The term ended last week and with it came the close of the second round of our Star Wars & Contemporary Mythology course. As Hannah and I were making our way through grading some of our students’ work, I had a revelation. Something similar happened last year, as our students’ final papers helped us finally make peace with The Force Awakens. I’m not sure if this epiphany-while-grading thing will become a tradition with our Star Wars class, but it’s happened to me again. This time it came while reading several Star Wars Playlist assignments – focused on Han Solo – and it led me to clearly see something quite personal about my experience of Star Wars.
Note: Um, so this post will spoil The Force Awakens (a movie everyone’s probably already seen a zillion times) as well as Vector Prime (a Star Wars novel that came out nearly twenty years ago…which you’ve probably already read if you care to). Still, I didn’t want to be rude so, spoiler alert. Okay? Okay.
The assignment was a fun one. Inspired, in part, by this engaging piece on The Imperial Talker (where Jeff connects a beautifully moving song to Jyn Erso’s journey in Rogue One), we had our students put together a playlist for any character in the Star Wars films. They were to pick ten songs and describe to us why they felt these songs related to their character of choice or how they saw the character reflected in the songs. They were as enjoyable as they were entertaining to grade! (Thanks Jeff for helping, unintentionally, to light this candle.) While I was expecting more diversity in character choice, Hannah and I certainly weren’t let down by their song choices or the depth of their analysis.
As will surprise no one, Han Solo was a heavy favorite as the topic for many of these playlists. What did surprise me was how many songs (sometimes, more than one song on a particular playlist) dealt with his death at the hands of his son, Ben Solo, at the conclusion of The Force Awakens. Our students picked songs filled with all manner of emotional nuance to explore how this scene played out, affected the story, and how it affected them personally.
As I was reading I kept thinking to myself, “Why are they focusing so much on this one scene? Why are we spending so much time on Ben killing Han? There’s so much more to Han Solo!” It made no sense to me. Then I realized, “Wait, why wouldn’t they spend a lot of time with this??” Han Solo’s death – especially at the hands of his own son who has chosen the path of the Dark Side as Kylo Ren – is clearly important. Here’s a beloved character meeting his end in a tragic way in a scene that’s rich with emotion and symbolism (if you’d like more on that, here’s another great post Jeff did about it). Obviously this would resonate with them! So the question I asked myself became, “Why didn’t it seem as important to me?”
Then I had my epiphany.
I saw something clearly that I’ve always felt intuitively and emotionally. For me, Han Solo doesn’t die on Starkiller Base, murdered by Kylo Ren. I’ve known for nearly twenty years that wasn’t how Han’s story ends. In what remains the Star Wars death that still affects me most, it’s Chewie who will die first. In R.A. Salvatore’s novel Vector Prime (kicking off the massive “New Jedi Order” series in 1999), Chewbacca dies ensuring Han’s son Anakin Solo lives.
In the ruins of Sernpidal City, Chewie and Anakin work to clear refugees from the wreckage as the moon Dobido comes crashing down towards the planet. They manage to save all the children trapped in the rubble and, as an increasingly chaotic storm swirls around them, Chewie makes sure Anakin gets onboard the Falcon. But then their time runs out. Tragically, in the storm the Falcon couldn’t get close enough again for Chewbacca to climb aboard himself. Saving Anakin would be Chewie’s final, heroic act. With the Millennium Falcon hovering in the atmosphere, Chewie dies as the planet comes apart as the moon descends.
Deep in mourning, Han paints the Falcon matte black and roams the galaxy without direction, struggling to keep putting one foot in front of the other under the weight of his broken heart. I’m not going to lie…it was rough. In fact, I stopped reading the Expanded Universe novels not long after. Sure, there were other things calling for my attention as a sophomore in high school. But the bigger truth was, with Chewie gone, it hurt too much to keep reading. To know Chewie would never sit next to Han in their cockpit again, to read about Leia or Lando or Luke or whomever in the “oversized” chair meant for the Wookiee…ugh. I just couldn’t do it. It hurt too much. Just thinking about this scene to write about it now puts a knot in my stomach.
This experience left such an indelible emotional mark on me that Han’s death in The Force Awakens couldn’t compare. I already knew what happened to Han and Chewie and this wasn’t it. It was a powerful scene, yes. I cried when I saw it and it still moves me when I re-watch the movie now. But it couldn’t hurt me like Vector Prime and I’d known Vector Prime too long for The Force Awakens to be able to supplant it in my mind. Chewie’s death is forever an immovable point in my experience of Star Wars.
To be clear, I’m not saying this is the right way to experience Star Wars nor am I saying this is the better way to experience Star Wars. I’m just saying this is my way for experiencing it. In fact, I know I’m the minority here! When you look at the number of people who go to the movies to see Star Wars, it’s a tiny fraction of that number who have read any of the Expanded Universe novels (or the new Disney Canon ones for that matter). And of those of us who have, I’d bet fewer still stayed through the entire New Jedi Order, let alone the “end” of the EU.
