“These are your first steps.”: Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth in The Force Awakens

Dear stranger to whom I gave a ride home from The Force Awakens, I was delighted that you invoked the Hero’s Journey when sharing your thoughts on the new Star Wars. Part of me wishes that the space between the theater and your house was longer so that we could get farther than simply establishing that we both knew the monomyth. However, one thing that you said stuck with me: that you wished there was more of the Hero’s Journey present in Rey’s story in The Force Awakens, like there was in The Empire Strikes Back for Luke. Yet, no matter how good The Empire Strikes Back is, it only contains a portion of the monomyth which started in A New Hope. Similarly, The Force Awakens gives us the beginning of Rey’s Journey, and in fact, doubles-up on certain steps in the Departure stage of the Classical Monomyth.

[Spoilers under the cut]

The Classical Monomyth, also called The Hero’s Journey, is a concept first created by Joseph Campbell in the 1940’s with his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces; it’s a theory that states all cultures across the world have stories that fall into distinct steps that when overlaid, create a single myth for the human race. A mono myth. While Campbell’s monomyth does fall under a number of valid criticism (such as ethnocentricity and sexism), since the publication of The Hero with a Thousand Faces, much of our western stories have revolved to some extent around this formula, thus keeping or at least making it a valid lens through which to view, analyze, or interpret stories, especially when it comes to Star Wars.

George Lucas had cited Campbell’s work among the influences for the series, and the steps are found very easily in the beats of Luke Skywalker’s story (Goodale). In Rey’s, the steps become a little more jumbled, mainly because she believes she’s on a Journey that’s significantly smaller than her actual calling.

Rey sees herself as just a scavenger; that’s even how she introduces herself to Han Solo after saying that Finn is with the Resistance. She’s just a scavenger, and so of course her Journey must be as small as she is. The departure from Jakku, a road of trials to reach the Resistance, and then the return to Jakku to wait for her family. As a result, many beats of the Hero’s Journey are laid out for her in this smaller scope to which she limits herself.

BB-8 is the herald of the world outside her normal life – her Call to Adventure. While she aids him in escaping Teedo, her Refusal of the Call comes soon after as she tries to send BB-8 along his way without her. Finn, Chewie, and Han all represent the Supernatural Aid that comes to propel our hero along the Journey. The tie-fighter chase is easily Rey Crossing the First Threshold, and the rathtar chase is the first on her Road of Trials.

By this point, Rey is firmly set in her supposed Journey. She’s dedicated to see the task of delivering BB-8 to the Resistance all the way through, and that’s when the real Journey rudely interrupts, as her Departure stage begins anew.

It is almost a violent interruption. The “blunder” that sets it off is Finn’s decision, Finn’s resolve to run from the First Order, out to the Outer Rim. A blunder occurs in that first step in the Hero’s Journey – the Call to Adventure. They appear to be the merest chance, unconnected to the normal world of the hero, but that is far from true. Blunders are “the result of suppressed desires and conflicts. …The blunder may amount to the opening of a destiny” (Campbell, p 42).

Rey’s Force vision begins with a child crying. It’s been theorized by many fans that she’s hearing herself cry for her family, and Finn leaving is what triggers this flashback as she finds herself being abandoned once more. This theory certainly seems to fit as Maz connects Rey’s desire for her family to Rey’s destiny.

“The belonging you seek is not behind you; it is ahead of you.”

The herald of the Call is “a preliminary manifestation of the powers that are breaking into play” (p 42). In a strange sense, one could think that young Rey herself is her own herald, as her cries are what draws Rey towards the lightsaber and the Force vision. Obi-Wan also shares this role, especially when Campbell describes it as a “religious awakening” (p 42). It’s Obi-Wan’s voice that calls to her within the vision saying, “Rey, these are your first steps.”

Rey’s Refusal of the Call is more drastic than Luke’s in A New Hope. Luke makes excuses but still offers to assist Obi-Wan onto the next stage of the mission. Rey makes no excuse, snarls at Maz, and runs even from the Journey she originally thought she was taking. In the Refusal, Rey enters dangerous territory. Refusing the Call often makes the called “lose the power of significant affirmative action and become a victim to be saved” (p 49). While Rey does retain agency in the smaller Journey she was taking – choosing to cover BB-8’s flight from the First Order – rejecting Luke’s lightsaber and the Force results in her vulnerability to Kylo Ren’s capture.

