The protagonists of The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi have often been compared to their predecessors from the older trilogies. The similarities in their story, especially in The Force Awakens, has also been discussed by many fans. For instance, Rey’s journey as an orphan from a desert planet, moving into the “great galaxy” and discovering her connection to the Force, as well as her conflict with Kylo Ren, resemble Luke’s path in many ways.
Yet maybe it is precisely this similarity that initially led many fans – myself included – to first focus on the outward similarities rather than on the inner uniqueness. Yes, if you want to summarise Rey’s story, you can say: “the Hero born of nothing gets muddled in the Great Conflict, discovers special powers and faces her Evil Nemesis”. That is a traditional narrative that has been around since antiquity.
But it is also reductive, and one has to ask: is this the primary way to describe Rey’s story? Are these the most important pieces that should be mentioned? Is this the essence, or is it only the accidental? I believe the reservations of some fans towards the new trilogy – claiming it is mere plagiarism of previous story – stem from this misunderstanding.
I Am A Jedi vs. I Am No One
Many fans were upset when Rey wasn’t revealed to be a Skywalker. Such a revelation would have fit the classic, “high fantasy” narrative (because, after all, Star Wars is more of a fantasy in space than pure sci-fi): the displaced orphan is found to be the heir to the throne, the magical powers, or simply to the Destiny, in one form or another. The problem is, are the new Star Wars still that kind of narrative? The original story was: a Hero’s Journey, with both Luke and Vader embracing their Destiny as Jedi at the end. The line “I am a Jedi, like my father before me” signified – for both the father and the son – redemption, restitution, and reconciliation. Luke, and Vader/Anakin in his last moments, decided what they wanted to be identified as, and thus fulfilled their destiny – something that has been announced before, either through the prophecy or through Luke’s parentage.
But what about Rey? Is Rey going to have a similar end? The problem is, her story is not set up the same way as Luke’s was. She has no pre-determined destiny caused by her bloodline. Yes, she can embrace her identity as a Jedi, but it will be a different kind of confession than Luke’s “I am a Jedi”. When young Luke says “I am a Jedi”, he means: “I am someone not controlled by hatred, I believe in redemption, I do not crave power and control”.
Rey’s problem, however, was never about craving power or controlling hatred. These questions have never been raised in the same way as they had been in Luke’s story. If there is any repetitive question in Rey’s story, it is “who are you”. And, after TLJ, we also know that the question “who were my parents” is not part of this answer.
Rey cannot say “I am a Jedi, like my parents before me”, because her parents (unless we get an unexpected plot twist) were not relevant to who she is. And here we touch, I believe, the fundamental distinction between Luke and Leia’s generation and Rey’s generation. They are struggling with being or not being defined by their parents (or grandparents, in case of Kylo Ren). And, let me formulate a daring opinion here: maybe the rift between them and the previous generation is of the same kind as the rift between the expectations of the old-time Star Wars fans and the new, young fans – who identify with Rey, Finn or Ben Skywalker more readily, because it resonates with their personal experience better.
Facing the Truth
That is also what I think may be one key to understanding Rey’s tale, the prism to see her story through. She is not perceived as “new Luke” just by those who would hope, or fear, the Jedi restored through her. She is perceived as “new Luke” especially by us, the audience. But neither Snoke who fears her nor the audience who wants her to save the Galaxy ask what Rey herself sees herself as. If we fail to ask that question of her, we may be missing the point of her tale. It is not about – what the critics who focus on the narrative scheme see – yet another hero rising to fight an evil empire and blowing up its superweapon, but about a hero (read: protagonist, not necessarily Hero with capital H in the traditional sense) who starts as “no one” and has no simple answer to fill this void.
That is what Rey had to face in the cave on Luke’s island. Not like Luke, who, in “his” cave on Dagobah, faced the shadow of his family’s greatest failure and the shadow of what he might become. Rey, instead, had to face the fact that who she is, in every moment, is defined by her – every move, every gesture, into infinity – and no outside help, no crutches, no Destiny is there to help her. No bloodline, no teacher can instill that identity on her. It is the existential crisis of a post-modern character at its finest.
That is why Rey’s moment in the cave, and her confession induced by Kylo Ren, was not there only for Rey, but for the audience as well. Rey was meant to face the truth – that there were no great figures in her bloodline or some great destiny that would help her define “her place in all this”. We were meant to face this truth as well, so we could stop focusing at the wrong parts of Rey’s story, and instead keep our attention on “here and now, where it belongs”, to quote the wise Qui-Gon Jinn. Did we? If we didn’t, we should – otherwise, our expectations for Episode IX may be completely off the mark.