One of the staples of literature and media aimed at children is the story of growing up. It can easily be linked to the hero’s journey that is the mainstay of the Star Wars story arcs, and throughout the saga we meet many a young hero who has to grow up a little and save the galaxy. We watch Anakin and Luke Skywalker go from idealistic kids to serious Jedi- and then two different paths for the hero’s journey from there. The Solo children also face the challenges of growing up in an unstable galaxy, answering the call to adventure, and having to grow up in order to handle the challenges thrown at them. For each generation of Star Wars fans, we find the characters who are about our age when we first fall into their stories, and we grow up with our favorite characters. The theme of growing up bridges the young adult and adult novels, keeps Star Wars accessible to all ages, and brings in new fans as they get old enough to identify with the characters.
Luke Skywalker starts out as a young idealistic kid, seeking adventure far away from his backwater home planet. He wants to see the galaxy and have adventures, but when given an opportunity by old Ben Kenobi, he nearly runs away. Luke hasn’t been raised to be a hero and isn’t yet aware of his importance, and it does take rather tragic events to begin his growing-up process and start him on the path to becoming a Jedi Knight. It’s something of the stereotypical hero’s journey, and as a coming-of-age story, Luke has many opportunities to walk away and not deal with the danger of being a member of the Rebel Alliance and a Jedi Knight. It’s an important part of his growing-up process to stick with his journey, and it pays off in the end.
Many fans were introduced to the next generation of Solos through the Young Jedi Knights series. We followed the adventures of Jacen and Jaina and their friends, the same group who later turned up in the New Jedi Order and Legacy of the Force. Even though many of them ultimately met unfortunate fates, we grew up with them. Many of us who read YJK when we were in middle school were ready for the NJO soon afterwards, and finished that series as adults. Growing up with our favorite characters made us feel less alone. We can all relate to not wanting to disappoint our teachers and mentors, thinking we’re ready for something when we ultimately aren’t, and having the adventures that we don’t know how we’ll explain to the grown-ups. Even in the books with a more serious tone, there were still moments of comic relief, still reminders that our main characters were young. It made for a good introduction to the next generation, and propelled them towards their next adventure.
Perhaps reading Young Jedi Knights as a coming-of-age story was what made the New Jedi Order all the more poignant. Sometimes I forget that Jaina and Jacen are sixteen in Vector Prime, which makes Anakin and Tahiri even younger. Throwing children into a war that fundamentally alters the galaxy makes their coming-of-age experiences dramatic and painful. It’s a great contrast to their parents’ coming of age experiences with the Rebel Alliance. Luke at eighteen was much less mature than Jacen and Jaina at sixteen, by virtue of being quite sheltered and from a backwater planet. Leia had been in the middle of the Rebel Alliance for quite some time, and was well aware of the danger she was facing by going on missions. The next generation are somewhat in between, as they are aware of what’s at stake as soon as the war gets serious, but also have the youthful idealism that makes them both want to do something. Jacen and Jaina’s call to adventure comes with a sense of duty; as the children of the Chief of State, they have no choice but to be in the spotlight their entire lives. It seems normal to go to war against the Yuuzhan Vong, and it becomes a rapid growing-up experience.
The dark tone behind these coming-of-age stories brought the necessary seriousness to stories based around a galactic war. With all the grand adventure and good guys saving the day, it can be easy to forget the more somber aspects of war. Forcing our young heroes to take on a very adult burden and assist in saving the galaxy turned the kids we knew into hardened warriors, and we readers were reminded of the burden of coming of age in the spotlight. When Jaina is named Sword of the Jedi, placed as a guardian for the Jedi Order, we really get the confirmation that our young Jedi Knights have grown up.
The theme of coming of age worked quite well in the prequels, as we follow Anakin Skywalker from childhood into adulthood and a fall to the Dark Side. The contrast between Luke’s and Anakin’s stories- the two different paths of the hero’s journey- provides a compelling tale of coming of age in a chaotic galaxy where the young must be heroes before their time. Anakin’s story also matters because of the number of us who were truly brought into the Star Wars universe by the prequels, especially with a young protagonist whose desire to be a hero made us wish for something more than his ultimate fate.
I was nine when The Phantom Menace was released, and even then we knew it had some very silly aspects. But it was also such an accessible story to me as a nine-year-old. Someone my age was the hero who saved the galaxy, and would grow up to be an even bigger hero! Feeling like you’re growing up with the main characters in your favorite media is a phenomenon also seen in the Harry Potter fandom. For many of us, we were around Harry’s age when we read the first book, and we were in our late teens and early twenties when the last one was released. Growing up on coming-of-age stories meant that I wasn’t growing up alone, and even if I didn’t have to kill dark lords, bring balance to the Force, or save the world, I had the same mundane teenage problems as my favorite heroes. Following the same characters through their teenage years and into young adulthood made a huge difference for a lot of us, and we’re starting to pass those stories on to the next generation.
Most of us in the fandom can say we grew up with Star Wars in one way or another. There’s a different generational outlook between those of us who grew up with the original movies a long, long time ago, those who grew up with the prequels, and now the new generation being raised on the Clone Wars and the sequel trilogy. The great thing about this is how many fans it brings in, and though all of us have different perspective on the universe, we all have the sense of growing up with the fandom. We go through different fan communities and see the very nature of fandom evolve with us, and most of us have probably had the fun of bringing someone new into a fandom. Meeting the next generation of Star Wars fans is refreshing, and those children are going to find the same characters to grow up with that we did.
Coming-of-age stories are an important part of bringing new fans into a fandom, and are a storytelling backdrop that shouldn’t be thought of as just the province of young adult literature. For any story to continue, there must always be a next generation. How many of us seriously fell into Star Wars when we met the next generation? Now, we’re seeing kids being drawn in by The Clone Wars and Rebels. These kids are the future of Star Wars fandom, and seeing the next generation just as excited as I was gives me faith in the future of the franchise. They’re going to get characters whose stories of growing up are just as compelling as the ones we got, and the cycle will continue.
It feels like I’m coming of age myself a bit, going into a new era of Star Wars publishing. I grew up on the now-Legends EU, and seeing it relegated to that status is still sometimes hard for a lot of us. But seeing traces of Legends in the new books, seeing it continue on- it’s like growing up, in a way. The things you enjoyed in your childhood, be it literal or metaphorical, are still there. They’ve grown with you and changed, but are still present. Seeing the new Star Wars with the same feel as the Star Wars that I fell in love with gives me hope for the future, and for a new generation of fans growing up on these adventures.