Monday, January 9, 2017


The Father Quest described by Joseph Campbell in The Power of Myth is a recurring theme in the STAR WARS saga.

The STAR WARS story is a classic Hero's Journey when we are first introduced to Luke Skywalker in EPISODE IV: He is an orphan seeking guidance from a mysterious mentor who sets him on a greater path and then dies, leaving Luke to complete the adventure on his own.

But Luke's mentor is not merely the mythic herald who helps Luke find his purpose. He bends the narrative a bit to set Luke on the path he believes the young hero should follow. The imperative of the Father Quest is introduced by Obi-Wan Kenobi, who does so in order to recruit Luke into his damned-fool crusade just as he had done with Luke's father before him. Luke is already aware of the actual mission (the delivery of the Death Star plans), but Kenobi offers the responsibility of honoring his father's legacy as an incentive to abandon his aunt and uncle. Even this is not sufficient to tempt Luke at first, but after their deaths he no longer has any local obligations and is therefore not restrained from joining in Kenobi's adventure.

Luke’s moral obligation is to help Obi-Wan and Princess Leia, even though he doesn't know either one of them. His personal motivation after being separated from his last living relatives is to realize what he perceives  to be his father’s final wish for him: the fulfillment of a greater destiny. This false perception comes thanks to some loose interpretations of history provided by Obi-Wan Kenobi, who is emotionally manipulating Luke in order to gain both his trust and obedience. Kenobi establishes himself as an unassailable expert on all matters concerning Luke's history and his responsibility for his fellow man. He also dangles the irresistible carrot of teaching Luke to connect to a cosmic power no other living person can offer him. Kenobi informs him this path was also followed by his father, conveniently glossing over the terrible consequences that path had for Anakin. He tells Luke that his father died nobly at the hands of the evil Darth Vader, because telling him that his near fatal encounter with Anakin directly led to his former pupil's transformation into the worst villain in history may not have so easily won him Luke's awe and admiration. Luke is desperate for the level of affirmation offered by Kenobi's assurances that he is bred for better things, especially in the void left behind after his entire life on Tatooine was destroyed. He is more than happy to accept Kenobi's version of events without question.

"Vader Shmader... The point is, SOMEBODY murdered your father. Now what are you going to do about it?"

Obi-Wan becomes a surrogate father figure for Luke, which is apropos when you realize that all the hopes and aspirations Obi-Wan pretends Anakin had for Luke come in truth from Kenobi himself. He projects his need to redeem his mistakes onto Luke, just as he will repeatedly project Anakin's past failings onto Luke. This is one of the driving principles behind the Father Quest: The comparison between the son and the father that emphasizes the son's personal desire to (and often the universal responsibility to) surpass and succeed the father.

The death of Obi-Wan at the hands of Luke’s real father will have some far-reaching effects: Vader is literally tearing down the illusion of the destiny that Kenobi had laid out for Luke. The shock of seeing this in EPISODE IV is later intensified for Luke when re-visited in EPISODE V. In response to Vader's apparent murder of Obi-Wan Kenobi, Luke is finally able to confront him as a Jedi. But rather than vindicating Kenobi’s teachings through defeat and contrition, Vader tears down Luke’s philosophical understanding of his former master by telling him the truth that Kenobi had withheld from him. At this point in the original trilogy, the Father Quest is no longer based on Obi-Wan's deception. Now that Luke knows the truth about Vader, the Father Quest in the story is real.

The final phase of this journey occurs in EPISODE VI, when Luke has had the opportunity to confront the memory of Obi-Wan Kenobi (conveniently available in the form of a literal ghost who offers up his rationalization for Luke’s judgment). The finale of the original trilogy and Luke’s emotional arc is when he can finally face Vader with all the information, fully realized in his purpose and having made his own choices as to what he intends to do to fulfill it.

This is the culmination of the Father Quest, the final reconciliation that Joseph Campbell calls the "Atonement with the Father". In The Hero With A Thousand Faces, Campbell further clarifies this as an "at-one-ment", a transformative graduation of the son replacing and subsequently becoming the father. If Luke had defeated Vader in EPISODE V, when Yoda and the spirit of Obi-Wan cautioned him that he was not ready for the confrontation, he may well have literally replaced Darth Vader and embraced the Dark Side of the Force just as they feared. Note that during the battle Luke gave in to fear, hate, and aggression, never once embracing the cornerstones of calm and passivity that Yoda told him were the hallmarks of the Light Side. If this had allowed him to defeat Vader, then he would have become him as a result.

But Luke's goal in EPISODE VI is not to destroy Vader in order to take his place as a Dark Lord of the Sith. His goal is to redeem Vader, allowing Luke to take his place not as the man Anakin Skywalker had become, but as the savior that Anakin Skywalker was always destined to be.

Followed by some traditional Skywalker father/son quality time.

That the state of “at-one-ment” is a transformative and redemptive process for both the son and the father is what is significant here. They are both redeemed in this confrontation and the son “destroys” the father both to demonstrate that he has outgrown the need for the father’s authority and also so that he can succeed the father in his role. Having fulfilled his purpose, the father is able to transcend that role and leave it in the capable hands of the son.

Luke has the purest expression of this atonement act, much more so than we see later in the failed quests of Anakin Skywalker and Kylo Ren. Anakin, in particular, had the worst possible circumstance for a Father Quest, considering he did not actually have a father. Outwardly, his initiation was similar to that of Luke in EPISODE IV: A kindly wizard removed him from his banal existence on Tatooine to introduce him to a world of magic and adventure. The devil is in the differences though: Unlike Luke, Anakin was not orphaned. He willingly left his mother and literally had no father.

