The Skywalker Myth and a Redefinition of Hero
In May of 1977 we were introduced to the Star Wars universe and its ragtag group of nobodies whose combined talents (and a bit of luck) would save their universe from the ravages of the Galactic Empire. Within this group was the hero Luke Skywalker, who within the scope of the original three films, would go about destroying the Empire. Luke had conquered the Empire, restored his ruthless father, defeated the chaos of the evil emperor, and brought harmony to the universe. Like so many stories, that is how this one ended or at least that is how we thought the it ended. The hero’s journey is not an unknown quantity. Most western cultures have multiple instances of it. We grow up believing in the hero and expecting him (and not often enough her) to save the day, to bring harmony back to the world by defeating chaos and fury.
In his book Maps of Meaning Jordan Peterson has taken this commonly known western trope and assigned it universal value in defining how morality is established within cultures. There is the known, which is the father and represents culture that both supports and oppresses. There is the unknown, which is the mother and represents chaosi. Then there is the knower, which is the son or hero who mediates between the known and the unknown. It is the hero who brings balance and by extension the sense or idea of morality to the world. Peterson leans heavily upon Judeo-Christian symbolism to make his point, which is kind of where things fall apart.
Thirty six years after we were presented with the idea that Luke and his friends had saved the universe we were presented with a new ending. Our hero had hidden himself away on a remote world to escape the chaos of the universe and given up on trying to stop the great evil that was seeping through the galaxy. A new hero arises who saves the day, not by the strength of her lightsaber, but instead by the sacrifice of herself and the cumulative power of the “great cloud of witnesses” or in Star Wars lingo, the force.
The myth that Peterson is hanging his hat on is not as universally accepted as he would like us to believe. There are many cultures in the world that do not have creation myths and many that do not have a hero’s journey at the center of their understanding of morality. His attempt to make the Judeo-Christian myth into a universal story for explaining morality falls apart when we acknowledge that that shape of myth is not present in most eastern cultures and many indigenous cultures around the world. This leads to the question of what structure of myth is commonly found in most cultures? Self sacrifice for a culture or people group is found in many places. It is the story that is most compelling, because the hero does not end up victorious in life while his people group does.What if the hero of our story is not the hero because he arises victorious after wrangling the powers of culture and chaos, but instead sacrifices himself in order to remove the power culture and chaos hold over the world?
Perhaps the meaning we find in the world is in the shape of the myth that is presented to us. Making a universal myth is a preposterous idea, because cultures are so varied. As students of culture we need to be willing to ask what the dominant myth of a culture is and understand the range of emphases present in the telling of that myth. We would be better suited to accept a world with a multiplicity of myths that have a multiplicity of emphases than trying to force a one size fits all myth on to every culture.
I once heard an entertainment pundit discussing the Star Wars trilogies. He suggested that how each generation understands Star Wars is based upon which trilogy was in the theaters when they were growing up. In essence he was arguing that there are three different ways of seeing the same story based upon when you came into it. What matters is not the myth you were told, but rather the emphasis you take from it.
i A side note, why is it that the feminine that represents chaos? I know he insists that it is both nurturing and fruitful and as such takes on feminine characteristics. But it feels like he is saying something without saying something by assigning the role of the chaotic to the feminine.
11 responses to “The Skywalker Myth and a Redefinition of Hero”
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Great post Sean – regarding your side note, I wonder if his gender “Mother/Father” language comes from the Genesis and Proverbs idea of Creation. God (the Father) creates from chaos (the Mother). But Wisdom is necessary to create. Wisdom in Hebrew is the word “hokmah” and is translated in the feminine. Ultimately male Yahweh creates with the female wisdom, however God needs to acquire wisdom before God can create. In this “symbolic gender dance” the male divinity needs to acquire something from the female divinity before creation can occur. It also hints to wisdom being necessary before creation. Proverbs 8:22-31 has a lot more to say about this than me!
Jacob those are all good points. Wisdom is often cast in the feminine, but I was more concerned with the idea of chaos being feminine.
Thank you, I knew you would interpret Jordan Peterson for me. I didn’t know, you would also interpret Star Wars. I now have something to offer all the other Star Wars aficionados in my family!
Glad I could help. Just know that the Star Wars aficionados will fight you on my interpretation, if only for spite.
Excellent post, Sean. I thank you for explaining a bit more about Peterson’s motifs. I also like the side note about the female representation of chaos which many reviewers have criticized him for. Thanks again for another perspective.
Thank you Mary. I don’t know if the chaos-female thing is representative of a deeper feeling or if it was more coincidental, but it did seem odd to me.
I love that you used Star Wars for this! I also appreciate the critic’s suggestion that we understand the story differently depending on when you entered it. I grew up feeling like Star Wars had reasonably Christian themes, but these last ones seemed to reflect more Eastern religious ideas. The story continues to be re-nuanced and deepened as characters are explored. The Mandelorian is again taking us somewhere unexplored in Yoda’s youth. How does this project help us understand the shifting of the Christian narrative? Or how might what part of this narrative you encounter first influence how one’s faith develops? Does it make a difference if you read Genesis first? Or Matthew? Or Revelation? (Star Wars would have us go Matthew, Genesis, Revelation I suppose?)
Can we please clear up that “baby yoda” is not Yoda. The show takes place years after Yoda dies. That being said, I think the questions right now are what part of the myth is being focused on and how is that being nuanced by our times.
So which cultures have no creation myths or heroes? I have a check a buch of years back and I couldn’t pin any down except Buddhism (sort of).
Also, Petersons Mapping is about social cohession, but not complete restraint. He does make the point that maps myths need to be reinterpreted or die. The clash of myth is problematic globally and that’s what I think Peterson was observing in 1990s. Social cohesion is up for grabs if we don’t find a narrative that culture can maintain legally, economically and socially. Given the last decade, I’m not so sure the next decade is going to go too well. I wonder what diverse Christian communities might look like in the ensuing chaos.
To answer your first question: the Pirahã in Brazil. I’m more concerned with the idea of a universal or meta myth that everyone hangs their hat on. Perhaps it’s time to allow for variance in myths and not expect everyone to be working off the same one.
I guess that was Petersons point, in part: can there be an social cohesion when everyone operates off their own myth? In fact he only points to a universal western myth which Is based on middle eastern and Asian models too, can politics, economy and law transcend myth, if myth is the basis of meaning. Heady stuff. And its rather early in the morning.