Know Thyself: Understanding the Cavern Sequence of The Last Jedi

THE ARRIVAL

I have no doubt that if you’ve seen Star Wars VIII: The Last Jedi, there is a sequence in the film that may have left you somewhat perplexed. If nothing else, I am sure that every now and then you’ve pondered as to the purpose of that sequence. For myself, I’d like to think that I grasped the significance of it, though I can understand why so many fans feel cheated by it. After all, the truth of Rey’s parentage is a hole which J.J. Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan, co-writers of Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens, left empty for writer and director Rian Johnson to fill. Still, that is not a subject which we will discuss today — at least not directly.

Today, we are going to take a look into Rey’s experience in the Cavern on Ahch-To. In doing so, I hope to provide you with the same understanding I had concerning Rey’s character progression in The Last Jedi by making parallels to moments in the Star Wars saga and other works of modern myth.

Rey’s experience inside of the Cavern of Ahch-To is one of the wildest and most confusing moments you could find in the Star Wars saga. To briefly recap, in pursuit of answers to discover her true identity, Rey is pulled into a cavern underneath the ancient Jedi Temple on Ahch-To. After climbing out of an underground lake, Rey finds herself in front of a  rock-face mirror wherein which she is confronted by her fears of loneliness and self-worth. The longer she stares at the rock-face, the more her reflection seems to expand until Rey perceives herself to be inside of the mirror. Facing her infinite reflections in an endless void, Rey begins to beg for the Force to provide her with the answer she is looking for–the faces of her parents. Two silhouettes then appear in the mirror and begin to approach, but they eventually merge together to, once again, show Rey her own reflection upon the rock-face. Frightened and utterly shocked, Rey flees the cavern and returns to her hut where she comforts herself in detailing the experience to Kylo Ren.

THE CAVERN AND THE CAVE

Now, long time Star Wars fans will recognize that Rey’s experience inside of the Cavern acts as a direct callback to Luke Skywalker’s experience inside the Cave on Dagobah. It is one of the more obvious call backs to earlier moments in the Star Wars saga, with constants and variables between the both sequences. For starters, both the cave and cavern are noted as being nexus points for the Dark Side of the Force. In both cases, Luke and Rey encounter illusions created by the Force. Strangely enough, Master Yoda’s dialogue in Empire Strikes Back suggests that Luke’s experience was meant to test him, and, while Yoda notes Luke’s “failure in the cave”, I remained unable to understand what the test was until The Last Jedi. You see Rey’s experience, as Luke’s before her, was also a test–a test she too failed.

Author Note: The Cave of Evil, as it is now called, first appeared in Star Wars V: Empire Strikes Back (1980). The Cave makes another appearance in a 4-part story arc of the animated series Star Wars: The Clone Wars (2008), wherein which Master Yoda seeks to uncover lost secrets of the Force.

For Luke, the experience was a test of his spirit and resolve. In the cave, Luke engages in combat with an illusionary Darth Vader; when Luke manages to behead Vader, the decapitated mask breaks open to reveal Luke’s own head inside. So how does Luke fail, you may ask? Luke fails to recognize the illusionary Darth Vader as his own darkness, fails to recognize his own corruptibility, and acts completely out of fear and desperation. The illusion also foreshadows Luke’s upcoming confrontation with Darth Vader on Bespin where he will learn the hidden truth about himself–he is the son of Darth Vader, once Anakin Skywalker. Luke already knew Darth Vader to be a former student of Master Obi-Wan “Ben” Kenobi, who “betrayed and murdered [his] father” by turning to the Dark Side. So how then could Luke not recognize his own corruptibility? If someone as heroic and destined for greatness as Anakin Skywalker could be corrupted, couldn’t the same outcome happen to Luke? Overall, Luke’s failure, as Yoda will tell him, comes as much from his audaciousness, as it does from his inability to have faith in himself. Ironically, his later failures come about from his growing arrogance and hubris, believing himself to be this omnipotent hero, which results in Luke losing all faith in himself and the rest of the galaxy.

So after all this talk about Luke, how is Rey’s experience in the cavern a failure? Well to understand that we need to make a trip “across the pond” and put ourselves before the Mirror of Erised, as found in the Wizarding World of J.K. Rowling.

THE CAVERN AND THE MIRROR

The Mirror of Erised made its first and only appearance in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Coming from unknown origins, the mirror had the particular virtue of showing someone’s “deepest, most desperate desire” at the very moment. Harry Potter stumbles upon the Mirror during an evening excursion through Hogwarts castle while trying to avoid the school’s caretaker. As Harry walks up to the glass, two silhouettes begin to flank his reflection until they faces become clear. For the first time, Harry looks upon the faces of his parents Lily Evans and James Potter. Continuing to stare, more and more relatives of the Evans and Potter families appear behind Lily and James, utterly astonishing Harry. Over the next few nights, Harry continues to visit the Mirror of Erised, dwelling on his parents and relatives, until the night that Headmaster Albus Dumbledore visits. Worried over Harry’s growing obsession and constant vigils, Dumbledore warns Harry about the dangers of clinging to the past and urges him to move on with his life, accepting the losses he has experienced, but never losing sight of the present. With all said and done, Dumbledore announces that the Mirror will be moved to an undisclosed location so that it may no longer threaten the lives of his students.

