Using Han Solo to Teach “The Hero’s Journey”
Teaching writing is more than stringing together words. Stories have a structure. Good stories have a beginning, middle, and end. Great stories teach us something about life and ourselves. Timeless stories; those that affect generations and change how the world thinks, tend to follow Joseph Campbell’s 12 Stages Of The Hero’s Journey. These 12 stages make up the template of the hero’s journey – where the hero goes on an adventure, achieves the seemingly impossible, and returns home changed. They are also commonly referred to as the Monomyth.
Star Wars may be one of the best and most popular examples of the Monomyth in modern storytelling, and Solo: A Star Wars Story is a great place to teach The Hero’s Journey from a piece of popular culture.
In 1949, Joseph Campbell published his seminal work, The Hero With A Thousand Faces. In it, he mapped out the basic stepping stones that a cultural myth tends to follow in taking a protagonist from everyman to hero. These have been well documented, in relation to such famous stories as Beowulf, The Lord of the Rings and of course, the original Star Wars. But now that a new generation of movie watchers have been given a new set of films, it may prove more interesting and more timely to look for the 12 steps in Solo.
For this piece we will look at Solo: A Star Wars Story, from the assumption that the story is a Hero’s Journey, and find where Campbell would apply his structure. Discussion points and launching pads for narrative answers are offered for instructors.
The Ordinary World
Campbell’s starting place for every Hero is the Ordinary World. Much like what is considered “normal”, what is “ordinary” to our hero can be very different, depending on when and where they live. Whatever it is they are used to is the Ordinary World that they must leave in order to begin their path to becoming a mythic hero.
The extended opening of the movie depicts Han and Qi’ra, living their lives as street urchins, and as agents of the criminal organization, The White Worms.
- How does this establish Han’s Ordinary World?
- Why would you not expect that this would lead to Han becoming a hero?
- What does this tell us about Han as a person?
- Compare and contrast this “ordinary” world to your own everyday life.
- Compare this ordinary to the ordinary of Luke Skywalker in A New Hope, or Rey in The Force Awakens.
- How do the differences in their expectations of life lead to different choices later on, and different paths to becoming the hero?
- What can you learn about someone based on what they consider “ordinary”?
- Is Solo a story of an ordinary character in extraordinary situations or the opposite?
- Why does a hero have to leave behind their Ordinary World in order to answer the Call to Adventure?
Call to Adventure
The Call to Adventure is the first step on the Hero’s Journey. This may be symbolic or literal, but it often presents as a problem the hero must overcome, not fully grasping the import of their actions.
Han’s call to adventure can be found either at the end of the extended prologue, when he joins the Imperial Academy, or later, when he deserts on Mimban. Knowing what you know about the effect of the Call to Adventure on the Hero, which do you think was his true call?
- Does Han refuse the Call to Adventure?
- If he doesn’t, is it the true Call?
- Why is refusing the call an integral part of the process?
The Belly of the Whale
The biblical story of Jonah lends itself to the name of this final part of the hero’s departure. The hero finds himself having to be willing to change, in order to overcome an unexpected challenge. Han finds himself thrown into a cell with “the beast,” expected to do battle for the amusement of his captors. But through an unexpected act of empathy on Han’s part, we meet Chewbacca, who will become his co-pilot and lifelong friend.
- How does Han’s unexpected act here enlighten some of the unknown parts of the Ordinary World of his home?
- What does it suggest about his future?
- Why does Han need to change in order to become a Hero, and how does Chewbacca’s character effectuate change?
- How does this change your view of him as a character throughout the Star Wars series?
- The imagery of the womb is important to Campbell, so what about this scene suggests a rebirth?
Initiation is the middle phase of Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. The Hero has crossed the threshold into the Extraordinary World, and must first undergo a series of challenges known as the Road of Trials.
The Road of Trials
Campbell emphasizes that the Hero must now begin to prove his worthiness by experiencing a number of trials. Frequently, the Hero discovers that he is being aided by some supernatural ally, or in our case by an ally he has aligned with in his entry to the Extraordinary World. Han learns to rely on his new friend Chewbacca, despite learning from the Ordinary World that he can only rely on himself.
The first challenge Han must face in the Extraordinary World is the train heist.
- How is this trial both proof of Han’s capability and a failure?
- Through this trial, how does he prove himself to be the rule-breaking rogue we all know, and also learn to become a part of something bigger than himself?
