Sometimes even the most pervasive of motifs/mythemes are hidden best in plain sight and the Star Wars saga sure has plenty of them. Sometimes they aren’t even obviously a representation of said motifs. Sometimes it could be said someone is reaching for noticing them, but I’m going to point them out anyways. The motif that will be in question is the moment when the Hero (or Villain) must descend into the underworld (Hell, Hades, Diyu, etc) and/or the abyss, unknown, etc. It’s obviously not just in the Star Wars films, but a recent viewing made me realize how many (possible) versions of this motif there really could be in each film and the TV show. So in an effort to find more meaning behind moments in the Star Wars saga, I took it upon myself to find examples of the motif and see if they really represent it.
While “descent into the underworld” isn’t exactly a step in Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, which George Lucas worked with extensively for the Original Trilogy, it fits within other versions of the monomyth. But as a motif, it’s been widely used, and most famously depicted in Dante’s The Divine Comedy: Inferno, something at least one of the below examples emulates. And in fact, there’s a wide possibility of moments in the greater Star Wars saga that could represent the descension motif and I chose the ones involving literal representations of the underworld like chutes, shafts, and sinkholes. Here’s my list of examples:
The Phantom Menace
1. Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon slide down a shaft into the droid hanger bay.
2. Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan, and Jar-Jar travel through Naboo’s core.
3. Maul falls down one (which is originally thought to be his death).
Attack of the Clones
1. Exhaust shaft for underground Geonosian droid building facilities that Anakin flies down into with Padme, C-3PO, and R2-D2
2. In fact, the entire droid building facility is one.
3. The Lars Homestead
The Clone Wars
1. Well of the Dark Side, Mortis (Season 3)
2. Cad Bane, Obi-Wan disguised as Hardeen, and Maralo Eval escape a Coruscant prison through chutes the caskets get sent through (season 4)
3. Savage Opress falls down a chute into crazy Maul’s hideout on a garbage planet (season 4)
4. Ahsoka jumps down the Coruscant underworld shaft (season 5)
Revenge of the Sith
1. Various moments in an elevator shaft aboard the Invisible Hand.
2. Utapau is quite literally full of sinkholes.
3. Obi-Wan falls as low as you can go in a sink-hole post-Order 66.
4. Yoda escapes Senate chambers after battle with Sidious through airshafts
5. Mustafar itself (quite literally the most obvious underworld representation if I ever saw one)
A New Hope
1. The Lars Homestead
2. “Into the garbage chute, flyboy!”
3. Death Star’s superlaser’s shaft
The Empire Strikes Back
1. Where Luke gets the news and jumps away from Vader
2. Space slug belly
3. Carbonite chamber
4. Luke and the Dark Side Cave on Dagobah
Return of the Jedi
1. Luke (also Oola the dancing girl and a Gamorrean) slide down a shaft into the Rancor pit
2. Boba Fett and many others get swallowed by the Sarlaac Pit in a sinkhole
3. Emperor dies being thrown down a shaft
4. Lando and Wedge blow up Death Star 2 navigating it’s shafts
There is actually no guarantee any of the above are alluding to the motif I mentioned, but it’s possible some are and I’m going to try to discern the ones I think best fit that mold and what it means to the specific film/TV episode/the entire saga. The Phantom Menace: I’d say Darth Maul’s supposed death and fall down the shaft/core fits the motif rather nicely. As I mentioned earlier, it can also be the villain who must descend into the darkness/underworld and here is Maul’s literal and figurative descent. While a lot isn’t clear on how exactly he made it from the bottom of that Theed reactor to a garbage planet and stayed hidden for 10+ years, at least when we see him again we learn how he faired against the descent. Most heroes will make it back from the darkest of pits in the underworld largely unscathed (with a little extra chutzpah to boot), but Maul succumbed to the darkness, embraced, became it. Whether or not he got some training from Sidious regarding the power to keep oneself alive, whatever Maul did to stay alive has drastic consequences, most notably a loss of sanity and self. He becomes the former shell of the person he once was, driven mad by his anger and hate, which is all that really keeps him alive. While we know he is eventually saved from what he becomes, his descent initially is rather disastrous. Frightening, creepy, and scary is all that can describe Maul after Obi-Wan chops him in half and he’s a great example of how not every single descent into darkness turns out well. The Clone Wars: When Savage finally makes it to his brother’s hideout on the garbage world Lotho Minor, he descends directly into Maul’s personal hell-hole. TCW wasn’t a stranger to darker or more mature moments and themes, and Maul’s absolutely creepy spider-like appearance and broken mind rank high on the list. Savage is the one who descends here, but he manages to survive intact and save a denizen of hell, coaxing his brother out of the depths of insanity to reign terror on the galaxy. It also feels like the entire garbage planet is already a representation of the popular Roman Catholic depiction of the underworld, most specifically the one given divine detail in Dante’s Inferno, where the pits of filth, acid rain, and fire breathing mechanical monsters along Savage’s trip on Lotho Minor combine elements of the many rings of hell. To fit in with TPM’s version of the motif, this one shows that Maul was unable to recover from the dark place he went to survive, but he comes back and owes his revival to his brother Savage and the Dathomirian Witch Mother Talzin. So far (his story is still unfolding in the Son of Dathomir comic!), things haven’t gone so well for one of Maul’s saviors.
