The Trouble With The Courtship of Princess Leia

And related problems in modern myth making

This is an updated version of a 2011 post, suddendly relevant again with the coming release of The Force Awakens and a new hope for Princess Leia’s character arc.

Leia fans are haning a lot of hope on this screen shot from the second trailer for The Force Awakens.

The Courtship of Princess Leia is one of the early books from the Star Wars Extended Universe, that is, licensed Star Wars fan fiction that became popular in the decades after the original trilogy and has since been purged by Disney in the writing of The Force Awakens. Many fans are sad about the great purge. I am not one of them and The Courtship of Princess Leia (COPL) is the prime reason why. It is so terrible that it put me off all of the rest of the extended universe books for years.

A friend and an exotic erotica writer (think werewolves, not exotic lands) sent me this book review from the romance writers’ site, Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, which nailed the plot problem. (She sent the review with the note, “There is significant overlap among women who read romance and science fiction.” She was not kidding. It’s geek heaven over there; they make Splinter of the Mind’s Eye references!)

Initially, it looks like this story will deal with the question of how much one can put one’s own personal happiness ahead of the well-being of others. A character explains the benefit of the marriage to Isolder in this way, “With the wealth of Hapes to help fund the war, Leia could overthrow the last remnants of the Empire quickly, saving billions of lives in the process”. Hear that, people? Not dozens, not millions, but billions of lives. What difference does it make whether Isolder is cute or repulsive? What difference does it make whether Han is the love of Leia’s life? Why are they fighting for her affections? This is a royal, political marriage, like many others, and normally affections would be beside the point.

The reviewer has it right. There are rules about political marriage that transcend setting, and the author used a political marriage as a catalyst for starting a story without considering those rules. With the high-stakes billions-saved, what would justify refusing?

COPL thinks this adds tension. It doesn’t. The book’s disconnect with reality (yes, I see the irony), this use of what would be acute conflicts as mere plot devices, is a problem in most of the EU books, and modern storytelling in general.

Characters built on familiar assumptions

The story is set four years after the fall of the Empire. Han is still the rogue with a heart of gold who started his walk to redemption when he stays to rescue Luke over the first Death Star. Leia is still the duty bound princess who was forced to watch her entire planet destroyed and whose only grip to sanity is the unwavering determination to destroy the Empire that did it. Yet, after all the loss, all the horrors of war, all the loneliness they’ve been through — they waited four years before considering getting married?

Of course Han and Leia would date for years on end, because that’s what we do today. They couldn’t get married right after the Battle of Endor. Leia was what, 23? That’s far too young to our modern Earthlings of the Western world sentiments. Nevermind what Leia Organa has endured and achieved in her 23 years. Modern sensibilities tell us marriage is too restrictive to throw away your time to explore in your youth.

Imagine for a moment how ridicious that might sound to Leia Organa post-Endor. Now is the time for frolicking adventure! Call me crazy, but I think she might not care for adventure for adventure’s sake. She’s had plenty of the real deal and soul crushing devestation and loneliness that comes with it. For the modern Earthlings of the West, this is insulting pandering, as if we could not relate to a heroine unless she followed our cultural norms.

What about the archetypes?

In addition to the insults, when authors simply accept all of our modern day assumptions, the story falls. The rogue and duty character arcs drove Han and Leia’s relationship in the original trilogy. Both of them had reason to isolate their hearts, and Leia did it by embracing everybody as a whole and Han by shunning every individual. But they couldn’t keep out each other. This is the romance that inspired Han and Leia shippers — even though they didn’t want love, they couldn’t resist it. It overwhelmed them.

If COPL had plied these waters, perhaps with a twist that Leia saw a marriage to Isolder as safer for her heart since she didn’t love Isolder, that’s a good foundation for romantic tension. (Tantootine Ghost, a much better EU book, hit this theme though in reference to Leia not wanting to have Anakin Skywalker’s grandchildren.) You could tie it in with Luke’s increasing solitude and explore how the Skywalkers are coming to terms, or not, with who they are.

But as the SmartBitches noted, Leia just blew off her now-extensive history with Han and considered the proposal without much discussion of why, not even explaining the overwhelming good this political marriage could bring. It was all plot device. The writer needed something for romantic tension and so unceremoniously threw in another suitor who’s attractive and rich. Women trading up made sense to him, by which we learn more about the author’s assumptions about modern women than Leia’s or Han’s characters.

The popular Timothy Zahn novels were better but still made this mistake. One of the threads in that series has Leia worrying about being a working mother and about Uncle Luke not helping out with the kids. Zhan and his editors assume that for modern women to relate to Leia, they need her to be like them, the working mom caught in the domestic battle of the sexes. Therefore, when faced with a crumbling Republic, war breaking out, an increasingly isolated Jedi who is too scared to train anyone, baddies attempting to kidnap your children for their Force abilities…and Leia is worried about Luke helping with the kids more? (It is somewhere after Leia has the twins. She’s nursing them and musing about how distant Luke is and wishing he would take care of the kids more. When I get a chance to find the passage, I’ll add it here.)

What power does the constant threat of death have on romance and family?What would duty require of a young heroine? What can romance look like in the absence of cultural assumptions? Leia’s planet and its culture were destroyed and she lives among an army in hiding. Her character is relatively free from our cultural assumptions. Yet the EU does not explore these questions because it seems that as soon as the war ended, someone in our time and place sent Leia a small library from The Feminine Mystique to Lean In and plopped her in the middle of our sex wars.

It is a waste of character and a lost opportuntiy for insight. I do hope that The Force Awakens does better than this. It isn’t a high bar. It should be easy. [Update: Alas. To no avail.]