TL; DR: in which I drink too much wine and try to comprehend why Star Wars is my life now.
The person who looks outward dreams, the person who looks inward awakens. – Carl Jung
I wasn’t really expecting to have a visceral or emotional attachment to The Force Awakens.
I had hope, which is what all fans have even when they’ve over-familiarized themselves with the basic plot beats beforehand (major character deaths included). I’m an unrepentant spoiler-philiac. I knew what I was going to see. But I don’t think I could have ever anticipated what I saw, a fact which I have taken a month and half to process and the reason I am rambling on it now.
For some context, Star Wars had already changed my life several decades before. I was 11 the summer afternoon a babysitter found the tapes in my grandfather’s Betamax collection and posited the question that would change my life: “which one would you like to watch first?”
My brothers and I picked Empire Strikes Back because it had the most exciting title, but I will readily admit I was swayed by the cover.
It wasn’t surprising that Empire appealed to my little girl obsession with all things romantic. Being the same year I had discovered Shakespeare, it lay somewhere between Hamlet and Much Ado About Nothing for my hyperactive, prepubescent mind. Leia and Han were my first understanding of how I believed romance should work: a denial of mutual interest masked by annoyance, blossoming into friction, then into longing, then acknowledgement. What little girl didn’t want to be Leia in Jedi–murdering fools to save her love in a metal bikini. “I know” became the words one would most want to hear upon an admission of love.
I remember sneaking into the adult section of the library and checking out Truce at Bakura later that same summer, needing to know what happened after Jedi–most importantly what had happened to my favorite characters. I was only a bit embarrassed as I hunted through the pages for Han and Leia’s scenes together.
I didn’t delve too far into the EU after reading Shadows of the Empire only a few years later–mostly because I was far too young to appreciate the larger stories. (Lately I’ve been regretting that decision).
All that to say, I am a fan. Maybe not as devoted as some, but I have a right to call myself one, regardless.
And I am as invested in this story as if I were 11 all over again–trying to understand why something so simple could resonate with me so deeply. I listened to countless podcasts, read the novelization back to back, the script, the speculation, the newest comics series. I dug deep into message boards, Reddit and other data-mines, trying to find the answer.
Within the first few weeks of this obsession I became very discouraged.
Because what I heard as I went deeper and farther into the existing fandom was that I was wrong. I felt as if there were something huge, and inimical, hidden in the commentary. I felt very alone in my understanding of the film.
Luckily, I found great company. Before I even knew it I had stumbled into a burgeoning fandom that, like me, had experienced the same emotions and the same conflict. They loved it like I did, for what I did.
By reading through their theories and ideas and meta-analyses I was able to identify the primary reasons I had responded so strongly to it. At the heart of it all was an undeniable thread that appealed to me as both as a woman and an (extremely amateur) writer.
The analysis that follows stems from a personal obsession with Jung and his legacy of psychoanalytical interpretation of classical mythology, folklore, and literature. That said, I am not claiming any authority in these matters–just an interest. My hope is this sparks a discussion, rather than reading as a diatribe. So caveat lector.
The Heroine’s Story
I’ve spent a great deal of the past month absorbing analysis of Rey. Whether or not you are a fan of the film, I am sure you are a fan of Rey.
Why am I so sure? Because she represents a strong, self-sufficient person and our first (main-character) female Jedi on film? Because she appeals to a broader audience?
Yes, but all those could be just as easily construed from the fact that Rey is the ideal Heroine.
One of the best ways to argue how good something is is to look at the criticism of it. The worst voices have deemed Rey a Mary Sue. These seem to generally be the same people who decry The Force Awakens as a carbon copy of A New Hope and spend most of their mental energies fixated on what they didn’t particularly like about it. And yes, while I agree there are many similarities, I am also a proponent of Star Wars Ring Theory and the necessity of paying homage to the original intent Lucas had for the films.
I have a hunch that these arguments are mostly a token of the older guard of Star Wars fandom, who seem to be fixated on identifying the ways in which Rey personifies and fulfills the Skywalker lineage. All but a few seem to have been waiting eagerly to graft Luke’s Hero’s Journey as inspired and guided by Joseph Campbell to this film and scoff at the similarities.