Campbell notes that the Supernatural Aid often is encountered after the hero has accepted the Call, but Rey’s shows before the true Call is even made. Maz definitely fits the outward appearance of the Aid: “a protective figure (often a little crone or man) who provides the adventurer with amulets against the dragon forces he is about to pass (p 57).” She also fits portions of the Supernatural Aid that Campbell associates with the helpful crone/fairy godmother characters, namely that the token provided comes from within (p 59). It’s the lightsaber that Maz urges Rey to take, but the true focus of their conversation is the Force, and this becomes important in the final steps of Rey’s Departure stage as we are told that, “[h]aving responded to his own call, the hero finds all the forces of the unconscious at his side” (p 59). All the forces of the unconscious is, of course, the Force for Rey and as we watch her embrace it, we also see her gain victory over Kylo Ren.

The geek and pop culture site The Mary Sue published an essay that analyzes Kylo Ren as a “gatekeeper” (Goetz). A gatekeeper is a term used to describe someone who takes it upon themselves to set standards for who is a “real fan” of a franchise or a particular work. In Kylo Ren’s case, it’s the Force. Amusingly, Kylo Ren’s position in Rey’s story is that of an actual gatekeeper: the threshold guardian.

The Crossing of the First Threshold is when the hero steps beyond her normal life and into the supernatural world. However, this Threshold is often guarded by a figure who represents the barrier between the two worlds (Campbell, p 64). Kylo Ren’s capture and interrogation of Rey mocks her disconnection from the Force and from the sense of belonging she seeks. Kylo Ren first holds her prisoner using the Force alone and then removes her from the friends and surrogate family she had found, creating physical barrier. In the interrogation room, it is now mental and emotional barriers that Rey must overcome, as Kylo Ren tries to take the map from her mind while mocking her on her lonely state.

Through an unexpected connection with the Force, Rey turns the interrogation back onto Kylo Ren and then uses a Mind Trick to escape the physical restraints and reuniting with Finn, Han, and Chewie, thus Crossing the First Threshold into the supernatural realm. Now, most threshold guardians vanish from the story once they have been defeated, but Kylo Ren is a persistent example. He pursues Rey and her companions into the Belly of the Whale.

The Belly of the Whale is the final step in the Departure stage, in which the hero, after confronting the threshold guardian, appears to have perished before being reborn (p 74). While Rey is knocked unconscious during the final battle with Kylo Ren, I think the Belly of the Whale that she encounters is less physical and more emotional, in that her newfound sense of belonging is taken from her in a more permanent manner than before. Han Solo, who she viewed as a father, has been killed. Her dearest friend Finn has been struck down and lies in a coma. By the time Starkiller Base is destroyed, she is now in the lowest place we have seen her to be on an emotional level, because she now has more taken from her than she ever knew she could have.

At the film’s end, we see a visual representation of Rey rising out of the Belly of the Whale and being reborn. Her rebirth is symbolized by her change of clothes, clean and new. She has shed Jakku’s sands at last, which is even more emphasized by the ocean-bound planet to which she goes to find Luke. Here, we see her in contrast to our first glimpse on Jakku, in which she descended from a height into her normal world. Now, she ascends, taking long, determined strides to meet her future in the realm of the supernatural.

So, dear stranger, it’s not that The Force Awakens failed to evoke the Hero’s Journey as The Empire Strikes Back did. Instead, it merely explored a different stage of the Journey for Rey: appropriately, the beginning. And even though there were plot points within the film that mirrored A New Hope, the Journey taken was unique to Rey.

References

Campbell, J. (2008). The Hero with a Thousand Faces (3rd ed.). Novato, California: New World Library.

Goetz, H. (2016). How Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ Kylo Ren Is a Gatekeeper. The Mary Sue. Retrieved from http://www.themarysue.com/the-force-awakens-gatekeepers/

Goodale, G. (1999). ‘Stars Wars’ forever: why we keep watching. The Christian Science Monitor.

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