(Spoilers for Star Wars Episodes I-VII, obviously)
I enjoyed my second time at Star Wars: The Force Awakens even more than my first. The second time, I could relax, pay attention to the story structure, and enjoy the nostalgia, gorgeous visuals, and the uncynical charm of the new characters. It was old, it was new, and it was undeniably Star Wars. Like many fan-favorite fantasy universes, Star Wars hints at the worlds beyond the boundaries of its story. It hooks into an aspect of human cognition concerned with filling in partial patterns and encourages among its fans a rich “head canon” of history, anthropology, and xenobiology. We’re the fans who not only notice that the Millennium Falcon made the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs; we provide theories of why for that race, shorter distances denote faster ships. We imagine deeply into the Star Wars universe, filling in details, reconciling contradictions, and bridging gaps.
This obsessive “scholarship” leads us also to try to unravel the story’s mysteries by scrutinizing the details we’re given. This is where our mastery of minutia almost always leads us astray. We lose track of the fact that first and foremost, Star Wars is a story with a structure that calls for certain types of resolutions. Instead of looking where the thematic arc leads, we look to the evidence — the more obscure the better, because then only the real fans (us) can reach the insights we’ve had. Since before opening night, fans were buzzing about Rey’s lineage, the identity of Supreme Leader Snoke, and the truth of the Chosen One prophecy. A vocal segment of fandom vehemently oppose the idea that the answers to those questions are the obvious ones. They want something unpredictable and “original.” They don’t want leitmotifs, they want a puzzle with a shock-twist solution that challenges and surprises them, perhaps in the way Luke’s paternity shocked them when they were young. But Star Wars isn’t an Agatha Christie mystery with red herrings and layers of obfuscation. It has a different structure, with different aims.
Star Wars is epic mythology, structured in a ring composition. (This article does a masterful job of demonstrating the point, and is required reading for any fan: http://www.starwarsringtheory.com/) Star Wars contains cycles within repeating cycles, and now that we are embarking on the third of the three trilogies of the saga, there’s reason to believe that the filmmakers are paying special attention to honoring the established structure and completing the circles. Consider one of the “rules” of ring composition cited in the above article.
Closure at two levels. Finally, the ending of a ring composition must join up with the beginning and make a clear closure on both a structural and thematic level. “The exposition will have been designed to correspond to the ending. When it comes the reader can recognize it as the ending that was anticipated in the exposition.”
In other words, we should expect this final trilogy to bring us full circle on the plot, theme, and emotional arcs established by the preceding films. We should not expect it to veer off in completely new directions.
What can we glean from the first two “rings” of the Star Wars saga? Let’s take a look at them in the chronology they were released.
Cycle 2: Episodes IV-VI
The original trilogy was a fantasy adventure that followed, beat for beat, Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey template. What made it special (and at the time, shocking) was that against the backdrop of a galaxy at war, this trilogy was also about the healing of a family fractured by the dark side of the power they wielded. In this cycle, we perceive the Force to have a good side and an evil side, and the Skywalker twins and their father are both representatives of these sides, and agents for survivors of the previous cycle’s war — Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda on the side of the good Jedi, and the Emperor on the side of the evil Sith.
The core conflict is the battle for the soul of Luke Skywalker. Darth Vader tries to lure Luke to the dark side of the Force with the truth that he is Luke’s father. Obi-Wan and Yoda try to keep Luke on the light side by hiding that truth, and the truth that he has a twin sister who is their backup plan if Luke fails. They even try to make Luke place his Jedi training ahead of the safety of his friends, so afraid they are that Luke will succumb to the dark side. And indeed, after his first confrontation with Darth Vader, Luke sports a mechanical hand like his father and the next we see him, he is dressed in Sith black and is Force-choking Gamorrean guards. Even as the two sides vie for Luke’s soul, Luke senses good remaining in his father’s soul, and is determined to redeem him. It was Vader who convinced the Emperor that Luke would be better turned than dead. We don’t learn it until the Cycle 1 trilogy, but the nature of the Sith (one master, one apprentice) is such that if Luke’s life were to be spared, it would be at the cost of Vader’s. Darth Vader was willing to sacrifice himself for the life of his son, though it would mean a life of servitude to the Emperor. Cycle 2 completes when Vader goads Luke with a threat against Leia, Luke gives in to his rage just enough to stop his father, and then stops himself, allowing his father to break free of the Emperor. Luke’s solution was one neither the Emperor nor Yoda seemed to have envisioned. One soul had to dip itself in darkness to pull another soul up into the light.
Cycle 1: Episodes I-III
If Cycle 2 was the hero’s rise, Cycle 1 was the villain’s fall. Anakin’s journey is similar to Luke’s: plucked from obscurity and trained as a Jedi, while being tempted to the dark side through his concern and desire to protect those closest to him. In this cycle, the flaws of the Jedi order are more evident: their arrogant aloofness, their denial of passion, their lack of compassion. At the end of this cycle, after Anakin’s fall to evil, the twins Luke and Leia are born as the preamble to Cycle 2. It is significant that the only reason the twins were conceived was because Anakin defied the Jedi to marry Padme in secret. His transgression against the Jedi was the one thing that enabled their return, a generation later.
