Welcome to the Star Wars in Mythology series. These posts will explore ancient mythology and its use in Star Wars, highlighting the timeless storytelling that permeates the saga. In this edition, StarWars.com discusses the Shadow motif.
Carl Jung is essentially the great-grandfather of Star Wars, as Joseph Campbell included much of Jung’s psychological research in his work.
Jung’s work highlights the concept of the collective unconscious, aspects of our psyche that exist for everyone. Jung theorizes that this collective unconscious is responsible for the common themes in our mythology, even across isolated, independent cultures. All were drawing from archetypes hidden in our subconscious, archetypes that are part of what makes us human.
The Shadow is one prevalent Jungian archetype. But it is Star Wars that definitively makes use of it.
Definition: The Shadow
The Shadow is an aspect of our unconscious psychology that our conscious refuses to acknowledge, and is usually negative. It can be anything from aggressive animal instincts, to laziness, to sadistic behavior.
Jung specifies that “the less [the Shadow] is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.” In other word, acknowledging and mastering the Shadow is essential to keep it from worsening.
A merger of the individual with the Shadow is common. However, for the merger to be positive, it must be initiated by the individual himself. Allowing one’s Shadow to take control usually leads to a negative lifestyle, where one is controlled by their impulses. Actively acknowledging one’s darker side and taking control of it is a much more positive approach. According to Jung, it produces a stronger, wider awareness/consciousness than before. Confronting your dark side leads to a stronger, more balanced individual. You might see where this is going.
Examples in Mythology
Since the Shadow is a part of our collective psychology, it frequently emerges in our mythology and storytelling. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is possibly the most obvious example. In it, the Shadow literally takes control of Jekyll’s mind and body, enslaving him to his basest instincts.
The werewolf motif is another example. It is common to have mythological characters who can’t control their dark side, and as a result their Shadow emerges into the realm of the physical. Turning someone into an animal is often used as a form of punishment in mythology, such as Zeus turning Lycaon into a wolf for killing his children, or Athena turning Ariadne into a spider. In these cases, the animal represented the psyche for those individuals, showing their true colors for all to see, a physical manifestation of the Shadow.
Joseph Campbell also points to the story of the Frog Prince. In the story, a princess is confronted on three separate occasions by the Frog. On the first two visits, she is repulsed, but she relents on the third occasion and kisses the Frog, who then transforms into a prince. According to Campbell, the Frog is the Shadow, the kiss is acceptance of it, and the prince is the reward.
The Shadow can be found in almost every story ever told. Whether it’s the devil tempting Eve, or Mordred corrupting his father’s kingdom, the Shadow saturates our mythology.
Use of the Shadow in Star Wars
Star Wars is our own modern mythology, and it borrows many of the same motifs. The Shadow is no exception. In fact, the Shadow is one of the most dominant.
The most obvious use of the Shadow is the dichotomy between light and dark sides of the Force. The dark side of the Force represents the Shadow, while the light side represents the ego. Balance is attained when the light side masters the dark. We see this explicitly in The Clone Wars. In the Season Six episode “Destiny,” Yoda is confronted by a literal Shadow of himself. The ensuing fight does little good. It isn’t until Yoda acknowledges and accepts the Shadow that he is able to master and control it. This is a direct parallel to Jung’s recommendation to merge with the Shadow, gaining strength and awareness.
Both Anakin and Luke Skywalker merge with their Shadow, but with different results. Anakin allows his Shadow to take over, probably because he was unaware that it existed. As Jung would say, being unaware of the Shadow means it is likely darker and more dangerous. Once the Shadow has taken over, Anakin becomes Darth Vader, a literal embodiment of his own Shadow, much like the mythological concept of the werewolf.
Luke goes through a similar trial. His vision on Dagobah is a direct representation of what he must go through psychologically. After cutting off Vader’s head in the cave, he realizes the head was his own. In that instance, Vader was Luke, or rather he was Luke’s Shadow. This is probably the first instance where Luke becomes aware of his Shadow. He is forced to acknowledge it further when he learns of his parentage and just how much darkness exists inside of him. However it is this awareness of his Shadow that allows Luke to overcome it. Just as Jung suggests we confront our Shadow to overcome it, Yoda tells Luke he must confront Vader to become a Jedi.
In that final moment, when Luke confronts Vader, Luke looks at his hand, acknowledges the similarities between himself and his father. He acknowledges the potential that he has to join the dark side (his Shadow) and become just like Darth Vader. He acknowledges the fact that he has a dark side, and it is poised to take over.
And he accepts it.
When Luke utters the words, “I’ll never turn to the dark side…I am a Jedi,” he completes the final task of confronting his Shadow and mastering it. Like Yoda in The Clone Wars, Luke accepts his dark side as a part of himself. Thus, the Shadow archetype is balanced. Vader, who in this case symbolizes the Shadow, is redeemed at this exact moment, becoming an outward representation of Luke’s inner triumph.
Jason Hamilton is a writer and presenter, hooked on Star Wars, superheroes, and Shakespeare. He co-hosts the Star Wars podcast Far, Far Away Radio and is the editor in chief of LordoftheLaserSword.com. He can be found on Twitter at @StoryHobbit.