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Star Wars: The Force Awakens: An Archetypal Review

While some critics have claimed that The Force Awakens actually abandons the long-standing mythological aspirations of the series (with many particularly bemoaning its deviation from Joseph Campbell’s simplistic “hero’s journey” model), The Force Awakens is just as mythic as the preceding Star Wars films, just in subtler and more specific ways. Anyone who understands the nature of mythic archetypes knows that such symbolic structures are always present in narrative, and are not necessarily delivered in the conventionalised form of Joseph Campbell’s heroic mono-myth. A good story is just as likely to rely on other, equally traditional and effective models, which may themselves be modified or modernized in new and unexpected ways. It has been particularly embarrassing to see how many critics and Star Wars fans, being familiar with Lucas’s reliance on Campbell’s work, have insisted that Luke Skywalker must fall into evil in the sequel trilogy just because his father did in the prequels, as if the monomyth must be followed compulsively and ad infinitum. But myth isn’t always cyclical, and not all archetypal initiations come from the head of Joseph Campbell. As the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss wrote, myth is often a bricolage, a composite of disparate cultural elements. As Northrop Frye explained, archetypal structures can be adapted and inverted for new cultural contexts, or as psychologist C. G. Jung framed it, for new psychological situations. While the Freudian-Oedipal theme of the Star Wars saga as a family history seems destined to remain, the mythic mode of it has, in the latest film, become more nuanced and sophisticated.

Unlike its predecessors, for instance, The Force Awakens is consistently mythic on at least two different levels. The first is through the actual perspective of the characters, who understand themselves to be living into a myth in the film. If you can get past the almost too-neat “Star Wars: The Next Generation” parallel between the older and younger characters, it is interesting to observe how the younger characters see the older generation as mythic models to be lived up to; Abrams and his colleagues have rather ingeniously displaced the audience’s affection and admiration for Luke, Han, and Leia onto the new characters, who dramatize our own amazement at seeing them again, and greet them as living myths whose legacies must be fulfilled (thus ensuring a certain faithfulness of spirit in the story). On a deeper, structural level, however, Abrams and al. have reinterpreted the Star Wars mythology by enfolding many of its traditional motifs into new archetypal structures adapted not from the generalized, overly conventionalized model of Joseph Campbell, but from particular, functional myths that we know, or should know.

Broadly framed as a search for the missing Luke Skywalker, the plot of The Force Awakens in some ways resembles the post-resurrection Gospel narratives, as well as the Book of Acts and related Christian folklore, in which the new disciples must seek to “find” the risen and ascended Christ (young Luke’s most significant archetype was always Jesus, as his interrogation by and defeat of Darth Vader and the Emperor Palpatine in Episode VI: The Return of the Jedi is his crucifixion and resurrection). More specifically, the stories of the new main characters, Finn and Rey, draw on well-known initiation myths from world mythology: Finn’s draws on various Biblical folktales and Celtic myths, and Rey’s story is a remarkable, clever adaptation or inversion of the oldest myth we have, The Epic of Gilgamesh: a feminist interpretation, if you will, of our most ancient initiation myth. Furthermore, Rey’s conflict with Kylo Ren, who is revealed to be the wayward son of Han and Leia, revisits a venerable Indo-European mythic theme about relations and rivalries between cousins, and particularly anxieties about the “sister’s son” (an observation that suggests that, if Kylo Ren is Leia’s son, Rey is likely Luke Skywalker’s daughter. I am aware that there are other possibilities, including that Rey may be the daughter of Obi-Wan Kenobi, but as we shall see, the idea that Rey is a Skywalker would make more archetypal sense. There is also a third possibility, which seems to have been overlooked thus far, that Rey is a Skywalker as well as a Kenobi, having been born to some unknown daughter of Obi-wan’s; a parental combination that would explain her impressive powers) In the paragraphs below, in any case, I will briefly sketch out how these archetypal structures and associations unfold.