Cycle 1 recasts the entire saga as a battle for the soul of Anakin Skywalker, but it also elevates the saga from adventure to myth. We learn of the prophecy of the Chosen One, who was destined to bring balance to the Force (whatever that means), and that Anakin may be that Jedi of prophecy. We also learn the Tragedy of Darth Plagueis the Wise, who could influence the midichlorians — the tiny organisms that are the conduit to the Force — to create life. Darth Plagueis taught his apprentice everything he knew before his apprentice killed him, and it is strongly implied that the apprentice, Palpatine, the man who would become the Emperor, induced the virgin birth of Anakin Skywalker. Thus Anakin was not just a man strong in the Force, possibly with a mythic destiny, but a living avatar of the Force itself. The battle for the soul of Anakin Skywalker became the battle for the disposition of the Force.
Cycle 3: Episodes VII-IX
Cycle 3 is the final ring in the Star Wars saga, the one that must bring the mythology full circle, resolving the prophecy of bringing balance to the Force and revealing the purpose behind the Force’s manifestation as Anakin Skywalker. By now it’s clear that the battle for the soul of the Force is waged through Anakin’s bloodline. The conflict between Jedi and Sith must reach its conclusion through the Skywalker family.
By the opening of Episode VII, Luke Skywalker has fled to the site of the first Jedi temple, which is almost certainly the origin of the Chosen One prophecy. Having wielded both light and dark sides of the Force, Luke has a unique perspective through which to seek answers about bringing balance to the Force. Supreme Leader Snoke, an ostensible Sith Lord, has created the First Order as a near twin of the Empire, seduced a Skywalker-descendent to the dark side as an apprentice, and built a super-weapon to dismantle the Republic. Symmetrically, Leia has rebuilt a Resistance mirroring the old Rebellion. The not-yet-a-Sith Kylo Ren, son of Leia and Han Solo, throws tantrums and struggles over his love for his family and his allegiance to his master Snoke, whom he knows is just using him. Kylo’s greatest fear is that he will not be as strong as Darth Vader, an intriguing concern since Kylo’s strength in the Force seems to be more than a match for his grandfather. Darth Vader was arguably at his strongest when he broke free of the Emperor’s influence and saved his son by throwing the Emperor down a pit. And then there’s Rey, a wilder, a Force natural, an instinctive pilot, fighter, and linguist. She can resist and reverse Kylo Ren’s mind probes, dominate weak minds with the Force, see flashes of the future, and feel a summons from Anakin Skywalker’s lightsaber.
Episode VII has set the stage for fundamental revelations about the Chosen One prophecy, which in this go-round must provide the conclusive factor in resolving the struggle between light and dark sides of the Force. If this cycle repeats the motifs of the previous two (and it will), the relationships among the Skywalker family will manifest this struggle, and the ideologies of the old Jedi and Sith orders will be found lacking. Exactly how this plays out is the source of the excitement that will have us standing in line at the theaters. But we can put to rest some questions based on what we know now.
Who is Rey?
There should be no doubt that Rey is Kylo Ren’s opposite number in the Force’s internal conflict and as such is certainly a descendent of Anakin Skywalker. Her aptitudes and past deliberately echo Anakin’s and Luke’s, she receives prophetic and historic visions, and she is “chosen” by her grandfather’s lightsaber. Also consider that Rey was on Jakku within reach of a resistance leader who considered Leia “royalty.” Consider that the Millennium Falcon just happened to be parked nearby. Consider Han Solo’s heartbroken expression when he sees Rey marvel at the greenery of the planet Takodana. Consider how quickly Han intimates that Rey could join his crew. And consider the wordless embrace Rey shares with General Leia after Han’s death. Rey is the daughter of Leia and Han, hidden away for her protection much as Luke was hidden away. That makes Rey the sister of Kylo Ren. Their bond is evident in each of their confrontations, and she clearly rattles Kylo to the point where he even offers to train her, a weak echo of a Sith attempting to corrupt a Jedi. Episode VI seeded the idea of Skywalker siblings squaring off against each other, and the idea is compelling: the embodiment of the soul of the Force split into dark and light manifestations, in a struggle against itself. It’s a yin-yang image, which is also a symbol of balance. No other origin or destiny for Rey would serve the needs of the story structure so well.
Who is Supreme Leader Snoke?
The adversary who put this saga into motion, and who wielded the corrupting influence of the Dark Side on the Skywalker family in the first two cycles went by many names: Senator Palpatine. Darth Sidious. Chancellor Palpatine. The Emperor. Snoke is Palpatine. The Skywalkers will wage a decisive battle against the Dark Lord of the Sith who bedeviled them for three generations. Ring closure demands no less.
What is the meaning of the Chosen One prophecy?
At this point, we can only speculate, but the past cycles can tell us what it isn’t. It isn’t represented by the Jedi society of the Old Republic. It isn’t the dominion of the Sith. And because this third cycle ought to elevate the theme from the mythological to the moral, the prophecy probably does not refer to a numerical balance between Jedi and Sith. The Force is made flesh in the Skywalker line, and their souls are at stake. Now is the time for the truest, purest nature of the Force to be revealed, free of the historical dogma that surrounded it. Balance in the Force means suppressing neither passion nor control. Luke found that out when he redeemed his father. Let’s see whether it will allow Rey and Kylo to save each other and defeat Snoke once and for all.