The closest thing we have to a modern American myth is Star Wars, which filmmaker George Lucas based on the teachings of Joseph Campbell. The famed professor of comparative mythology spent his career studying the stories of the world and compiling them into works like The Hero with a Thousand Faces and Goddesses, compendiums of culture that show the universal tenets of storytelling and myth. Lucas used his Star Wars series to tell stories of purity and depravity, and the grey areas in between. In the sequel trilogy series, we have our own corrupted soul at the center of the story: Kylo Ren, once known as Ben Solo, a young man with a good heart groomed into a role of darkness.
Mythology is shaped by society, geography, and history; but these stories share core commonalities: origins of the world, great floods, heroes and martyrs. They also share morals, and one key tenet of morality—seen across religions and traditions—is the concept of salvation. It is human nature to fail, and thus it is human nature to desire and seek out redemption. From the Greek legend of Hercules to the Sumerian epic of Gilgamesh to the Buddhist story of Milarepa, the persuasion of evil and tyranny is beset with redemption and, eventually, exaltation. Most heroes fail. Many of them so maniacally that they seem beyond forgiveness. And yet, they are saved—and they grow into more righteous versions of themselves. Like his grandfather Darth Vader, Kylo Ren seems destined for a redemption story. In fact, the core ethos of the sequel trilogy is redefining what it means to fail, but also what it means to rebuild.
“I’m being torn apart.”
Kylo Ren is no Darth Vader. Unlike his Imperial grandfather, whose tragic fall from grace was a galactic legend, Ben Solo’s descent was one of copycat arrogance. Anakin Skywalker was a penniless slave, plucked from the desert planet of Tatooine after a fateful encounter with a pair of Jedi knights who sensed his tremendous power. Ben Solo was, by turn, born into a life of privilege and fame. His mother was Princess Leia Organa and his father the war hero Han Solo, who together saved the galaxy from the evil Empire. At a young age, Ben’s preternatural strength in the Force was sensed by both his uncle, Luke Skywalker, and the evil Snoke, who sunk his hooks into the boy and groomed him until he turned to the dark side. His turn was so catastrophic that it destroyed his family: Luke, afraid that he instigated it, fled into isolation, while Han and Leia split up and reverted to old, self-destructive habits.
Ben’s turn was not organic, like Anakin’s, but machinated. The mask he chose to wear was just that: a choice, unlike Vader’s, which was a necessary breathing device after a near-death experience. Everything about Kylo Ren is a modulation, even his ability and desire to kill. Under the persuasion of Snoke, who forged his own Empire, Kylo murdered his father. But not before showing his vulnerability. “ I’m being torn apart,” he told his father through tears, before stabbing him with his lightsaber and throwing him to his death. It’s clear from the onset of The Force Awakens that Ben is a new kind of villain—an impressionistic one, whose heart was never quite blackened the way Anakin’s was. We see him struggle with the light through both films in the sequel trilogy, whereas Vader never faltered until the end of Return of the Jedi. Vader’s evil was decided; Kylo’s feels tangential. And unlike Darth Vader, Kylo Ren has an equal, the light side’s answer to his fall: the scavenger Rey.
“You’re not alone.”
In The Last Jedi, we see that Kylo shares a Force bond with Rey, whose purity is similar to that of Luke in the original trilogy. The bond is so strong, it defies easy categorization. Is it passion, is it love, is it instinct? It’s likely all three, as Kylo and Rey appear two halves of the same whole; indeed, yin and yang imagery is peppered through the film, a reminder of the polarity of the Force, and how it is only truly balanced when dark and light join hands. Rey sees the good in Kylo when no one else does. She calls him “Ben,” she flees Luke’s island when he shirks her desire to save him, and she remains resolute. She says, “I saw his future. As solid as I’m seeing you. If I go to him, Ben Solo will turn.”
Defeating Snoke doesn’t sway Ben back to the light; instead, it only furthers Kylo’s desire for his power. In Campbell’s teachings, there is a concept of “ fall and salvation,” or the ethical cycle of redemption. Assuming the role of Supreme Leader puts Kylo in the “purgative state.” He’s not yet reached illumination—he’s still stuck in the depths of his choices, thinking he has no one but Rey, and then losing her too. She leaves him and closes the door on their bond. He’s alone.
But hope isn’t lost. Not if Luke Skywalker is to be believed.
“No one is ever really gone.”
When Luke confronts Leia at the end of The Last Jedi, she is at her wit’s end. Her husband is dead, her child is lost to the dark side, her scrappy Resistance is so low in numbers they can’t possibly win. Luke arrives as a Force projection to face Kylo, but not before reminding his sister one powerful truth: “No one is ever really gone.”
The phrase carries a number of readings, but key among them is that Kylo is still salvable. Luke knows this firsthand, having witnessed Vader’s sacrifice and final good deed. Anakin Skywalker achieved Karma, a Buddhist concept that is the sum of a person’s actions in all states of existence, and which decides one’s fate in future existences. Karma is inherently redemptive; good deeds restore good faith. If, in The Rise of Skywalker, Kylo is able to fully acknowledge his failures, he too can find salvation. And because he fell from a shorter height, his goodness may not be transactional. He could, indeed, get to live.
Luke sacrificed his life to face Kylo and restore hope to the galaxy. His parting words to Leia were those of hope that her son wasn’t lost. Han also died after promising Leia their son could come home. If Ben Solo remains Kylo Ren, or dies a villain, the sequel trilogy—and, in turn, Luke and Han’s sacrifices—makes little sense, and serves little purpose. This should be, as has been laid out, the story of how Rey and Ben bring balance to the Force and peace to the galaxy. Redemption is necessary for balance, for peace, for karma. Ben Solo, like the great fallen and restored heroes before him, deserves salvation, and his own place in myth.
Images: Disney, Lucasfilm