In order to understand how and why this is wrong, we need to get down to the distinct differences between the Hero and Heroine’s Journeys. Like the Hero’s Journey, the Heroine’s Journey is as old as time–or at least as old as human civilization. It is however a fickle and not very well understood thing … most likely because for the majority of that time, there wasn’t a whole lot of emphasis placed on it.
If you’ve spent enough time in young adult women’s fiction* you are probably already familiar with at least the Western version as a fundamentally different narrative. We have the same circular arc: beginning in stasis, dipping into despair, flying back up towards the light. But the tools the Heroine uses, the decisions she makes, and the animus(es?) she calls upon are entwined in a narrative that for lack of anything better to call it, is more feminine.
That does not mean it can’t be enjoyed regardless of gender or identification. Just like the Hero’s Journey, the beauty of these stories is that they stretch to fit every delightfully uneven surface of humanity. But that does not mean we should ignore their differences. Indeed, we should celebrate them.
The Hero and the Women Along the Way
Human beings do not stand in one world only but between two worlds and must distinguish themselves from their functions in both worlds. This is individuation. You are rejecting dreams and seeking action. Then the dreams come and thwart your actions. The dreams are a world, and the real is a world. You have to stand between the gods and men. – Carl Jung to Sabina Spielrein January 21, 1918.
Individuation is the soul calling for wholeness and meaning–a psychological transformation which lies at the heart of all tales of obtaining personhood.
While touching upon universal truths of individual transformation, the steps of the Monomyth were never truly meant to be grafted on to women’s process of Individuation. Even Campbell did not spend much time applying the same path to women as main characters. Instead they simply played the roles as needed: virginal maiden, temptress, wizened old hag. Women had an integral place, of course, but to quote:
“Women don’t need to make the journey. In the whole mythological journey, the woman is there. All she has to do is realize that she’s the place that people are trying to get to.” – Joseph Campbell
This assessment is forgivable when we understand that Campbell’s views of women’s roles were very much a product of Carl Jung’s concept of the anima. The anima is the feminine which exists counterpoint in every male psyche (generally within the unconscious) and which manifests as something of a mirror to his own self-development.
Because of the unfortunate cultural acceptance that men should not be emotional beings, the anima tends to feast on this repressed psychic energy and appear as very strong, one-dimensional images of one type or another. Most often, these manifestations of the anima tempt the hero to pursue or abandon his quest. She may take the form of a magical assistant providing a thread to wind through the labyrinth, or a witch who’s infernal knowledge will end up being both his savior and his undoing.
Usually, however, she’s simply the virginal object of his affection. The princess in the Death Star, to bring it back around full circle.
When considering role reversal, I find it understandable that women have felt a little out of place when put into the same boots as the Hero, given a sword, and told to accomplish the same tasks. Our roles have always been different, no matter how much we would love to see their desegregation.
At the heart of the matter is that the animus is a much different character in women’s stories. It manifests not as a singular image but as one that is entwined with our own experiences and identities. Like the Hero’s anima, it is a mirror which reflects the process of Individuation.
The Hero(ine)’s Journey
So much interpretation and analysis of the Hero’s Journey has been done that there is no need for me to explain it in detail. Indeed, thanks to Lucas (and, most likely, his gifted ex-wife and editor Marcia) the first films actually infected our minds with the basic idea of how a Monomyth should work.
Let’s compare this to the Heroine’s Journey as elaborated by Valerie Frankel and several others invested in the understanding of young women’s narratives:
I’m going to summarize another inspired explanation of the Heroine’s Journey by @flutiebear on here to give a bit more structure:
1. The Illusion of a Perfect World
2. The Betrayal or Realization
3. The Awakening, or Preparing for the Journey
4. The Descent, or Passing Through the Gates of Judgement
5. The Eye of the Storm
6. Death: All Is Lost
8. Rebirth: The Moment of Truth
9. Full Circle—Return to a Perfect World
It’s easy to gloss over ACT ONE a bit because it is so recognizable that it would be redundant to explain the similarities. Like the Hero, the Heroine lives in the ordinary world. Unlike the Hero, her world isn’t so much normal as it is a carefully crafted and maintained illusion–a glass cage. Read the first few pages of any fairy tale and you’ll get the idea.
