A theory about Luke Skywalker, fan reactions, and story structure

I don’t write about a lot of fannish things here, but anyone who knows me knows that I grew up a Star Wars fan, and certain stories at certain times have a really formative effect on the way you see and create stories from there on. As my witness, see all those Pixar artists and storytellers who are my age and grew up on R2-D2, C-3PO, Johnny 5 of Short Circuit, and various other tragi-comic helpful robots of the 1980’s (SpaceCamp and Flight of the Navigator and Asimov’s Norby series)…and who then went on to create Wall-E.

So some stories really stick with you, and good books do too, and since reading Carriger’s The Heroine’s Journey I have not been able to stop thinking about it in relation to that first deep love of mine, Luke Skywalker and his rebel space family. Luke has been the epitome of ‘heroic’ to me since I was tiny; kind, hopeful, sometimes clever and sometimes just lucky, a bit of a mix of brash and bashful as the situation demands, and–most importantly–to a fault loyal to his friends and family, regardless of their species or model number. (“Your droid’s pretty beat up, want a new one?” “Not on your life, that little droid and I have been through a lot together.”)

Scene from Empire Strikes Back: Luke  Skywalker in orange flightsuit is sitting next to R2D2. Both are muddy in the aftermath of the droid's near-ingestion by swamp shark.
Very glad the swamp shark didn’t eat you, my friend.

In the fannish corners of the internet that I occasionally haunt, there was a lot of upset about Luke’s arc in The Last Jedi, followed by some breaths of relief and recognition in his brief appearance at the end of The Mandalorian Season 2. People (including Mark Hamill, apparently) didn’t feel like the Luke they saw hiding out on that wild Irish island reflected the Luke of the original trilogy. He was too bitter, too cynical, too lonely, and too judgmental to feel like the same man who tossed his lightsaber away in the face of hatred and greed personified, who saved and forgave his father, and who never lost faith in his friends. There was hope, then, when he seemed a little more familiar as he came to collect Grogu to become a Jedi student.

And those same corners of the internet were not terribly happy with Luke’s characterization in last week’s episode of The Book of Boba Fett, even as there were justified giggles of glee over Force-skipping Grogu on a walk through a bamboo forest. Fans (myself included) who love Luke Skywalker for the gentleness, forgiveness, and hope that he embodies in the original trilogy were not super keen to see him forced into the same failings of previous Jedi generations, making a functional toddler attempt to choose between the traditional (lonely, failed) Jedi path and his affection for Din Djarin, walking disaster and accidental space dad. People watching this storyline felt betrayed.

And here’s where we get to my theory. Carriger says in her book that one of the best way to lose your readers (viewers, listeners) is to make them think they’re in for one kind of story, and then giving them something that doesn’t follow the signposts they expect. Story structures, themes, tropes, they all help build expectations that support and explain character growth, plot decisions, etc.

George Lucas has repeatedly talked about the influence of Joseph Campbell and the Hero’s Journey on his writing of Star Wars, and people map that journey onto Luke Skywalker all the time. Refusing the call (“I’m not going to Alderaan, I’ve got to stay here and take care of the harvest…”), magical aid (“your father’s lightsaber”), journey to the Underworld (trash compactor), death of the mentor (Obi-Wan’s sacrifice), and victorious battle/showdown (blowing up the Death Star) are just a few of the traditional signposts of a Hero’s Journey.

However, in the ultimate run of the trilogy, I would argue that Luke is a Heroine, not a Hero. Certain elements appear in both journeys, including trips to the underworld, gaining and losing of allies and power, delays, and ultimate confrontations – but the motivations and the strengths of the hero and heroine are different, not to mention the resolutions. Luke is constantly relying on and returning to his friends when they’ve been separated over the course of the original trilogy, and some of them are nearly inseparable regardless (hi, Artoo!). He prioritizes rescuing his friends from Cloud City over his training with Yoda, against both Yoda’s and Obi-Wan’s advice. He chooses to leave Han, Leia, and company on Endor and go to the second Death Star, not out of a ‘I must do this alone’ motivation of a Hero, who prioritizes isolation and individual strength, but because he’s the best person to try to reach Vader and reawaken Anakin Skywalker, rebuilding a family connection. Plus, he trusts his friends to complete their parts of the mission with their own strengths. That faith in his friends, so strong that the Emperor cannot help but needle him for it, is the same strength that lets him throw away his lightsaber and seek reconciliation with his father rather than revenge. That is a pure Heroine’s Journey resolution — compromise, forgiveness, rather than destruction. And in the last scene, when it looks like Luke might end up alone in the forest with the Force Ghosts, it’s his family who draw him back into the (fire)light. Subtle, that symbolism is not, especially in the light of the prequels that posit ‘family’ as Anakin’s reason for his fall into darkness (oversimplification, but still).

In summary: ultimately it’s Anakin who has the Hero’s Journey here, not Luke.

Three panels from the end of Return of the Jedi. Darth Vader, maskless, rests on the ramp of a shuttle, covered in scars. Luke's hand is on his shoulder and Luke looks concerned. Captions of the dialogue read: "Now go, my son, leave me." "No, you're coming with me. I'll not leave you here, I've got to save you." "You already have, Luke."
I’m not crying, you’re crying.

And so we get back to how betrayed and annoyed Luke Skywalker fans are right now. Because Dave Filoni, who directed the episode in question, clearly thinks George Lucas hangs the moon, and I would venture to guess has completely bought into the “Luke is on the Hero’s Journey” idea. (I can’t explain Rian Johnson beyond the impression that his directorial motivation was that meme about “I will pee on everything you love.” There were a handful of good things in that movie, my favorite was the little stablehand holding their broom like a lightsaber, my second favorite was the potential of Rose Tico, and that’s another post entirely. But still: they let someone who hates Star Wars direct Star Wars and that was dumb.)

So fans are expecting Luke post-Return of the Jedi, the triumphant heroine who supports his family (found and otherwise), values connections, prioritizes understanding and forgiveness, who has learned something from the mistakes of his mentors. And in the recent Book of Boba Fett episode they are getting…the opposite of that. Luke looks to be going down the same (Hero’s) lonely and repressed road as that of the Jedi at the end of the New Republic, asking ridiculous emotional sacrifices of children too young to understand the choices they’re being asked to make, training a new generation of Heroes who think attachment is a weakness and solitude a strength.

(Honestly, it would serve *this* version of Luke right if Grogu decided to go back to the Mandalorian and ride along in the starfighter-with-babyseat. Do you know any toddler who will pick a shiny toy over their parental figures when the chips are really down? There’s a reason parents everywhere lament being unable to use the restroom in peace.)

I’m writing this Tuesday night, so there’s still hope they turn it around for the end of this series/season. We’ll see what tomorrow’s episode brings. Like Luke (and, because I cannot end this post without saying so, like Leia, whom I love equally), I choose hope.

End shot from Empire Strikes Back. C3PO, R2D2, Luke, and Leia stand at a starship window looking out at a spiral galaxy. Luke's arm is around Leia's shoulders, and C3PO is similarly resting a hand on R2D2. It is both sad and hopeful as they contemplate rescuing Han from the clutches of Jabba the Hutt.
When things look bad, Heroines rely on each other.

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