I grew up in the Expanded Universe.
I’m talking Star Wars here, and this essay may be a bit confusing for those of you who didn’t know that from the first line. If that fits you, though, welcome! Let me bring you up to speed, because I’m writing about myth and canon as much as lightsabers today, and if you’re not up on the ‘sabers what I have to say might still interest you. Those of you who’ve joined me in ur-nerdery, pour yourselves an $adult_beverage and rest your feet as I make sure the whole class is on the same page. Skip ahead a few paragraphs, or read along if you feel a burning desire to ask me, in the comments section, “Bro, Do You Even Star Wars?”
The answer’s yes.
Gross oversimplification warnings apply here, but here’s the essential piece: if you were an elementary school kid in 1990, the Star Wars universe looked pretty limited. You (I) had the movies, but beyond that, if you (I) wanted to know more about the Galaxy Far, Far Away you were looking for roleplaying game materials (perhaps not yet knowing what a roleplaying game was), an out-of-print Marvel Comics series, or equally out-of-print novels. Then, in 1991, Bantam Spectra published Heir to the Empire, the first of a trilogy of books by Timothy Zahn set in the Star Wars universe.
This changed everything. In the novel’s opening pages we meet a new villain, Grand Admiral Thrawn, who is basically Evil Sherlock Holmes, a master tactician leading the struggling remnants of the once-mighty Galactic Empire against the thriving New Republic. The New Republic gains a bureaucracy, a Trantorian capital city called Coruscant, and a thriving underclass of scum and villainy. Luke, Leia, Han, Chewie, 3PO, and R2-D2 are all heroes of the Rebellion; Leia’s a Senator. Luke’s a Jedi. Han’s an expectant father. They’ve grown since Endor.
Zahn’s trilogy brought the dark corners of the former Empire into a sort of geeky mainstream, introducing scads of new characters to confront and new worlds to explore. One of my favorite additions: the Noghri, a species of incredibly talented martial artists and assassins, working for Thrawn in exchange for the cleanup of their ecologically devastated planet, Honoghr. The Thrawn Trilogy’s success paved the way for a plethora novels, short stories, and comics set in an ever-growing “Expanded Universe,” many of which at most tangentially intruded on the adventures of Our Heroes. Zahn’s GFFA functioned as an at least somewhat coherent science fictional galaxy, space operatic in the extreme, but subject to political, social, economic, and moral pressures, and full of exquisite villains who don’t have to cackle maniacally and throw lightning around to be bad (though there’s nothing wrong with a bolt of lightning every now and then). Every question you’ve never wanted to ask about Star Wars, the Expanded Universe answers definitively. “What are the economics of bacta distribution?” Expanded Universe. “Who built the pyramids on Yavin?” Expanded Universe. “Where did they make the Death Star?” Expanded Universe. “Why does Han measure the Kessel Run in distance, rather than time?” Expanded Universe. “What is up with Hutts anyway?” Expanded Universe.
To call the Expanded Universe massive and labyrinthine is an insult to the Expanded Universe. A staggering amount of my childhood took place in that labyrinth.
And now it’s gone. More or less.
See, starting with The Force Awakens, the new Star Wars movies take place after Return of the Jedi. Fantastic! Unfortunately, there’s very little room, chronologically speaking, after Return of the Jedi. Oceans of tie-in novels and comics and video games occupy that time. If you don’t want to adapt the Star Wars EU by making a cinema version of, say, the Thrawn Trilogy—a tricky proposition, since one of the wonders of the Thrawn Trilogy is that those books are very much novels, complete with tangled plots and politics, double- and triple-blinds, and other tricks of the trade—you have to clear room to build.
So, rather than enter the business of selectively invalidating EU canon, the Disney Star Wars Marvel MegaTeam have gently moved the entire Expanded Universe to one side. It exists—it’s just called Legends now, and the new films will owe no homage to the EU. I’ll be shocked if Honoghr features in The Force Awakens.
The first time I heard this, it felt like a punch to the gut. These stories were mine. I grew up with them! They mattered! But then…
Well. I started thinking about Iphigenia.
You all know the story of Iphigenia, right? Begun, the Trojan War has. Agamemnon fixes to lead Greeks to Troy, raises banner, huzzah! But the wind doesn’t cooperate. Agamemnon asks the gods why there’s no wind, and the gods demand he sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia. So he does—earning his wife Clytemnestra’s mortal ire, and setting the stage for the Orestes drama after Agamemnon returns home from the war.
Or is that the story after all? To hear Euripides tell it, the gods rescued Iphigenia and carried her off to the island of Tauris, where she serves as a priestess to Artemis. Psych! But then, the Hesiodic Catalogue of Women claims that Artemis transformed Iphigenia (called Iphimede in this version of the story) into the goddess Hecate, which is a nice trick. On the other hand, Antoninus Liberalis claims the gods spirited Iphigenia away to yet another island, Leuke, where she wed the immortalized Achilles. (Antoninus Liberalis seems to have had a Bowdler-esque fix-fic streak, or vice versa.)
