Warning: SPOILERS for Star Wars: Aftermath – Empire’s End follow
In case you haven’t heard, Star Wars: Aftermath – Empire’s End releases today. The final installment of the Aftermath trilogy – which paints in great detail how the Galactic Empire dies and how the Civil War at long last comes to a triumphant conclusion – is one of the last major stories to arrive before Episode VIII: The Last Jedi hits theaters, meaning that it’s chock full of hints and clues about what awaits fans this December (and beyond).
We’ve already discussed at length how the novel discloses the hitherto-untold origins of the First Order, that neo-Imperial faction that would kick off a second Galactic Civil War in Episode VII: The Force Awakens 29 years later. What’s interesting to note, however, is that not only does it give us a potential key piece of Supreme Leader Snoke’s (Andy Serkis) backstory, it might also give us the humble beginnings of the Knights of Ren, a brand-new organization of Force users that Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) just may be the field leader of once the sequel trilogy of films starts.
Who are the Knights of Ren again?
Viewers can be forgiven for not remembering who the Knights of Ren are, as at this point in time, they have only been made mention of once – fleetingly, at that, in an almost-throwaway line of dialogue delivered by Snoke to Kylo.
Here’s what we definitively know: young Ben Solo is handed over to Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) for training in what was supposed to have been the first new class of Jedi Knights since the Order’s fall 30 years previously. Instead, the headstrong Padawn is seduced to the dark side of the Force by the supreme leader, is recruited into the Knights of Ren, and leads his (roughly) six brothers and sisters to slaughter each of Jedi Master Skywalker’s pupils, in an eerie reenactment of Anakin’s (Hayden Christensen) role in the Jedi Purge seen in Episode III: Revenge of the Sith.
Given that The Force Awakens establishes that balance has yet to return to the Force – the Dark Lords of the Sith may have been eradicated, but the Jedi haven’t been reestablished to maintain law and order in the galaxy – it just may be that Snoke seeks to fill that void by fashioning a new group that draws elements from both sides: the structure and purview of the Jedi (hence the usage of the term “knights”) and the devotion to the dark side of the Sith. Until further information is delivered (probably in The Last Jedi), it’s the only working hypothesis that we have.
The Knights’ humble beginnings
Just as Snoke, no matter his mysterious origins, inserts himself into the pre-existent organization that calls itself the First Order (it was created by former Grand Admiral Rae Sloane in the darkness of intergalactic space, safely away from the purview of the New Republic and Luke Skywalker), it seems that the supreme leader has done the same with the group of Force users that he calls Ren.
In the months after Emperor Sheev Palpatine’s (Ian McDiarmid) and Darth Vader’s deaths, a movement begins to commemorate the Dark Lords of the Sith (though, to be clear, only a precious few individuals in the entire galaxy are aware of Palpatine’s status as a Sith). It is clandestinely led by Yupe Tashu, one of the late Emperor’s former advisers – he’s one of the scary-looking, purple-clad individuals spotted consulting with Lord Sidious on the second Death Star (and one of the few to be in-the-know regarding Sheev’s dark side leanings). Although not Force-sensitive himself, he is a fanatical cultist in the ways of the Sith, believing that long-lived order to possess the secrets to the cosmos and, indeed, to life itself. The only valid response to having the line of the Sith Lords be cut short, then, is to try and spread their memory and maintain their legacy as much as possible.
Tashu names his burgeoning movement the Acolytes of the Beyond and establishes a hierarchy for his initiates: newcomers are tasked with essentially spray-painting “Vader lives” on buildings all across the galaxy, helping to spread the word (and plant the seed that the Sith can transcend death). As the Acolytes progress in their devotion to the dark side, they fashion for themselves would-be Sith wardrobes, using Vader’s helmet as a prototype; masks are cobbled together from scrap materials, fake lightsabers (replete with red-painted sticks) are assembled, and, of course, black cloaks are amassed.
There is more to their mission than graffiti and cosplaying, however – they scour ancient vaults and storerooms where various Sith artifacts may be stored (these relics date from the time, a thousand years ago, when the Dark Lords ruled the galaxy, before the Jedi rose up to nearly exterminate them and to fashion the Old Republic to replace their empire). At first, many of these items – especially the lightsabers – were collected in order to destroy them, to send them along to their masters in the afterlife, who, Tashu and his minions believe, are waiting to be born again (although whether this is a more figurative or literal belief is never made fully clear). As time progresses and the Acolytes mature in their understanding of and connection to the dark side, however, the Sith regalia are kept and doled out as rites of passage, rewards for various promotions up the wanna-be Sith ranks.
By the time the Battle of Jakku arrives one year after Darth Sidious’s death, the Acolytes of the Beyond have just started to mobilize themselves in a rudimentary-but-still-deadly military campaign against the New Republic, attacking such targets as Devaron (the site of an ancient, pre-Republic Jedi temple). Unfortunately for them, however, Yupe Tashu perishes during the final conflict of the Galactic Civil War, in one of the former Emperor’s secret installations that also largely act as treasure troves of Dark Lord of the Sith artifacts. This ultimately opens the door for Snoke’s arrival, some years down the road, and the movement’s assimilation into the First Order.
While it’s by no means a slam-dunk that Tashu’s Acolytes of the Beyond do, indeed, become Snoke’s Knights of Ren, there is some tangential evidence to support this connection.
Firstly, Ben Solo’s own veneration of Darth Vader’s fire-melted helmet could be more than just ancestor worship – it could have its basis codified in the foundational leanings of the Knights. (His desire to build an older, more savage lightsaber could also emanate from the Acolytes’ predilections, as well.) Secondly, given that the Aftermath trilogy is largely devoted to depicting the very beginnings of what would ultimately become the First Order, it would only make sense that the books would also do the same for the other institution that is looking to annihilate and replace all vestiges of the Jedi and their Republic(s).
It is fully expected that The Last Jedi will more than shed some light on the Knights of Ren, given that Jedi Master Luke Skywalker is now, at long last, drawn back into the series’ mythology (yes, he’s even absent from all the new Expanded Universe releases, as well). Confirmation on Aftermath: Empire’s End narrative nuggets will have to wait until then, but don’t be surprised if some flashbacks include such names as Acolytes and, quite possibly, Rae Sloane.
Star Wars: Aftermath – Empire’s End releases today.