Humans imitate as a form of admiration. We look up to people who have the characteristics we desire to have in ourselves. Our past and present stories are mediums for ideas of what is best or worst in humanity. Those stories that resonate speak to our need to understand ourselves and our journeys. The hero’s journey, as best outlined by the late Joseph Campbell, takes what is common across cultural narratives and outlines it into a group of necessary events which describe the journey of our heroes. These stories serve as guides which help us to understand the human experience and create a common narrative map that anyone can use in their own lives. In Rogue One, Jyn Erso follows the perfect heroic outline. She answers the call to adventure, receives an amulet from a mentor, dives into the belly of the beast, completes several trials, reconciles with her father figure, and makes the ultimate sacrifice to bring a sliver of hope into the world. This is why we love Rogue One, and why its popularity will outlast many of the larger budgeted Star Wars sequels.
The Ordinary World
In order to connect to our heroes, we need to see ourselves in them. In this ordinary world, they are living their routine and mundane lives. They are no more special than we are. In Rogue One we don’t see much of this ordinary world, as the first call to adventure happens quite rapidly. But we do see Jyn as a little girl who lives on a farm with her parents, far from any adventurous conflicts. This normalized life sets us up to be able to see the heroic adventure as something any one of us can take when the call is received. Jyn’s second call to adventure disrupts what has become her new normal. A hardened rebel warrior raised and trained by an extremist is on her own and now part of the Imperial prison system. She has no direction and no purpose. She has no control over her future. But destiny has a different vision for her future and comes knocking violently on the door of her prison transport.
The Call to Adventure
The first major step in the heroic journey is a blunder which changes the landscape of the hero’s ordinary world. It pushes the hero into a new world which is not fully understood. Often the chance at adventure comes with a herald who informs the hero of the call or is the harbinger of the change to come. The hero is pushed into the dark abyss of the unknown and has to learn to swim or drown in chaos. This unknown land can be represented by a dark forest, an endless desert, the massive expanse of an ocean, or a dark cave. Anything that conveys the unknown.
Rogue One starts so early in Jyn’s life that we witness more than one call to adventure. The first comes in the opening scene as her ordinary world is suddenly interrupted by an Imperial shuttle, sent to retrieve her family. The Empire requires her father’s brilliant mind to continue the stalled construction of the Death Star: a planet sized destructive space station. Jyn’s parents have planned for this inevitability and they immediately begin the execution of a plan which is built to hide Jyn and her mother from the Empire. The choice is to run and hide, or to stay, be captured, and remain with her father as a captured prisoner. To run would put her into a new world without the guidance and structure of her parents, and to stay could mean danger but she would retain the only structure she had ever known. Jyn runs and hides. Her new, unknown world is characterized by the dark cave in which she hides from her pursuers, unaware of the rules of this new world in which she is without her parents.
Jyn’s second call to adventure comes several years later. After a team of Rebels springs her from a prisoner transport, she is taken to a Rebel command station. There, she is given a choice to help the rebels infiltrate an extremist Rebellion faction and find her father, or to go back to the life she knew, which would be prison under Imperial control. What is interesting about these two calls to adventure, is that Jyn answers the calls, but it could be said that her hand was forced. Here, the choice is made not necessarily because of her heroic nature, but because of a pair of options that gave her little choice in the matter, much like her first call.
Refusal of the Call
On both occasions, when the call to adventure is heard by Jyn, she does not refuse the call, but is hesitant to answer it affirmatively. As a young girl on her father’s farm, she at first follows her parents’ directions, running to hide with her mother. Her mother breaks off from Jyn and returns to her husband who is being interrogated by Director Krennic, the Imperial leader responsible for building the Death Star. Jyn too breaks the plan to run and hide, hesitating to answer the call to leave what she knows, and hides in the tall grass, witnessing the murder of her mother. The shock of the reality of her choices sends her running off to the pre-planned hiding spot in a cave. Pushed from a stable life of structure into the darkness of an unknown hole in the ground. There she awaits her rescuer, and her first adventure.
Jyn’s second call comes just as abruptly and plays out very similarly to the first in that she hesitates but is again given no real choice. As she is being rescued from a prisoner transport, she attacks her rescuers but is overpowered by a cheeky Imperial droid, K-2SO, which was reprogrammed to serve the Rebellion. During her later interrogation by Rebellion leadership, she is hesitant to cooperate. Only when pushed with the threat of again losing her freedom does she provide any information about her relationships and knowledge concerning her father or the Rebel extremist, Saw Gerrera. After more than a decade of living at the bottom of life’s rungs as a warrior and a prisoner, she has become nihilistic and jaded to the possibility of any positive outlook on the future. This life has made her focus on little more than self-interest. Again, her hand is forced, and she agrees to help in order to retain any possibility of freedom.
Supernatural Aid and The Mentor
Whether it be a fairy godmother or a Spider Woman as in the Navaho tradition, typical of any heroic journey is an encounter with a supernatural aid or mentor. This figure often provides a physical tool but can sometimes provide knowledge or impart wisdom necessary to complete the journey. This character represents the promise of paradise by reassuring us of the possibility of reaching the ultimate destiny. They are part of our past, present, and future and for Jyn, they appear in several forms and at several times throughout her journey. Jyn’s mentors include both her parents and Saw Gerrera. Her mother gives her an amulet, a Kyber necklace, as Jyn departs on her first adventure. Her father gives her words of wisdom that will guide and reassure her throughout several impasses during her journey. Saw takes her as his own, training her in the art of guerilla warfare which later puts her in a position to take the final journey and lead others into battle.