So, for the overwhelming majority of Star Wars fans – the thousands, nay, the millions who have watched The Force Awakens (for many again and again) – this is how Han Solo dies. He dies helping to save Rey and the Resistance. He dies trying one final time to save his son. This is the first ending to his story they know. For most, this is the only ending they know. As such, it carries great emotional weight.
I saw that weight reflected in the playlists our students created for Han. His death affected them, all of them in early high school or middle school when The Force Awakens came out, as Chewie’s did me, when I was at the same point in my life. They lost a hero to Kylo Ren…just as I lost a hero to a world crumbling under him. They saw Chewie go on, with Rey in the pilot seat of the Millennium Falcon, to fight alongside the Resistance just as I saw Han stumble through life for a long time, trying to hold himself together, before he could return to his family and the New Republic that needed him. Each are equally powerful because each are our primary stories. Our students (and all those who saw The Force Awakens without reading much of the EU) lost Han first, and that left a scar. I lost Chewie first, and that left a scar. Both are important. Both are powerful.
What really fascinates me about all this is how unique and personal it is. For the majority of contemporary Star Wars fans, The Force Awakens is their primary frame for post-Return Of The Jedi Star Wars stories. That’s how they experience this universe. But it’s not how I experience it. I’ve been with the other too long. That’s what’s real to me.
Since this moment wasn’t “real” to me, it didn’t seem as important as it did to my students, for whom it is very much real. This brings us back to a discussion I’ve had before on this site about the importance of our own head canon. While some scoff at the term/idea (presuming only those who own the material (first Lucas and now Disney) can control what’s “real” or not in the story), I maintain this is the only way any of us can experience a vast and ever-expanding fictional world like Star Wars.
I’ve said before – and I stand by – the only stories that are “real” to you are the ones that speak to you, the ones that affect and move you emotionally and spiritually. We can’t be moved by a story we’ve never read or seen. So, no matter what’s “officially canon” and what’s not, if we haven’t read or seen it then it can’t affect our experience of the fantasy world we’re in. Likewise, if a story doesn’t really land, if it’s not memorable, then it’s not going to affect our ongoing emotional experience of this world. It will fade from our minds and, more importantly, from our hearts.
For me, Han Solo will always live longer than Chewbacca. Chewie dies on Sernpidal and Han has to try and figure out how to go on without him. Because of this, Han’s death in The Force Awakens doesn’t affect me like it does my students (or the great majority of Star Wars fans for that matter). But, again, all this isn’t to say one’s right while the other’s wrong. Nor am I trying to argue one story is superior than the other in any way, shape, or form. Rather, I’m just reflecting on how – when you have a story told for decades over multiple mediums, many times simultaneously – this is the natural result.
And this is okay. We should all seek out the stories that affect us. We should all experience what we love in the way we love it. That’s how art most effectively moves us. I appreciate listening to classical music but I don’t know enough about what’s happening for it to truly affect me emotionally. But throw on some Billy Joel? Now we’re talking :). I don’t get Quentin Tarantino or Wes Anderson. I’ve tried…but I just don’t. Darren Aronofsky or Zach Braff however are directors who stir my soul. I could never get into Arrested Development but I’ll never tire or re-watching The Office. I can’t find a rhythm when reading Ken Follett but Paulo Coelho, Diana Gabaldon, or Kurt Vonnegut will keep me happily reading all day, never leaving the couch. In none of these situations is one objectively better than the other. It’s just one is for me more than the others.
The same is true of Star Wars. And it becomes more true with each passing year, as Disney expands their canon of Star Wars stories at an incredible rate. We’ll all find and embrace the stories that resonate with us while leaving aside the ones that don’t. That’s something we should celebrate. The differences are part of the fun. Personally, I have no desire to see Solo: A Star Wars Story and I won’t go see it. But I’m excited for everyone who is excited to see it. And I hope they love it! My point of view isn’t the “real” Star Wars story. But it is the real Star Wars story for me. We all have our own and that’s the only way it can work with a story so large, being told across so many mediums.
Aboard the Millennium Falcon in The Force Awakens, Han tells Rey and Finn, “The crazy thing is, it’s true…all of it.” That’s what I realized (again, with a new sort of clarity) reading those playlist assignments. The truth we can see in any sort of art comes from the artistic moments that speak to our hearts and our minds. That’s how it operates in Star Wars too. The narrative is so big, the truth of our Star Wars experience can only be found in the stories we’ve explored and the ones that have stayed with us through it all. I wouldn’t have put a single song on my Star Wars playlist about Ben killing Han. Heck, I doubt The Force Awakens would have featured at all. But it was all over our students’ work. And I love it. That’s how it should be. That’s part of the fun,