Luke’s Lightsaber, Han’s Gun and my Grandmother

An heirloom is an object which connects. It links generations. Mother and daughter. Grandfather and grandson. Often even further back and further forward in time. I think most often of a necklace given to me when my grandmother died. She’d worn it every day. I remember it glinting behind blouses, falling onto plates as she leaned over to set a table, resting on the generous chest I would also inherit. I imagine when my grandfather gave it to her, this religious symbol with little diamonds. So when I took up her talisman – I too wear it everyday – it was like having a piece of her, of him and of our greater group. I can conjure her and the things that this little shape conjured for her, or at least, that I imagine it did. In some sense, they’re with me all the time, as this everyday object becomes a part of my person as it did for my grandmother.

A tactile bridge to the abstract and the lost, an heirloom condenses individuals, stories, groups. When the heirloom is also a talisman, it increases the intensity of all this and adds a sense of magic and a feeling of shared secrets. The heirloom-talisman given and accepted also acts as a mutual claiming. That’s what heritage does; it inscribes you in a genealogy, a figurative or literal family line. An heir, according to Misters Merriam, Merriam and Webster (yes, there were two Merriams), is “a person legally entitled to the property or rank of another on that person’s death” or “a person who inherits and continues the work of a predecessor.” It defines a legal relationship and status, an identity, and an activity that really has the quality of a mission rather than a pastime. The definition of loom I might leave alone for now, as that’s a linguistics diatribe that could go on for a while. (Loom as a verb, loom as a noun, loom in Old English). Let’s just say it’s a tool. So an heirloom is a tool of heritage. I think of all objects of emotional significance that pass from old hands to young ones with their affective powers still intact as having functions similar to that of the heirloom.

Here’s the part where I talk about Star Wars. (Admit it, you were worried the whole post was going to be about linguistics and my grandmother). The Star Wars universe is vast – more vast even than I realized – and initially, I thought it would have a number of objects of emotional significance that link or at least traverse its many plotlines. Though, given the number of orphans who populate its stories, perhaps I should have been less surprised to find markedly few. Maybe the Millennium Falcon. Perhaps the Tico sisters’ necklaces which create a material reference for their strong bond. But, these smack more of simple family talismans than objects exemplified for what they do and mean as they pass from one set of hands to another. Luke/Anakin/Rey’s lightsaber is the best example. We see it first (first? Oh Sith Lord, in what order do the kids these days see these movies?) in the OG, Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. A boy with daddy issues, much in need of a sense of connection to his familial past, is bequeathed his father’s Jedi symbol/tool/talisman and, along with it, a story and a mission. This heirloom gives order to his life at a moment when he’s about to need it most. And, lest you forget to pay attention to it, this light-up sword which has now spawned several generations of children with poked eyes is one of the only physical objects across the Star Wars universe that is significant both emotionally and to the plot – unless you reduce R2D2 pregnant with Death Star plans or Han Solo in carbonite to things, which I don’t. This is one powerful little object, but I’m most interested in how it creates lineage and, in the process, becomes a reference for temporal order. It links Luke to his father and Episodes IV through VI to Episodes I through III. It brings Rey into that Jedi family, readying her to become the last Jedi, and it puts this most recent trio of films after the 1970s classics. It has intra- and extra-diegetic power, forging order in the major genealogical line within, throughout and outside the stories, most importantly helping the viewer to grip and be gripped by the timeline of the films.

A number of the Easter eggs from the new Solo: A Star Wars Story share a lot with these emotionally-charged objects I’ve been describing. They tie together people and story lines across time and do so by being passed from one character to another and possessing secret significance. The Millennium Falcon, again, sort of. A set of gold dice that doesn’t seem to bring Qi’ra much luck but does contain enough emotional significance and presumed magic that Han still has it at least 10 years later in Episode IV. And Han’s blaster. Han’s blaster, for me, is an Easter egg-heirloom. In the OGs, it’s just a gun. (Nobody get their panties in a twist. There’s no shortage of essays and comments against the idea that a gun is just a gun. Not that Han, in either his Harrison Ford or Alden Ehrenreich renditions, needs any more proof of testosterone, proxy or otherwise). In Solo, both the character and his beloved accoutrement get a backstory. He receives it from a replacement father character, Captain Beckett. In fact, it’s a part of this man’s rifle, his character’s weapon/talisman. (Oh my God, please someone write a paper on the weapon-talisman). He disassembles it and gives a portion that somehow is a blaster to Han. This thing which has obsessed fans since the internet was invented basically to talk about who shot first (obviously not Greedo because I imagine trigger pulling is a challenge with those fingers) now symbolizes a narrative that pulls Han into a family of sorts. It gives him a father figure and acts as his official induction into this band and the greater world of smugglers. The genealogy the blaster reinforces is two-fold because it also serves to connect and order the films.

But, the affective power of the blaster is felt not just by Han, but by the spectator as well. Its quality as an Easter egg – a wink to the audience, a conspiratorial congratulations to the canny viewer – redoubles these feelings of connection and significance because it capitalizes on a sense of shared secrets. To me, Easter eggs work a lot like objects of heritage because they condense an emotional tie and signal one’s status as a member of a type of family. You have to be in the group, in the know, to even notice the object at all and furthermore to value it as something of special significance. The viewer astute enough to catch it shares in a secret heritage. It draws us in affectively and makes us feel part of the Star Wars universe and its various genealogies. We sympathize with Han, and, holding one of his secrets, we even empathize with the protagonist to a greater degree. (We always empathize with a protagonist. That’s how movies work).

