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.


  1. Given CF’s prominent role in increasing awareness, hence drug medication for, bipolar disorder – it is well worth noticing that she probably died as a result of psychiatric drug side effects – especially antipsychotics,


    but many people with this (grossly-over-diagnosed disorder of bipolar end up dependant on a ‘cocktail’ of five, six, seven separate powerful, interacting classes of drugs (eg. one each or sometimes more than one, of the following classes:- antipsychotics, SSRI type antidepressants, benzodiazepine-type tranquillizers, psychostimulants, anticonvulsants, lithium).

    The mortality rate of most people with a bipolar disorder without treatment is probably no different from average – but with medication the death rates are very much raised.

  2. Emily Strand says

    Bruce – good points, all. However, I can testify that the suicide rate among bipolar sufferers is far greater than average. This is a major threat. For my family member with bipolar, even heavy medication may well have prolonged her life.

    Now we can only wonder how Carrie’s character Leia will finally meet her end. Episode 8 was in postproduction at the time of Fisher’s death. (See: http://variety.com/2016/film/news/carrie-fisher-dead-death-star-wars-viii-8-1201948826/) So how and when will Leia meet her end?

  3. David Llewellyn Dodds says

    Thanks for this informative and thought-provoking article!

    There were combinations of history and its popular depiction – the example that immediately come to my mind is the life of Violette Szabo and the 1958 film made of it, Carve Her Name with Pride.

    And, around the publication date of A Princess of Mars, there were women in the heart of things, whether as (war) correspondents or otherwise, who were more of less widely known – such as Flora Sandes, whose account of her experiences she published as An English Woman-Sergeant in the Serbian Army in 1916 (handily scanned in the Internet Archive and well-read as an audiobook at LibriVox.org). And not only in the English-speaking world – for example, Alice Schalek, famous or infamous depending on who’s talking, the war-correspondent whom Karl Kraus included in his strange and epic The Last Days of Mankind: A Tragedy in Five Acts – as a 1974 abridged English version translates its title.

  4. David Llewellyn Dodds says

    Whenever I watch Star Wars (especially the first, 1977 movie) Princess Leia (and, for that matter, Han Solo) almost always remind me of something which appeared in Mad Magazine about a decade earlier, having fun with the conventions in which heroes often seem so loud, insulting, and ill-behaved and villains so suave, urbane, witty, and so on. And, I realize I don’t have a good sense of how long that has been, or just when that became, characteristic of heroines, too. If I think that, an example that pops into mind is, Maria Jones in John Masefield’s The Box of Delights (1935) – but I don’t know where in the history of such things it is, in fact. The heroine, not only redoubtable, but wise-cracking. Did Dorothy Parker have much to do with this – even before hard-boiled fiction really got going?

    In this context, I suddenly wonder if Carrie Fisher ever played Joy Davidman in any production of Shadowlands, and if not, what it would have been like if she did? Would her Joy have crackled more effectively than either Claire Bloom’s or Debra Winger’s?

  5. Emily Strand says

    Whoa, David – these are really great connections! I especially enjoy the Mad Mag connection of the fast-talking, sarcastic heroes opposed to the suave (and for Star Wars, so often British) villains. It’s hard to imagine Lucas wasn’t tuned into that trend. Thanks for your comments!

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