Destruction on Jakku

Destruction on Jakku

The film opens with a classic Biblical imperialist trope, the massacre of the innocents, as stormtroopers of the First Order, the military junta of the old Galactic Empire, wipe out a village on the planet Jakku in their attempt to locate Luke Skywalker before the Resistance, formerly the Rebellion, can restore him to their leadership. The mystic Lor San Tekka, a symbolic link to the Jedi, gives Poe Dameron, ace pilot of the Resistance, a map leading to the hermitage of Luke Skywalker, only moments before the former is killed and the latter captured (if there is a flaw in the early acts of The Force Awakens it is that a great actor like Max Von Sydow is used for such a fleeting character as Lor San, and that Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron is the thin point in the film’s characteristic triangle). Their antagonist is revealed to be Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), budding evil Jedi, whose outlook and troops are not just oppressive but fanatical (one of the exciting ante-ups in this new Star Wars trilogy). An unforeseen consequence of this attack, however, is that one of these troopers, FN-2187, is afflicted with pangs of conscience, and decides to defect. When FN-2187 rescues Poe Dameron from captivity, hoping he can help him steal a ship and pilot them to safety, the trooper is renamed “Finn” in a classic rite-de-passage that alludes to the Irish mythological hero Finn Mac Cumhaill, with whom he shares significant traits: both the legendary Finn and this newly christened one are orphans who have embraced an outcast state in order to join and ascend the ranks of an elite group of rebels (the Irish Fianna warriors for the former, and the Resistance for the latter). As an ex-stormtrooper, Finn also recalls a number of other famous Imperial defectors from Christian folklore, from the good Roman centurion of Matthew 8:5, to the legendary Longinus who helped reveal Christ’s divinity at the crucifixion by putting his lance in his side. Like them, Finn accounts for his actions by simply claiming they were “the right thing to do.”

Finn and Han Solo

Finn and Han Solo

We are next introduced to the film’s central protagonist, Rey, admirably played by Daisy Ridley (the latest and greatest of J. J. Abrams’ ingenue discoveries, following Jennifer Garner of Alias and Evangeline Lily of Lost). To say that Rey is the feminist franchise hero we have been waiting for – or that any year we are introduced to a character like her along with Charlize Theron’s similarly inspiring Imperator Furiosa from Mad Max: Fury Road, is a watershed year – is only to begin discussing the significance of this character. Rey is the apotheosis of Abrams’ preternaturally capable Sydney Bristow from Alias, imbued with even further potential by the mysterious power of the Force. More critically – as if her goddessy, bronze-age tunic didn’t imply it – Rey is a contemporary re-envisioning of our oldest mythological figure from the first great coming-of-age story: The Epic of Gilgamesh. Like Gilgamesh, Rey is a solitary desert hero: her name similarly conjures motifs of light and solar heroism (“ray”) and royalty (“rey” means “king” in Spanish), both of which also link her to Luke Skywalker, and yet “rey” also means “friend” in the widely spoken Telugu language of India (a nod to the central event of Gilgamesh’s youth, and a central theme in The Force Awakens). Unlike Gilgamesh, however, Rey begins not at the top of the social hierarchy but the bottom, as a scavenger; and yet the etymological connection between the words “salvage” and “salvation” is worth noting. The fact that Rey spends her time deconstructing crashed Imperial star-destroyers ironically forecasts her future vocation as a rebel, just as her mastery of the staff suggests possible hidden talents with the Jedi lightsaber. Thus it becomes obvious that, where Gilgamesh needed to be initiated out of the martial ethos of youth into a mature wisdom of mortality, Rey will have to be initiated into the martial tradition, and perhaps the immortal life, of the Jedi. She is, in short, an inverted, feminist Gilgamesh-figure, while also tapping into a number of other universal and yet potentially feminist archetypes: Like Finn, Rey is also an orphan, having apparently been abandoned on Jakku, and so she simultaneously alludes to several poignant female examples of that figure, from Cinderella to Jane Eyre to Annie to Daenerys Targaryen. Indeed, the archetype of the orphan has special feminine significance because, for the female orphan, the search for one’s family is not just about parental acknowledgment but transcending particular social inequities and vulnerabilities.