The Meeting With The Goddess/Woman as Temptress
Before Han undergoes the second of his Trials, he must meet again with Qi’ra, the sweetheart of his youth, and the reason for his answering the call to adventure. He had always intended to make the Return to Corellia to rescue her, but he discovers that she is not only no longer on Corellia, but that she is not in need of his rescue. This plays into Campbell’s Meeting With the Goddess and the Woman as Temptress stages in the Hero’s Journey, and offers a chance to discuss gender dynamics within this story and in the larger world of Star Wars.
Qi’ra serves as a symbol of the Ordinary World to Han, but defies what he idealizes in his years away from that world.
- What did Han expect of her, and how has she defied his expectations?
- How does she fulfill the role of the Goddess and the Temptress here, and how does this play with the “Madonna-Whore Complex” idea?
- What temptations does Han face in meeting Qi’ra and her boss, Dryden Voss?
- Does he resist these temptations, or do they continue to tempt him?
- The Millennium Falcon is also introduced here, so what role does it play in his journey?
- Ships are referred to as “she” (in our world and in Star Wars). Why is that, and how does that affect your view of Woman as Temptress?
- In this day of more female protagonists, how does Campbell’s dated idea of Goddess/Temptress fit into stories with a female lead character?
III. The Return:
The Ultimate Boon/The Magic Flight
While Campbell has these two stages as distinct (and even puts the Ultimate Boon in the middle of the Hero’s arc), both of these stages are represented in Solo in The Kessel Run. Campbell emphasizes the achievement of the Hero’s goal in the Ultimate Boon and the Magic Flight as the escape with that boon happening in the final third of the arc, but here we find the two of them happening at the same time. Solo must steal the coaxium from Kessel and get it to the Savareen refinery before it explodes. In this scene, Han Solo is finally given his opportunity to be the pilot he dreamt of being at the beginning of the film.
The coaxium is being used as a McGuffin here to drive the story. (A McGuffin is the object in the story that exists to move the plot forward, such as the Maltese Falcon, the Arc of the Covenant in Raiders of the Lost Ark, or the One Ring in the Lord of the Rings.)
- How is it similar or different from other MacGuffins in Star Wars and other Hero’s Journeys?
- Is the coaxium the Ultimate Boon, or is it something less tangible?
- While the theft of the coaxium is essentially a heist, how is it similar or different from the train heist we see earlier on Vandor? There is an important arc for Chewbacca, being reunited with his Wookie “family” in this heist. Why do you think this was included in this scene?
- The conversation between Chewbacca and the other Wookies is not translated for us, so what do you think is said here?
The Refusal of the Return
Expectations of any hero’s story would suggest that the film should end with Han returning to Corellia to “save the girl”, and right the wrongs he left behind. But that is not how the film ends. He does return with the Boon, but not to Corellia, and he does not save Qi’ra or even win her affection. The outdated rescue of the Damsel in Distress is avoided here, by giving Qi’ra a dangling plot thread of her own. This is actually the Refusal of the Return. In Campbell’s structure, the hero has been changed by his quest and despite his success in obtaining the Ultimate Boon, he no longer wishes to bestow his riches on their intended recipient.
- Despite his seeming amorality, Han acts altruistically here. But does he act honorably?
- Is this consistent with the Han we saw at the beginning?
- What is it that he has seen in his journey that has made him behave this way?
- Do you think he does the right thing?
- Put yourself in a real-world situation similar to Han’s, and ask what you would be risking by refusing to “stick to the plan” at this point?
- Which is more important to a hero: honor or altruism?
Freedom to Live
From the very first scene, Han and Qi’ra both seem to understand that the only way for them to ever truly be free to live, is to own their own spaceship. In the ordinary world of Corellia, we can see that the sky was blocked from view by the massive Star Destroyers being built overhead. Han speaks about how his father built YT Freighters just like the Falcon. The Freedom to Live is not acquired until he wins the Falcon from Lando “fair and square.”
Does Han ever achieve being The Master of Two Worlds, one of Campbell’s final steps? We never see him return to his Ordinary World, and so that question may be open ended, but if being the Master of Two worlds means being able to travel across the gulf between different worlds, then perhaps he has gained even more with the Freedom offered in the Millennium Falcon. Not the Master of Two Worlds, but the multi-lingual, hyperspace spanning and maw-defying master of a galaxy.
And the Rest
We did not offer up any corollaries for the Hero’s Journey steps of: Meeting The Mentor, Crossing the First Threshold, Atonement With the Father, Apotheosis, The Rescue From Without or the Crossing of the Return Threshold. These make up half of the steps in the Hero’s Journey.
- Are these steps found in Solo?
- If they aren’t, can his story be called a Hero’s Journey?
- Or is his journey not complete until the subsequent Star Wars films?
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