On the irreplaceability of Han Solo

Where would I be without Facebook? It furnishes such a rich profusion of writing prompts. The other morning I encountered a most enlightening query regarding Star Wars, to wit: If you could only bring one of these characters back to life, which would it be? The options were: Han Solo; Anakin; Padme; Yoda; Obi-Wan; Qui-Gon. There is, of course, only one answer that any sane person could supply to such a query:

Han Solo.

You don’t even have to think about it, do you? I tried out the question on my wife, listing the options in the order given above, and she stopped me before I finished saying “Obi-Wan,” because the answer was so obviously Han. I’ve been trying to think about why it has to be Han, why my interest in Star Wars came to an end with the death of Han Solo, if not long before, with the end of Return of the Jedi.

Many of the comments on FB in support of resurrecting other characters (Han was preferred by the clear majority) were speculations regarding plot, the things that could happen differently in the plot if this or that character were to come alive again. This was illuminating, because it helped to show what is unique about Han Solo, namely that after his rescue from Jabba the Hutt and subsequent resuscitation, which made for an excellent story (and let’s note in passing that just a few years later Star Trek would pull off the same feat in The Search for Spock) — after The Empire Strikes Back, Han Solo’s importance to the plot was over. And when Solo is most important to the plot — when he’s frozen in carbonite — he’s not really Han Solo, because he’s… frozen in carbonite. On the other hand, all other characters fulfill their plot-roles precisely by acting according to who they are.

What I am getting at here is that the other main characters are defined by their roles in the story. They are, in fact, not really characters as we think of them in the modern sense, but types in a great, sweeping archetypal fantasy of good versus evil. But is Han Solo really a character in that modern sense inherited from the development of the novel? It could be fairly easily argued that he is not, that he is just as stereotypical as anyone else: the independent-minded gunslinger, loyal to his friends but ultimately only looking out for himself (but capable of some moral improvement or an instinctual sense of the good), as he plies an amoral life in a lawless world.

I don’t think Han Solo stands out because he’s a character in a fiction populated otherwise only by types. (There is one exception, at least potentially, to this critique of the other figures in the story, and that is Leia. She doesn’t quite get to flourish like she deserves but she has the makings for a more complex person — in fact a genuine literary character — in a way no one else does, not even Han. Note that we tend to care more, I think, about her bond with Han than with Luke.) Han Solo stands out because he is a light from another world, and whatever he comes into contact with shines in a different light than it otherwise would.

The world Han Solo comes from is the world of grim and gritty low comedy. (Leia does not come from this world, but she has comedic potential — part of what makes her so much more complex than others — and Han serves to actualize some of that potential.) Han is the paragon figure of that world, along with his sidekick, and there are of course other representatives sprinkled throughout, including all of the droids. But Han stands alone for comedy in its deeper sense, as the genre of the lowly, but the lowly that is capable of rising to heights unknown to the world of tragedy. The genius of Star Wars, or much of it, is to combine the lowliness of comedy with the loftiness of tragedy, and indeed to surpass that loftiness. It is a difficult achievement, for the two modes represent cosmic visions that are difficult to reconcile.

To elevate comedy, to allow stories enacted by menial folk and desperados, the luckless, the lonely, the unloved and the seemingly failed, to rise to a level of meaning and beauty previously only perceptible in stories of valiant heroes and magically powerful divine or semi-divine figures. — This is, historically, in European civilization at any rate, a result of the influence of the Christian story in the Gospels, as predicated upon and prefigured in the Hebrew Bible. Many have felt it important to note this elevation of comedy and the fusion of it with tragedy, from Nietzsche to Auerbach, Rosenstock-Huessy and, perhaps, Tolkien. In the work of that last we see how the addition of comedic characters — for that is what the hobbits are, and Gollum — transfigures what would otherwise be a heroic tale and, we can assume, a tale of defeat. Doesn’t Star Wars do the same thing?

From the point of view of pure tragedy, Luke’s quest to overcome his father’s legacy is the heart of Star Wars, for tragedy is about inherited and ineradicable guilt. But from the point of view of the higher comedy, the heart of the story is the marriage of Han and Leia, the redemption of the tragic cosmos through its union with the comedic. Their marriage may be contrasted with that of Anakin and Padme, who are two types from the same literary and spiritual world, namely tragedy. The doomed union of Anakin and Padme serves only a purpose within the plot (that is why it is doomed), while that of Han and Leia is the telos of the plot, it stands beyond the story as its triumph.