We find our Heroine trapped in the magical, infantile world of perpetuity. She is often represented as diligent and uncomplaining (a historic requirement of all good little girls). If you conform to the Disney Princess interpretation, she can communicate in the green language of birds and wee creatures (or droids and Wookies). She is motherless, and more than obviously a virgin. Her child-like nature is a result of some past trauma that keeps her fixed in place, unable to move forward into the larger world.This trauma and isolation is self-perpetuated.
Whatever state we find our Heroine in–we know it must change. That Rey lives in a literal desert, a hermit, only further underlines her disconnection from reality. Here we have a quiet, almost invisible girl on the outskirts of the known galaxy. That she has been left here alone speaks volumes to our understanding of conflict and pain: she has none. She is driven by hope, not love–and hope is not sustainable without it.
Before The Awakening, written by the talented Greg Rucka, gives us a little more insight into how Rey has survived, both physically and emotionally, in a dead wasteland. Suffice it to say, Rey does not have a healthy understanding of relationships, or even of humanity. She is driven primarily by the need to survive. She is an animal, thinking only of how she can guard her cave. She waits until tomorrow and puts her hair up the same way over and over again in the hopes that she will be recognized. She subsists on the hope that someone will come back for her, but she is not waiting to be saved.
“When a woman is frozen of feeling, when she can no longer feel herself, when her blood, her passion, no longer reach the extremities of her psyche, when she is desperate; then a fantasy life is far more pleasurable than anything else she can set her sights upon. Her little match lights, because they have no wood to burn, instead burn up the psyche as though it were a big dry log. The psyche begins to play tricks on itself; it lives now in the fantasy fire of all yearning fulfilled. This kind of fantasizing is like a lie: If you tell it often enough, you begin to believe it.” ― Clarissa Pinkola Estés
By not taking steps to change her world, Rey exists in limbo–in psychological fixation and stagnation. We know she will grow, but we also know this is impossible without water for her soul. If we think of water as emotion and the fluid nature of human interaction, we begin to see that besides food and basic security the greatest thing this girl is missing is love.
Love is a basic need of human survival and happiness. Hence its importance to every story ever written since the beginning of time. In Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs we must find every one of the elements needed to advance to the stage of Esteem, and onwards to Self-Actualization (Individuation).
You see those elements of love/belonging we’re talking about? Look good and hard at the order, because that’s exactly what direction we are going in.
Let us reflect on the 4 types of love (all of which were equally important) according to the Greeks:
Agápe: selfless, sacrificial, unconditional love
Philia: denoting fondness, especially an abnormal love for a specified thing
Storge: a wide-ranging force which can apply between family members, friends, pets and owners, companions or colleagues; it can also blend with and help underpin other types of tie such as passionate love or friendship.
Éros: the sum of life-preserving instincts that are manifested as impulses to gratify basic needs, as sublimated impulses, and as impulses to protect and preserve the body and mind
When Rey begins to interact with the world–first through BB-8, then Finn, then Han and Chewie, and then on to others–we are seeing her literal awakening to the world outside and to the greater mystery. She is finding love on every step of the journey, and she is changed by it. As Obi Wan tells her, these are her first steps into a larger world.
But why is this so important?
Just as our Hero and our Heroine’s tales follow the same path at the beginning, we are going to see them arc away from another at the most dramatic point in the cycle. This is most clearly illustrated when we reach ACT II: 4. The Descent, or Passing Through the Gates of Judgement
In both Hero/Heroine’s tales, there is a descent into the abyss. There is a magic weapon seized, and a terrible beast slain. But there is a third task which has always been the Heroine’s burden to bear. This is the quintessential part of the Journey, one which will define her as we advance towards what is, hopefully, a satisfying end.
What I am referring to is integration with the Shadow.
…real liberation comes not from glossing over or repressing painful states of feeling, but only from experiencing them to the full.… By accepting the darkness, the patient has not, to be sure, changed it into light, but she has kindled a light that illuminates the darkness within. By day no light is needed, and if you don’t know it is night you won’t light one, nor will any light be lit for you unless you have suffered the horror of darkness. – Carl Jung
We use Darth Vader as a textbook example of the Shadow as represented in modern Western media: the personification of all the frightening and dark parts of ourselves that live just at the edge of consciousness. That we saw how this Shadow was created and emerged from an otherwise gifted and well-loved individual is not taken for granted. What we take for granted, however, is that this villain is essentially the main character of our story–even this newest trilogy. It is his legacy that we are exploring, and this time instead of outright rejection or last minute absolution we are going to see the process of his transformation back to wholeness wrought in slow motion.
