Welcome to Elements of Story, a biweekly column about narrative tropes, what they mean, and why they just won’t go away.
For the inaugural installment of Elements of Story, and just in time for Valentine’s day, I’m going to dissect an archetype that has been causing a stir and setting hearts aflutter for centuries: the Byronic hero.
Definitions of the Byronic hero vary by source, but the basic gist is that he’s an arrogant yet emotionally sensitive rebel who rages against societal norms, is usually haunted by a dark and mysterious past, and has been a staple of romantic storylines for hundreds of years. You could literally write a book about the history of the Byronic Hero—indeed, multiple people already have—so for the sake of concision and also my continued sanity, we’re going to investigate the Byronic hero through the specific example of one of his most recent appearances: Kylo Ren (Adam Driver).
Ever since The Force Awakens first premiered, Darth Vader’s grandson and #1 fan has been a point of contention within the Star Wars fandom, particularly with regards to his dynamic with protagonist Rey (Daisy Ridley). While things have calmed down somewhat following the underwhelming finale that was The Rise of Skywalker, if you want to start a fight online about a galaxy far, far away, mention “Reylo” and see what happens.
One of the most genuinely befuddling things about the discourse surrounding Reylo is the frequently held opinion that its allure is anyway inexplicable or unforeseeable. Similarly, the common, lazy narrative that its popularity can be explained away as Adam Driver’s thirst-club projecting their desire onto the Star Wars universe reeks of ignorance. Whether borne of conscious intent or sheer coincidence, Kylo Ren is a villain who also fits a centuries-old romantic archetype like a glove in ways that are hinted towards in The Force Awakens and laid increasingly bare in each subsequent installment. That some viewers picked up on the Byronic subtext early while others did not simply speaks to the variance in media consumption habits and tastes between audience members. If you’re familiar with an archetype, you’re going to spot its likeness, and view said likeness through the lens of the implications baked in with that lineage. If you’re not, you won’t.
So, who is this Byronic Hero guy, anyway? Well, the tl;dr version is that he’s basically Satan and his origins predate Lord Byron by at least a few hundred years.
In truth, the Byronic Hero is so old that tracing his origins gets quite speculative. There’s not a singular definitive answer so much as a collection of theories. To give a relatively cohesive explanation of who this guy is and how he got here without writing a novel, I’m going to things down into two key questions:
- What makes the Byronic hero satanic?
- How did Satan become romanticized?
To address the first question, let’s start by talking about the Devil. I’m not going to say that John Milton was the first storyteller to make Satan cool, but he sure did make such a characterization mainstream with Paradise Lost. The most beautiful of God’s angels, Lucifer chafes at God’s omnipotence, convinces a number of his brethren to join him in a rebellion that ultimately fails, is banished to Hell and eternally damned, but stubbornly stands by his choices because, “better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven.” Milton’s Satan was, to use modern parlance, a beautiful trash fire—a handsome, passionate dreamer whose quick-tempered fervor proves self-destructive in spite of his considerable intellect. He is, in other words, smart enough to know that his hubris will be his downfall, but too in thrall to his passions for that knowledge to save himself from such a fate. He is a tragic hero as defined by Aristotle, an inherently sympathetic figure not as much in spite of his flaws as because of them.
Let’s stop for a second so I can convince you Kylo Ren fits this pattern, in case you aren’t convinced already. With his journey from Ben “too much Vader in him” Solo to Kylo Ren, his rejection of his heritage and violent rebellion against Luke Skywalker, he follows the same basic trajectory of Milton’s Lucifer. And as far as personality is concerned, Ben didn’t gel well with the “there is no passion” Jedi code, and unlike Anakin Skywalker, it didn’t even take the development of a particular relationship for things to reach a breaking point.
Now, as far as how Satan became a romantic figure, we need to make a stopover with the Romantics because the journey from Romantic to romantic is really just semantics. Romanticism was a prominent intellectual and artistic movement in Western culture that took place in the late 18th and 19th centuries and encompassed everything from literature and painting to architecture and music. It emphasized emotion, spontaneity, irrationality, and the individual with a particular focus on subjectivity, and is generally regarded as a reactionary movement—a rebuttal against the rationalism that defined the Enlightenment.
Romantics loved Milton’s Satan. “My favorite hero, Milton’s Satan,” Robert Burns gushed, lauding Satan’s “intrepid, unyielding independence,” “desperate daring,” and “noble defiance of hardship.” That Byron, one of his contemporaries, would channel his admiration for the same figure into a series of mercurial protagonists that would codify an archetype is hardly surprising. While crediting Byron with inventing the Byronic hero is a significant stretch considering the archetype is really just Satan rebranded, there is one key component of this character that Byron did add to the equation, and that is a particular kind of longing that a number of commentators have likened to homesickness. “Love is homesickness,” Sigmund Freud wrote in his seminal essay on the Uncanny. In terms of understanding the human mind, Freud is one small step above total quack, but as far as narrative theory is concerned he made some compelling arguments, this being one of them. As Deborah Lutz says in her essay “Love as Homesickness: Longing for a Transcendental Home in Byron and the Dangerous Lover Narrative,” “the Byronic hero often[…] is a criminal, an outlaw who is not only self-exiled, but actively, hatefully, works against society as a murderous pirate,” yet also often feels, “pains of remorse, not only for his crime but also for his self-inflicted homelessness.” Kylo Ren, with his laments of “I’m being torn apart,” and “let the past die, kill it if you have to” rhetoric interspersed with explosive bouts of self-loathing, could not be more emblematic of this facet of the Byronic hero if he tried.
All of this helps explain what makes this archetype emotionally engaging, but not how “self-hating emotional clusterfuck” became sexy. In order to get to the bottom of that, we actually need to go back quite a bit. In Western culture, sexuality, death, and evil have been birds of a feather since the nascence of Christianity, which took vague correlations between these concepts already present in several Greek mythological figures and ran with them. While the Devil is often depicted as a hideous beast, the concept that he might also take the form of a man—specifically, an attractive one—dates back centuries (Lucifer was the prettiest, remember), and is apparent in a number of surviving records of witch trial confessions detailing demonic encounters. But taking on a handsome face is not the only attribute frequently bestowed upon Satan and his kin. As Toni Reed writes in her book Demon Lovers and their Victims in British Fiction, “identifying Satan and other demons with sexuality, especially with huge phalluses, may well trace back to Greek mythology.”
That’s right. Satan has serious BDE. Do with that information what you will.
It’s worth noting that the Byronic hero is ultimately a beloved romantic fantasy not because it represents something many people want in real life, but precisely the opposite, much like how enjoying seeing the lions at the zoo doesn’t mean you want one in your house. He’s a darkly tempting, narratively intriguing prospect that is enjoyable to experience vicariously through fiction, a Pandora’s box that can be opened and then closed again without repercussion. Times and tastes change and the Byronic hero evolves to suit them—devil, tempestuous gentleman, wannabe Sith—but his defining characteristics and their guilty pleasure appeal are eternal.