Why Leia Matters, Part 2: Literary Impact

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Last week, we were treated to Emily Strand’s outstanding post on the origins of the character of Princess Leia, whose cultural value we have never doubted, though the recent death of the woman who embodied Leia, the one-of-a-kind Carrie Fisher, has certainly prompted more serious thought on this remarkable character who is so much more than a distinctive hairdo.  As we saw last week, Leia has complex roots woven throughout literature, film, and history. As we’ll see this week, Leia herself has had a profound influence on a variety of arts in the last 40 years, most notably, literature, especially the literature we study and enjoy here. So, join me for that chat after the jump (to the next page, not to hyperspace; this is much safer, with no need for precise calculations to avoid flying right through a star or landing too close to a supernova).

Like Professor Strand, I also never knew Carrie Fisher, though last week our local paper did run a wonderful story about the time a young Fisher and her mother, Debbie Reynolds, came to our county for the opening of the short-lived but legendary Land of Oz theme park. I didn’t even live here then; I was back in Kentucky, where, a few years later, I would become enthralled watching a princess in a white robe who would shoot a blaster, win over a pirate, and save a galaxy. When I heard Carrie Fisher had passed, I was, literally, standing under the fuel tanks outside the wonderful Atlantis Exhibit at Kennedy Space Center. It’s my favorite part of Kennedy, and I was really excited about taking my parents to see Atlantis, but I overheard a woman, a stranger, who was reading the news on her phone. Like Luke Skywalker, whose path is changed by the voice of a strange woman, I found my day altered completely by the news I overheard: Carrie Fisher had died. Though I always cry at the Atlantis Exhibit (it’s done beautifully, and takes me back to watching the shuttle program evolve, so when the shuttle herself is unveiled, it’s breathtaking), this day was different. I thought of all the remarkable women who had flown on those beautiful ships, and how many of them, undoubtedly, had entered the space program because of Leia Organa.

Image result for princess leiaThere is no doubt that this fascinating character has influenced our culture in a vast myriad of ways, from inspiring astronauts to providing joke fodder. But for us, here, perhaps her most critical impact has been on literature, specifically literature targeted at young adults. One of the most important reasons Leia Organa matters is her influence on popular literature. From the moment she appears in A New Hope, Leia is the primary mover of the plot.  Her use of R2D2 to protect the Death Star plans, her convincing lie that sends the Imperials on a fool’s errand to Dantooine, and her commandeering of the rescue mission to ensure the plans are exploited, all demonstrate her courage, resourcefulness, and intelligence. These traits neither preclude nor cloud her femininity. She is both smart and beautiful, both brave and thoughtful, both powerful and inspiring.  This same array of traits most determines those literary characters we often analyze here.

Of course, there were already plenty of strong, interesting young women peopling the pages of YA books before Leia. Some of them, like Leia,  were even royals, like queens of Narnia, or Lloyd Alexander‘s sassy and strong Princess Eilonwy (though his later Queen Mickle, a post-Star Wars creation, seems to show Leia’s influence). Yet, over the last few decades, as work emerges from authors who grew up watching Leia evolve on screen, it is very clear that some of the iconic YA characters we see today are the daughters of Princess Leia.

We could easily demonstrate an array of characters whose origins are clearly the result of Leia’s influence, but three of the most popular are also characters who beautifully demonstrate different facets of Leia’s compelling personality.

 

“You came in that thing? You’re braver than I thought!”

Divergent’s Tris Prior and Leia’s legacy of courage.

CImage result for tris priorertainly Leia is not the first fighting female in film and literature, as Emily Strand pointed out so well in her post last week, but it is unlikely that Tris Prior, protagonist of Veronica Roth’s Divergent series, and one of popular literature’s most physical and militant females, could have developed outside the shadow of Leia.  Certainly Leia is a fighting character, whether she is firing a blaster, co-ordinating attacks, or Image result for princess leia fightingchoking the life out of Jabba the Hutt. But she is more than just a woman who can shoot a gun and throw a punch, and because of her, so is Tris.

When Tris chooses to leave her birth faction of Abegnation and joins Dauntless, she is making a conscious decision to abandon the faction that focuses on selfless, sacrificial, and philanthropic service. The faction she chooses is the one that idealizes courage, even to the point of recklessness. Eventually, however, Tris must find her own balance and her own way to fight, with a courage that is both brave and selfless. In many ways, Leia’s path is similar; though she is groomed to follow the path of her adoptive father, Senator Bail Organa, in a life of diplomacy and selfless service, she chooses the role of a fighter, using her diplomatic status as cover for Rebel activities, and wielding weapons with a skill that would have made her a formidable Dauntless initiate.

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Image result for tris priorJust as Tris does, Leia works to balance her roles, realizing that fighting is not always the answer. Like Leia, Tris is drawn to and falls in love with a man who epitomizes the courage and recklessness of Dauntless, and likewise, in her devotion to something bigger, eventually sacrifices her relationship with that man, though she never stops loving him.  Just as fans grieve that Leia and Han are estranged at the time of The Force Awakens, they are troubled by Tris’s decision to sacrifice herself, breaking the heart of Tobias.  These decisions are both informed by the fact that Tris, like Leia before her, is remarkably brave, and such bravery, coupled with selflessness, is often costly.