Of course, there’s a slightly more insidious view on all this which has to do with marketing and merchandise, with getting people to watch more, buy more, grow more obsessed with all of Star Wars’s secret pockets of story, scour the internet for content, and generate their own crackpot theories and overwrought analyses (who would do that?). The Easter egg in general, but particularly this Easter egg which is also blatantly a heritage object for our beloved hero, can simulate depth in the storyline by fomenting a sense of complicity and increased identification in the viewer. Well, I’ve now destroyed my self-congratulatory moment of “clever girl, you noticed the blaster Easter egg” by reclassifying it as a very good marketing ploy, a shallow bid for my money and allegiance masquerading as a sign of narrative complexity.  But, I give in, and honestly, tell me you don’t want one of these.

A Star Wars Manifesto or A Belated Thank You to my 6th Grade Teacher

Cue music.

In 6th grade, Ms. Russell taught us how to read. I don’t mean the phonics, Dick and Jane kind of reading. I had made it to 12 years old with successful elementary school basics, though my penmanship stopped improving at age 10. I mean read in a way that treats the text as more than the lazy river of plot. Something that one floats through on an inner tube, a presence on the surface, drowsily suspended from falling in. Ms. Russell taught us to pay attention, that there was more going on than the story. There was the way it was being told, consequences to authorial choices, secondary implications in descriptions, subtle changes in perspective. She taught us to read literature, and she did it with the Star Wars books.

For those of you whose nerdom has never brought them in this direction of galactic fantasy, this might be your moment to say, “ah, yes, it seems the movies are based on books,” and while I do appreciate the attempt to invest the film trilogy with traditional literary merit, let’s be clear. The books are a novelization of the movies. Each came out with its corresponding film in 1977, 1980 and 1983, and though Mr. Lucas’s name graces each cover, they were in fact ghost-written (with varying degrees of ghostliness) by Alan Dean Foster, Donald F. Glut and James Kahn. (The first actually came out before the film, but the two were written concurrently). You might wonder why Ms. Russell chose these books instead of your typical Mary Shelley Frankenstein or Lois Lowry The Giver — novels which enjoyed the dignified timeline of book to screen, rather than vice versa. I’d wonder too, but my questions are quickly quelled by gratitude and geeky surrender.

I do not now remember every lesson, but I remember the first. We took turns reading aloud: “CHAPTER ONE: Bursts of laserfire streaked after the consular starship Tantive IV, which was racing for the planet Tatooine. The ship was fleeing from the Devastator, an immense Imperial Star Destroyer that was firing nearly all its turbolasers at the elusive ship. Both vessels had just entered Tatooine’s orbit when the Devastator’s lasers scored a direct hit on the Tantive IV’s primary sensor array.” Ok, no one said it was high literature. You try to summon the interest of a room full of 6th graders without some level of lazy-river style storyline excitement generated by laser blasters and imperilled princesses. Captivated by scrambling rebels and adorable droids, we continued our reading: “‘There’ll be no escape for the princess this time,’ C-3PO said just loud enough for R2-D2 to hear. Mere minutes before the Star Destroyer attacked, the Tantive IV’s commanding officer, Captain Antilles, had issued command/control instructions to the droids, ordering them to restrict and protect all references to Leia Organa’s identity and presence onboard the Tantive IV.” The plot was building, but here, an excited “Ah! There!” from Ms. Russell stopped our momentum. She explained our first literary term: foreshadowing. We were asked to mark the reference to Princess Leia’s capture and escape in some way — with brackets, underlining, or by painting it with one of the various highlighters our parents had sent us to school with. In my copy, there’s a crooked FS on this first page. I remember writing it. It’s even legible. We knew from the movie that the Empire would take our beloved princess, and that Han Solo and Luke Skywalker would rescue her, but “here,” Ms. Russell told us, “the text is already alluding to what will happen.” Foreshadowing. Boom. Reading would never be the same.

I still write in my books. It makes sense given my profession as literary scholar, critic, teacher, and eternal student. Reactions in the margin, underscoring, squiggly lines. A star. A star with a circle. My books are always fatter and darker when I’m done with them. A colleague of mine leaves his pristine. I’ve always been impressed by this. It’s hard for me to remember that verse when an immigrant is rejected by a life-like landscape, where I’d seen the same linking of traumatic memory to faded photographs prevalent in other works of a certain period, or on what pages an essayist equates primitive man with colonized peoples. The act of marking puts a pause in my reading, forces me to tread water for a bit and be aware of its temperature, its flow, the rocks putting ripples in it. Even just having the pencil in my hand reminds me to pay attention, to take a moment, to put this knowledge in a safe place for later. The stopping leads to other questions: how did this river even get here and where is it going? My colleague can do this without acting like some ink-filled dog marking territory. It doesn’t prevent him from stopping to question, from continuing to consider once he’s closed the book, from teaching his students how to do the same.

Literacy is more than being able to sound words out, whether struggling or sailing across the page. It’s being able to think while you read, to ask questions about origin and bias, to look for assumptions implicit in a particular representation, to contemplate the consequences of pairing certain ideas. High literacy, to me, is to be able to assign these same inquiries to your own ways of reading and writing, but at the very least, people should be taught to read critically. Whether that’s done using a literary vocabulary — like that my 6th grade teacher strove to give our class — or something else, these tools are the difference between teaching someone to swim and giving them a rubber dingy and an expired patching kit. Ms. Russell was the first of a few talented teachers to teach me how to read, and that she did so using the Star Wars trilogy only increases my gratitude. Not only did it validate and, let’s face it, increase a certain form of my nascent nerdom, but it hammered home that this type of reading should not be reserved to the supposedly high-brow. We should approach all that we read — novels, poetry, movies, cartoons, commercials, history texts, the news — with a reflecting spirit. So, thank you Ms. Russell, and may the teaching force be with me as it has been with you.