The long summer after the first Star Wars movie was full of questions: Did Darth (that’s what we called him then) survive? Did Ben really die? These questions were of great concern to anyone under the age of 10. When we debated them, our driveways and porches were like the Supreme Court. Luckily, we had a foolproof plan to find answers: we just had to see more Star Wars. So we did chores, went to birthday parties, and climbed into those seats again and again like it was some kind of science project: Next time I’ll look really close at the end to see if he levels off his TIE fighter at the last second and I’ll see if Ben disappears before or after Darth Vader slices him. But we never could look quite fast enough. Nobody could. Only when we grew up did we realize that Star Wars had some pretty slick editing.
But there was one question we could not answer, no matter how many times we went:
What happens next?
Nowadays, answering a question like that for a favorite movie or book seems easy. You click or press or speak and soon you are online looking at scripts, spy reports, casting choices, and synopses. It’s like a magic box you can see the future in without getting out of your chair.
Yeah, sure it is.
We know it’s all bogus (and they do, too), so why do we do it? Why do we speculate? We like answers; that’s how our brains work. When we found out that this trilogy was actually parts four, five, and six of a larger story, we realized that we were already late. Did I miss something? Did I fall asleep? Is this a test?? But no, that was just the genius of Star Wars: it is always incomplete. And we are still catching up.
That’s why we, as fans, have always speculated on the saga. Even in the early days when the word “Internet” would have sounded like some sort of futuristic mop, we scoured the world for clues. There were magazines like People, Dynamite, and Space Wars, but they were really gossipy and weird and had photos of people like Shaun Cassidy on the cover. There was, of course, Starlog, which at least looked sort of believable. Mike Ryan has found some of Starlog’s truly bizarre rumors, including one that in Jedi, the Falcon would be a hologram and soar over the crowd (I might have died). And the claim that Han would in some later episode clumsily use a lightsaber against Vader that would “fuse their life forces together.” Okay. These magazines, if you could even find them, were basically early ’80s versions of the Internet — all gossip and no backbone. They basically said whatever they wanted to.
Still, they were enough to hold us at bay. But then Empire came out and made it even worse. Driven to an already manic level of hysteria by too many Burger King commemorative glassware drinks, we were confronted by more impossible questions: His father? Who is the Other? And, of course, will Han come back?
The strangest rumors were the ones that just seemed to appear out of nowhere. Every so often, someone would hop off their bike or pull you aside and say Hey, I heard that blank blah blah. You would stop and commune with this new, secret knowledge. In my neighborhood, in the suburban midwest Ohio, there was one particular rumor that we heard and remembered. It went like this:
There will be nine movies. And in the last one, Chewbacca defeats Darth Vader.
Yeah, I know.
I tried to track down where this rumor originated — but found nothing. Then it hit me: did my friends and I believe it (and we did) just because it was Chewbacca? Really? The Lon Chaney/Sasquatch/Muppet with hair so matted that if he were your dog your mom would totally yell at you? He was a great character, one of the all-timers, but could he defeat Vader?
The reason I think we believed it is that Chewbacca was, like the saga itself, also full of fill-in-the-blanks. We knew Han was a scoundrel, Luke a farmhand (a waterhand?), and Leia a princess. But Chewbacca? He could be lots of things: a warrior, a pilot, a mechanic, and…a fuzzball (ok, I said it). Like our own dogs at home, he understood us, even if we always didn’t understand him. He was kind of temperamental at times and he didn’t even get a medal at the end, but that’s why we liked him. Not only because he was tall and cool with a bandolier and made strange moans, but because we had serious questions about him. Where was he from? How is a bowcaster at all different from a blaster? How can he safely arc-weld with all that hair? And where are his pants?
In the first four issues of the official Star Wars Club newsletter (following the first film), three out of 12 fan questions are about Chewbacca. Nobody asks about who Vader really is or where all the Jedi Knights went; there are more questions about Chewie than anyone else.
We have heard these stories and answers before — Chewbacca is, like all of the characters, a complex synthesis of authorial imagination and pop culture. But the fans are focused on him — not Luke, not the droids — Chewbacca. Why? Because he was more of a mystery. We like Chewbacca because we have always been able to speculate about him; which is what we like about Star Wars. The character, just like the movies, gives us a space to think and imagine about, not just sit and absorb. That’s why I think we believed it could be him after all, at the end.
At the beginning of Jedi, Chewbacca is brought forth in chains before Jabba, who says: Cheessa neenjah mah wongee Chewbacca. The subtitled translation (for the Huttese-impaired) is: “At last we have the mighty Chewbacca.” I don’t know if it was the rumor in the back of my head or not, but it felt like somebody finally was taking the whole thing seriously. Sure, Vader was hunting the Rebels and all, but the Empire never gave them any credit — they just thought they got lucky. But here, on Tatooine for the second time, a giant slug addresses a giant man in a fur costume, but it isn’t fake at all. It is MIGHTY. And our spines tingle as Chewbacca — the embodiment of Star Wars, really — is given his due props. It is at this moment — at that “mighty,” that all the despair of Empire gives way — and we know who’s going to win.
I never found out where our rumor originated, though I have some theories that I will keep to myself. I hate spoilers. I can’t say it is completely gone from my mind. But back then we embraced it wholeheartedly. It was ludicrous, of course — we knew that by the end of Jedi — but that wasn’t the point. We didn’t care. Because that kind of speculation is part of Star Wars itself — that’s why there are fans today and we all didn’t just pack it in after Jedi and say, “Well, I think I’ll just grow up now and read the dictionary every night.” That’s why we keep coming back.
Star Wars is a good story not because it fills in the blanks, but precisely because it doesn’t. It gives us a space to join into. A space for the imagination. Or the Force. Or whatever.
Either way, it is mighty. Just like Chewbacca.
Brad Ricca is the author of Super Boys: The Amazing Adventures of Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster – The Creators of Superman and American Mastodon, winner of the St. Lawrence Book Award. He is a SAGES Fellow at Case Western Reserve University. He also writes the column “Unassuming Barber Shop” at The Beat. Visit www.brad-ricca.com and follow him on Twitter at @BradJRicca.