It is easy to forget that Luke and Vader do not face one another at any time in A New Hope. This narrative deficiency was recently resolved in the newest Star Wars comic series by having them meet in person soon after the destruction of the first Death Star–wherein Luke avoided what could have just as easily been his demise.
Instead, Luke’s meetings with Vader in Empire and Jedi allow us to see this confrontation, rejection, and final integration play out over the course of two films. We accept that Luke was not ready for such a confrontation in Episode IV–and indeed, the movie was the better for it.
But if we cast this same light on Episode VII, it is very easy to understand why many were quick to deride Rey as a Mary Sue, or the primary antagonist as “weak”. If we draw upon Luke’s complicated relationship with Vader as an example, we assume that these interactions, by comparison, have little power. This is a judgement based not just on who Rey is, but on who we think she is.
Because if we accept the Heroine’s Journey as fundamentally and wholly different, Rey confronting the Shadow time and time again is not so strange. That she does this alone each and every time is also, not so strange. That she wins, is not so strange.
What is really, truly, strange is that there is a significant portion of the fandom who choose not to see this interaction as fundamental to the film–relegating it to back-story or diversion. This is not the case; this is the story. Everything else is secondary.
Confrontation with the Shadow
“Long before we had this title, the idea of The Force Awakens was that this would become the evolution of not just a hero, but a villain. And not a villain who was the finished, ready-made villain, but someone who was in process.” – J.J. Abrams
We are introduced to the villain very quickly in the film, but his impact with Rey comes much later, foreshadowed along her entire path and every fateful meeting. These characters are like a binary star where one has gone supernova and collapsed into a black hole–revolving around one another until they collapse in to each other by sheer force of gravity.
Rey is forced to confront the Shadow immediately before and after the most important stage in both the Hero/Heroine’s Journeys: the refusal of the call.
Not only does she refuse Han’s offer to hire her on when they land on Takodana, and Finn’s plea to run away, she refuses the light saber that has called to her specifically. By dismissing these opportunities she is effectively mirroring the denial of, and drawing into sharp relief, the obsessions of the Shadow.
This is the point in the story where our roles begin to seep into one another and our definitions of our characters begin to become unclear. This is the point in the Heroine’s Journey where she will wed the animus.
What is essential to understand about the animus is that it is much less well-defined in psychology (again probably because for a long time in human history it really wasn’t considered important). While the stages of anima development have the immortal names of Eve/Helen/Mary/Sophia, the animus is generalized–for example “shirtless animal man” for reference. In the process of Individuation the general rule is that one first confronts their persona, then their shadow, and then their anima/animus.
But what if, instead, the Shadow and the Animus are one and the same?
To explore this, let’s start with the Force Back–which is the Pandora’s Box of this new series (hence most people’s frustration with it).
In order here, based on the novelization and the film:
Rey hears her own cries as a child bleed into the “Nooooo” that Luke screams at Vader as their fight on Bespin ends.
Per the novelization: she sees “a boy” at the end of a hallway. The walls fracture and shift, throwing her to the ground.
Where she sees a fire burning and a metal hand touch R2D2 (presumably Luke Skywalker’s)
As she is laying on the ground she turns to witness the death of a “warrior” (never named a Knight of Ren, but assumed to be by countless internet denizens):
Then … the nightmare (and his 6 nightmarish companions):
The nightmare looks directly at her before advancing towards her for the first time, across the field of the dead that surround them.
And then, the nightmare again, in a cold and barren forest that is now familiar to us:
As we see, Rey’s introduction to the Shadow is not from a distance–it is directly within her mind and only visible to her. As soon as she touches Anakin’s lightsaber, Rey is forced to acknowledge the existence of this other world–a world which is alien (dark and wet and cold) and both known and unknown to her (scenes appear to take place both in the future and the past).
This is her awakening. It also just happens to take her deep into the Land of the Dead, the Underworld, where the Shadow resides.