Rey

Rey

Rey is obviously a strong example of the young, maidenly aspect of anima, Jung’s term for the archetypal feminine, whose presence at the center of The Force Awakens may be J. J. Abrams’ greatest contribution to the film (beyond his technical directorial abilities). As evinced by his many other female characters, Abrams has always understood that the anima need not be the object or companion of a masculine self that is presumed to be the audience’s perspective, but can just as effectively be the representative of that perspective. Needless to say, to describe the multivalence of the anima archetype as a “Mary Sue,” as some have done (that is, as an expression of fan-girl wish-fulfillment), is dismissive if not insulting. Indeed, the rich feminine dimension of The Force Awakens should have been apparent to everyone from the first appearance of the droid BB-8, who serves as Rey’s heroic token as R2-D2 served as Luke’s: BB-8’s round-upon-round body resembles that of the Neolithic Venus, which contrasts, amusingly, with the stubby phallic structure of R2-D2. BB-8 is thus what is, in archetypal terms, called a yonic symbol, the archetypal image of female embodiment (and in this case, interestingly, that body houses the treasure of the quest, the map to Luke Skywalker, as if trying to bring him, paradoxically, to a sort of rebirth). This useful term, the feminine equivalent of phallic symbolism, is one that too few literary critics are aware of, and one we should be grateful for in discussing The Force Awakens..

The advents of Finn and Rey are also replete with the symbolism of new birth, from Finn’s TIE-fighter escaping its hangar with its tether still attached like an umbilical cord, to Rey making her home in the womb-like hollow of a crashed imperial walker, to the two exuberantly piloting the stolen Millennium Falcon out of the wreck of a star-destroyer as they make their escape from Jakku (these scenes also depict the overarching theme of all the Star Wars films: humanity’s struggle against the machine). Like the mythical Gilgamesh’s first meeting with his companion Enkidu, the first meeting of Rey and Finn sees them actually fight against each other, and only then find common purpose. Just as Rey is an inverted Gilgamesh, Finn is therefore an inverted Enkidu: as Enkidu represented natural or uncultured humanity, and is initiated into the cultural world by the seductive wiles of the harlot Shamhat, Finn is driven out of the militarized world of the First Order into a more natural sympathy for the Resistance by the strictness of the female Captain Phasma (who is clearly the demonic or negative emanation of the maidenly anima). Captain Phasma’s chrome armor also conjures the potent mythological motif of the mirror, the symbol of self-reflection and self-examination: for that is what her harshness prompted in Finn. Thus as Finn and Rey become fast friends, we see in them not just a clever pun based on their shared status as “deserters” (Finn has deserted the first order, Rey has been deserted by her family in a desert) but a revision of the great archetypal friendship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu. Following on from the groundbreaking representation of male-female camaraderie in recent sci-fi/fantasy films like Pacific Rim and Mad Max: Fury Road, the friendship between Rey and Finn in The Force Awakens reminds us that such battle-born friendships are not exclusively masculine, and need not be complimented or complicated by romance (though certainly they can be).

Phasma

Phasma

Some confirmation of this Gilgamesh-Enkidu/Rey-Finn parallel can be found in the fact that, once the new adventurers depart the planet Jakku in the Millennium Falcon, they encounter the original trilogy’s version of the same archetypal pairing: Han Solo and his co-pilot Chewbacca are, of course, one of the classic examples in modern cinema of the cultural/natural Gilgamesh/Enkidu hero-team. And yet the stunning introduction of Han Solo into the plot of The Force Awakens, thirty years after The Return of the Jedi, also furnishes the film with another archetypal figure: the senex or “wise old man,” as Jung called him (the word “wise” is particularly apt in this case, given Han Solo’s jaded, “wise-guy” persona). As was the case of Obi-Wan Kenobi in relation to Luke in A New Hope, this mentor figure is often a metaphorical uncle, and may be a literal one here, if our surmise that Rey is the daughter of Luke (who is Leia’s brother and hence Han’s brother-in-law) is correct. Indeed, it is worth noting that Han confirms the nature of the Force to Rey and Finn from the same spot on the Millennium Falcon from which Obi-Wan Kenobi similarly instructed Luke in A New Hope. It is, in any case, a treat to watch the two hero teams work to evade the two groups of gangsters that attempt to apprehend Solo, and to watch the old smuggler trade his new-but-decrepit cargo ship for the old-but-speedy cruiser that was always his home. The real archetypal significance of this episode, however, is found in the group’s defeat of the monstrous rathtars that escape their pens and threaten to consume them: in these round, snake-tentacled, gaping-mawed creatures it is possible to see the outlines of the mythical Medusa, a demonic incarnation of the yonic symbol that Freud called the “vagina dentata.” In Rey’s Gilgamesh-like journey, this episode is the parallel of Gilgamesh’s defeat of the giant Humbaba: giants and monsters are often, archetypally, projections of the negative self, or inflations of the self-image, and it is interesting to note that whereas Gilgamesh decapitates Humbaba in his vain search for glory, Rey only dismembers the rathtar to rescue Finn. It is worth observing, in fact, that within her process of martial initiation, Rey mostly uses her emergent skills for defense and persuasion (as per the Jedi code), and only at the film’s climax is she openly aggressive.

