I finished reading The Legends of Luke Skywalker by Ken Liu. Firstly, I loved it as a Luke story. It did a great job of presenting Luke from different angles and perspectives, while still keeping him a coherent character. Secondly, I loved it as a collection. The stories ranged from survival tales to tall tales to hero’s journey tales, and all of them were entertaining. Thirdly, that last category, “Hero’s Journey,” made me pause and think about the collection again. It turns out this book, consciously or not (but I’m assuming consciously), systematically goes through some major ways that we approach or study myths. It provides six different stories that each represent one kind of myth structure or category, but inside of the fictional world of Star Wars rather than dealing with our own myths. In so doing, it says a lot about how we tell stories to make sense of our lives and experiences.
Mild spoilers for the book below – I’m going to describe the overall premise of each story, but no details on what happens or how it ends.
I know I’m not the first to raise questions about this implausible vulnerability, and I’ve heard the theory that maybe it was the result of deliberate sabotage. But if you believe the ragtag Rebel Alliance was capable of infiltrating the highest echelons of the disciplined Imperial military research labs, I’ve got a few choice plots of beachfront property I’d like to sell you on Tatooine.
The first story, called “The Myth Buster,” is set in a bar where the point-of-view character is listening to a bar-fly explain the “true” story of Luke Skywalker. Redy (the bar-fly) explains that what we thought we knew about Luke is nothing but one conspiracy after another, and nothing but propaganda to make the Rebellion look good.
This story reminds me a lot of urban legends, of which conspiracy theories are a sub-genre. Urban legends are those stories that everyone has heard but sometimes don’t know aren’t true. Some are scary, like Bloody Mary or the Killer in The Backseat. Others are Advice Stories like, if you leave a tooth over night in Coca-Cola it will dissolve (it won’t) so don’t drink Coca-Cola. Others are “this happened to a friend of a friend” like the Microwaved Pet story.
In this Luke story, we hear all kinds of twisted versions of Luke’s adventures in the movies, based around the idea that he was actually a guy named Clodplodder and was part of an intergalactic gang. They’re the kind of sensationalist facts and stories that you just know will be repeated by everyone who hears it, because it makes them feel like they know “the truth of the matter.” They won’t be fooled by nonsense legends of a Jedi Knight saving the galaxy.
He leapt from rebel star cruiser to rebel star cruiser, his flaming sword at the ready. A Star Destroyer focused all its cannons on him, and carelessly, he deflected the shots with graceful swings. He launched himself from a cruiser, tucked his legs under him, and tumbled through space, shooting bolts of energy from his sword in every direction. Star Destroyer after Star Destroyer disintegrated under this unnatural assault.
The second story is called “The Starship Graveyard” and (is one of my favorites and also) features an unnamed male Imperial officer whose ship goes down during the Battle of Jakku (a battle which occurs in between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens). However, the person telling the story, Tyra, accidentally gives enough hints that we realize she is probably giving a cover story for her grandmother, the real protagonist of the story. The Imperial officer is rescued by a guy who may or may not be Luke but who definitely claims to be Luke by the end but IS HE LYING AND JUST TAKING ADVANTAGE OF LUKE’S FAME, we don’t know????
What I’m calling “Personal Mythology” are those stories that we tell about ourselves, stories of our experiences that were very formative at the time, and that we’ve told so many times that they’ve grown in the telling, and so as we keep telling them their significance to our lives grows.
This story about the point-of-view character’s experience with Luke has grown in his or her mind so much that Luke almost seems like a hallucination or a god. This person that won the Battle of Jakku (according to the narrator), saved them from dying in the desert, and helped the scavengers escape a lake of boiling glass. Luke’s significance to this one character is enormous, and in their mind he’s become a sort of all-powerful legendary figure.
“We take turns to uplift each other.”
The third story is called “Fishing in the Deluge.” It’s set on an oceanic planet and inhabited by people who allow “The Tide” to decide their lives and life around them. It’s told from the perspective of a local girl, Ava, but Luke visits the planet on a quest to find out more about the Jedi and Force-users. In order for him to be taught by them, however, Luke has to pass their coming-of-age test that allows young locals to learn how to feel the Tide (aka the Force).
The characters’s attitude toward the coming-of-age trial is evocative of “The Hero’s Journey.” The Hero’s Journey was codified by Joseph Campbell, and made even more famous by George Lucas who used it as a template for the original Star Wars movie. The Hero’s Journey is a basic structure full of common elements shared among most myths; for example, each hero experiences a “call to adventure” early on. If the hero makes it through their whole journey they become “master of two worlds”: both the one they came from and the one they have mastered during their journey, often divided into a physical and a spiritual world.