Rey’s lack of identity (see: “I’m no one”) and her attachment to past principles indicates that she hasn’t spent a lot of time looking within. Perhaps this is a curse of her being a survivor, or a result of deep-seated mind erasure (not a theory I’m a particular fan of, but not without precedent). Regardless, when she rejects the call and the gift of the lightsaber, she is rejecting much more than the idea of it, or her inability to leave her illusory world. She is rejecting the Shadow within herself.
Whenever there is a reaching down into innermost experience, into the nucleus of personality, most people are overcome by fear and many run away… The risk of inner experience, the adventure of the spirit, is in any case alien to most human beings. The possibility that such experience might have psychic reality is anathema to them. – Carl Jung
It is more than understandable that there is no curiosity here–Rey is an animal fleeing a predator. She cannot grasp or hold on to the idea of that which is essentially her opposite. Her emotional individuation is still only burgeoning with the help of her new-found friends–and even then she wishes to return to the known of Jakku. It is why she runs away into the forest, directly into the arms of her most familiar company: isolation and survival.
It means everything that at this moment Rey, again, must confront the Shadow. This time he is very real, and very threatening. On a side note: I find it miserably funny that we don’t question why Rey shot first, considering who gave her the blaster.
This confrontation plays out almost exactly like the Force Back vision, but in reverse.
We have the nightmare figure stalking towards her, forcing her to fight back:
And then, as Rey is bound and held in place, waving that big lightsaber around like a crazy person (again, threateningly):
Recognizing something inside of her:
And then taking her for himself:
As the film progresses we see that in all of Rey’s major interactions with the Shadow, she is alone. She is incapacitated during Finn’s brave stand against him, only to trade places such that the only dialogue they share with others as witness are various screams and the titular “you’re a monster”.
By isolating our Heroine from all external aid and influence during every other moment of confrontation, the writers are telling you that the conflict we are dealing with isn’t just universal: it is deeply, and intimately, personal.
I am not surprised very little public commentary exists around this thread in the tapestry: this is quite a leap from the hero’s focus on external conflict and resolution. It does not fit such a simplistic motif, and hence to most who are not prepared for it, it is weird, and strange, and unnatural.
To those of us who embrace it, it is divine.
The Descent of the Goddess
We cannot talk about the path of Individuation and integration with the Shadow in women’s narratives without understanding the significance of Persephone’s descent into Hades.
Jung recognized this as one of, if not the most, feminine of myths. For thousands of years, this story has been the backbone of the major conflict at the heart of the Heroine’s journey.
Even preceding it by eons, we had Ishtar/Innana descend into the underworld in order to undergo her own transformation: the stripping away of selves (see the dance of Seven Veils). There are many other tales of a woman being plunged into a dark world and conquering it in her own way: the Handless Maiden, Prince Lindworm, Isis & Osiris, to name a few.
Any way we paint the picture, the Heroine must descend. It is only right that women were born to take this task upon themselves. We, after all, are literal gateways between worlds. From us comes life, but with that gift comes the equal and terrible burden of understanding death.
I will pause here to say that many others who have posited and defended a similar analysis of the film’s motifs have done FAR better at underlining this resemblance in the story–none more beautiful and elegant than Death & The Maiden by @ohtze . Please just read it, and then come back. While you’re at it read this lovely dissertation by @littlebird92 . Both are crucial to this analysis, and I will assume you hold all of their well-articulated points as sacred over my own, rambling exposition. I stand by the picture below as a simple enough summation: here we have concept art of the first iterations of Rey and Kylo and the possession of our Heroine by the Shadow.
I understand that I may lose some of you at this point because you believe we are too early in our understanding of this trilogy’s direction to make such presumptions. You may or may not have a driving need to see Rey as Luke Skywalker’s lost daughter and ultimate heir to his lineage. Even if this is a fight (to the death) between parallel branches of the cursed Skywalker clan you cannot argue that the Heroine’s journey isn’t still there.
And whether or not you agree with the subtext that was telegraphed through dialogue, blocking, costume, etc. you cannot deny this central imagery in the film. To do so is a disservice to the writers, the actors, director, producers, and all else who worked so diligently to embed this imagery in our psyche.
