Ahsoka Tano was introduced to audiences in August 2008 with the theatrical release of The Clone Wars movie. Over the course of five subsequent seasons she became a fan favorite, especially among younger viewers who identified with the scrappy, yet vulnerable Padawan Learner of Jedi Knight, Anakin Skywalker. What’s that you say, you didn’t know Anakin was a master to a young apprentice? Well, for a brief time he was between the events of Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. Initially, Aksoka could come across a little headstrong, and she was certainly impulsive, but as the show evolved, so did she. She eventually developed into her own person, influenced by her master’s lessons, but an independent, strong young woman capable of incredible feats of courage, and blessed with an enormous resolve she showed from the beginning.
Through Ahsoka’s growth as a character we see her following the classic mythological pattern of the hero’s journey. Her path is one of transition from childhood to early adolescence, early adolescence to young adult, and young adult to woman. The journey is fraught with danger and excitement, and intense testing and trials, with Ahsoka being forced to embrace adult decisions and living with the consequences of them… She’s one of my favorite characters from the entire Saga.
So what is this “hero’s journey,” and what does it have to do with Star Wars, and more specifically, Ahsoka? Good questions. So, let’s take a quick look at some of the materials that influenced George Lucas during the writing of the original film, examine how his encounter with the works of anthropologist Joseph Campbell forever altered the course of the Saga, and how all of this ties into a certain young Padawan.
Star Wars is often dismissed by critics as popcorn entertainment, mindless fun, or shallow; to the casual viewer they see Star Wars as nothing more than your standard summer movie fare. While there is certainly an element of truth to these criticisms, if you only take the Saga at face value, digging a little deeper into its characters and themes of the series reveals something far more substantial.
One of the reasons fans are so attracted to the Saga is there is something familiar about it. Something resonates with them; whether it’s the journey of Luke Skywalker, longing to escape the confines of home and find his place in the universe, or Anakin’s struggles with temptation, and his desires to control things and people around him as he slips further and further to the Dark Side. While fans are limited to the confines of this earth and will never blow up the Death Star, or face a Dark Lord of the Sith, they have their own dreams and wrestle with their own demons. Star Wars fans see a reflection of themselves in these characters and project their own hopes, dreams, and experiences on those characters. And that is why Star Wars endures, for fans; it has passed beyond mere pop culture and has been elevated to modern myth. And that is why I find Star Wars so infinitely engaging.
As I mentioned in my first blog entry, I grew up on myth and legend. I reveled in the tales of Hercules, Jason and the Argonauts, the Norse gods, Robin Hood, and King Arthur. Even as a young boy, I subconsciously made the connection between Star Wars and these grand stories passed down through history. And as I read books and magazine articles about the making of Star Wars I discovered that was intentional; Star Wars creator George Lucas was trying to create a modern fairy tale using many of the same themes and motifs found throughout ancient mythology. During the course of writing his epic, Lucas came across the works of anthropologist and scholar, Joseph Campbell.
Campbell had written numerous scholarly comparative studies of mythology as well as world religions. Some of these works include, The Hero With a Thousand Faces and The Masks of God. Campbell concluded that regardless of a culture’s history, or their region, that all myths and folktales passed down through the centuries, shared a familiar pattern. He labeled this pattern the “Hero’s Journey,” or monomyth, and summarized it as this:
“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.” The Hero With a Thousand Faces
Lucas had struggled putting all of his grand ideas into a cohesive story when he came across Campbell’s work:
“It was very eerie because in reading The Hero with a Thousand Faces I began to realize that my first draft of Star Wars was following classic motifs. So I modified my next draft according to what I’d been learning about classical motifs and made it a little bit more consistent.” – George Lucas
Like the ancient storytellers from our past, Lucas was crafting a story, for a modern audience, that was relatable and invited viewers on a journey of self discovery, revealing universal truths about the human experience along the way. The Saga is filled with characters walking this hero’s journey, encountering both friends and obstacles along the way, all the while trying to navigate this path to ultimately fulfill their destiny. An example of one of those heroes on this journey is Padawan Ahsoka Tano. Ahsoka may have been a character on a children’s animated show, but Lucas understood that he had new, younger viewers and through Ahsoka he could encourage children to take their own steps on this hero’s journey.
