Saturday, January 11, 2020

StorySpotting: The grateful alien (Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker)

StorySpotting is a weekly or kinda-weekly series about folktales, tropes, references, and story motifs that pop up in popular media, from TV shows to video games. Topics are random, depending on what I have watched/played/read recently. Also, THERE WILL BE SPOILERS. Be warned!

(Image from Mark Hamill's Twitter which is a gift to the galaxy)

The Rise of Skywalker is out, and I'm not a happy camper. It's like someone chopped up a good Star Wars movie, and tossed bits and pieces of it into a blender with a whole bunch of really bad decisions, cop-outs and shredded metaphors.
But anyway, I fished out some folklore references.

Where was the story spotted?

Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker (2019)

What happens?

Our team of rebel scum lands on a desert planet, and gets promptly sucked into quicksand. Falling through the sand they end up in an underground tunnel system, which leads them straight into the Dune franchise. Here they encounter a sand worm that first tries to eat them, but Rey notices in time that it has been injured (by what?!), and Force-heals it. The snake is so grateful for the healing that it shows the team the way out of the tunnels.
(Apparently this scene had two uses: one, it linked the movies to The Mandalorian, where they introduced Force-healing a couple of weeks ago, and two, it set up the fact that Rey can do this, which became stupidly important in the movie later on.)

What's the story?

A hero healing an animal that does them a good turn in exchange is one of the oldest folktale motifs in the book. And by the book I mean Stith Thompson'd Motif-Index of Folk-Literature. This handy collection of folktale LEGO blocks lists all the moving parts of the narratives of old, sorted by letters (big themes like Magic of Death) and numbers. Grateful Animals range from B350 to B399, actually including way more than 49 motifs because of all the sub-categories. For example, if The Rise of Skywalker was a folktale (they wish), this scene would be categorized under B380 - Animal grateful for relief from pain. These stories can have various different kinds of injuries a person helps an animal with, ranging from thorn in the foot all the way to opening abscesses or acting as a tiger's midwife.

Probably the most famous tale of this type is that of Androkles and the Lion. First recorded in the 2nd century, it tells about a runaway slave who seeks shelter in a cave, and encounters a lion with a thorn in its foot. Androkles pulls the thorn out, and the lion becomes his friend, sharing his prey with the man for years. Eventually Androkles is captured again, and thrown into the arena - but the lion they sic on him turns out to be his old friend, who refuses to hurt the man. The emperor ends up pardoning them both.

In the Sri Lankan folktale of The Glass Princess, a young prince offers himself as a human sacrifice to a cobra guarding a pond. It turns out, however, that the serpent has an ulcer on its head, and agrees not to kill the prince as long as he heals it. After days of treatment, the prince sets out to find the legendary Glass Princess, who has the only real cure for the ulcer. They heal the cobra together, and receive treasure in exchange.

In the Oroqen folktale of Aoxingbe, a hero descends into an underground realm, seeking to rescue a girl and also his father. He kills a monster, but gets stuck in the underworld. Wandering he encounters a man stuck in the side of a mountain; the man is the son of a Black Dragon in human form, asking for help. The only way to free him from the rocks is to water pine trees on top of the mountain, making them crush the rocks with their roots over time. Aoxingbe carries 9999 buckets of water up 9999 steps without a break, and frees the dragon, who in exchange flies him out of the underworld.


Sometimes kindness can be more powerful than violence.
But also, Rey totally should have ridden the sand worm. Poe could have helped her smuggle some spice.

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