Understandably, it is not the first thing we want to think of–mostly because of the messy implications if Rey is truly the inheritor of the Skywalker family blessings and curses. Also I suspect that most of the world tends to shy away from anything even remotely sexualized in a franchise family film (which is weird, because Empire is straight-up sexy).
If, however, you would like to stay with me after digesting these things, please listen now to John Williams composition for the pivotal scene of the meeting of Heroine and Shadow/Animus: “The Abduction (of Rey)”.
It’s only a 2:22 minute song but it paints a thousand pictures.
It doesn’t matter too much if I tell you both character’s themes have been shown to complement one another in ascending and descending notes. If we simply compare this 2 minute song to the Abduction of Persephone as depicted by countless artists, over hundreds of years of human civilization, it takes its place among them as a work of art.
Let us provide some further mythological context for this fateful meeting of the Heroine and her Shadow. This is the liminal point in the story and it is framed solidly by archetypes. In the Eleusinian mysteries, Persephone, as the Maiden, shares equal importance with the Mother Demeter and the Underworld Witch Hecate.
Together this triple-goddess motif has become universalized and the central embodiment of almost all analyses of the divine feminine. It is the Maiden’s eventual transformation into the Mother and the Crone that will be her life’s work. This is the path of the Heroine–the one that mirrors the Hero’s journey from boy to father to grandfather.
So, who is Rey running from before the Abduction scene?
And who shows up immediately after?
The Crone & The Queen
We begin with Maz Kanata as Hecate, goddess of all passageways and locked doors and crossroads, both literal and figurative. In her castle, doors open without provocation and secrets are shared. She is a literal Lady of the Lake, holding up Excalibur for the taking. One of Hecate’s many names is Phosphoros or light-bearer. Her natural abilities with the Force, wizened appearance, second sight, and primary role as the entertainer of all sorts of fairy-tale creatures (her many patrons) reinforce her place as the Heroine’s guide into the Underworld.
The original call sheets and concept art suggest Maz’s castle was located deep underground, built partly into catacombs. Although our secret trove ended up in a basement we still have the movement from above ground to under ground: our descent. Rey’s decision to go downstairs, hearing her own cries as a child, is what compels the story to a much different place. It is only fitting that Maz is there to reassure her and guide her afterwards towards a knowledge of the Force.
So now that we know our Hecate, it’s all too obvious who our Demeter is.
In contrast to Maz/Hecate, we are joined at the end of Rey’s abduction by our beloved heroine turned mother, Leia Organa (her chosen name and new costume are very earthy, aren’t they)? As Demeter, she enters the story only just too late–her child once more returned to the Underworld.
The fact that early trailers showed Maz handing the lightsaber to Leia rather than Finn seems to suggest that this transition was even more important at one point in the story building. Similarly in early drafts she bore the title of Queen, and wielded a superweapon that was capable of destroying the First Order’s fleet much more ably than the handful of X-wings in the film.
I’ll try not to go into a rant here, but I feel discussion of Leia’s role as the sorrowful mother has been missing from much of the commentary of the film. In what I can only assume is mis-assigned blame for Han’s death, no one chooses to talk much about the pain and grief she has experienced. Perhaps it’s a testament to her strength and general ferocity that we don’t immediately see her as fragile and tragic. But you don’t have to be a mother to know that she has been mourning the loss of her only child for every single one of the thousands of days they have been apart.
Leia has lost her child, her husband and her brother, not to mention both her biological and adoptive parents, and her home world. But she has not succumbed to that grief–she has let time forge it into a powerful weapon. As she articulates so concisely: “I want him back.”
As the terrible mother archetype, Demeter salted the earth when she lost her child. She sent countless men and women to the Underworld to prove her grief to the other Gods–a choice that had eternal and grave consequences (the disappearance of the sun for half the year being primary among them). I believe we’ll come to understand that Leia has been forced to similarly difficult choices in the name of her son. Not the least of which is reminding his father that their child is still out there, waiting to be saved.
In this context it’s not so strange a thing that Rey and Leia connect on such a level that they embrace before they ever speak one another’s name. They are mourning the same loss–both father and son–at the same time. By sharing that grief, they are forming a bond of mutual respect and understanding which will become much more important for the greater story. It is the resolution of this grief, which has been curated by Leia and now passed on to Rey, that will ultimately create the most meaningful arc of the narrative.