Ahsoka’s path from childhood to adulthood reflects many of the 17 stages of the hero’s journey chronicled by Campbell, but I want to break down three events in particular which highlight the hero’s journey, and demonstrate clearly that Lucas is inviting audiences to dig a little deeper. While The Clone Wars was always jam packed with action, the show was always layered with deeper thematic meanings specifically aimed at kids, and the obstacles they would face down the road.
In The Clone Wars movie, Master Yoda assigns Ahsoka to Anakin to train as his Padawan learner. Yoda’s hope is that Anakin will learn patience by training a strong willed, impulsive, and brash student just like Anakin. Initially, Ahsoka comes off as a little bratty and mouthy (in the first few episodes of the show she calls her master “Skyguy”), and at times even questions the decisions of her superiors, but as her adventures continue, she settles down and shows herself to be dependable and courageous. However, as a young learner she is unsure of herself and lacks confidence, often questioning her own decisions, and this is where her hero’s journey is revealed. It’s not so much a journey to become a full fledged Jedi; hers is a path toward adolescence and adulthood. Lucas, and Supervising Director, Dave Filoni, are using character of Ahsoka to explain to young viewers that while life can look scary, and while you may often doubt yourself, you need to trust in yourself and your training (i.e., advise from adults), and in that way you can overcome your fear.
In the thrilling episode, Weapons Factory, Ahsoka comes face to face with her first major step in her hero’s journey; the transition from childhood to early adolescence. Campbell explains that in all myth there are any number of 17 stages along this journey. Few myths actually contain all 17 stages; most do not, and some only use a handful, choosing one or two stages along the path. Weapons Factory, focuses on two stages: Crossing the Threshold and Belly of the Whale.
According to Campbell, a hero will often reach a threshold crossing; a point at which the hero leaves their safe surroundings and steps forward into a strange and dangerous realm. Weapons Factory concludes the Battle of Point Rain on Geonosis. Jedi and Republic forces have reached deep inside the defenses of the Geonosians and have their primary droid and weapons manufacturing plant surround. But Republic losses are mounting, and it is left to Jedi Master Luminara Undulli and Anakin to devise a plan. The Jedi agree that they will engage the Geonosians while Ahsoka, and Luminara’s Padawan, Barriss Offee, sneak into the weapons plant to destroy it.
It is a strange, and unsettling environment and the young Padawan’s are under constant threat of discovery. As the stakes get higher, Offee appears to wilt under the pressure, but Ahsoka steps in and makes decisions which ultimate save their lives. During a protracted battle the two young Padawans take shelter inside a droid battle tank. They are eventually surrounded and Ahsoka makes the command decision to detonate their explosives.
Here, in the Belly of the Whale (in this case a tank), the two Padawan’s await their fate. The Belly of the Whale refers to a specific moment in a myth when the hero is separated from the known world, choosing to undergo a change. Following the explosion the Padwans are trapped in the rubble of the factory. Undulli believes the Padawans are lost, but Anakin refuses to quite looking. Like her master, Ahsoka never quits, and manufactures a makeshift comlink to let her master know she’s alive. Ahsoka emerges from the tank transformed. Gone is a lot of the self doubt and indecision; she’s no longer a child.
As Season 2 and 3 unfold, Ahsoka is given more responsibility, and more opportunities to lead. Her opinion is often taken into account, but she is still young and inexperienced. While she shows tremendous courage in the face of danger, she has really not confronted death. or hopelessness, but that all is about to change in one of the finest Star Wars stories ever told, the two-part Season 3 finale Padawan Lost.
During a mission on Felucia, Ahsoka is stunned and kidnapped by Trandoshians. She is spirited to a remote Trandoshian moon and dropped off to be sport for hunters. Again she is separated from her master and this time is placed on the Road of Trials which she must navigate or die. Campbell points out that many heroes are put on a Road of Trials, a series of grueling and dangerous test which often stretch the hero to their limits. Ahsoka eventually finds a group of Jedi Younglings who were kidnapped long ago. Stripped of their will to live, they encourage her to give up any dreams of escape (i.e.,give up the journey); theirs is a day to day struggle just to live. But again, Ahsoka demonstrates her indomitable spirit, and willingness to fight to the death, and plans her attack.
