Darth Vader and Beauty's Beast
Loving what is unlovely
Originally published in Area of Effect magazine
I missed the original release of Star Wars by a decade and the first printings of Beauty and the Beast by several centuries, but both stories have marked me with their retellings and reiterations. Fairy tales are famous for being re-imagined, but “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away” has more in common with “once upon a time” than one might expect. The same stories keep getting retold despite an endless appetite for novelty. I believe it’s because people ache to be rescued; humanity keeps telling stories about how we can be saved. The stories of the Skywalkers, Belle and the Beast evoke a slippery mixture of loss and longing that is difficult to articulate but all too easy to identify with.
Much like Darth Vader, the Beast lives in a tortured silence; neither is what they once were and each lives a half-life. Vader is the emperor’s weapon, more machine than man, and the beast hides in angry shame. Both villains live with longing, and so Vader disobeys orders and spares Luke’s life while the Beast risks his life to save Belle from ravenous wolves. At the heart of both stories is a tale of redemption, about how the unlovely can be loved better—and become something beautiful.
Growing up, I naturally identified with both Luke and Belle. I was an imaginative, bookish kid who longed to go beyond the backyard that was my moisture farm, my little provincial town. As I’ve read and lived more I realized I wanted to be them not because I saw myself in them, but because I wanted to see myself in them.
Ever since I discovered writing was something I had a knack for, I’ve experience conflicting feelings about my work. When I produce something praiseworthy quickly, I feel like a hero! When I struggle to put words on the page, I hate my writing, and I hate myself. I’ve idealized what success looks like, idolizing the results of work instead of doing the heavy lifting of redeeming my words and shaping them into something better. I learn this lesson over and over again, because it doesn’t stick. There’s a deep chasm between who I am and who I want to be. Living with this longing puts me in the less admirable company of Darth Vader and the Beast, monsters both.
Vader is eaten away by loneliness as much as by his wounds, orphaned and widowed, and desperate for control, I’m sure he was no stranger to self-hate. He takes an incredible personal risk reaching out to Luke, plotting to betray his master with his estranged son. It’s an opening for the hard work of redemptive love. The hard truth of redemption is that it’s not something I accomplish in myself. Just as Vader didn’t suddenly turn from darkness, I’m learning that knowing what needs fixing in me is a very different thing from changing it.
The Beast is keenly aware of how beastly he is, though he’s blind to where transformation needs to happen. His curse is properly diagnosed and he even knows what will break it, but he can’t produce the cure; entering into a loving relationship seems impossible from his perspective, for “who could ever learn to love a beast?” The vain prince inside has no frame of reference for loving what’s unlovely, but Belle demonstrates an unselfish love he’s unfamiliar with. She trades places with her imprisoned father and the longing in the Beast’s heart finds something to fixate on; he falls in love with Belle, of course, but it’s Belle’s sacrificial love that begins to change the Beast. Likewise, it is Luke’s offering up of his own life that finally frees Vader from his prison of despair. In both cases, these villains choose redemption, not because they were heroes all along, but because of sacrifice.
Knowing I have more in common with the villains than the heroes of my childhood is unsettling, yet strangely comforting. Like them, I can trace a string of failures through my life: career failures, damaged relationships, and enough moral failings to choke out the self-righteousness I still manage to muster. I could wallow in my shared failures with Vader and Beast, but, like them, I haven’t been left to succumb to all my mistakes. Because I believe in Christ’s sacrifice, I know I’m loved in my unloveliness. I’ve seen unselfish love demonstrated by people in my life and I’ve been forgiven when I didn’t deserve it. If God, in His perfection, can risk redeeming me, then I know there’s hope for my life—and my death—and I can love the unlovely without fear.