Our Maiden Fair
Even though I can see no reason why Rey is not a personification of Persephone (the fact that the goddess’s other name is Kore and the character’s original name is Kira is hardly coincidence), I also think her identity as the maiden in this story is a ruse.
This is not to discount her place as the Heroine–rather it is a way for her to reclaim the narrative from a place of power and dominance (traditionally masculine attributes).
We cannot forget that Persephone actively sought to distance herself from her overprotective mother at the beginning of her story. She also remained in the Underworld, with the opportunity to return to her family on her own terms. Her status in this story is not as victim but as victor–courageously confronting circumstance, facing death, and finding power. Likewise, she does not look away from the ugly and broken things that are the dead, but instead gives them the love and justice that they are starved for (see Finn). By doing so she becomes the Queen of the Underworld not by coercion, but by choice.
As we saw in The Force Awakens, Rey’s child-like innocence and asexuality give very little indication that she is capable of such a decision to return to or remain in the Dark. The only hints we have at it are her frequent uses of the very tools that her Shadow wields with such alacrity: rage, fear, and domination.
Some would argue that it’s not a politically correct or even fundamentally satisfying plot twist to have Rey stolen into the Underworld only for her to choose to be there. What message does this give to little girls who look to Rey as a heroine, and emulate her? While we can agree that in a desexualized narrative (i.e. Disney film) we cannot have such a fall from grace or seduction by the dark take center stage we must admit that morally gray characters are the ones we identify with much more readily than those codified black and white. Hence why (to use a Disney example) Elsa is everyone’s favorite character and poor Anna takes second stage even though she is the protagonist of Frozen.
Let’s also remember that Rey has spent the majority of her life abandoned in a veritable graveyard of the Empire. As a scavenger she shares the same role in our mythos as the guardians of the dead: carrion eaters such as crows, jackals, and vultures. It is not so far a stretch to presume that she has a natural ability to navigate the dark and murky depths of the Underworld.
But for her to return to the Land of the Dead by choice is, at the very least, not supported contextually. While I believe that this is yet to come and that Rey is much darker than we understand now, there is an alternative to this which makes a great deal more sense (and which I have already touched upon in discussion of Leia).
The choice to return to the dark makes much more sense if we understand that the Maiden in our story is not Rey at all. Instead of a stolen princess, we have a prince.
Like every abducted child, this one is frozen in time and unable to save himself from an eternity in stasis. He is a Lost Boy who identifies only with his maternal lineage and as such represents the puer aeternus:
“One can partly foretell what a puer aeternus will look like and how he will feel. He is merely the archetype of the eternal-youth god, and therefore he has all the features of the god: he has a nostalgic longing for death; he thinks of himself as being something special; he is the one sensitive being among all the other tough sheep. He will have a problem with an aggressive, destructive shadow which he will not want to live and generally projects, and so on. There is nothing special about him whatsoever. The worse the identification with the youthful god, the less individual the person, although he himself feels so special.” – Marie-Louise von Franz
Despite the deliberately sinister manner in which Kylo Ren approaches Rey, despite his probing into her memories, his reactions towards her imply curiosity much more than the aggression. His childish obsession with time and impatience (which is illustrated in his killing of Lor San Tekka and abuse of Poe during interrogation) disappears completely when he is alone with her. He uncharacteristically abandons his search for the droid, and thus the only copy of the map to Luke, to take Rey as “his guest” and attempt to pluck the image from her memory.
You only have to look at his first words to her:
“You would kill me. Knowing nothing about me.” (author’s emphasis)
And later, in the interrogation chamber:
“You still want to kill me.”
These are not the plaints of a man who is sure of himself and where he stands in opposition to the Heroine’s role. These are the protestations of a boy who was never given an opportunity to be a man and who seeks desperately to be understood (see: Skywalker whining).
I won’t delve much deeper into an analysis of Kylo Ren to keep my interpretations of his role and relationship with Rey as objective as possible. I will admit he is my favorite Star Wars character. He embodies the best and worst parts of Han and Leia, in addition to distilling everything interesting from Anakin’s story. The fact that he killed my cinematic first love ala patricide should not be discounted. I am not an apologist as much as I am a pragmatist that this action will cause him a great deal of pain in the future.