 

“She’s got a lot of spirit.”

Katniss Everdeen and Leia’s role as spunky rallying pointImage result for katniss

Though Leia is, herself, a strong and capable figure who makes things happen, she is also a character who inspires others, becoming a beacon to draw followers to the cause of freedom from the oppression of the Empire. Perhaps no other character in modern popular literature is a better example of this same role than Katniss Everdeen from Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games Trilogy. Though we have often analyzed different features of Katniss’s character here, it is unlikely that she would even have evolved without Leia Organa in her literary DNA.

Both Katniss and Leia serve a role that female characters have played in story and myth since the dawn of time: they inspire and motivate heroics in others. Yet, neither of these strong women merely sits in theImage result for princess leia hologram stands waving on the troops. They lead those troops into battle, inspiring and encouraging them not only with their own abilities, but also by serving as symbols for something bigger. Leia, appearing as a hologram, first inspires Luke Skywalker with her beauty, her passion for her mission to save the Rebellion, and the great peril in which her mission has placed her. Once he and Han Solo rescue her from her cell, it becomes quickly apparent that she can take care of herself, shooting open the garbage cute and taking charge when it is obvious that her rescuers do not have an escape plan.  Such quick thinking and determination are clearly found in Katniss Everdeen, but she also serves that same iconic role (as did the old propaganda posters, as pointed out last week). Even those who do not know her as a person, know her as a symbol, the Mockingjay, sometimes just etched into a cracker, as ephemeral and yet as beckoning as a shaky hologram.Image result for katniss

In addition to directly rallying their troops when needed, both Leia and Katniss are forces in throwing over a diabolical government ruled by a figure who perverts the idea of “peace” into a campaign to control and terrorize those under his command. Leia and Katniss, in helping to bring about the end of the Emperor and the end of Snow, coalesce their campaigns into a single word, the word uttered by the remarkably youthful Leia at the end of Rogue One: hope.

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“Someday, you’re going to be wrong. I just hope I’m there to see it.”

Hermione Granger and Leia as the Intellectual components of the soul triptych

When an exasperated Leia realizes that her would-be rescuers, aside from cleverly disguising themselves as Stormtroopers, don’t have much of a Image result for princess leiaplan, Han Solo admits that Luke is “the brains, Sweetheart.” But in fact, it is Leia who is always the brains of this outfit.  Clearly she does not love Han for his dazzling intellect, and it is often obvious that she is twin who got the lion’s share of smarts. However, the three of them together are the core around which the story revolves, because together they form a soul triptych, reflecting the human soul that is a balance of body, mind, and spirit. While Han is certainly the body, and Luke, with his connection the Force, represents the spirit, there is no doubt Leia is the mind, or will, in the equation.  This role is one also taken on by a character dear to our hearts here: Hermione Granger. With Ron, who seems to always be hungry and growing, representing the body, and Harry the obvious spirit of the trio, Hermione is uImage result for hermionendoubtedly doing the mental heavy lifting. In fact, some of us here have often joked that if it weren’t for Hermione and her smarts, poor Harry would still be trying to figure out Snape’s riddle in the very first book, and he’d never stop Quirrell. Not to mention that he would have flunked out of school if she hadn’t helped him.

In addition to taking on the role of the intellect in the tree-way soul figure of the text, Hermione, like Leia, sometimes becomes frustrated by others and their lack of planning, because, like Leia, she is a phenomenal planner, careful and meticulous. This sometimes leads to emotional awkwardness. Like Hermione, Leia understands others quite well and is very sympathetic to others’ pain, but she is also imminently practical. When she is reunited with her forces on Yavin 4, Leia responds to questions about Alderaan that “We have no time for our sorrows.” This does not mean tImage result for princess leiahat she is cold, or that she does not care about the death of  the only family she has ever known, along with the entire population of her home planet. She cares very much, but she also knows that sitting around and crying about it will only allow more planets to “suffer the fate of Alderaan.” Instead, she channels her sorrow into making sure her stolen plans are used to bring down the Death Star. In similar fashion, when the Hogwarts Trio’s sting on the Ministry goes awry, and Ron is splinched in their desperate flight to the forest, Hermione, though nervous, gets herself and the boys to safety, uses her dittany to heal Ron, and gets to work setting up camp.Image result for hermione

She clearly understands other people, sometimes in a way that boggles Ron’s mind, but she is not a slave to her emotions. Instead, she deals with the practical, pragmatic task at hand instead of collapsing under her sorrow. This power of the mind is surely one that Hermione has inherited from a certain princess, even if she clearly did not pick up on any handy hair-style tips from Leia along the way.Image result for princess leia disney princess

 

In the end, Leia does not merely kick butt, inspire rebellion, and mastermind plans. She does all these things. She is a princess. She can be alluring and charming. But she is also a general, capable, forceful, and brilliant.  Because of this complexity, we can hope to see more literary characters who, like Tris, Katniss, and Hermione, embody Leia’s complexity. We can also hope that while there may be some success in the efforts to have Leia officially “canonized” as a Disney Princess, that perhaps there will be a similar effort to have Congress officially promote her to her equally deserved rank: General.  Image result for princess leia

Comments

  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Very interesting – thanks! Indeed, so richly interesting I feel I can only brood and savor for a while, before attempting or add or ask anything!

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