The beginning of Star Wars Episode 8 is going to surprise quite a few fans. It goes like this: having arrived at the secret island where Luke Skywalker has been hiding, Rey, the hero of Episode 7, will give Luke his lightsaber back. After that they’ll have tea, chat about Midi-Chlorians for a bit and then Rey will say her goodbyes and leave. Yup, she will exit the plot and go off with Chewie to fly around the galaxy in a cool spaceship. But why do something as drastic as this, just when Star Wars was slowly catching up with the 21st century by casting a woman as one of the heroes of the film? Because Rey knows nothing could be more boring than having to go through the motions of becoming a hero – we all saw Luke Skywalker do it and given that Episode 7 was basically Episode 4, they might as well not bother making 8 & 9 and just copy/paste the new characters on top of the old ones in 5 & 6. It’ll save us all the cinema ticket price.
In Episodes 4 – 6 we saw Luke Skywalker go through the motions/plot devices of the Hero’s Quest, a supposedly “archetypal” story structure that 20th century mythologist Jospeh Campbell came up with. Campbell argued that this “fundamental” story has existed in cultures around the world for millenia. He thought it was the story of all time. In brief it is the story of a character who is called to do something great – drop a magic ring in a volcano, kill Voldemort, kill Darth Vader etc. Firstly they get some mentoring so they can learn the tricks of the trade (often killing), then they’re given a talisman to help them on their quest (often a weapon), then they leave the safety of their home and trek off into the unknown. There they will be tested by a range of foes and challenges (usually fights) until eventually they have to face the big baddy in order to triumph (usually an even bigger fight). Meanwhile, they’ll rescue a damsel in distress, resolve their father issues, and return home victorious. Luke Skywalker went through this exact process because George Lucas was good mates with Joseph Campbell and so based Episodes 4 – 6 off of Campbell’s research.
A few other hallmarks of the Hero’s Quest include the fact that heroes are basically always men – women are either trophies to be won or seductresses to be conquered (or a bit of both). However, with the introduction of Rey in Episode 7 the masculinist/sexist bent of the Hero’s Quest has been challenged (as it has in other films such as Mad Max). This is progress: Rey has been given the chance to play a role that was previously reserved for men. She’ll now get to fight with giant lasers and move things without touching them. This is awesome and as Laurie Penny makes clear it’s ace that new, diverse characters are finally being invited to the hero’s table – this represents a big cultural change in the stories of our times.
But the Hero’s Quest is still the Hero’s Quest – an overly-simplistic, totalising monomyth concocted by Campbell and retroactively applied to hundreds of older stories. It’s easy to claim something conforms to the Hero’s Quest as the structure is so broad and vague – someone gets asked to do something, they’re challenged, things happen and then more things happen (these things usually always involve violence). But it’s blind to cultural sensitivities and nuances, and up until only recently it was reserved for cis, white men. And Rey knows this. Rey knows she hasn’t spent years living by herself on a desert planet just so she can endure an unimaginative, oft-repeated plot structure – one where she finds a mentor, gets trained, fights foes, resolves her mother issues, and returns home the hero (yawn). She doesn’t want a story that’s so historically mired in sexism, patriarchy, appropriation and the values of capitalism (especially ruthless individualism). “Sod that for a packet of biscuits” thinks Rey, she wants a story that transcends these tired clichés and prejudices. So you can have your lightsaber back Luke, Rey’s got a different narrative to live.
The Hero’s Quest in brief!