If Luke makes it through the quest (or hero’s journey, or coming of age ritual) that the local elder sets him, he will be able to master both the Force and the Tide. However, through the trial, Luke learns it’s not so much about mastering something as yielding to a bigger plan. And Ava, the other protagonist, learns a few things from Luke as well. It’s all about balance between two schools of thought and between two individuals, rather than a character successfully navigating a challenge.
There was no fear or terror in his face, only determination. How was that possible? Was he droid or man?
The fourth story in the collection is called “I, Droid,” and features a droid protagonist and many many droid slaves working in a deadly mine. Their experience with Luke Skywalker changes them in their hardware and in their software if you know what I’m saying.
Any myth is cultural, obviously, but what I mean specifically is a myth that defines or influences a culture once it is introduced and learned. It’s implied that Luke has become a legendary figure to any of the droids who met him at this point, and they will tell each other their story about him, and retell it as many times as they have to, until all droids have heard about how great Luke is and what a good droid friend he is. True or not, that’s the story that they’re spreading through their culture.
I’d like to see a follow-up that explores the problematic consequences of this story, where Luke has become a ludicrous figure of myth and any droid who comes across his path treats him like a demigod.
At least he can follow directions, I thought. Then I realized that this wouldn’t be so bad. I could still make it work. Instead of fighting against his instincts, I had to work with them. If I could manage the vapid Salacious Crumb, surely I could do the same with the overeager Luke.
The fifth story is titled “The Tale of Lugubrious Mote.” Lugubrious Mote is…well, a mote. A tiny space-flea from Kowak, which is the same planet as Jabba’s alien monkey jester in Return of the Jedi, for those following along at home. This story goes in a similar vein as the first story, except instead of Luke being a conman, Mote’s version of him is a little stupid and a lot gullible. Lugubrious Mote explains that the only reason Luke survived Jabba’s palace and barge is because of the tiny flea in his hair. Hm.
Rationalizing myths is a popular trend. We like to investigate myths and explore their origins, and what possible explanations could be behind them, whether the myth is a metaphor for why the sun and moon have the courses they do, whether the myth is a conflated retelling of a much more grounded-in-reality event, etc. Explaining away myths with reason kind of misses the point of myths, which is to put into words something we didn’t have words for before.
This narrator comes across as the most unreliable. Sure, everything Lugubrious says sounds plausible, but Luke’s dialogue, and to a certain extent his actions, don’t make much sense with what we’ve seen of Luke elsewhere. So we have to agree to dismantle Luke’s entire character, or distrust Lugubrious. If Lugubrious is lying, his intention is most likely to replace Luke’s myth with his own personal myth, the legend of Lugubrious Mote.
History Turning Into Myth
Real magic is always knowledge. The galaxy is knowable, and that’s what makes it wondrous.
The sixth story is called “Big Inside” and features an archaeologist narrator who is hitchhiking her way to her scientific studies. Luke responds to her beacon, and the two of them find something interesting in space and wind up on an asteroid. Bad Things Ensue (it’s hard to talk about this one very much without spoilers). The scientist is very keen to disregard anything about the Force, whereas Luke believes that science and the Force must go hand-in-hand considering the Force surrounds all living things, etc etc. The contrast was fun to read.
This story illustrates how, if enough time passes after an event, the event and the people living it become a legend. Or, if enough time passes without anyone experiencing a place, the place itself becomes legendary and unreal.
Luke and the archaeologist’s experiences in this story are, to anyone who hasn’t experienced them, completely insane. It’s the kind of thing that myths and hallucinations are made of. At the end of the story, they both admit that no one will ever believe them, but she’s going to have to try if she wants to publish any of her research. In spite of the clash between her scientific pragmatism and Luke’s idealistic mysticism, the protagonist concludes, “I understood enough.”
A Long Time Ago
There’s a running theme in this collection that everyone wants to be the Luke of their own story, or their own personal myth. As they tell stories, they’re mythologizing him and in a way mythologizing themselves. The point-of-view characters are making sense of Luke as a legendary figure, in whatever way they need to. They’re also making sense of their own lives, whether they’re an imperial-turned-scavenger, an archaeologist learning new things about how nature works, or a child learning about how big the galaxy really is. Just like with myths in the real world, the characters in a galaxy far far away need myths to reason their way to the truth.