Why did Kylo Ren turn evil?
That’s a central unanswered question of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Ren is the film’s villain, a young acolyte of the late Darth Vader. (Spoiler alert: He is also the son of two of the film’s famous characters, whose names I’m going to reveal).
Kylo Ren is the son of Han Solo and Princess Leia, characters from the original Star Wars films. Solo is a swashbuckling pilot and Leia (now a general) is a cunning military strategist. With a pedigree like that you would expect Ren to be an honorable warrior, but something has gone wrong—he rejects his parents, opting instead to follow the path of the grandfather he never knew, the evil Darth Vader. The Force Awakens is a weakly written script so we never find out what precisely motivates Ren, but judging by his behavior, his hostility and confusion might stem from the lack of male initiation. That is to say, Han Solo may have been hyper driving around the galaxy when he should have been raising his son.
According to psychologist James Hollis, rites that provide for the initiation of young men into the world of adulthood are as crucial to male health as fresh air and food. In his book, Under Saturn’s Shadow: the Wounding and Healing of Men, Hollis examines how, before the modern age, rites of initiation for adolescent boys were a crucial part of tribal and community life. These were often violent ordeals. The Mandan Sioux Indians would drive a skewer into the pectoral muscles of the initiate and raise him by ropes until he fainted. A tribe in the South Pacific had boys jump off of a huge wooden edifice. In Ethiopia young men have to prove their worth by jumping over cows.
To our modern sensibilities these rites might seem odd and even sadistic, but in premodern cultures they served an important purpose. Rites of initiation provided a formalized ritual to signal that a young man was becoming an adult, but more importantly, they showed that a boy had entered into a larger cosmic drama. It meant that his life had meaning not just in the community, but also to God (or the gods). Here’s how famed Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung described it, in a quote used by Hollis in Under Saturn’s Shadow: “That gives peace, when people feel they are living the symbolic life, that they are actors in the divine drama. That gives the only meaning to human life; everything else is banal . . . A career, producing of children, all are maya [illusions] compared with that one thing, that your life is meaningful.” In the original Star Wars films Luke Skywalker has to go through a lengthy and difficult training and initiation process not only to become physically powerful, but also to learn the ways of the Force, the thing that holds the entire universe together.
Without that larger vision, all you have are ersatz initiation ceremonies that teach violence with no redemptive vision. So boys are told to play football because “it builds character.” Or to go hunting because “that’s what men do.” The alternative to these rituals (one often embraced by self-proclaimed progressives) is a culture that eschews violence of any kind except in simulated form, creating boys who can dazzle in video game play but have never had a real bloody nose.
Yet young men who are not properly initiated can suffer from psychic dissonance, depression, rage, and a lifelong inability to handle relationships. In other words, they become like Kylo Ren. This is why the questions about Ren’s parentage are so fascinating. His parents, Han Solo and General Leia, are both strong warriors, yet their son seeks to test himself against a grandfather he never met. What went wrong? Kylo Ren yearns for supernatural as well as physical power, but he also craves testing—a rite to give his life meaning. This is revealed when the character, Rey, who is strong with the Force, read’s Ren’s mind, detecting that he is afraid he’ll never measure up to his grandfather, Darth Vader. Ren’s lack of meaningful initiation into manhood has made him confused, explosive and dangerous, but also a bit of an emo whiner.
Even though it was published years before The Force Awakens came out, Under Saturn’s Shadow has Ren’s number—and, sadly, ours:
What the modern man suffers from, then, is the wounding without the transformation . . . He is asked to be a man when no on can define it except in the most trivial of terms. He is asked to move from boyhood to manhood without any rites of passage, with no wise elders to receive and instruct him, and no positive sense of what such manhood might feel like.