In the latter stages of the hero’s journey, the hero returns from their ordeal, sometimes with outside help called the Rescue From Without. In this case her rescue comes from that lovable furball, Chewbacca. Chewie gives Ahsoka and the Younglings a needed physical advantage, as well as technological help. Chewie eventually repairs a piece of damaged communications equipment which allows the group to send for help. But again, Ahsoka finds herself in another Belly of the Whale moment when she is forced to confront the viscous leader of the Trandoshians, Garnac, alone. To save herself, she is left with no choice but to use the Force to push Garnac over a railing to his death. She has once again transformed. No longer able to simply stand by on the sidelines, or await orders from Anakin or Obi-Wan, Ahsoka is an active agent, making life or death decisions for herself, and those around her. She is no longer a young, naive teenager; she is starting to grow into adulthood, making adult decisions along the way.
Again we see her confidence grow as she assumes a more active role on the show. In both the Onderon arc and Younglings arc she demonstrates her leadership ability and new found confidence making necessary snap decisions. But even as she continues toward the inevitable goal of adulthood, and her quest to become a Jedi Knight, dark forces conspire against her, compelling her into a decision which will change her life forever.
In the final arc of Season 5, Ahsoka is accused of conspiring with Separatists to blow up the Jedi Temple. The evidence against her is strong. She is accused of murder, and interfering in an investigation. But Ahsoka is innocent, and is being set up by an unseen conspirator. Ahsoka briefly escapes from jail believing her master is helping her clear her name. In truth she is being helped by the conspirator who plans to spring one last surprise. Arriving at a loading dock Ahsoka finds a batch of the same type of explosives used in a terrorist attack on the temple; she is caught red-handed by Republic troops.
In order to allow a trial to proceed the Jedi strip the young Padawan of her rank and she is removed from the Order; she faces the ultimate punishment; execution for crimes against the Republic. The only Jedi who still stands with her is Anakin who refuses to believe she is involved in such a heinous act. He eventually exposes the conspirator, and Ahsoka is set free. Returning to the Jedi Temple she is offered her place back in the Order as Anakin’s Padawan. Mace Windu even suggests this event may have been her Jedi Trial, suggesting she will be given Knight status soon. But Ahsoka refuse, telling Anakin that she needs to find her own way now.
This is the final stage in the hero’s journey; The Freedom to Live. She has finally left childhood and adolescence behind, and makes an adult choice. She knows their will be consequences that come with her decision, but she is now free with no anticipation of the future, or ties to the past. She has grown before our eyes from a wide-eyed, headstrong, impulsive young girl, to a morally strong, even tempered, mature young woman.
In the end, Ahsoka made the right choice; the only choice that was left to her. When she needed the Jedi Order the most they turned their backs on her and branded her a traitor in spite of her unwavering loyalty and willingness to sacrifice herself for the Order. Ultimately, the Order’s view of Ahsoka was probably based more on a suspicion of Anakin than Ahsoka herself, so it was probably in her best interests to leave. In an unaired episode of the Clone Wars, Obi-Wan argues that Ahsoka’s decision to leave was an emotional one based on passion, not reason. I disagree. Obi-Wan, like the rest of the Order had become clouded in their thinking. While the Order effectively welcomed Ahsoka back with open arms they completely disregarded her argument; it should never have come to this in the first place. Ahsoka is the ultimate people-pleaser, always wanting to do the right thing; by turning their backs on her, the Order placed self-doubt in Ahsoka’s mind which was a tremendous step backward for her. It was time to make the adult decision and leave the nest. Hopefully, she was able to find peace in a life away from the final stages of the Clone Wars, and I hope we revisit her in Star Wars Rebels some day.
Ahsoka Tano will go down as one of the most important characters in the Star Wars Saga. For 5 years she was the heart of The Clone Wars and gave young girls and boys an important hero they could relate to. As she transitioned from childhood to adolescence, and finally to young adulthood, many of her fans would be making that journey with her. In my own experience, my youngest daughter, Kiersten, began watching the show when she was 13. By the time the show ended she was now an 18 year old young woman getting ready to graduate from high school and make the transition to college. It was a profound experience to watch Ahsoka grow and mature like my daughter.
So thank you George for the gift of Ahsoka and for giving young fans new stories and adventures that can be passed on to future generations. In a world filled with mystery and uncertainty, myth can help children cope with the unknown and realize there is a world outside waiting for them if they will only take their first step on the path of their own hero’s journey.
May the Force Be With You…