to save their lives and still achieve their goal.

But Yoda, in his Jedi way, wasn't referring to the political cause. He was referring to the Jedi Order. When Luke left early, without having completed his training, he killed the Jedi. Never again would he have the opportunity to be trained in the ways of the Jedi as they had been passed down for thousands of years. The Temple died with Yoda.

And so the only surviving Force user - the only one able to teach future generations of gifted students - will have to find his own way forward. Instead of being trapped between two dogmatic views of the Force, Light and Dark, Luke will have the chance to bring forth a new Temple, one dedicated to a more "balanced" view.

This is the meaning of the prophecy.
Jun 10, 00:08 by Travis Jones
If you read the expanded universe of the Star Wars novels, you find out that Anakin does bring balance to the force, just not directly or immediately.

In the novel version of RotS, while Yoda is fighting Dooku, he comes to the realization that while he has spent the past centuries teaching the Jedi how to fight the Sith as they were, the Sith have become far more powerful than the Jedi. He recognizes that all he can do at this point is retreat and hope to lay the foundations for countering the Dark Side.

Fast forward five or six decades to the New Jedi Order series and Luke has done a fair job of rebuilding the Jedi into something more workable and internally balanced. They all know that there is a lot of knowledge that they do not have, but they are getting by.

Then some invaders show up to take over the galaxy and the current view of the Force is of very little help in defeating them. As a result, one of Anakin's grandchildren (through a number of trials and tribulations, including a brush with the dark side if I recall correctly) comes to a new way of interacting with the Force which makes for things turning out alright.

So yeah, the Jedi of the prequals pretty much looking at the prophecy all wrong. Except maybe Qui Gon. I like to think he might have had an idea of what was actually going on.
Jun 15, 11:51 by Luke Stuard
With all due respect to the splendidly geeky MaryAnn, I think that reducing the scope of the prophecy to apply only to force users/sensers is slightly erroneous. If the prophecy was termed directly in the context of force uses (either the Jedi, the Sith, or the independents that have appeared in the extended Star Wars canon), then the conclusion that Anakin brought balance to the force by equalizing the number of Jedi and Sith would be quite apt and appropriate (at least on the surface of things: if we delve a bit further we see that although their numbers are equal, there is a great disparity between the two remaining Jedi and the two Sith in terms of corporeal power and influence; after Episode 3, the Sith hold far more sway than the pair of exiled Jedi…in fact, they arguably are more powerful and influential than the entire Jedi order was at its apex). However, it’s highly probable that there is far more at play here than simply an imbalance between the two major groups of force manipulators.

If “bringing balance to the force” is applied to the force as a whole, which ostensibly includes every living organism in the universe, then Anakin unequivocally failed to fulfill the prophecy. So complete is his failure that his actions subsequent to his transformation could only further imbalance the force. Take for instance Vader’s culminating act of badness: the destruction of Aldedraan. Imagine the tremendous and destabilizing impact the annihilation of an entire planet (not the mention the billions or trillions of living things that called it home) must have had on the force; Obi-Wan’s “I have felt a great disturbance in the force” just doesn’t quite cover it!

I think that the difficulty for us not only lies in the ambiguous nature of the prophecy, but also in the ambiguous nature of the Jedi’s complaint. We are never told what the imbalance in the force might entail nor is it ever made patently clear. Does it simply involve the presence of the Sith (who, I might add, are far less numerous than they were in Yoda’s youth)? Has there been a general shift towards darkness in the universe? Did Jerry Falwell, Pat Robinson, James Dobson, and George W. Bush begin construction on a nuclear “BibleStar”? We just don’t know. Lucas has remained relatively mum on this subject and it’s up to us to fill in the gaps the best we can (if you ask me, I’m partial to the BibleStar explanation…but that’s just me :-> )
Jun 15, 12:39 by Bluejack
Luke, that gets me thinking about a related matter...

Where did this prophesy come from? Who thought it up? Does this imply a deterministic universe? What is the nature of time in a force-driven universe? How do we know it's not just some crackpot having a dream? Or making stuff up to be ornery?

Why do people put so much importance on "prophesies"? Why do we expect them to be accurate *predictions*?

Looking into our own history, the prophesies from the greek oracles were often clever conundrums, acting as causal participants in the events they ambiguously describe. In the Old Testament, prophesy was generally *not* about predicting the future, but God speaking to the present.
Jun 16, 12:25 by Luke Stuard
Bluejack,

The origins of the prophecy are as ambiguous as the problem that it addresses. Your guess is as good as mine. We are never told whom or where the prophecy originates; all we can say is that it is of a long-standing origin. Theoretically, there could have been any number of sources: a single Jedi, a group of Jedi, a representative of an alien species (one that possibly evolved some innate ability for prognostication), an existing text, a Jedi who passed on and relayed the message from beyond, etc.

Asking whether or not an accurate prophecy implies a strictly deterministic universe presents a tricky conundrum, one that has never been fully resolved in our own sphere. Much thought has been given to the nature of predestination and to that of free will. For most individuals, it seems to be an either/or proposition. Either our lives are pre-ordained by some exterior force or we possess free will and are able to direct our lives however we please. Personally, I believe that like most things the truth of the matter lies in-between the two extremes. Our capacity for free will is dependent on the number of viable options presented us (some clever theologians have used this line of reasoning in trying to explain the problem of evil in the universe: for free will to exist, there has to be an alternative to good); if there is only one feasible choice in any given situation, what kind of free will can we truly say we have? Furthermore, several factors are capable of putting limitations on our free will; environment, genetic makeup, background, and personal character can all limit the set of choices available to us.

As to why people put so much importance in prophecy and why do they expect accurate predictions; the answers to those questions lie far back in the history of our origins. The desire to see into a future is understandable in a milieu that is so changeable and transitory; it provides us with a sense of security in a mercurial world. The practice of divination has probably been with us since Early Man first arose; I can say with a good deal of certainty that it’s been around since the Neanderthals, who were the first (as far as we can tell) to exhibit complex social customs such as ceremonial burial, came on the scene. Since that time, it has spread to be practiced in one form or another on every corner of the globe, even to modern times (astrology and tarot are examples of existing types of divination that are prevalent in our culture.

Any way, I think that should give you enough to chew on for the moment. I was starting to feel like I was writing a paper, which could be an unfortunate habit, you know ?
Feb 12, 15:32 by Jennifer Hough
My goodness, you people are going to turn me into a Star Wars fan. Make me want to watch them all again, at the very least. Reading all of this I very nearly forget I don't actually like them all that much....you all THINK so well, and make them sound so thinkish.
Nov 18, 10:14 by Athena Andreadis
My minority report on Star Wars in Strange Horizons: We Must Love One Another or Die.
Oct 24, 14:39 by molakajja@gmail.com
What a sensational approach to the subject, great!
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