Who wouldn’t want to be Luke Skywalker? Not Luke when we meet him, of course. At the outset of the “Star Wars” saga, he’s just another nobody, stuck doing chores and huffing failure fumes at the ass-end of nowhere. But it just so happens that he’s the secret scion of an epochal power, coursing with latent quasi-magical power and derring-do. Spoiler alert, but with the help of a plucky group of compatriots who rally to his side, he’s bound for amazing adventures, saving the universe, and medals and kisses (albeit from his sister, but whatever).
So, who wouldn’t want to be that guy? Or for that matter, Harry Potter, whose story follows the same essential course? Or Percy Jackson? Or, if you change a few details and plot points, Eragon, or the Cahills from the “39 Clues” books? Or, really, any number of protagonists from other stories aimed at children and young teens over the last generation and a half?
Having watched and read these stories along with my two sons over the past dozen years, I find that I don’t want either of them to be that guy, or, more importantly, not to expect at some level to be that guy. “The cake is a lie,” my kids sometimes quip with a smirk, invoking a bit-from-the-video-game-“Portal”-turned-meme that warns of the false promise of something tantalizing. So what I want to tell them now, just to make sure they know, is that Luke Skywalker is a lie, too.
Don’t get me wrong. I loved “Star Wars,” and was eager to share it with my own children as soon as they got old enough to withstand all its awesomeness. I’ve encouraged their interest in these stories because they’re great stories (mostly), and I’ve enjoyed them, too (mostly). And really, one of the easiest ways to make any writer happy is to embrace a story. I glowed with pride the summer my oldest powered through “Eragon,” a dense fantasy novel as thick as a stack of ham sandwiches, the first reading project of that ambition he’d ever attempted.
But not only did I grow up on “Star Wars,” so did the creators of the stories that have come after it. And over the past decade, the sameness of premises and characters and plots has struck me again and again, and for reasons beyond tedium. The hero’s quest really is the oldest story in the world, but it has been served up over and over again, and so often with strains of exceptionalism, predestination, even ease.
Luke, Harry, and Percy, to name three, are outsiders who become ultimate insiders because they were literally born to it—even if it’s been deliberately hidden from them. They all go through training, and lots of tut-tut-ing and tough love from grizzled mentors who warn them they have much to learn, but they are all prodigies, masters in the making. It doesn’t come without work, but it comes naturally. And in truth, few of us in the real world are naturals at anything.
I remember reading that baseball scouts size up young teen prospects in part by looking at things like sprinting speed and how hard they can throw. The common factor is that these skills are built into the mechanics of a young body—everything else can be taught, and honed through hard work, but not those essentials. In almost everything else we do in life, especially once you leave the realm of physical performance, study and practice and hard work over years, even decades, are the keys to mastery.
So, yes, I realize I am probably sounding a bit like That Guy, generation-splaining how Kids These Days just don’t Get It. But I’m not writing about a generation, really. I’m writing about my own two kids, and the expectation that I see in them that they should be good at things right away. I can see that they expect to be able to jump on a skateboard and immediately start grinding rails—and the disappointment on their faces when they can barely stand up at first. I can see the surprise when they pick up a guitar and chords don’t form themselves. And I find myself working to keep them at it, to keep after them, encourage them, motivate them. I find myself admonishing them with a quote from another generational entertainment, “Adventure Time”: “Sucking at something is the first step in being sorta good at something.” And I know I’m not the only one with these worries. To be clear, the men that my sons become will rise from their own characters and abilities, and to the upbringing my wife and I give them. But it will also rise a tiny bit from Luke and Harry.
I don’t want to pick on George Lucas or J.K. Rowling too much. Other stories for kids peddle an equally insidious notion: that you can do anything if you just believe in yourself. A writer named Luke Epplin skewered this particular trope, and its omnipresence, in an Atlantic piece two years ago. He swatted at “Planes” and “Turbo” and similar cookie-cutter entertainments for encouraging a “cult of self-esteem,” wherein the hero is heroic in direct proportion to his or her willingness to believe in a seemingly impossible dream. Well, belief is important to achieving any dream, but sit in your bedroom and try just believing yourself into it and see how far you get.
Of course, not every story for kids and teens is so Pollyanna. As a fellow father notes, “The Empire Strikes Back” is the dark-horse classic of the original Star Wars trilogy in part because it centers on Luke’s failure and disappointment—and on the way he rouses himself to fight again another day (minus a real hand, but whatever). And there are plenty of stories in which the protagonist earns his or her heroism the hard way (e.g. “The Hunger Games’” Katniss Everdeen), or in which exceptionalism comes with burdens as well as benefits (e.g. the increasingly haunted Andrew Wiggin of the Ender saga). Part of the brilliance of “The Lego Movie” involved its puckish meta-skewering of the presumed specialness of the central character, a chipper but ordinary dude who, as it happens, is not inherently special at all but still manages to save the day.
Maybe this is all harmless fantasy, you might be saying, and maybe I’m making too much of it. Well, sure. But the omnipresence of the Youthful Hero of Secret Destiny in the stories at the core of contemporary kiddie mythos suggests to me that it reveals something about what we want to see and read, and what we may be reinforcing through that—that being ordinary isn’t enough.