Of all the new characters debuting in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” Rey (Daisy Ridley) appears to be the most prominent. She starts out in a place very familiar to Star Wars protagonists, suggesting that her role may be similar to certain other desert-dwellers. If that’s the case, it may come at a significant personal cost. Let’s look at the making and breaking of Anakin’s and Luke’s relationships, and what they could tell us about Rey’s journey. There will be spoiler-type speculation, so be warned.
“Star Wars” has always sent mixed signals about one aspect of Jedi behavior. As practiced in the days of the Old Republic, the Jedi Code forbade “attachments” — in other words, close personal relationships — but the Jedi weren’t friendless. Obi-Wan grieved for Qui-Gon and Anakin and embraced Dexter Jettster warmly. Yoda spoke to Luke of using the Force to see “old friends long gone.” Nevertheless, as Anakin explained to Padmé, the Jedi were to have compassion equally for all people, and not favor anyone to whom they had become overly attached. As we’ll see, this eventually becomes quite ironic.
Over the course of the prequel trilogy, Anakin goes through a series of attachments, none of which end well. While love for his mother Shmi doesn’t do much initially to keep him from leaving Tatooine (“Bye Mom! I won’t join the Dark Side! Yippee!”), it almost literally comes back to haunt him over the next decade or so. During that time he forms two other important attachments, to his master Obi-Wan and his dream girl Padmé. Of course, he sees Obi-Wan every day at the office, and after 10 years of pining and fantasizing, Padmé becomes part of the job as well.
Mother, master, and crush all collide in Episode II: Anakin gives in to his passions for Padmé, disobeys Obi-Wan to try to save his mom, and then finds himself caught between duty and loyalty when he realizes he can’t leave Padmé to save Obi-Wan — fortunately, Padmé lets him off the hook by flying off after Obi-Wan herself. Regardless, by turning his grief for his mother into an utter murderous rage, Anakin has already broken the “attachment” rule and stomped on the pieces. This sets up his Episode III quest to preempt Padmé’s impending doom, which leads almost inevitably to his becoming a Sith Lord.
Although Luke isn’t really operating under the Jedi Code, his attachments are more mundane. His close friends Biggs and Tank have left for the Imperial Academy (deleted scenes notwithstanding), and it’s not quite clear how much Luke cares for his aunt and uncle. They’re hardly the Dursleys, but Uncle Owen’s gruff exterior may well hide an equally gruff interior; and we don’t see enough of Aunt Beru to gauge her influence. While Luke certainly doesn’t hate them, his resentment comes through. He’s reached a point where he’s ready to go out on his own; and a sense of obligation may be keeping him on the farm almost as much as family ties. Where Anakin is ready to leave Tatooine because he dreams of being a star-pilot, Luke is ready to leave because he’s sick of being a moisture-farmer.
While we’ve heard Rey say she’s “waiting for her family” — who might not be anyone we’re thinking of — so far we haven’t seen enough to know whether she’s got any familial substitutes or close friends on Jakku. (If I’m hearing some of the newer footage correctly, she’s not even from Jakku.) In this respect she may be more like Luke, stuck on a dead-end planet and needing only a little push to start a big adventure. The First Order’s attack looks like it does just that. Over the course of the movie Rey befriends BB-8, Finn (John Boyega), Han (Harrison Ford), Chewie (Peter Mayhew), the pirate leader Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong’o), and presumably a few others; but she may not have to give up any existing relationships in the process. Remember, his uncle’s expected disapproval initially discouraged Luke from joining Obi-Wan (“I’m going to be late as it is!”). Rey might not have an Uncle Owen holding her back.
Nevertheless, from the trailers it looks like Rey will see one of her new friends fall at the hands of a bad guy. The Jedi Knights who took Anakin and Luke away from Tatooine were each killed by Sith Lords not long afterwards; and the “Force Awakens” trailers show an anguished Rey crouched over what looks like a fallen comrade. Still, it’s hard to imagine Han, Chewie or BB-8 dying to satisfy the demands of Rey’s specific arc. Although Han’s death is heavily rumored, even Harrison Ford’s legendary reluctance to return to the role might not warrant saying goodbye to such a popular character. Much the same goes for Chewie (minus the actor’s reluctance); and nobody’s touching BB-8, who’s already become invaluable to the new movies, through merchandise alone.
That leaves Finn and Maz Kanata. Now, I don’t think Finn will die in “The Force Awakens,” but I do suspect he’ll lose that lightsaber duel with Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). Moreover, I theorize that Finn’s defeat will awaken (as it were) Rey’s own Force abilities, as Luke’s anger at the end of Episode VI helped him defeat Darth Vader. Prior to that, my guess is that Maz Kanata will have told Rey that the Force is “calling” to her, and encouraged her to “just let it in.” If conventional movie logic applies, this advice won’t do any good when it is given, but will pay off at the proper dramatic moment — say, when Kylo Ren gets the better of Finn. Because a mentor can only take an apprentice so far, I suspect Maz Kanata won’t survive the First Order’s attack on her castle, thereby joining Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan as mentors who fulfilled their destinies and passed on. (The shots of an angry Rey firing a blaster look like they’re from the pirate planet, and so may come in the aftermath of Maz Kanata’s death.)
Then there’s the deeper role of Luke’s attachments, and the ways in which they color the saga generally — this might take a while, so get ready.