Maz Kanata

Maz Kanata

As the heroes proceed to the planet Takodana, to the tavern of the thousand-year-old alien Maz Kanata (a CGI creation motion-captured from actress Lupita Nyong’o), we find another archetypal initiation derived from the Gilgamesh myth. These scenes in The Force Awakenshave been compared to the infamous cantina sequence from A New Hope, and indeed they are in a basic sense the same sort of initiation into a fraught, adult social-space. Likewise, Maz Kanata has been compared to Yoda for her similar wizened playfulness. But in fact these scenes reiterate a major moment in the Gilgamesh myth, namely that hero’s encounter at the edge of the world with the character Siduri. Like Siduri, Maz Kanata is an example of the initiating maternal-figure sometimes called the wine-maid or the alewife, of which Queen Wealhþeow of Beowulf is another famous example. In addition to providing hospitality, gifts, and parental advice (note that “Maz” is close to the universal maternal abbreviation “Ma,” as well as the first half of “Master,” and “Kanata” is the Iroquoian word for “community”), the alewife’s initiating function extends from her association with fermentation and inebriation, which are traditional metaphors of spiritual transcendence and/or unconscious descent. Some of this is reflected in Maz’s peculiar goggles, and her comments about people’s eyes, which connote a focus on vision and insight. But where Siduri attempts to moderate the belligerence of Gilgamesh by espousing to him the virtues of Ecclesiastean amenity, Maz Kanata tries to persuade Finn not to flee the challenges before him, and tries to give Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber (which has somehow come into her keeping) to Rey; another sign that Rey may be a Skywalker. Indeed, the scene in which Rey descends into the catacombs beneath Maz Kanata’s tavern has all the hallmarks of unconscious encounter and self-discovery. The sudden vision she experiences when she first touches the weapon seems to connect Luke to Rey’s own past, as well as depicting his betrayal by Kylo Ren and his dark Jedi henchmen. Although this metaphorical torch-passing fails because Rey is unwilling to accept the weapon and acknowledge her apparent Force-prescience, the symbolism of taking up one’s father sword is nevertheless given a feminine spin here with the fact that the phallic lightsaber is kept in an ornately carved chest, a classic yonic symbol. Despite Rey’s reluctance, Maz puts the weapon in Finn’s keeping, which will turn out to be inspired precaution on her part.

Leia

Leia

When Kylo Ren and the First Order attack Takodana, the heroes are saved only by the sudden arrival of Resistance X-wing fighters, which are not able to spare Rey from capture. But with the appearance of now-General Leia on the scene, another of the film’s feminine figures is furnished. The reunion of Han and Leia is, of course, bittersweet, not least because they divulge that Kylo Ren was once their son, Ben – and still is, according to Leia, who insists “there is still good in him.” But in her capacity as Resistance leader, Han’s estranged wife, and Kylo’s mother, and her sympathy for Finn (who wants to rescue Rey), Leia embodies the mature pole of the anima archetype, which Jung calls the Great Mother. As with Han Solo, this marks a major archetypal development for Leia from the original Star Wars films, in which she often functioned as the maidenly aspect of the anima, a role now fulfilled by Rey. What has not changed, since she remains a positive embodiment of the anima, is that she continues to oppose the negative or demonic aspect of the anima, which Jung calls the Terrible Mother. As is often the case in Star Wars films, this figure is represented not by a character but by a vast destructive power: the Death Stars of A New Hope and The Return of the Jedi, and now the even more massive Starkiller base of the First Order. Where the Great Mother supports and upholds, as Leia does, the Terrible Mother monstrously consumes, a trait memorably depicted in the Death Star’s ability to pulverize whole planets; which is even more pronounced here in the Starkiller’s potential to ingest the energy of a sun and use it to destroy the entire Hosnian system. The essential symbolism of the instrument of the film’s dark antagonists literally consuming light is clear, but it is easy to overlook the interesting feminist spin that is put on this familiar Star Wars trope; the fact that the Starkiller base was once actually a planet that has been converted into a base, a once-good Earth (goddess) now colonized by the masculine-aggressive technology of the First Order. Thus Leia must begin to coordinate a defensive operation to destroy the Starkiller base before it can destroy the Resistance base on D’Qar.