But I also choose to believe Leia’s force sensitivity and maternal instincts extend to foresight, and that, ultimately, Han will have saved him–just not in the way that anyone would have asked for. I also believe that the underlying themes of abandonment and child abuse in his story–which are sadly much more often discussed in relation to little girls than little boys–have implications far darker and sadder than we have seen in any of our tortured villains to date.
Whatever his story, Kylo Ren’s path has twisted deep into the heart of Hell. Like Dante’s Inferno this Hell is self-manifesting and very, very cold at its center. He is the king of this Underworld, but he is not in charge of it, nor do his personal motivations ever seem to align fully with those of the other denizens. He talks to ghosts who do not answer back, and claims to be immune to the light only to admit to its call. Again, he does not belong here.
Altogether his actions and facial tics (thank you Adam Driver) speak volumes to what is otherwise missing from dialogue. Lawrence Kasdan’s use of cognitive dissonance in writing his voice is an art in itself, but even Alan Dean Foster is capable of telegraphing the relatable side of our villain in the novelization:
“Revenge is little more than an adolescent concession to personal vanity.” (To Poe during his interrogation.)
His observations are key to understanding his character but are overshadowed by his actions. We forget that beneath the monster is a man–and an extremely vulnerable one at that.
No matter your feelings or hopes for the story as a whole, it is important to remember that we are going to be given equal weight to the backstories and motivations of our Shadow as we are our Hero/Heroines. We are seeing the humanization of the damned. Where once we were given little reason to question the identity or motivations of our creatures in masks, we are now forced over and over to accept their humanity and their right to existence (again, see Finn). This is that legacy of Star Wars that has made it so endearing to so many people.
It’s a coping mechanism that we often commit to hating the faces and the very idea of those who we feel have committed an unforgivable sin. It is a perpetuity of violence and suffering that only the wisest and most noble of us can stop. It is not an untrue stereotype that women are more naturally inclined to forgive, especially when it is family. But forgiveness isn’t ultimately necessary for peace. A simple will to discontinue the cycle of violence is enough.
We cannot forget that the single-most powerful act of the original trilogy was Luke’s decision not to kill his father. The same decision is brought up by Snoke in his manipulation and challenging of Kylo–a split in the path which he is forced to explore the other side of. That our Heroine will be faced with the same decision in the future is more than certain. That our villain will suffer the consequences of it, even more so.
But just as certain is that it is necessary for our Heroine to integrate with the Shadow. As Luke did before her, she cannot do so by killing it, or merely overcoming it, but through love. Whether this is familial or romantic doesn’t really matter–the intent is still there. The relationship moves from fear, to disgust, to pity, to acknowledgement, and finally to acceptance. This is the path whereby we are saved from our lesser natures.
Now, you might be understanding a little more why I do not wish to put Rey in the role of Persephone. But if we consider that she descends into the Underworld, pulled into it by Hades, and it is Hades who is changed–then the shoe fits much more nicely. Persephone remains herself, accepting the Shadow as a part of her nature and ruling it with a firm hand. By transforming the king of the Underworld, she has won. Not by victory, or by vengeance, but by grace.
If we subvert the traditional roles here–at this point–we are doing so with the full knowledge that this strengthens Rey’s presence as Heroine rather than undermining it. Because if she is the literal Shadow’s shadow, reminding him at every turn what he has lost and given up, she becomes the driving means for that character’s metamorphosis, should the writers choose to pursue it.
Whether she fulfills Luke’s destiny through non-violence or takes the darker path of revenge, this integration will be the heart of the next two films and the story’s eventual resolution.
And I can’t tell you how excited I am to see this unfold.
*by young adult women’s fiction I am probably aging myself but I am referring to Tamora Pierce, Anne McCaffrey, Sherwood Smith, Meredith Ann Pierce, Diana Wynne Jones, Garth Nix, Robin McKinley, Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman, Neal Stephenson, Madeline L’Engle and many, many more who have enlivened young minds for the better.
Edit: if you enjoyed this, here’s the continuation:
Bride of the Monstrous: Meeting the Other in the Force Awakens