Why Leia Matters, Part I: Origins and Influences

Carrie_Fisher_2013She was charming, witty, funny and bright. She was unfailingly candid and brave. Though I didn’t know her personally, I’ve missed Carrie Fisher every day since the heart attack that resulted in her death on December 27, 2016. Fisher’s passing has Star Wars fans reflecting on the princess from a galaxy far, far away, whom Fisher brought to life so unforgettably here on Earth. Here at Hogwarts Professor, we’d like to pay tribute to Carrie Fisher by examining the origins and trajectories of the character of Princess Leia in a two-part, collaborative series. This week, I’ll look what may have influenced and informed the character of Princess Leia, and next week, Elizabeth Baird Hardy will examine the effect Leia has had on subsequent works, especially with regard to one of Leia’s most significant literary descendants, Hermione Granger.

Dynamic and refreshing characters like Leia are often the product of a diverse array of source material. Leia’s origins seem to be two-fold. On one hand, she evolved from the female side-kick characters of early twentieth-century space fantasy, and on the other hand, she seems inspired by real-life women who made daring contributions to war efforts and resistance movements in history.

In How Star Wars Conquered the Universe, Chris Taylor says the long line of Leia’s literary antecedents 250px-Princess_of_Mars_large.jpehggoes back to Dejah Thoris. Thoris was the titular character in A Princess of Mars, the first title in Edgar Rice Burrough’s 1912 pulp space fantasy stories starring adventurer-hero John Carter. Taylor reports that despite Dejah’s near-constant need to be rescued by Carter in these stories, “the eponymous princess of the first book is a scientist, an explorer, a negotiator,” and eventually, “a sexual icon.” (Taylor, 5) Taylor also notes that Dejah might seem to today’s audiences like nothing more than a damsel in distress, but by pre-suffrage American standards, she was a progressive female character.

On the other side of women scoring the right to vote, in 1928, pulp fiction and comics audiences met Wilma Deering, space fantasy hero Buck Roger’s more capable counterpart. Wilma, Taylor reports, could build a radio out of spare parts and wore dresses only when forced. The capable female sidekick character in space fantasy seems, by the time of Buck Rogers, to have established itself as something audiences expect from this burgeoning sub-genre.

Perhaps most influential of all twentieth century space fantasies to Star Wars creator George Lucas was Flash Gordon. First a comic strip, then a film serial, Flash Gordon’s adventures delighted audiences with Carol_Hughes_1940the conventions of the space opera, and also pushed the genre’s boundaries, with story tie-ins to real-life threats to society in its plot lines and in the tyrant character Ming the Merciless. As Amy H. Sturgis points out in her graduate course on Star Wars, one of these space opera conventions is the sidekick heroine who is more than just a damsel in distress. In Flash Gordon, this heroine is Dale Arden: one less empowered than her predecessors Dejah and Wilma, but distinguished in her refusal to leave Flash’s side, even as it keeps her in the thick of the action. And although Dale Arden is an Earthling like Flash, the Gordon saga also contains an alien space princess called Aura who becomes an ally to the heroes. George Lucas seems to combine these tropes of the space princess and the capable female sidekick into the character of Princess Leia Organa.

The influence of these early space operas on the creation of Star Wars and the character of Leia in particular seems clear. Another overwhelming influence on George Lucas, born in 1944, was the second World War, and war in general. For another source of influence in the creation of Princess Leia as a character, we must look to the important roles remarkable women have played in war throughout history.

In Star Wars and History, Liedl and Reagin point to the classical goddess of Liberty, utilized to kindle the rebellion of the commonfolk against the ancien regime in the French Revolution. (43) Both Leia’s2-Leia-Ceremony dress and role in the medals ceremony on Yavin 4 seem to echo Liberty’s role as inspiring figurehead for the Rebellion. But Leia is more than a figurehead, and Liedl and Reagin suggest Leia may also take her origins in women resistance leaders like Constance Markievicz. Markievicz founded a nationalist paramilitary group for Irish teens to stand up to British rule, and as an officer in the Irish Citizen Army, marched into battle during the 1916 Easter Rising alongside her male counterparts. (47-48)

Of course, throughout much of history, women have been involved in war and resistance efforts in far less visible positions than Markievicz. In Nazi-occupied France, women used their mundane roles as mothers, wives, secretaries, etc. to conceal their efforts to combat the Nazis, much like Leia uses her role as a Senator to disguise her doings as Rebel courier and spy in A New Hope. In fact, women across Europe resisted the Nazis by using their relative invisibility, as compared to men, to take on a variety of important roles: “serving as couriers, even smuggling goods and people under the authorities’ watch.” (54) In the more egalitarian world of Star Wars, however, Leia’s sex doesn’t protect her from suspicion by the Empire when she is captured in A New Hope. But you’ll have that with an enemy – Darth Vader – who has the advantage of training in the Force on his side.

LeiaBoth literary and historical sources seem to have inspired Star Wars architect George Lucas in his creation of Princess Leia Organa of the Royal House of Alderaan. Next week, Elizabeth Baird Hardy will help us discover what Lucas himself may never have imagined: how his shirty space princess would inspire and inform new female fantasy and sci-fi icons to delight generations of fans. Stay tuned!