The Starkiller

The Starkiller

The scenes aboard that Starkiller base give us more insight into the archetypal nature of the villains in The Force Awakens. Up close, we notice that Kylo Ren’s black robe and mask are laced with pale threading and piping; a symbolic affirmation of Leia’s point of the element of good remaining in him. When Ren communicates with Snoke, supreme leader of the First Order (whose name evokes various elusive associations, including “smoke,” and the Middle-English past tense of “sneak”), we are introduced to the film’s mysterious meta-villain, the archetypal evil father who stands across from the wise old man or good father. The notion that Snoke might be the Sith-lord Darth Plagueis, who Emperor Palpatine claimed in Episode III: The Revenge of the Sith to have unseated, is interesting. What we learn about Kylo Ren, however, is more so: From his apparent rivalry with the stern General Hux for Snoke’s patronage, we can see that Ren carries on the Skywalker family tradition of conflict with at least his figurative brothers. When Ren communes privately with the charred helmet of Darth Vader, which he keeps as a relic, we discover that he does indeed retain an element of good, a germ of the light side of the Force, which he hopes to extinguish by taking Vader as an exemplar. This intense inner turmoil (the symbol of which is his cross-guard lightsaber) is prone to manifest itself in sudden outbursts of violence, making Ren one of the more complex villains in the Star Wars mythology. Indeed, his name suggests all this and other interesting connotations, from its echo of the words “rend” and “rent” (to tear or break), to its resemblance to the Greek word phrón (“heart”), to the fact that the word ren in Egyptian mythology refers to the sacred, essential name of one’s soul (a fascinating allusion, given the tendency of dark Jedi to take new names when they turn to evil), to say nothing of the proximity of “Ren” to “Rey,” and the similarity of “Kylo” to “Solo.” More critically, it is obvious that Kylo Ren sees himself as the rightful heir of the legacy of his grandfather (whose true self he regards as Vader) despite his maternal descent from him. This places him in a potential family conflict with Rey, if she is (as we suspect) the daughter of Luke Skywalker, whose descent would be paternal, and who would then be his cousin (I will return to this point below).

Rey communing with the charred helmet of Darth Vader

Ren communing with the charred helmet of Darth Vader

Snoke thus sets two tasks for Kylo Ren to seal his fidelity to the dark side: to kill, in the great Oedipal tradition of the Skywalker family, his father Han Solo, and to psychically break Rey in order to find the location of Luke; in other words, to wipe out his own paternity and the paternal descendants of Vader. In the scene in which Ren interrogates Rey, some truly disturbing notes are hit, proceeding from repeated references to her as “the girl.” His exposure of her dream of visiting an island, remedy for her painful desert life, is the result of painful mental probing. And as he relishes his power over her while she is bound to a torture rack, and still more when he removes his mask (in what is a cleverly displaced case of indecent exposure), one can detect an undercurrent of sexual violence, which would put Rey and Ren in the tradition of countless cousins from ancient and urban legend who share or narrowly avert the taboo of an incestuous encounter. The interrogation is essentially a psychic rape-attempt, which makes her telepathic pushback – she discovers her own Force-driven psychic ability and exposes his internal conflict – all the more satisfying. The scene is, in fact, one of the greatest “no means no” moments in recent cinema. And when she later uses this ability again to free herself from captivity, we realize that we are in the presence of a potential Jedi knight.

