Five years ago today, I completed my Master’s in English, for which I focused on the subject of romance. What better way to mark the occasion than by discussing the romance theme in relation to my favourite film trilogy?
“Why do I love the Star Wars trilogy so much?” is a question I spent almost twenty-five years asking myself. Then, I re-watched the movies, and I was struck by one factor that may be very significant: the way Han, Luke, and Leia’s relationship is a friendship that is also a Romance.
By “Romance”, I don’t mean in the modern sense of the word, though that kind of romance does play a role in two of the characters’ relationship. I mean it in the older sense I described in “The History of Romance”. The word “Romance” originally meant a kind of heroic tale, and those tales often had a lot to say about the nature of Love and how lovers behave. I believe that, regardless of whether a relationship is “romantic” or “platonic” in the modern sense, if people act like the lovers of a medieval Romance, then their relationship can itself be considered a “Romance”.
One of the defining features of Love in medieval Romances is that it is authoritarian: if Love tells you to do something, then you have to do it, no matter how stupid, unpleasant, or dangerous it may seem. Fortunately, Love is also comforting: it gives you courage to take on stupid, unpleasant, or dangerous tasks. Both these qualities are expressed in a trope that is common in medieval Romance, and also in the Star Wars movies: the rescue.
By my count there are six major rescues and rescue attempts between the Star Wars leads in the original trilogy:
- Luke (enthusiastically) and Han (reluctantly) rescue Leia from the Death Star in the middle of A New Hope.
- Han comes back and saves Luke from being shot down in the Battle of Yavin at the end of A New Hope.
- Han rescues Luke from freezing to death on the surface of Hoth at the beginning of The Empire Strikes Back.
- Luke attempts to save Han and Leia from Cloud City in the middle of The Empire Strikes Back.
- Leia tells Chewie to turn the Millennium Falcon around and rescue Luke from Cloud City at the end of The Empire Strikes Back.
- Luke and Leia (and Chewie, and Lando, and… everyone, really) team up to save Han from Jabba the Hutt’s palace at the beginning of Return of the Jedi.
All of these rescues could be described as reckless, even stupid: Han forgoes paying off his debts to a dangerous crime lord; Luke walks into the trap set for him by the Empire; Leia flies back towards the city she has just barely escaped. But, like the lovers in a heroic tale, Han, Luke, and Leia do not worry about the prudence of their actions or the risks to themselves. For them, friendship, affection, and love are irresistible forces that impel them to act. Their own needs become irrelevant when faced with the needs of each other, a theme encapsulated in an exchange from The Empire Strikes Back. Just before Han leaves Echo Base to look for Luke, someone warns him that “The temperature [outside is] dropping too rapidly”. Han’s reply? “That’s right, and my friend’s out in it.” Han doesn’t care about the danger to himself; he only cares about the danger to Luke. His own sense of self-preservation is completely eclipsed by his love for his friend.
I’m not saying this trope is necessarily a good thing. Romance, in itself, is not good or bad, and it can just as easily lead to bad actions as to good ones. But there is something appealing about the idea that love can inspire heroism and self-sacrifice. That it can drive people to save and protect each other from terrible dangers. That it can take control of our actions and make us bold, courageous, and reckless.
Of course, this kind of recklessness isn’t unique to the Star Wars movies; it’s actually a fairly standard trope of the sci-fi/fantasy/adventure genre. Lizzie braves the Goblin Market to try and save her sister, Laura. Sam braves a tower of orcs to rescue his friend, Frodo. Work partners Mulder and Scully save each other’s lives at least once a season. And maybe that’s why I’ve always gravitated towards the sci-fi/fantasy/adventure genre: because it makes room for big, reckless expressions of love, even in platonic relationships.