The untimely passing of Carrie Fisher causes contemplation of many things Star Wars. Recently, I was taken back by General Organa’s first scene in The Force Awakens. After her arrival on Takodana after the battle between the First Order and the Resistance, Chewbacca interrupts her reunion with Han Solo for a hug. The affectionate smirk on Leia’s face when the “walking carpet” embraces her is quite touching. This got me to thinking about Chewbacca. For decades now, Star Wars fans have known that Chewbacca has a life debt to Han Solo. To my knowledge, the story of the life debt originally comes from Legends material. The “life debt” was a Wookiee custom of pledging service typically in response to rescuing that Wookiee or saving its life. Over the past couple of years, new material established the life debt in the current canon. However, the exact nature of Chewbacca’s life debt to Han Solo is vague. For many reasons, I find this more satisfying.
The concept of a life debt is somewhat troubling. In its simplest form, some Star Wars cultures observe a practice whereby one will pledge their service to another for life if the latter saved the former’s life. Make sense? For example, Han Solo somehow saved Chewbacca’s life. In return, Chewbacca pledged to serve Han Solo for life. Such an arrangement works for conscientious beings such as Han Solo. However, it is problematic for less noble beings.
In the Star Wars Legends universe, Darth Vader made sinister use of the life debt. The Empire prolonged a disaster on the Noghri homeworld under the guise of restoration of the planet’s ecosystem. In exchange, the Noghri race bound itself to Darth Vader through a life debt. Darth Vader, the Empire, and later Grand Admiral Thrawn dispatched the Noghri as assassins throughout the galaxy. The Noghri didn’t know better. This illustrates how the “life debt” is a concept that is easily manipulated.
Furthermore, the traditions and honor surrounding life debts are murky. In some ways, it reminds me of the Klingon system of honor from Star Trek. I often found that what Klingon honor demanded of the Klingons greatly depended on the needs of the story. For instance, some sources state that a Klingon should die fighting rather than allow himself to be taken prisoner. And yet, some episodes of The Next Generation feature Worf as a prisoner searching for his freedom That seems to be the growing case in Star Wars with the life debt.
An example comes from the classic roleplaying game Knights of the Old Republic and its sequel. Both games featured Wookiee characters. The original game included Zaalbar, a companion to the primary player character. If the player chose to follow the dark side, the player could command Zaalbar to murder his closest friend. Despite causing him anguish, Zaalbar complies while apologizing to Mission, his friend. The life debt was a tool of absolute servitude. Could you imagine Chewbacca blindly following every order from Han Solo? I can’t.
The Wookiees weren’t the only ones that believed in life debts. Indeed, the Gungans adopted the practice as well. When Qui-Gon rescued Jar Jar from the advancing droid army, the Gungan swore his service to the Jedi. He declared it was demanded by the gods. How well did that work out for Qui-Gon? Sensing it might be an issue, the Jedi stated it wouldn’t be necessary. However, Jar Jar insisted. In fact, it was only when Qui-Gon needed a guide and an excuse to save Jar Jar that he evoked the life debt to Boss Nass. Other than that, Qui-Gon looked up on the practice as a burden. Granted, he was a Jedi who had no use for such service. The point is this: life debts seem easily manipulated. All Qui-Gon did was fall on top of Jar Jar. A life debt resulted.
Aftermath: Life Debt, Smuggler’s Run, and The Force Awakens Visual Dictionary are all recent sources confirming that Chewbacca swore a life debt to Han Solo. In the Aftermath: Life Debt, Han Solo recounts how Chewbacca believed Han saved the Wookiee, but in fact Han believed Chewbacca saved him instead. Smuggler’s Run includes ruminations from Chewbacca about his early days with Han and how he found the smuggler brash and arrogant at first, but that he quickly discovered Han “had a golden core.” He never knew what cause Han would champion. I like to think this is the man Chewbacca chose to pledge his loyalty to when he swore his life debt. I don’t believe Chewbacca would have blindly given his service to just anyone. Instead, he chose to serve a man that he could lend his conscience to from time-to-time.
For now, that is how I have chosen to think of the Wookiee life debt concept. The average Wookiee seems far too noble and considerate to blindly pledge his loyalty to just anyone that might have aided him. During the Galactic Civil War, many Wookiees were taken as slaves and forced into all manners of labor and servitude. Would it make sense for the grateful Wookiees to celebrate their freedom from tyranny and oppression by submitting themselves to potentially more tyranny and oppression? It doesn’t make sense to me. Granted, that doesn’t seem to be what happened, but under the blind system of allegiance that the Legends universe of stories created, that is precisely the scenario that was possible.
One would imagine that Chewbacca will be part of the upcoming Han Solo movie. At least, one could hope. It is entirely possible that his introduction will feature in a later film should this standalone film become a trilogy. Regardless, there is the potential for the story of Chewbacca’s life debt to surface there. Or, perhaps it will emerge in a tie-in comic or novel. Anything is possible. Until Lucasfilm decides to provide all the canonical details of this story, I’d like to think that Chewbacca pledged his loyalty to Han after recognizing the smuggler’s heart of gold and deciding that was a man worth following. Given their history and personalities, a mandatory, ritualistic pledge of servitude seems inappropriate for these characters.Powered by Sidelines