As with the original trilogy of Star Wars films, there is an abundance of symbolism and mythological themes weaving through the Episode VII. I want to address and explore the more compelling mythological themes and symbolism that I believe add more rich, robust layers to the story; more than the simple archetypal backdrop, if not the eternal struggle, between Good vs. Evil. There isn’t the time, nor do I have the expertise, to tackle them all. That said, there are few ways to address the thematic symbolism: through characters and through plot and imagery; in this instance, I think it makes sense to approach it from both entry points.
I want to focus on three mythological themes that recur throughout the entire film; they ask and require us to translate, export, and think more deeply about the world around us. Initially, I want to address the idea of mapping in Episode VII, secondarily I want to discuss the theme of Technology vs. Nature, and finally, I want to discuss the idea of awakenings and, ultimately, the notion/idea of finding your own bliss.
History Repeats Itself – The Ouroboros
There’s no dispute: Episode VII maps Episode IV in terms of plot points and events. More succinctly put: you’ll think you’re watching Episode IV except in an alternate universe where everyone got old. This is not to say it is any less entertaining, but it is to say that if you are looking for unique story line that advances from Episode VI, you won’t find it. Do the checklist in your head, and you will find that it matches up in a near-identical fashion. The overall consensus is that this was done deliberately to “hook” audiences back into the original canon of Lucas’ trilogy (and helping to ensure the economic success of the film), but Episode VII’s mapping can be extended to a larger historical context. Leaving aside that the writing could be considered “lazy”, the larger theme this mapping presents is that history repeats itself.
It’s really that simple: empires fall, empires arise. Cyclically. Whatever the means and reasons empires are dismantled and scattered: economics, over-conquering, unable to integrate/destroy the root cultural paradigm, etc.), new powers centralize and rise over the course of hundreds of years or decades. We arrive at the same point in Episode IV: an empire exists and is hell-bent on conquering the universe and obliterating a rebel force. As an audience, we never questioned how it came to exist; only that it did exist in this particular conflict model. And, this is the lens we have to view The Force Awakens: the passage of time has amassed a new centralized power. Remember, it took three films (the prequels) to explain the original empire’s existence: its formation and rise to power.
Extending the concept of empire and rebellion further, of history repeating itself, we find that it is a rooted mythological symbol of the Ouroboros or the Yin-Yang. It is the cycle of renewal, of death to sustain life, or the idea equilibrium and balance. That in the “death” or defeat of the Empire in Episode VI, the First Order becomes the new head of the snake to continue the cycle, becomes the Yin to complete the whole, restoring universal balance.
Technology Won’t Save Us
This is another theme borrowed from Episode IV but made entirely more blatant in Episode VII. And, without question, is derived from Joseph Campbell’s work on comparative religion and mythology which positions this as a universal mythology rooted in escaping, alluding, or bounding over death. The idea that we can live forever; the idea that technology will save us, and in some way allow humanness to transcend into a god-like state. Put another way – technology is being used to usurp nature.
In Lucas’ original trilogy, the Empire is representative of technology most principally stated in the man/machine Darth Vader. Vader, in terms of symbolism, is the singularity; the true merger, symbiosis of man and machine, where neither can exist without each other. Nature, as you have guessed, is represented in the Rebels/Jedi.
In Episode VII, we’re treated to this theme in a heavy-handed way from the get-go with the contrast between the Rebellion and the First Order. The Rebellion forces on Jakku are not up-armored in tech, living in only in simple structures in a vast desert landscape. Their wardrobe is cloth and animal skins, and technology is present as an aid, not as the identity. As the First Order forces land on Jakku, nothing could be more the opposite, it is the epitome of technology: armored soliders and Kylo Ren.
There are two scenes in the film that explicitly capture this theme and make it undeniable. The first is when Finn begins his journey through the Jakku desert. Throughout the entire escape sequence, only his head is exposed (or removed from the Storm Trooper helmet), suggesting that intellectually he accepted Nature. That Finn has wrestled and understood philosophically what humanness is. After the crash landing, as he trudges through the desert, Finn, piece by piece, begins to remove the uniform, the technology. For Finn, he has moved through an intellectual/philosophical acceptance to a whole body/spiritual acceptance.
The second scene in Star Wars Episode VII is at Maz’s tavern. This is a rich, layered metaphor drawing from not only the obviousness of the “green space” or forest. As Rey says, “I didn’t know so much green existed in the entire universe,” gives us the undisguised cue: this is nature. Even the tavern itself is encased in stone. By itself, this creates an unambiguous symbol of nature; however, it’s a rather trite, boring one. It is not until we layer in the Shakespearean use of the “green world” that we can unearth a well-thought out symbol.
Shakespeare used the “green world” in several of his plays, most notably A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where it symbolized the escape from the urban environment embroiled in the entanglements of gender power struggles, romantic predicaments, and political strife where truth is revealed by nature (and usually the fantastic), problems are solved, and order is restored. The green world was a place of the fantastic, a place of respite, and a place where the fragmented become whole.
Keeping all this mind, this is a most crucial scene in the film where the characters become whole: Finn now fully embraces his Hero’s Journey, Solo reengages in the fight with the rebellion, Leia’s love is reignited, and Rey is awakened. When the First Order destroys the green world, there is no greater imagery or symbol for technology vs. nature in the entire film. It can be interpreted in multiple ways, have multiple meanings; it is the hallmark of a masterstroke of writing and film making.
Waking Up To Your Journey
It seems fitting to end this post with this mythological idea; it is universal to all of us in some way, shape, or form, and it is the most evident theme in the entire film (i.e., all the characters of the film “awaken” to a journey). However, I want to rely on Campbell’s understanding of awakening, of the Hero’s Journey, not as a part of literature narrative that propels the story forward, but as journey one takes inward, into the self. And, it seems only fitting that the close of the New Year, that is is how it end: introspectively. After all, isn’t that what a New Year is all about? The resolutions we make to birth a new concoction and adaptation of ourselves as an artificial gate in the linear movement of time is closing and the gate opens.
Every major character is awoken to the Hero’s Journey in Episode VII in both the journey outward and inward. For Finn, it happens early on through the shock of war, and the sudden realization of the robotic nature in which he has moved through life. He had to confront the death of another, have blood smeared across his helmet, to awaken him to the journey inward. For Rey, there are multiple moments, but chiefly two: rejecting the offer of 60 portions for BB8 in order to satisfy her hunger, and dream sequence at Maz’s tavern.
In Episode VII, the “awakenings” of each character not only lie in parallel with larger journey of saving the universe from the First Order, but also the journey of spiritual awakening to the Force. The Force, in my opinion, is the energy of one’s own consciousness that feeds into the universe’s consciousness – “The force is an energy field that connects every living thing.” Primarily, in the Hero’s Journey, it is when one makes a sacrifice that foregoes self-preservation, and in doing so, transforms one’s own consciousness and giving yourself to a higher end. That is what epitomizes being human; the sacrifice of the self and journey into one’s self to discover bliss. And, in turn, sharing that bliss with others around you – whether it is art, philosophy, writing, music, business, or even digital marketing. The smallest and most minute things have the chance to be transformative if harnessed and wielded in the right way.
As we slide into the new year, and as cliche as it seems, what will awaken you? Where will you discover your bliss, what journey are you willing to take to arrive at it?