Luke’s bond with Obi-Wan is short-lived, as far as the physical realm is concerned, but powerful nonetheless. It seems to come from Luke’s gratitude for Obi-Wan opening up the universe to him, both by teaching him about the Force — including his idealized father — and getting him off Tatooine. (Another good reason for supposing Maz Kanata is Rey’s mentor: with Luke himself presumably sidelined for much of “The Force Awakens,” she can give Rey a good chunk of Force-related exposition and guidance.) We can make much out of comparing and contrasting Luke’s reaction to Obi-Wan’s death with Leia’s loss of her entire planet — including the only parents she’s ever known — but after all, Obi-Wan was going to be his guide and protector. When Luke’s in that funk after escaping the Death Star, he might just be realizing how far from home he’s gotten. Finding Biggs on the Rebel base is only a brief coda to the life he left behind.
And not to diminish Biggs, but Han, Chewie, Leia and the droids become Luke’s surrogate family soon enough. Luke eventually judges the revelations about his real family against his feelings for these friends. With Leia it makes little difference — he’s probably already accepted that she loves Han, and he’s cool with that — but the mere fact that Space Hitler turned out to be his father is enough to give Luke second thoughts about killing him.
This is a distinction lost on Yoda and, to a certain extent, the older Obi-Wan. In Episode III, Obi-Wan begged Yoda not to pit him against his ex-Padawan, for whom he still had deep feelings. At that time the Sith were a clear existential threat not just to the Jedi, but to the Republic itself, and both Mace Windu and Yoda were ready to execute Palpatine summarily to stop them. However, Yoda not only decided that Obi-Wan wasn’t powerful enough, he failed to defeat the Emperor himself. Thus, decades later, Yoda trains Anakin’s son with an eye towards making him strong enough to defeat both Vader and the Emperor.
Put simply, for Yoda, Luke “completing his training” means being as strong in the Force as possible. “Universal compassion” doesn’t apply to the Sith Lords (who seem to be outside the great web of life that maintains the Force) and “attachments” can only hinder Luke’s mission. Yoda explains after the fact that Luke might not have been “ready for the burden” of learning Anakin’s fate. In the story’s larger context, part of that burden seems like accepting that Luke might have to kill Vader. Yoda first wants Luke to sacrifice his friends for the sake of his training, and Yoda and Obi-Wan each indicate later that Luke must kill Vader for the sake of the Rebellion.
Luke struggles with each of these decisions, and eventually acts according to his own feelings; but not necessarily in a selfish way. Universal compassion — or at least universal compassion alone — apparently doesn’t motivate Luke to redeem Vader, because he tells Obi-Wan straight out that he can’t kill his own father. In effect he’s pitting Vader against the Emperor, but not in the Machiavellian way that the Sith envision. In fact, since Luke is ready to sacrifice himself to save the Rebellion, he’s arguably living up to the spirit of Jedi ideals, even if he’s doing it based on an attachment. Seeing this, Anakin himself then chooses to save Luke, presumably based on some combination of paternal love, guilt, and his old Jedi-honed predilection for goodness. Therefore, Anakin’s and Luke’s journeys end up subverting the old Jedi Code and, arguably, laying a new foundation for whatever Jedi may come. (This undoubtedly makes it easier for Luke and Leia to each contribute to the next generation of Jedi.)
Until “Return of the Jedi,” Anakin’s attachments are formed and lost largely for the sake of plot. First Qui-Gon manipulates events to get Anakin off Tatooine, and then Palpatine starts working on Anakin as possible apprentice material. (Among the prequels’ missed opportunities is a scene where Palpatine impugns Qui-Gon’s motives.) Not surprisingly for someone descending into evil, everyone around Anakin either dies or is otherwise driven away. Qui-Gon’s death facilitates Obi-Wan training Anakin, Shmi’s death pushes him towards the Dark Side, and the prospect of Padmé’s death sends him there headlong. We can take this in story terms as the “will of the Force”; in narrative terms as the tragic consequences of various people’s hubris; or in practical terms as the dictates of the prequels’ overall plot (and George Lucas’ desire to have Anakin’s story mirror Luke’s).
In that regard, we may necessarily expect Rey’s story to be different, if only because the new trilogy doesn’t have to serve or inform its predecessors. Luke’s story was eventually conformed to Joseph Campbell’s monomyth or “Hero’s Journey” template, in which the hero is taken from his ordinary life, crosses a threshold (and is “born again”) into the realm of adventure or “road of trials,” and returns home with some sort of boon. Campbell also described an alternative path for a hero who becomes a tyrant, which we could probably fit to Anakin’s fall.
Nothing says that Rey will (or must) follow the classic Hero’s Journey. Indeed, since it looks like Luke has been upholding — and perhaps revising — the Jedi Code pretty much by himself, it stands to reason that those rules can now fit the filmmakers’ needs. This is not to say that Rey’s story will be totally new, since we’ve already seen that she starts in familiar circumstances. Living the life of a scavenger on the desert planet Jakku, she meets BB-8, Finn, Han, and Chewie, who end up taking her “across the threshold” into the realm of adventure. Beyond that we don’t know much more. We have some idea of where the road of trials takes her, and who she meets there; but we don’t know everything, nor do we know what boon she may acquire.
For that matter, Campbell’s monomyth isn’t as much a story decoder as it is a narrative depiction of one’s inward, psychological development, in which an old self is broken down and rebuilt into something better. It happens to fit well with story structures because stories themselves are largely about overcoming some form of conflict; and “Star Wars” is largely about overcoming conflicts by looking inward. That means Rey’s boon may end up being anything from the recovery of a valuable item to the more philosophical product of a character arc. It might even be as simple as an expanded awareness of her place in the universe. Neither Anakin nor Luke grew appreciably as people over the course of their introductory movies. Instead, they just learned more about their potential.
That’s probably a good metric for Rey’s growth during “The Force Awakens.” She claims to be “no one,” but before long she’ll be the center of attention. I’m eager to see how she gets there, and how different from her predecessors her journey will be.
Directed by J.J. Abrams, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” opens Friday, Dec. 18, with early showings beginning at 7 p.m. Thursday.
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