Heroes are an interesting character type. Not every protagonist is a hero, far from it. Most stories are about relatively ordinary people going on journeys and overcoming challenges. But there is no challenge too great for the hero. Need a dragon slain, an innocent rescued, a Death Star explodeyed? The hero is your man. Or woman. Or non-gender binaried person.
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Anyone who tries writing the archetypal hero eventually hits the the Hard Question of all epic narratives. Why is this human, among all these other humans, the hero? What makes them special? From whence do their powers come? And buried inside this Hard Question is an even harder one…why should we the audience care? We know heroes are never what they seem, so why should we for the timespan of this story believe that this one hero is?
This little essay is going to get to Rey, the young hero of The Force Awakens, soon enough. But in preparation lets just acknowledge that Rey is, without argument, the most perfect hero of 21st century storytelling to date. Throw some other names in the comments if you wish, you won’t find one that beats Rey for absolute raw heroic brilliance. We’ll get to why.
There have, in the history of epic storytelling, been a few answers to the “why” of heroism. The most common, by far, is fatherhood. And it is always through a father that the heroes heroic lineage is established. Epic heroes from Rama to Arthur have been defined by being the son of a king or lord of some kind. In Star Wars Luke Skywalker is of course the son of Anakin Skywalker, that bloodline being the source of his strength with The Force.
“Contrast that with Kylo Ren, whose upbringing has given him, to say the least, crippling daddy issues.”
How many sons of rich fathers do you know who are heroic? How many powerful men can you name who are heroic? Even if we accept that occasionally some spoilt trust-fund kid MIGHT be heroic, experience suggests it’s despite their bloodline, not because of it. Snowboarding holidays in Aspen, yes. Sacrificing all for a noble lost cause? Not so much. Even though we continue to repeat it endlessly, the patriarchal inheritance myth doesn’t really hold water today, if it ever did.
God. Or gods, are the other source of heroic powers. Like many classical heroes, Theseus is said to be the son of the god Poseidon, which in turn gives him strength to rescue the city of Athens. Many heroes of Indian myth were avatars of the gods Shiva or Vishnu (an interestingly modern idea, the avatar, in our era of virtual realities). George Lucas roled out the Christian version of this one by making Anakin Skywalker a “virgin birth”. I probably don’t need to work too hard to dispel the credibility of divinely sourced heroism. Few now believe in gods of this kid, or in heroes as their children.
The Chosen One is the modern, secular equivalent of these outdated origin stories. Neo (Or Neil as I call him) in the Matrix isn’t the hero for any reason other than he just is, alright? He’s been chosen by…someone…to save everybody. The problem with The Chosen One trope is, it doesn’t actually answer the question. Why has THIS random dude been chosen? What is it about them that means they can triumph against the odds? This trope is used in wish fulfilment narratives like the recent, utterly awful Armada by Ernest Cline, where the only point of the hero is to stand in for the reader and let them fantasise about effortless success and glory without sacrifice.
Rey’s heroism is built on a very different foundation, that has two main pillars.
The first is adversity. Director JJ Abrams spins a red herring narrative to make us all ask who Rey’s father is, but the answer is, it doesn’t matter. The Rey who kicks ass isn’t the child of that father, they are the child of almost twenty years spent alone as a scavenger on Jakku. That adversity has shaped Rey’s spirit into a strong form. Contrast that with Kylo Ren, whose upbringing has given him, to say the least, crippling daddy issues. It’s never in doubt that Rey will kick Kylo’s pampered butt when they finally get to it, because she has had to live the life of a badass, while Kylo knows deep down that he’s only a pretender.
The second is choice.
Both Rey and Finn become heroes because they choose, again and again, to throw off power. And it’s the choice that is key here. They aren’t born to this, it isn’t a matter of fate. Finn, in particular, has been conditioned from birth to comply to power, but CHOOSES not to. Every choice Rey and Fin make takes them a step further on the heroes journey, and every step is freely chosen. The outcome is a story of a young woman and a black man beating the hell out of patriarchal power structures, a truly contemporary heroic tale if ever there was one.
It’s not surprising then that some people haven’t reacted all that well to Finn and Rey. People who’ve been brought up to believe that being a rich white male will automatically make them the hero of the story face a rude awakening in a world where it’s the adversity we overcome, and the choices we make on the path, that truly define our heroic value. There’s still plenty of stories about indolent princes with god complexes for those spoilt boys to enjoy, Star Wars just isn’t one of them any more.
The rest of us can find new hope in Star Wars. We can’t change the circumstances of our birth, and we certainly can’t claim to be children of gods. We aren’t the chosen one, because there’s nobody in the real world with the power to choose. But we all face adversity, and we all have the power of our own choices. The reason our hearts sing when Rey finally takes up the lightsaber in The Force Awakens, is because the heroic part inside us all wakes up to watch. That’s why we need heroic tales, because once the hero inside is awakened, they can never truly sleep again.
Hope you enjoyed this little essay on heroism. Come follow me on twitter! @damiengwalter