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Early draft of Rogue One would’ve shown the legendary Star Wars 'nerfs' finally being 'herded'

By Benjamin Bullard

What’ve you always pictured when you think of nerf herding? Princess Leia’s dismissive diss to a certain bounty-hunting, Falcon-flying scoundrel in The Empire Strikes Back has long been among the more memorably colorful insults in the broad Star Wars lexicon…even though actual nerfs, as well as the shepherds who herd them, have never appeared on the big screen.

Our days of wondering about the origins of the shunned agrarian activity almost came to an end with the release of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. In a recent Twitter post, Rogue One writer Gary Whitta revealed the galactic animals, along with their presumably-human watchers, were originally slated to show up in the 2016 film.

Remarking on a tweet filled with early Rogue One storyboards from concept artist Matt Allsopp, Whitta called out a particular frame with the head-turning news that “Yes, those are nerfs, and they were being herded!” For the first time, big-screen viewers came this close to seeing the beasts (and their attendants) that Leia so forcefully invoked to keep Han Solo at playful arm’s length — but, alas, the scene didn't make it past the concept stage.

Star Wars The Empire Strikes Back Hoth base scene

Getting nerfs and their herders into a proper Star Wars movie would’ve definitely evolved the lore surrounding Leia’s inspired insult, but we’d be remiss not to backtrack and acknowledge where the whole thing came from in the first place. Setting up the temporarily-tragic love story that emerged in the second half of The Empire Strikes Back, Leia gives Han a piece of her mind (and gives Luke a totally demonstrative kiss) to resist Han’s early romantic come-ons. “Why, you stuck-up, half-witted, scruffy-looking nerf herder!” she barked, while only managing to wound Han’s vanity. “Who's scruffy-looking?” came Han's iconic response.

It’s a scene that's also filled with other famous quotable Star Wars slang, including “laser brain” (that’s Leia again, unloading more of her wrath on Han), and “strong enough to pull the ears off a gundark” (Han’s encouraging words to Luke as he recovers from his monstrous run-in on Hoth). Over the years, Star Wars has played with “nerf herder” lore primarily by keeping it to brief mentions and Easter eggs, though the beasts did get a bigger callout with 2014’s Servants of the Empire: Edge of the Galaxy, an installment in the Star Wars Rebels series of novels.

So — to settle the matter once and for all: Is nerf herding a calorie-burning, rodeo-style affair suited only for the hardiest space cowboys, or is it something more pastoral and docile? Though there’s only one storyboard frame to go on, Allsopp’s art makes it look like a mixture of both...with a little more emphasis on the latter. In the frame, rain pours down on the desolate plains of Eadu, while bison-like beasts appear to be grazing lazily. Above, there’s a ship —  perhaps the technological stand-in for an old-school Border Collie — swooping low, maybe to nudge the nerfs toward some unseen pen.

Sadly, the nerf herders in Allsopp’s storyboard are too obscure to tell just how scruffy-looking they might’ve actually been, and that leaves fans still waiting for a future installment in the Star Wars franchise to serve up a first close-up look. Leia obviously has a low opinion of nerf herders, but we're calling it now: if they ever do appear in a Star Wars movie, we promise to keep an open mind...and give them more of a chance than she did.