Author Note: The inscription on the Mirror of Erised reads, “Erised stra ehru oyt ube cafru oyt on wohsi” which when read in reverse says, “I show not your face but your heart’s desire“.

From examining Harry’s experiences with the Mirror of Erised, one might be able to interpret Harry’s deepest desire as, not to see his parents, but in-fact to understand his place in the wizarding world–thus discovering his identity. In seeing the faces of his parents and grandparents, distant aunts and uncles, Harry comes to understand that he is just the latest member in a long line of Muggle (non-magical) and Wizarding families. Despite still being just a boy, Harry came to understand the knowledge and self-awareness granted to him by the Mirror of Erised. There was no misinterpreting what he was shown and he displayed no notion of doubt, confusion, or rejection. Harry understood–to as much of a degree as he was allowed, for Dumbledore had withheld the prophecy concerning him and the Dark Lord for nearly five more years–that his was an unfortunate life, but that he was so much more than the orphan boy who dwelt under the staircase.

So we now return to Rey’s failure. When she approaches the rock-face mirror she pleads with the Force to show her the face of her parents, which we have already understood, like with Harry Potter, is to be shown her identity. Yet the Force provides her with an answer, which is something different, something she did not expect, something either on account of desperation or fear she refused to accept. The Force shows Rey her own reflection. Thus, the point of the Cavern experience is to show Rey, or rather to allow her the opportunity to accept, that her parentage and heritage do not define her identity. Rey is not the daughter of Luke Skywalker nor the daughter of Han Solo. She is not the long-lost child of a Force practitioner or the forgotten child of a politician or clergyman. Rey is just Rey, and this is exactly what she needs to be; a strong, graceful, fierce, and independent woman. Storming out of the Cavern in confusion, however, Rey instantly rejects what the Force showed her and briefly succumbs to feelings of loneliness and abandonment.

THE DEPARTURE

Coincidentally, the visual language of The Last Jedi does something incredibly clever which could easily go unnoticed. The moment Rey is thrown into the Cavern lake her braids are unraveled, letting her hair fall down in a style which persists throughout the rest of the film. From a storytelling point of view, Rey’s change of hairstyle symbolizes a “coming-of-age” or “renewal” moment in her life. A similar change in Luke happens between Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, where he abandons bright, innocent colors to adorn an all-black Jedi outfit.

Author Note: In Japanese drama & storytelling, the cutting of one’s own hair symbolizes a life-altering moment in a character’s life, a growth in maturity, or the beginning of their new life.

Thus, Rey is forever changed by her experience in the Cavern and, although she may not have comprehended what she was shown, her actions throughout the rest of the film slowly begin to prove otherwise. While it is true that Rey seeks to aid Kylo Ren in order to restore the persona of Ben Solo, it may be argued that she is still a scared little looking for comfort. However, following an epic duel, when Kylo Ren attempts to play on her loneliness and low self-esteem to coerce her to join him, Rey finally overcomes her fears and opposes him.

The point is made even more apparent during the final moments of The Last Jedi. Before departing with the beaten remnants of the Resistance, Rey makes sure to sever the Force connection still maintained between her and Kylo Ren, showing that she no longer feels the need to identify herself with another. Immediately following, Rey introduces herself to ace Resistance pilot Poe Dameron who responses by saying, “I know.” For Rey, this simple response is proof that she has always existed as herself, that she is recognizable through her own reputation and accomplishments, and that she doesn’t need another to give her life purpose.

THE ENLIGHTENMENT

In writing the story for The Last Jedi, Rian Johnson wanted each individual character to face with what he considered to be their greatest obstacles and overcome them. Rey’s greatest obstacle was to confront the fact that was left alone in the universe, but understand that she is not alone and that, despite all the pains in her life thus far, she is someone–she is Rey. As Rey’s change in hairstyle symbolizes her “renewal”, we as the audience bear witness to Rey’s evolution from a frightened child to the admirable woman we’ve waited for her to become.

Star Wars VIII: The Last Jedi is full of amazing character development and ties the greater Star Wars saga. I hope that in reading this article you have been opened to a wider lens with which to watch this film and others. If you have other opinions and thoughts, please feel free to share them with me at any time. It would not surprise me if all of our understandings and opinions were to change when Star Wars IX inevitably releases in theaters. Until that time, I hope you’ve appreciated this short dive into comparative mythology and take time in the future to examine other aspects of storytelling for your own pleasure.

May the Force of others be with you.

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