 

Follow Emily Strand on Facebook and Twitter (@ekcstrand), and share your own thoughts about Leia – or your tribute to that wonderful actress who brought her to life – in the comments.

Rogue One and the Paschal Mystery

[WARNING: Rogue One spoilers abound!]

rogueone_posterMany classic stories have a component of self-sacrifice for the greater good: Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, the original Star Wars. Heck, even Frozen has its “Paschal Mystery moment,” when Anna throws herself between her sister and the enemy’s blade. This notion of loving self-sacrifice that brings profound, new hope – which Christians call the Paschal Mystery – gets far more than a moment in Rogue One; its treatment is thorough-going, multi-faceted and reconsidered for modern audiences. The film’s ensemble cast shows there is more than one path toward a life of relinquishment, lived in deference to the greater good. Each member of the Rogue band is a pilgrim of sorts, on a distinctive path toward the same end, providing his or her own particular insight into what living the Paschal Mystery requires. For Chirrut, Cassian and Jyn, those insights can be summed up in the Christian virtues of faith, hope and love. [Read more…]

Fantastic, Forceful Films: Common elements in Fantastic Beasts and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

rogue-one-jyn-ersa-geared-up(Some Rogue One spoilers below – clearly marked in ALL CAPS. Fantastic Beasts spoilers too, but seriously, people, you’ve had weeks …)

Ever since I learned to speak Star Wars at the Mythgard Institute a year ago, I’ve been eyeing the places where the Harry Potter and Star Wars franchises seem to intersect, and these places are many. So the fact that Warner Brothers and Disney Studios have, within a month, released film tie-ins to their beloved epics is no great shock. Neither is the fact that the films employ common elements and themes in seeking to delight long-time fans while enticing new ones. Let’s talk about four elements Fantastic Beasts and Rogue One share.

[Read more…]

Happy Hogwarts Express Day! Beware the mad Trolley Lady!

HogwartsExpressDear readers: Happy Hogwarts Express Day! Every year on September 1, the Hogwarts Express departs, in a cloud of steam and anticipation, from King’s Cross Platform 9¾, whisking a new set of eager witches and wizards off to another year of magical education and adventure. Best of luck, Hogwarts students! May all first-years get sorted into the houses their hearts desire!

Potter fans celebrate days like today, not because we’re crazy (well, a bit) or because we have trouble discerning fact from fiction. We celebrate days like September 1st because we are shaped by a series that claims reality – that which truly signifies – is not marked only by what we can observe with our senses, or what history tells us is fact, but also by those realities inside our heads. These are the realities C.S. Lewis said make up the “real theme” of the story: not what happens so much, but rather what it all means. Realities like love, friendship, imagination and compassion.

Remembering September 1st is a way of acknowledging that, at some point, everyone has to start on a journey. Maybe the journey is one of living up to a long family tradition, like Ron’s or Neville’s. Maybe it’s a journey of proving you belong through hard work and talent, like Hermione’s. Maybe it’s one of discovering who you are, where you came from, and where your real powers lie, like Harry’s. Regardless, on this day of departures, we at Hogwarts Professor wish you speed, luck, magic, and zero Dementors on your journey.

But do look out for the Trolley Lady. She is not just there to sell pumpkin pasties. She’s there to throw them at you like grenades if you try to get off this train before it reaches its destination.

Trolley Lady 5If you have no idea what I’m talking about, you haven’t yet read Harry Potter and the Cursed Child: the rehearsal script for the hit West-End play that premiered this summer.

While reviews of the stage play have been enthusiastic, reviews of the production’s rehearsal script, inspired in part by Jo herself, but penned by Jack Thorne, have been… mixed. The script, published in late July, currently averages 3.9 stars on Good Reads, from almost 150,000 ratings. This seems generous, compared to reviews from those in the know. Mugglenet’s early reaction to the script asked if we could all “pretend this didn’t happen”. James Thomas, on this blog, firmly asserted the play is not the “eighth Potter story” it was touted to be. Potter expert Amy H. Sturgis, in her Good Reads review, says, “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child reminds me in certain ways of the Star Wars Holiday Special (1978), in that one wonders how the creator lost control of the reins (or his/her mind) so thoroughly, given the ruthlessness with which this work undermines the seriousness of the themes and ideas of the text that inspired it.” Listen folks, anytime a work is being compared to the Star Wars Holiday Special, that’s not a good thing.

Cover 2And yet, reports have surfaced that Warner Brothers may be seeking the rights to Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, in order to turn it into a trilogy of films starring Dan Radcliffe.

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When confronted with this news, I had a strong reaction of wanting to get off this train. Now. Before it’s too late: before Potterverse gets swallowed up by the capitalist instinct to just keep the machine going if it’s generating a profit, whether the product is any good or not. And yet I can’t get off the train; I’m hemmed in by my own fond loyalty to ‘verse. It’s like being trapped by the Trolley Lady herself (Cursed Child version, that is). She’s this woman I thought I knew, who brought me comfort and nourishment, once upon a time. But now she’s coming after me, all of a sudden, with exploding baked goods and spikey hands. All because I want to get off.

Fortunately, according to Cursed Child, the Trolley Lady was bluffing. If you want off, all you have to do is jump.