Crossing the Threshold into the Belly of the Beast
The Kyber necklace first reappears as Jyn awakes from a dream that outlines her connection to her parents and the journey thus far. This look back at the path puts a stamp on what is, at that moment, her crossing of the threshold from normalcy into the chaos which is the belly of the beast. It is the hero’s point of no return that symbolizes their acceptance of what is to come. Jyn starts this part of her journey on Jedha, a war zone, which was once a holy city of the Kyber Temple, and now is occupied by the Empire which is stealing the Kyber crystals and terrorizing its citizens. It is true chaos as warring factions battle Imperial occupying forces and those on multiple sides of this conflict have little to no trust of each other.
The Road of Trials
Often a favorite section of any heroic drama, The Road of Trials occurs in a new and chaotic realm for our heroes. They are faced with numerous trials, create new allies, and are guided by the amulets and wisdom of the mentors with whom they have met prior to this series of tests. For Jyn, this is when the amulet and wisdom imparted her from her mentors come together to properly guide her forward. She first meets an indispensable ally, Chirut, as he detects her necklace of kyber. The blind guardian of the Kyber Temple senses her because of the necklace and later becomes instrumental in her achieving her goal as he sacrifices his life for the mission. When Jyn reunites with Saw, he gives her the message of her ultimate mentor, her father. After years of separation and not knowing what side her father is on, his personal message to her not only revivifies her ultimate trust in him but gives her the information she needs to find the plans for the Death Star.
Atonement With the Father
This atonement for the hero is akin to a fearsome ogre with which the hero must contend. It is usually a male figure of great power. Reconciliation with that figure is necessary to transcend the hero’s previous ego and transform into a newly formed being. This new being represents the complete spiritual transformation of the hero into the form necessary to complete the heroic task. Jyn previously lived her life with the idea that her father was little more than a tool of the Empire. Her Atonement with the Father comes in two distinct stages. As she receives the holographic message from her father, she faces that ogre, and comes to understand the truth he hid. That her father dedicated his life to remaining where he could do the most damage to evil forces from the inside. He then provides her the wisdom necessary for her journey by showing her his true nature and telling her where to find the plans for the Death Star. Later she finds him in person, just seconds before his death, and literally faces him as they reconcile. From here forward, Jyn is transformed into a new being, with a solid direction, determined to complete a task she has no doubt is the right thing to do. This is Jyn’s apotheosis. Her realization of the eternal nature of being.
The Ultimate Boon
The Ultimate Boon is the goal of the hero’s quest. Like Maui of Polynesia, and the Titan Prometheus, it is the fire necessary to deliver back to the hero’s community. Jyn’s Ultimate Boon is the file that contains the plans for the Empire’s Death Star. As Jyn’s apotheosis has led her to the realization of her purpose and direction, she and her Rebel ally, Cassian Andor, lead an incursion into the Empire base on Scarif. Here the Rebels battle Imperial forces on the beach while Jyn’s team sneaks their way into a data vault that houses the plans to the Death Star. While searching the files for the plans, again Jyn’s father serves as a source of wisdom. The filename, Stardust, was the nickname her father used for Jyn. Forced to scale the massive internal tower that houses the file, Jyn climbs to retrieve it while Cassian falls and their droid, K-2SO is killed guarding the entrance to the data vault.
The Magic Flight
Often, if the boon is an item that the former possessor, often a god, is incredibly possessive of, the guardian of that boon takes chase and the hero must escape. Jyn is chased by Director Krennic, who desperately needs to keep the plans secret, as he now knows that Jyn’s father left a fatal flaw hidden in the plans. As she approaches the top of the tower which can transmit the plans into space, Director Krennic stands between Jyn and the completion of her plan. The man who murdered her mother and left her an orphan to be raised by Rebel extremists is her last obstacle. Fortunately, an injured Cassian shows up to fire on the Director, clearing the way for Jyn. This is often framed as the Rescue From Without, where the hero, often damaged by the journey, needs assistance as they seek to return the boon to their community.
The Crossing of the Return Threshold
This ultimate step is the taking of knowledge gained and returning it to humanity. It is much like the delivery of Promethean fire to the humans that allowed them to eat cooked food and create the arts. Here, Jyn transmits the plans into the void of space, hoping that the shield was down, not even knowing if they were received, but hoping for the best. Thankfully, someone was listening, and the Rebels acquire the plans. Jyn has completed the journey
A common motif in stories is that of sacrifice. It has evolved throughout our history as a sacrifice of humans and animals, into a sacrifice of instant gratification for higher purposes that serve eternity. Jyn’s journey ends with the ultimate sacrifice of her life. She and her whole team end up sacrificing their lives as the Death Star fires upon the base on Scarif, sending a shockwave and ring of fire across the surface that consumes all life and destroys every structure. Jyn and Cassian embrace, accepting their fate with no regrets, with a full understanding of their higher purpose and service to the Rebellion.
We all have our own journeys and we all have our own stories. What is strikingly similar across our stories are the steps along the way. We look beyond the boundaries of what we know, we step into the unknown, and if we do so with the right tools, we gain something of great value to bring back to our community. In Rogue One, a young farm girl is transformed into a hero that sacrifices her own life for a purpose above and beyond her own existence. She and her comrades bring together a splintering Rebellion at the edge of disintegration together, and inspire many like them to take the same risks for the same goals. It is this spirit of rebellion and self-sacrifice that lead us directly into Luke Skywalker’s journey and is the key piece of information that allows him to complete his journey. We can and do take these lessons to heart in our own lives, and see it in our myths and religions across cultures and time. It is not always in the exact same order. It is not always life and death. And some of the characters or trials along the way vary. But the pattern repeats itself and is a message to us all. A message that helps us understand the human experience of who we admire and aim to imitate in our own lives.