Ren interrogates Rey

Ren interrogates Rey

The climax of The Force Awakens unfolds in the two-fronted mission to destroy the Starkiller base and rescue Rey, and it must be said that the former of these two plotlines is short on suspense, as it is almost a forgone conclusion that the Resistance’s X-wing fighters will be able exploit the immense station’s design flaw and trigger its destruction. The richer narrative is the other, in which Han, Chewbacca, and Finn infiltrate the base to find Rey and lower its shields. Even with the film’s running gag that anytime someone seeks to help Rey she has already helped herself, it is genuinely touching to see how moved she is that Finn returned to retrieve her (where her family had not). The supreme moment of pathos in The Force Awakens, however, occurs as Han Solo confronts his son Kylo Ren (addressing him by his birth name, Ben) on a suspension bridge in the Starkiller base, and attempts to persuade him to embrace his inner goodness and return to the family. This courageous, principled act, at the end of a morally ambiguous smuggler’s career, affords us a glimpse of the hero we always knew Han could be; but this only makes it more painful when Ren instead stokes (snokes?) the flames of his Oedipal father-hatred and impales Han on his lightsaber, then casts him into the depths below as Rey, Finn, and Chewbacca look on in horror. As the senex figure, Solo’s death, of course, parallels the loss of Obi-Wan Kenobi in A New Hope. But when Kylo Ren presses a pursuit and catches up to Rey and Finn on the icy surface of the Starkiller planet, the real summa of any Star Wars film, the lightsaber duel, ensues. The interesting twist here is that it is Finn who first meets the challenge, having been given Luke’s lightsaber by Maz; but when Finn is struck down, the film delivers its great revelation as Rey overpowers Kylo’s Force power and takes possession of the lightsaber herself to carry on the fight.

Ren confronts Finn and Rey

Ren confronts Finn and Rey

In the image of two heroes battling a relentless, bull-headed villain, however, we can recognize one of the climaxes of the Gilgamesh myth: the combat between Gilgamesh and Enkidu and the Great Bull of Heaven. Like Enkidu in that mythological battle, Finn is struck down, leaving the hero to deal with its repercussions alone. But in the one-on-one duel between Rey and Ren, another archetypal conflict is played out: the battle for family legacy between cousins, particularly paternal and maternal cousins. While this theme sometimes remains implicit in mythology, it is one that stands behind many of the greatest battles in Indo-European narrative: the epic conflict between the Pandavas and the Kauravas in the Hindu epic Mahabharata is a fight between two groups of cousins; in Greek myth, Heracles’ taskmaster Eurystheus, who assigns him the twelve labors, is his cousin; in the Arthurian tradition, King Arthur’s betrayer Mordred was originally said to be his cousin; we can even see it in the struggle for rule between House Baratheon and House Targaryen in George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones. The Celtic myth The Battle of Mag Tuired illustrates the significance of the theme in the conflict between Lugh Lamfada of the Tuatha De Danann and his cousin Bres and his maternal grandfather Balor of the invading Fomorians, who have usurped Lugh’s rule and oppressed his people: royalty is traditionally patrilineal, and so should not fall to, or be usurped by, a maternal cousin because his rule will be compromised by his loyalty to his mother’s family. This is reflected in Ren’s dividedness between good and evil, and his loyalty to the defunct Darth Vader is an apt symbol of his illegitimacy. But once again, the film manages to put a welcome feminist spin on this archetypal conflict: while the war-of-cousins theme is traditionally masculinely-preferential insofar as it is about maintaining the dominance of the patrilineal line, it is not so in The Force Awakens, because Rey herself is female and still the rightful heir: the real issue is therefore not who descends through the father’s line but who descends from the last of the Jedi, Luke Skywalker. In light of this, pardon the pun, the moment where Rey draws Luke’s lightsaber to herself, overwhelming Ren’s power, and the image of Rey extinguishing Ren’s lightsaber in the snow, are powerfully symbolic. Indeed, the film seems to signal that a family feud of a truly epic scale has been instituted by the massive fissure in the ground that opens between them as the Starkiller planet begins to disintegrate. Rey and the wounded Finn are saved only by a nick-of-time rescue by Chewbacca in the Millennium Falcon, and the Resistance cause is won only when ace pilot Poe Dameron returns to the narrative to deliver the deadly blow to the Starkiller.

Source: Bright Lights Film Journal


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