Lost Heirs and Clever Peasants

(Note: minor spoiler ahead for Star Wars: The Last Jedi)

Our story-telling traditions often make a big deal out of family and descent. Part of the classic Campbellian Hero’s Journey is the son’s need to measure himself against his father. A Real Princess™ can tell when there’s a pea under a dozen mattresses, or needs a Real Prince™ to wake her up (apparently princesses do a lot of napping). Modern stories often reinforce the importance of true family lines in similar ways, whether they’re directly invoking the mythic tradition (like Star Wars) or just because family is still an important part of the drama of our lives ( like Harry Potter).

The idea that family lines determine our characters’ stories, abilities, and ambitions is such a big part of our narrative legacy that it can seem like a primordial principle of storytelling, but in fact these kinds of stories arise from specific cultural contexts. These contexts have to do with the assertion of class.

Small-scale societies historically tended to be egalitarian. When a culture contained only a few hundred people, everyone knew one another personally, resources were freely shared, and there was no real differentiation between rich and poor, powerful and powerless. As societies got larger, up into the range a few thousand people or more, social distinctions tended to emerge because people were no longer held together primarily by personal and family relationships. In societies of this scale, some families acquired more resources and more influence than others. Over time, these differences hardened into class distinctions, with prosperous families asserting their own superiority over the less fortunate. An aristocratic class with a sense of its own importance took shape.

A rising aristocracy, however, often struggled against the older traditions of egalitarianism and mutual support. To maintain their position, aristocrats had to create and disseminate a new ideology which justified their status. In many societies all over the world, this ideology was framed by stories about heroic ancestors and special powers passed down through family lines. If you weren’t part of the family line, you didn’t inherit the special powers, and therefore you didn’t deserve to be rich or powerful like them.

Many of the ancient stories that have been passed down and become part of our common narrative tradition were stories originally told by and for aristocrats and would-be aristocrats clawing their way into positions of privilege. When ancient Greek bards recited the tales of Achilles, Odysseus, Helen, and Penelope, they weren’t just telling stories to entertain the masses. Bards and singers depended for their livelihoods on the support of aristocratic patrons, and the stories they told were propaganda for the people who paid the bills. Greek aristocrats claimed to be actual descendants of the heroes of the Trojan War and other myths. The Homeric epics are quite clear that no one from outside the family line deserves to get anywhere near the heroes’ wealth and power.

On the other hand, our story-telling traditions also include narratives that are democratic (or at least anti-aristocratic). Some of these take the form of “clever peasant” tales in which someone from an unimportant background gets the better of the rich and powerful through luck, audacity, and wits. These tales often set up the aristocrats as buffoons who are humiliated in the end and forced to acknowledge the individual merits of people with no family claim to riches or power. Stories of this type are common in folk traditions, including English Jack tales and their analogues in other cultures.

Another type of story combines elements of both, often revolving around a lost heir or disguised royal. In these stories, the hero at first appears to be an ordinary person whose individual initiative and skill earn them acclaim and awards, but they turn out in the end to be the misplaced scion of an important family. Sometimes these lost heirs know their own identity and are in hiding; other times they are themselves unaware until their true identity is revealed. King Arthur, in some versions of the Arthurian mythos, fits this pattern: having been raised in obscurity, he comes into his true heritage when he proves his special powers by pulling the sword from the stone. Robin Hood—again, in some versions—represents a different take on the same pattern: by rights a nobleman, he hides his true identity and fights for the common people. This tradition represents a degree of compromise between the aristocratic and anti-aristocratic narratives. The hero acquires something of the common touch and has to get by on individual merits, but the aristocratic claims to a unique status remain unchallenged.

When modern stories draw on these older traditions, they don’t always think about the implications of them. Star Wars, for example, has always awkwardly balanced the democratic ideals of the Republic, Rebellion, and Resistance with the mythic focus on the Skywalker bloodline. This is why I am so happy that The Last Jedi decided that Rey is not part of the Skywalker family or descended from Obi-Wan Kenobi or any other established Jedi but just the cast-off child of drunken scavengers from nowhere. (Assuming, of course, that Kylo Ren is telling the truth or even knows it to begin with, which is not a trivial assumption, but I’m going with it until we hear otherwise from a canonical source.)

Star Wars has always been told in the mode of myth, but myths don’t come out of nowhere and they aren’t just stories. Myths are stories that mean something. If Star Wars is going be meaningful in the world we live in today, it’s time to democratize the Force. We need more clever peasants these days, not more lost heirs.

Image: Arthur pulling the sword from the stone from An Island Story by Henrietta E. Marshall, New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1906, via Wikimedia

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.

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