One of the best aspects of literature is ambiguity; ambiguity that leaves important scenes up for speculation and exploration that causes discussion for years to come. At the end of the novelization of The Force Awakens, the narration tells us “Remembering, Rey reached into her pack and removed [Luke’s] lightsaber. Taking several steps forward, she held it out to him. An offer. A plea. The galaxy’s only hope.” In context, I think the narration makes it seem that Luke is the galaxy’s only hope. But how is he the galaxy’s hope? Does Rey imagine that Luke is going to bring the galaxy together under the Resistance? Does she want Luke to come out of hiding and kill Kylo? I think the direction of the plot subtly moves us into accepting a different ending: that Rey, fully trained by Luke as a Jedi, is the galaxy’s only hope.
What makes me think this? The symbolism in Star Wars. The franchise is not afraid of stretching its visuals to their furthest capacity, leading to some rich storytelling that doesn’t rely solely on the narration to tell every part of the story. But how does The Force Awakens’ symbolism specifically point to Rey as the galaxy’s only hope? It’s too easy to point out Rey’s similarities to Luke, as many have already done. No, the way forward is to look at some of the differences between the two. I think there’s an unexplored area of the movie that we should look at: the symbol of ascent. The symbol of ascent is all over the movie, as the movie starts in the night, in the middle of a desert world and ends on top of a mountainous island in the middle of the day. In many ancient worldviews, “ascension” meant many things: it symbolized a movement from death to life, it symbolized the ritual practitioner’s ascent into heaven, or maturity. Ascension was necessary in many worldviews because the ground was death: to descend was to enter Hades or Sheol, and to stay on the ground was to be tied to the material world rather than the spiritual world. Kosignas, the priest-king of a town in Greece, builds a ladder to Hera to leave the world; the prophet Jonah descends into the sea and into the fish to escape God, comparing it to living in Sheol; the Rig Veda shows the first man who died climbing mountains to show people about life after death; early Gnostics wanted to ascend to heaven to escape the evil material world.
At the beginning of the movie, Kylo’s command ship and troop transports descend on Jakku. Jakku is already a dead place, but Kylo’s descent brings even more death to the sad state of the planet. Kylo murders the head of the village, and the stormtroopers gun down the entirety of the village. Their bodies fall in a pile, visually related to the pile of bodies surrounding the Knights of Ren in Luke’s former Temple. When we are brought back to the planet, we find the fallen rubble of a battle a long time ago. The Empire fell to the sands, leaving as many mechanical bodies as Kylo did in the village. The fallen wreckage is a symbol of the descent of the Empire: the formerly terrifying Star Destroyer that ruled space is now brought low to the sands of Jakku. As far as we know, the only thing Jakku knows is death.
After our introduction to Rey and watching her meet Finn, we watch the first ascent of the movie. The duo steals the Millennium Falcon from Unkar Plutt, ascending to the stars in the first stage of their adventure. This ascent is canceled as they are caught by the Eravana. Escaping again, the duo (now with Han and Chewbacca) escape death and head toward Takodana.
On Takodana, the planet is green, with giant lakes and castles and a forest. The planet seems similar to D’Qar and Ahch-To, but the difference lies in the symbolism: the whole planet serves as a reverse to what we expect from the Star Wars films. The heroes are in plain sight, advertising their existence in Maz Kanata’s castle, in a direct juxtaposition to the hidden Rebel base on Hoth. There’s an air of debauchery at the castle, versus the regular air of tension amongst the heroes in the original trilogy. Most importantly, though, D’Qar has some of the most interesting spins on the ascent/descent theme. In this system, the heroes move down while the villains move up. This reversal of what we expect shows that this is the pivotal scene, the scene building toward the climax when the heroes are descending into death and the heroes ascending into victory. Rey descends into Maz’s basement, finds Anakin’s lightsaber, and rejects her destiny as a Jedi; Leia descends onto the ruins of Maz’s castle to find Han and Rey taken. All of the heroes find themselves in symbolic death, but the villains are rising. Kylo ascends with Rey back to Starkiller Base.
After this reversal on Takodana, we find ourselves in a strangely unique setting: the Death Star, rather than flying in space, is under the surface of the planet it was constructed into. Rey ascends to the surface of a planet by escaping Ren’s torture chair, but can’t break free of its surface. On the surface, Rey is confronted again by her destiny, unable to escape it this time: she summons Anakin’s lightsaber to herself and confronts Kylo Ren. Rey is able to tap into her raw connection to the Force, defeating Kylo before retreating to D’Qar. After returning, she then goes on her most important scavenging mission: she has to find, in the entire galaxy, one man who holds the key to saving the universe. She, Chewie, and R2-D2 travel to Ahch-To to find Luke and begin the next stage of their adventure.
As Rey ascends the stairs to meet Luke, she is rising above the surface for the third time in the movie: no longer stuck in sand, caves, or amongst ruins, Rey is now walking up an ancient stairway toward her true destiny. It’s in this final ascension that Rey is truly entering the life meant for her: she holds Luke’s lightsaber out to him, pleading with him to train her. This ascension is definitively different than Rey’s first two: the ascent from Jakku is blocked by the Eravana, and the ascent from Maz’s basement ends in capture. It is also different from Kylo’s where he fails to keep Rey and ends up losing a lightsaber battle to her. No, this is an ascent to the Jedi Master who redeemed Darth Vader and resisted the most grueling temptations to come to the Dark Side.
Now, Luke is the first of a new Jedi Order. His rise to power corresponded with the end of the Empire and the rise of the New Republic. Where Yoda was symbolically the last remnant of a dead system, Luke is the vibrant symbol of the birth of new life in the New Republic. Now Rey might learn to be a Jedi from the man who gave new life to both the Jedi and to the New Republic. No one else in the movie who ascends, ascends to such an important place. No one else in the movie ascends as many times as Rey: even Luke is a stagnant character. By tracing the ascensions of the movie, we can discover that Rey is the focus of the movie and she is the one who is bringing the audience, and the galaxy, into a brighter, and higher future.
3 thoughts to “The Symbolism of The Force Awakens”
Holy wow. Hey Coop? Keep this guy around. He’s good. He’s very very good.
Things on Takodana flip for Finn though (which is sort of neat). He’s looking to run away – he is ascending the ramp to run away… but then he runs back down to warn Han and the others of the First Order… then he descends down into the bowels of the Castle, takes up the lightsaber… and he (along with Han and Chewie) rise up out of the ground… and then he is a warrior. You have the lure of a false ascension – an ill-gained one. And Finn rejects this out of concern for Han, Chewie, and Rey and then can begin a proper path of ascension.
Thinking of this more – you do have Finn and Rey twice end up hiding below decks – once on the the Falcon, once on the Eravana. Both are times of fear — the first time, Han basically pulls them up and out (and fear is turned to wonderment). The second time they rise up to fight and ultimately help to rescue Han.
And one final one — think on Han and Kylo Ren. Han descends to try to rescue Kylo, while Finn and Rey had climbed the exterior ladder, so that they see things from above, backlit by the dying sun. We see in this the contrast set for the films – while Rey will be striving to bring things to a higher level… Kylo Ren is set against her, below and in darkness (and yet, there was a pool of light as his backdrop, wasn’t there?).
This would be a really fun one to revisit in light of Rise – whereas she makes a lot of ascending movements in The Force Awakens, Rise sees her make three descents instead. She descends from her levitating meditation trance when she feels alone; she descends again to face Sheev on Exegol; and she makes her final descent to the Lars homestead. But the final descent in Rise flips the script, and instead of descending into Hell or failure, she descends into new life as a Skywalker, because only in death can you be reborn.
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