Kylo Ren and the Question of Parental Succession

Star Wars:  The Force Awakens recently came out on video, so I gave it a second viewing.  This blog will contain spoilers.  you have been warned.

One of my favorite elements of the film centers on that scene spoiled for so many (and objected to by many others) when Kylo Ren kills his father.  It comes toward the end of the film, after a moment when you (and Dad) think that Kylo may be convinced to return to the light side.  He describes himself as torn, struggling with that last thing that will galvanize his future.  It is, of course, killing his father.

One of the main criticisms of this film has been that it’s basically a re-hash of the first movie where the elements are mixed together, with some new characters and some old ones, and I basically agree.  But I did appreciate that the film also, in revisiting Star Wars:  A New Hope also goes back to the source material–namely, the heroic mythology that influence the story.  If you read many fairy tales or fantasy novels, or see many Disney films, you will find that there are many, many orphans.

Mythologically, metaphorically, and often historically speaking, in order for a child to have an adventure, their parents must be gone.  This is what allows the child the necessary autonomy to go forth and take risks.  With the parents around, it’s usually the parents’ job to, say, save the world, confront the evil or make the sacrifice.  When they are gone, the child not only has the freedom to make these big choices, but may, in fact, be obligated to do so.

This is the moment when the child becomes an adult. They can no longer hide behind their parents’ choices, go running to their parents for help, or count on someone else stepping up to take care of things.  The child is now in command.  Liberating and frightening, by turns. The child must take on adult roles and responsibility.

In historical terms, the parent must die for the child to rule, and many stories stem from the way things go wrong if this is not the case. Either the child rebels against the father, committing murder in order to bring about an early succession, or the father abdicates in favor of the child, suggesting that there’s a problem with the traditional order of society (King Lear, anyone?) or perhaps the natural order of the world.

Parents speak of leaving a legacy in their children–in the desire for the child to be better off, more powerful, more wealthy than they have been–wanting the child to exceed their own lives.  And governments speak in terms of the “replacement rate” for births, in which the expectation is the parents die off, but have left enough children behind for society to go on.  Family businesses have the hope if not the expectation of children who grow up to take their parents’ place at the helm, whether that is a family restaurant, a laundry shop, or a political dynasty.  In spite of all the changes in our world from the era of royalty until now, this sense of the child eventually rising to take on the adult’s role of leadership is considered by many to be part of the natural order.

So of course Kylo Ren could not move forward with his goals and ambitions while his father lived.  He needed both the emotional freedom that comes from decoupling the child from his past (gaining orphan status, with which to go forth on his adventure) and also the dynastic sense of succession, becoming a general in his own right–although for a very different cause than the one his father supported.  He tells his father that he needs only one thing in order to move on, and Han Solo, being the good hero and devoted dad that he is, delivers it:  his death.

I wonder what would happen in a more mythically aware version of the scene in which a father, realizing what the son requires, chooses to deliver it by killing himself. . .


About E. C. Ambrose

I spend as much time in my office as I possibly can--thinking up terrible things to do to people who don't exist.
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3 Responses to Kylo Ren and the Question of Parental Succession

  1. TermiteWriter says:

    I haven’t commented over here for a long time, but I always read your posts, and this one inspires me to comment. How do you think this applies to female heroes? And to the mothers of heroes or heroines? I’m thinking of Xena, whose father is problematic – like all good Greek mythological heroes she may have a divine father – Ares in this case, who is also her ongoing love interest. And her mother plays a big role in her development. This post of yours is impelling me to write some analysis of my own books regarding heroes, orphans, and parents, Thanks – I needed a topic for a blog post!

    • Thanks for returning to my comment thread! you raise an interesting point. If you haven’t already read it, you might look for Valerie Frankel’s book The Heroine’s Journey.

      To keep with my Star Wars theme, I would note that this film also presents us with two female protagonists, Rey and Leia. Rey has been abandoned by her family, and her journey in the film is toward accepting that–deciding not to return to her home. I am sure we will hear more about her family in the future.

      In Return of the Jedi, we were told that Leia had some memory of her mother, but she’s been raised by the royal family of Alderaan. So, two women, both orphans. Somebody should write a thesis on the role of the broken family in Star Wars films. . .

      A couple of other examples from literature: Katniss Everdeen, who essentially has an absentee mother and thus takes on the role of feeding the family, and offers herself as a sacrifice instead of her sister in the Hunger Games. And The Fifth Season, which features a mother driven on her quest by concern for her child (and who herself has a problematic childhood).

      I once made a start on a novel which would have featured a mother/daughter pair on the adventure together, though often at odds. It would be an interesting dynamic to explore.

      What do you think readers? How does the narrative of the female protagonist differ? She is rarely required to literally slay a parent in order to achieve status, or even to do battle with a parent, as Luke does.

      • TermiteWriter says:

        I think at one point Xena proposes to kill her mother in revenge for her father’s death, but she refrains in the end (I forget the details) – fortunately, because otherwise she would have ended up permanently mad, like Orestes. All very complicated. You might be interested in my responding post, although it only deals with books of mine which you haven’t read (except v.1 of The Termite Queen).

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