After purchasing two weather-beaten droids to automate his family’s moisture farm, Owen Lars tasks his nephew Luke with cleaning them. After learning that C-3PO and R2-D2 fought in the rebellion, an excited Luke begs the protocol droid for more details. Alas, Threepio comes up blank. “I’m not much more than an interpreter and not very good at telling stories”, he says.
Flash forward to Return of the Jedi and, after being worshipped as a god by the primitive Ewoks on the forest moon of Endor, Threepio regales the pint size terrors with stories of the Rebellion. These he tells in broken English, interspersing the Ewoks’ own tongue with snippets of names we recognise and emphasised with pitch-perfect sound effects. As well as demonstrating character development, it showed that even by 1983, Star Wars had become its own mythology.
George Lucas’ fascination with fairy tales and ancient myths led him to his sensei Joseph Campbell, whose distillation of stories into staple heroic tropes forms the backbone of the entire saga. Here Lucas was drawing on classic stories to weave his own, but in doing so his space fantasy became its own mythology which beautifully bore The Force Awakens and beyond.
On Jakku, Rey lives and scavenges among the wreckages of Imperial ships and Rebel Alliance X-Wings. Her home, in the belly of a downed AT-AT, contains a hand-made doll of a rebel pilot, and she wears an old helmet plucked from the desert sands. After crossing paths with Finn, who tells her that BB-8 is carrying a map leading to Luke Skywalker, a shocked Rey says, “I thought he was a myth”.
Later, when the two of them steal the Millennium Falcon to avoid First Order artillery and break orbit, they cross paths with Han Solo. Both Rey and Finn have wildly differing images. Finn sees him as an iconic Rebel General from a combat that concluded before he was born, while Rey knows him as a legendary smuggler. Neither account seems to allow for the other. The events of Han’s life have become mythic beats in an ongoing galactic tale. Rey even waxes lyrical about the Falcon – “This is the ship that made the Kessel Run in fourteen parsecs”. Cue a disgruntled Han.
Both Finn and Rey came of age when the Rebellion had passed into the annals of history, where facts twist and morph, and gaps are plugged with half-truths, rumours and imaginings. Growing up as a First Order stormtrooper, and brainwashed from birth, Finn was provided a heavily skewed and highly politicised account of historical events. Think of it as fake news and alternative facts. Rey, on the other hand, struggles to survive day in, day out. But Jakku is not without its visitors, and with them come stories of Rebels and dark lords, of a warrior in a black mask and the Jedi Knight Luke Skywalker.
The Force Awakens ends with Rey coming face to face with an old, dishevelled Luke, not the mythic warrior she knew from stories. The Last Jedi took this a step further, with its themes of letting go of the past, of heroes not being what they seem and, perhaps most importantly, that anyone can be a hero, not simply the chosen few that history remembers.
Rey, as proxy for the audience, is disappointed by what she finds; Luke Skywalker alone on Ahch-To save for the porgs and caretakers. She’s desperate for his help, if not for herself than to help the Resistance battle The First Order. But Luke has turned his back on everything, hidden himself away in isolation, and waiting around to die. This isn’t the Jedi Knight she expected, nor we as viewers from the few of his heroic deeds we’ve seen. But how much has gone unseen? This is a broken man behind the legend, full of regret and shame.
After a little persuasion from Artoo, Luke agrees to teach Rey three lessons so that she’ll know why the Jedi have to end. Among these is the lesson that the Jedi have been romanticised and deified. History remembers the legend, the courageous acts and the image of enlightened monks and their swords of light. But, as Luke says, at the height of their powers they allowed the Emperor and his tyrannical rule to rise to power. And the Empire set about erasing all traces of the Jedi and their order, which only led to a stronger, more unbreakable legend.
Luke’s last act in living flesh is to make himself a symbol, one which will spread across the galaxy and speak to the hearts and minds of all the downtrodden and oppressed. After sending a Force projection of himself from Ahch-To to Crait, Luke is bombarded by the First Order, before duelling its now Supreme Leader Kylo Ren.
The legend of Luke Skywalker spreads quickly, until slave kids play with their improvised dolls, like Rey before them, re-enacting the story of the brave Jedi Knight who faced down the First Order with a laser-sword and, as far as they’re concerned, lives on still.
Star Wars has moved beyond the classic tropes and legendary heroes that first inspired George Lucas decades before. It is now its own mythology, unique in cinema, and ensuring that each new instalment is another vital piece in this never-ending epic poem.