And lest you think this is an Iphigenia problem—what happens to Odysseus after he makes it home home? If your answer is “And then Odysseus and Penelope were happy until the end of their days,” you’ve never heard of the Telegony—which is fine, because the Telegony sounds pretty silly. Turns out people like the notion of Odysseus building his altar to Poseidon and settling down with his long-suffering wife in their olive tree bed a great deal more than they like Odysseus being slain by his and Circe’s son, who then marries Penelope (?) while Telemachus marries Circe (!!!), only Circe makes everyone involved immortal so no foul I guess, except for Odysseus who stays dead.
My favorite alt-myth, though, is probably the version of the abduction of Helen in which Paris kidnaps Helen and, escaping Sparta, is blown off-course to Egypt—where Pharaoh realizes something hinky’s up, and offers Helen asylum. She accepts, and Pharaoh’s magicians create a Helen simulacrum so Paris can sail away none the wiser. Greeks and Trojans fight ten years over the Egyptian robo-Helen; Menelaus meets the real Helen after the war, when he too is storm-tossed down Egypt way.
Stories that last, last because they resonate with people. (Power dynamics play into the equation too, of course.) But people aren’t consistent, and they don’t need consistency to enjoy a good story. Iphigenia at Tauris is a great play. That said, I prefer the version of the story in which Agamemnon’s daughter dies at Aulis, since it makes the Iliad, not to mention Clytemnestra’s later murders, matter more. The genius of myth, though, is that I don’t have to choose. I can subdivide continuity, I can support alternative worlds in parallel.
We (and I guess by that I mean modern humans?) have a tendency to believe only one story can be right. If my tale’s true, yours must be false if they contradict one another! And vice versa. Even if this isn’t the fault of copyright law, copyright regimes don’t help, since they limit who gets to tell stories using a particular intellectual property universe.
Before modern copyright, if you wanted to create a new spin on an old tale, you did, and your ability determined whether your tale took. Consider the Matter of Britain: the earliest Arthurian tales hold up Gawain (he what’s of the Green Knight) as the finest knight in all the land. Lancelot only shows up later, in Chrétien de Troyes’ addition. But readers like Lancelot, and the Guinevere love triangle, so Chrétien’s additions stay.
And, since the Matter’s out of copyright, modern writers can join the fun. Personally, I hew to Steinbeck’s version of the Triple Quest (especially Marhalt’s story), along with his rendering of Lancelot’s imprisonment (the best description of magic ever) and of Sir Kay’s speech about his life as a Seneschal. I think White’s vision of the stable triad of Lancelot, Guinevere, and Arthur—each loving each—will last as long as the legend.
Copyright does skew the process, but writers have invented ways around the rules—for example, the magic of the subgenre lets us write stories about Phillip Marlowe’s many avatars in all but name. (No accident, I think, that Harry Dresden and Phillip Marlowe share a pattern of syllabic stress.) We can’t write stories about hobbits, but halflings and kender are fine. John Scalzi’s Redshirts slides into our sense of Star Trek alongside Galaxy Quest. Star Trek novels never were regarded as canon in the way Star Wars novels were—but the Vulcan in my head is mostly Diane Duane’s, and the Klingon Homeworld mostly John M. Ford’s. And Kevin Rubio’s fan film TROOPS is more central to my Star Wars than the prequel movies.
And readers have their own solutions that predate, and will outlast, the copyright regime. No rightsholder can choose what I care about. My mental legendarium’s a diverse mishmash of texts and fanfiction and jokes, personal theories and received wisdom, slash pairings and speculation and fan art. If I find Bradley’s Lancelot less compelling than White’s, Bradley’s Morgan more vital than Steinbeck’s—the Lancelot in my mind will tend more toward White than Bradley, and Morgan to Bradley than Steinbeck. I assemble my own Morgan, who contains pieces of every Morgan I’ve read and heard and met. And each new Morgan has a chance to transform my understanding of the character, without wiping away my pre-existing vision.
These characters are large. They contain multitudes.
Iphigenia and Odysseus, Lancelot and Penelope, Loki and Sieglinde, are bigger than any one canon—my legends are enriched by different views and endings. Nonsense drifts away on the wind, but real heart-matter remains. So—why worry? Are Luke and Leia and Lando and Han and Chewie and 3PO and R2 and Obi-Wan any less robust or mythical than the great old stories? Is Thrawn? Is Mara Jade? If not, we have nothing to worry about; if so, we should trust ourselves to the future—into the reinvention that will lend our heroes the mythic weight they deserve.
The Expanded Universe doesn’t go away just because that story’s done. The tale, well told, remains. And now there’s room for others to tell new tales, and refresh the old with new life and glory. Chuck Wendig and Charles Soule and Delilah Dawson are bringing their own Star Wars; I’m excited to see what sort of a Galaxy takes shape in the coming months.
The parts of the old legends that mean something will be retold, by us if by no one else. Honoghr doesn’t disappear. It’s still out there, rebuilding. The story told this Christmas about the GFFA, and the stories told now in readiness for the movie’s launch, will join with and enrich the tales we know already. The good works don’t fade.
After all, they were so artfully done.