The next moment in TCW fitting the motif is Ahsoka Tano’s jump into the underworld of Coruscant in the season five’s finale arc. Framed for a bombing and murder she didn’t commit and unsure those she trusted could be counted on anymore, she makes the decision to brave the unknown of the underworld to clear her name. For a character much derided due to her initial appearance, her grown-up, mature, and nuanced decisions are some of the strongest for a Star Wars character to date (here’s a great article about her on Eleven-Thirty Eight). And while she goes to survive her descent, her experiences on the run in the underworld changes her permanently and, instead of the TCW’s penchant for killing off new characters, she survives the series in the most unexpected of ways. Plus, her final scene in the series is an emotionally charged moment for the ages.
Lastly, TCW’s most literal take on the motif is the Well of the Dark Side on the planet of Mortis, in the thought provoking and still open to interpretation Mortis trilogy in season 3. At this particular point Anakin has followed the Son deep in an underworld of fire and brimstone, hoping to stop the Son from escaping and bring balance to the Force as he’s always been told he will. The Son uses the temptation of a vision of the future to catch Anakin unawares, unveiling to Anakin that he’ll become Darth Vader and be responsible for many horrible acts. It’s an interesting idea to contemplate: if Anakin knew what he would become, what would he do? Well, if you guessed make bad decisions then you were right. His descent into the darkness drives him to the dark side and it’s only from the intervention of some neat Force tricks by Mortis’ guardian, the Father, which brings Anakin back. So far not too many of those who have descended in Star Wars seem to make it back from the underworld’s darkness of their own devices. Revenge of the Sith: I’m going to lump the fact that Utapau is one big sinkhole and Obi-Wan falls to the depths of a sinkhole due to the atrocity of Order 66 as one whole representation of the motif. The most interesting thing about this example is the fact Obi-Wan doesn’t make the decision to descend into the underworlds of Utapau, but instead is guided by honor and duty (and maybe some Palpatine machinations) down the rabbit hole by his peers on the Jedi Council; Most people who follow this motif make the decision to head into the underworld themselves, not elected by a group of their peers. Obi-Wan scales down the Utapaun sinkhole, hunting his prey, the Clone Wars era’s devil: General Grievous. Though he triumphs, causing Grievous to burst into flame with a death befitting his evil stature, Obi-Wan tumbles into the lowest reaches of the sinkhole when the clones attack him under Order 66, flipping his entire world upside-down. At the moment he hits bottom, that sinkhole’s deepest pits become the safest, easiest, and most pure place he could be, while everything above him is now considered the underworld (from his point of view). As a testament to his character, he makes the choice to ascend into the new underworld, again guided by honor, duty, and a concern for those he cares for most. So while he initially descended due to the choices of others, he makes the choice the second time around and must wait over 19 years to see his choice finally pay off. A New Hope: Bear with me on this one, but I’m going to say the Lars Homestead is Luke’s first descent. We actually don’t get to see most of his mediocre life at the Lars’ besides when he’s dropped off as a babe and when he leaves once his Aunt and Uncle get crispy. But how is it an underworld for him? As I mentioned, his life as a moisture vaporator was about as fun as most of our lives, so he most likely considered the Lars Homestead as a personal hell/underworld that he’d never escape from. He desperately tried to get out, even considering joining the Imperial Academy (which might have lead to a quicker death) over staying at home. The Original Trilogy hero has been climbing out of underworlds since the moment we met him! The Empire Strikes Back: The Dark Side Cave on Dagobah has certainly shown some crazy things to those who journey down into its darkness. It’s a strange temptation, the cave, as it’s a tool for teaching as much as it’s a tool for fear to worm its way into those who face the visions it shows. Much like Yoda seeing the dreadful future of the Jedi Order in the 6th season of TCW when he journeys to the cave, Luke sees one possible fate (and a hint at the big twist) he could suffer: him replacing Vader, which is frightening to say the least. But both Yoda and now Luke have seen those visions, and instead of giving into the fear those scenarios create, they’ve met those challenges head-on. Like the motif does suggest, this quick and short journey to hell has changed Luke for good, quickly teaching him what fate may befall him if he fails. But will fear get the best of him?
