Heroes of Star Wars: What the East Can Learn From the West

At last the saga is complete and it is the story that George Lucas weaves that makes Revenge of the Sith the best of all six movies. Watching our hero Anakin stumble his way to become Darth Vader is brutal and heartbreaking. Many have complained that the transition was too sudden, but the story would have been less interesting had Anakin been given a pathological character from the start. Instead we know and see Anakin as a hero. In his character and those of Luke Skywalker and Han Solo, George Lucas has given us three different hero archetypes. But only Anakin meets a bad fate, and whether intended or not the story shows us a great lesson the East can learn from the West.

Anakin Skywalker is the hero as the chosen one. He is picked out of slavery by the Jedi. Their interest in him resides in belief in a supernatural prophecy, and intuition that he has been specially delivered to bring balance to the "force." They also recognize that he is precociously talented. All through his training he is constantly being reminded of his "destiny." The hero path then is selected for him, and his individual preference has no bearing on the matter.

Luke Skywalker gives us the hero as the quiet redeemer. He is one who does not succumb to extreme emotions. He is capable of resisting temptation when it counts. But he is still very much a man of the world, and for him friendships are worth fighting for. When given a choice to save his friends or complete his Jedi training he chooses to save his friends. The primary emotion guiding him then is love. He is not prepared to give up on his father even under the worst circumstances, and it is his love that finally redeems Anakin.

Han Solo presents us with a third archetype, the hero as the swashbuckling entrepreneur. He is a very light person, not burdened by history, prophecies and the like. Even the politics of the hour are of little concern to him. He is a consummate risk taker, able to shrug off mistakes he might make without any scars. While he has his own opinions and says he is acting out of his self-interest, most of his acts are actually selfless. He pays little heed to the warnings of the "wiser" sages around him, but his choices just seem to come out smarter.

The archetype of the chosen one has very strong resonance in the East. As Joseph Campbell pointed out in his delightful book, Myths to Live By, the East has never recognized the individual. A person's individual personality traits are considered to be unimportant, and they are crushed at a very young age, so that the person can be trained to live by the rules prescribed. This is true even today: as an example one sees this in the way Chinese athletes are selected at a young age to participate in sports. Many a gifted Asian boy or girl will attest to living as the "chosen one" with a life path and trade selected for them! Of course since Anakin becomes Darth Vader our story is pointing out the danger of such an archetype. In Anakin's crisis we see perhaps a man for the first time discovering his own personality and having his own opinions, after literally a lifetime spent as the "chosen one" following the "chosen path." The restricted rules and thought processes of the Jedi are becoming unbearable but Anakin's needs and preferences do not seem to matter much to his Jedi mentors. Whenever he is in trouble their only advice is to fall back on the ancient quasi-religious code. We can see then that Anakin's fall was not sudden at all, the seeds were sown early in the Phantom Menace, when he is "chosen" and his mother is left behind. But the Jedi are fallen too and the betrayal is both ways. For all their wisdom and skill they are unable to understand or adapt to their enemy: just how fast their world collapses, how fast are they destroyed! They all end up losers; everyone (except for Palpatine!) is a failure.

Enter Han Solo as the swashbuckling entrepreneur representing in many ways the quintessential American hero. Not only does he save the world but it's also okay for him (unlike Anakin) to win the girl. For him, saving the world and enjoying domestic bliss seem tied together. While for the Jedi experimenting with their formidable code seems like a heresy that would lead to all kinds of problems with the "force," Han is most amenable to change and experimentation. But his presence doesn't seem to spoil the balance of things at all; instead it makes them richer and stronger.

Of course every hero archetype has its dangers and the hero path can sit on a very fine line. However, the celebration of the Han Solo archetype (indeed perhaps in many ways the creation of it!) is a great gift America has to offer the world, especially the East. Indeed, it is this very celebration that makes this archetype constructive: in celebrating our entrepreneurs we also create the climate that allows their innovations to be successfully integrated into our society without need for war or revolution. And the appeal of this gift is universal.

Hero archetypes are extremely important. Their specific characteristics define how we will be raised and how we will raise our children, what people will aspire to and finally what a society will look like. It might be safe to say the age of the hero as the chosen one is over, this archetype may no longer have constructive relevance, at least for those hoping to become meaningful participants in the modern world.

June 27, 2005