"No dad, huh? Bummer. Maybe this blood test will cheer you up. Don't tell your mom."

Anakin cannot be too harshly judged for abandoning his mother because he is a child who shouldn't be forced into making decisions of this kind and certainly can't be blamed for their consequences. Shmi Skywalker has no desire to be separated from Anakin, but wants him to have better than a life as a slave. In any event, Anakin's mother is not taken from him. The absence of a father figure in his life may leave Anakin more susceptible to the influence of a strong male figure who seems to have real interest in him, but he isn't driven by a burning desire to discover himself through his father.

Qui-Gon Jinn is responsible for Anakin's downfall, when you come right down to it.  He pulls Anakin away from his mother because he is solely concerned with what Anankin means for the fate of the Jedi and he is in no way concerned about Shmi or Anakin’s wellbeing. He fails to instruct Anakin and passes the responsibility on to Obi-Wan, who has no real interest in being a surrogate father to Anakin. Meanwhile, Anakin is influenced by another false father, Palpatine, who may have directly manipulated the Force to create him but also has no interest in developing a familial relationship with him.

Palpatine exploits Anakin’s emotional need to have a father figure, exerting his influence for the same purpose that the Jedi Council exert their influence on Anakin: They are all concerned with reinforcing their ideology rather than nurturing who he is as a human being. This pressure and the absence of a nurturing mother or authoritative father push Anakin to the Dark Side. Initially he attempts the at-one-ment process by confronting Obi-Wan, his surrogate father figure who is influencing him to follow the path of the Jedi. Much like Luke’s initial duel will be later in EPISODE V, Anakin’s confrontation with Obi-Wan ends in failure and disfigurement, leaving him with no clear idea of his identity or purpose.

Though, of the two of them, I'd say Luke got off a lot lighter.

Anakin’s next duel with Kenobi in EPISODE IV occurs, just as Luke’s will, after he is fully informed of his circumstances and fully realized in his role. He has accepted who he is and embraced his role as the Dark Lord of the Sith, so the murder of his original father figure is symbolic of a fractured and distorted version of the at-one-ment process. By striking down his former master, he believes he is completing his transformation to Master of the Force, definitively replacing Kenobi’s influence with his own ideals. Unwittingly, he is also replacing Kenobi as Luke’s father figure, something neither he nor Luke will recognize until later on.

The completion of Anakin’s atonement happens in EPISODE VI, in his final duel with his son. Not only is he defeated and succeeded by Luke (who also intends to overcome his father’s influence in favor of his own ideals), he finally faces his own corrupting father figure, turning on and destroying Palpatine. Rather than seeking his own atonement, Anakin aids his son by tearing down the pillars of his own corrupt ideology and leaving a brand new world in which Luke can, as his replacement, rebuild into something better. In this way the fulfillment of Anakin’s Father Quest lies in his acceptance of his role as the father.

Let’s compare this to Kylo Ren in EPISODE VII. From what we know of Ben Solo’s past, it does not mirror the circumstances of his uncle or his grandfather's initiation into the Force. Anakin was born lost, a slave from birth just like his mother. While Luke was born and raised to believe he was an orphan, he had loving parental figures to nurture him and build his character. Anakin's back story plays out more like a supervillain origin while Luke's is basically the Superman origin. In both cases, all of their best character traits are derived from their non-Jedi influences. Luke learns humility and responsibility from his aunt and uncle while Anakin's only sense of decency comes from his mother. It's only when removed from these positive influences that we see them begin to exhibit questionable qualities of character.

Ben Solo, unfortunately, was raised with an emphasis on the Jedi influence and a shocking lack of traditional emotional support. We know that Leia and Han both feared their son would be too susceptible to the Dark Side, so they sent him away to Luke to be properly initiated in the ways of the Jedi. This was in response not simply to any vulnerabilities of character young Ben may have demonstrated, but also to the physical threat of Snoke, who had already shown an interest in corrupting their son.

Unlike Anakin and Luke, Kylo is deliberately discarded by parental figures who choose to be unavailable to him. Anakin’s mother only let him go because she didn’t want him to live the life of a slave. Luke accepted Obi-Wan's call to adventure (a misguided effort to redeem the mistakes he made with Anakin by repeating them with Luke), but Luke did so only after his entire family was killed. He did not learn until later of his father’s abandonment, and even then it was more the result of his being secreted away rather than a lack of interest on his father’s part.

None of this is true for Ben Solo. His parents are alive and he is in their care, but they choose to send him away to be trained by Luke. It is not until years later that Leia admits this mistake to Han with the understanding that Ben did not need Luke to teach him how to be a Jedi, he needed his father to teach him how to be a man. This realization is delivered to Han in return for a promise that he will fulfill his duty to their son and put himself to the hazard of drawing him back again from the darkness.

Which did not  go quite as well as he would have liked.

Just as we did with Anakin, we see the ensuing chaos that comes from Kylo’s improper initiation. He rebelled against Luke and his teachings, allowing himself to be used and manipulated by Snoke. Like Anakin before him, Kylo rebelled against the chaos of his personal life by focusing on any path that promised the establishment of order.

Like Anakin and Luke, Kylo will also attempt a disastrous atonement with Han Solo, but this confrontation will prove to be even more disastrous in consequence.

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