One of the greatest movie twists leads to a situation where Luke has only two options and both are paths to an underworld. On one hand (pardon the pun!), Luke can join his newly proclaimed father down darkness and become the ruler of the galaxy, a grinding trip downwards with no hope of going back up. On the other hand, he can follow his saber and hand down into the unknown depths of Cloud City, where death might be just as certain as the all-consuming darkness of Luke’s other choice. The fact that he choose to leap into an unknown underworld shows his resolve to better the galaxy and help the ones he cares about. It also shows he might have heeded the cave’s warning and didn’t give into the fear, which if I had seen my face under the helmet of a dreaded enemy, I’d do everything to make sure that wouldn’t happen either. Return of the Jedi: The confident Luke of Ep. VI isn’t out of woods yet from descending again, and it’s after his arrival at Jabba’s Palace that he must confront a monster of the underworld (due to the slimy mittens of the underworld king himself, Jabba). The symbology here is straight-forward and simple, not as heady as the TESB examples, thanks especially to the fact this film isn’t as dark. Again to save those he cares about, Luke puts himself readily in harm’s way, which ends up with him descending into the Rancor Pit to face the mighty Rancor. While things seem dire, he’s rather easily victorious, and the resulting anger of the underworld king Jabba puts the rest of the rescue plan into motion. It’s from this particular descent he reappears unscathed and unafraid, showing his new true Jedi calm and focus, making quips that’ll make Han jealous. This moment proves Luke doesn’t consider any descent to any underworld worth his time anymore, he’s a more mature hero, and he’s ready to face the head honcho himself: the Emperor.
I thought I would’ve had to make reaches to help make all the above examples fit the motif/mytheme, but they did most of the work themselves. It should be interesting to note that the Original Trilogy examples revolved around Luke, while the Prequel Trilogy had several characters who all had their descension moment. The Clone Wars even had a few, but also spread the motif around to several characters, fitting with the less focused nature of the show and the Prequel era. There are other moments which could signify the motif, but I was focusing on examples expressly involving a literal chute, shaft, or sinkhole because sometimes the obvious allegory is an obvious allegory.
In the end, I hope some of what you’ve read here might change the way you view each of these moments the next time you rewatch the films or the TV show. And just maybe it’ll inspire you to find some new way to appreciate the classic saga that is Star Wars, too.
Ryan is Mynock Manor’s Head Butler. You can follow him on Twitter @BrushYourTeeth.
OTHER BUTLER CONFESSIONS:
Star Wars Ring Theory: An Interview with the Author, Mike Klimo, and Why You Should Read It
The Great Reboot of 2100: Just How Evergreen is Star Wars?
Star Wars Netflix Hopes: The Rule of Two
A Good Blaster At Your Side: The Future of Star Wars Video Games (Part 3)
Always on the Move: The Future of Star Wars Video Games (Part 2)
Choice Isn’t an Option: The Future of Star Wars Video Games (Part 1)
EU and Gaming: Thoughts on Their Relationship
With New Eyes: The EU Reboot Changed How I View Ep. VI
Preserving the Mystery of In-Universe History