Spoilers for Game of Thrones and Star Wars below.
(Although if the Star Wars spoilers are new to you, you have got to let me know what spoiler filter you are using, it sounds incredible.)
The recent revelation that Daenerys Targaryen and Jon Snow are, in fact, aunt and nephew has caused some pearl clutching among those horrified to have discovered that they’ve been shipping incest for the past eight years. (Or twenty years, although that contingent seems much less phased.) I personally find that reaction a little odd. This is, after all, a show whose pilot episode features a couple vigorously committing incest and child murder at the same time, although they’re only successful at one of those things.
Also, this is not the first time genre fans have found themselves unwittingly shipping incest. What are you, new?
Nowadays, the romantic moments between Luke and Leia in the original Star Wars trilogy—the longing looks, the smooches, the Luke sulking when Han dares to imagine that Leia might want to hook up with Harrison Ford in his prime—are the perfect time to make a break for the bathroom, lest your niece, who was born knowing that Luke and Leia are siblings, ask you a question you’re not ready to answer. But you have to understand that between the years of 1977 and 1983, nobody had any idea that Luke and Leia were siblings.
Especially George Lucas.
By now, we’ve all pretty much accepted that then-wunderkind Lucas’ claims of a grand plan for a sprawling trilogy of trilogies were, uh, a little overblown. Over the course of production on the original Star Wars trilogy, Lucas went from gung-ho to terrified (he didn’t even go to the premiere of Star Wars, so convinced was he that it would bomb) to king of the world to burnt out. When the end of the trilogy was in sight, Lucas decided to cut his losses and tie up some loose ends, even if the strings didn’t necessarily match.
One such loose end was the mysterious Other. At the end of The Empire Strikes Back, when Luke blows the swampy popsicle stand of Dagobah to go rescue his friends, Obi-Wan complains to Yoda that their last hope is getting away. “No,” Yoda reminds him. “There is… another.” Said Other was always meant to be Luke’s sister. It just wasn’t meant to be Leia. In Leigh Brackett’s original draft of The Empire Strikes Back, Luke’s sister Nellith is mentioned and then never brought up. And according to producer Gary Kurtz’s brief outline of the trilogy of trilogies, as it stood before 1980, Nellith was meant to appear in Episode 8.
But when the other trilogies looked like they weren’t going to happen, for reasons both professional and personal, Lucas improvised, and Leia became Luke’s sister. So until that fateful moment during pre-production for Return of the Jedi, a romantic relationship between Luke and Leia was totally viable. Promotional photos for A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back show the future sibs getting cuddly to play up Han, Luke, and Leia’s love triangle. My favorite is this one for The Empire Strikes Back, where Ford and Fisher embrace gorgeously and cinematically… while Ford is also shoving a kissy-faced Hamill out of the way.
Contemporary critics of A New Hope loved the love triangle. Gary Arnold at The Washington Post enjoyed it so much, he proposed turning the triangle into a triad:
Lucas creates a romantic triangle between Luke, Han Solo and the haughty, bossy, indomitable Princess that seems perfectly resolved by not being resolved at all… If the Princess ever chooses to share her favors, poetic justice seems to demand that she favor the heroes equally. Could this mischievous hint of a menage-a-trois in-the-making, which is about as racy as the byplay between Hope, Crosby, and Lamour in the “Road” comedies, have been as responsible for the PG rating as the fighting, which is abundant but scarcely realistic?
And so did fans.
Early Star Wars fandom had the blessing of not having to reinvent the wheel—Star Trek fandom, which many Star Wars fans came out of, had already done it for them. Star Wars material began to pour into multi-fandom zines like Warped Space almost immediately, and fanzines dedicated solely to Star Wars were launched mere months after Star Wars premiered in 1977. Fans began to congregate for discussion in the pages of letterzines like Alderaan, Jundland Wastes, and Southern Enclave. (For the young ‘uns out there, letterzines were basically print versions of forums, with the same ratio of thoughtful discussion and internecine fandom drama. It’s nice to know that some things never change.)
Between A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back, it was pretty much taken for granted that Luke and Leia were, if not the end-game couple, certainly a very likely candidate for that honor. Luke/Leia fics, such as “Kinmeet” and The Outland Chronicles made regular appearances in fanzines, and Maggie Nowakowska and Dyane Kirkland’s sprawling ThousandWorlds fic universe featured Luke and Leia getting married. But as fan Tim Blaes recalls in a letter in Southern Enclave #7, Luke/Leia fic only really cropped up consistently in zines like Against the Sith. While many fans enjoyed the ship and openly rooted for them, such as a fan who wrote into Against the Sith to complain that the only problem with The Empire Strikes Back was that they hadn’t gotten together, it was a pretty quiet part of Star Wars fandom. And that was largely for one reason: the irresistible charm of one Harrison Ford.
I cannot impress upon you enough how thirsty fandom was for Harrison Ford in the seventies and eighties. Between his presence in Star Wars as Han Solo, his presence in Raiders of the Lost Ark as Indiana Jones, and the rest of his filmography, there was plenty of Ford to go around and obsess over. In the eighties, there were twenty distinct fanzines dedicated to his Fordness. (To give you a sense of scale, Mark Hamill only had three.) Accordingly, Han was overrepresented in Star Wars fandom, and he became the object of lust for men-loving fans over dorky ol’ Luke. Let me put it this way: Han was assumed to be the greatest lover in the galaxy, per Sherry Magee’s contemporary meta essay “Han Solo: Lady’s Man for All Seasons”, while I encountered more scholarship on Luke’s obvious virginity while researching this article than I thought humanly possible.
Accordingly, Star Wars fandom generally divided itself up between Team Han and Team Luke, which went the same way you think it went. But while the inevitable Luke and Han War did get nasty, it never really developed into a ship war. One of the many contentious points of early Star Wars fandom was that Leia was often stereotyped, in fic and discussion, as an ice-cold bitch. Romantic fics involving Han and/or Luke featured original female characters more often than not, usually pairing Leia off with whoever came in second place. And Star Wars fandom soon had bigger fish to fry. When Lucasfilm sent the infamous letters banning adult works from Star Wars fanzines, an outcry over censorship, sex’s place in fiction, and a creator’s role in fandom erupted.
So Star Wars fans had their hands full. And then Return of the Jedi dropped, revealing that Luke and Leia were not only siblings but twiiiiins.
Mainstream contemporary media coverage focused more on the film’s weaknesses, treating the twins revelation as poor plotting instead of incidental incest. The New York Times’ Vincent Canby called the film “the dimmest adventure of the lot.” Star Wars fandom had a similarly mixed reaction, at least in the pages of Southern Enclave. There, the twins reveal as a resolution to America’s favorite genre love triangle was considered cheap at best and offensive at worst. “O. Henry might have gotten away with it,” sniffed Christine Jeffords in Southern Enclave #1, “but O. Henry was not writing three two-hour movies.”
But there were plenty of fans who were undeterred by this development. In Southern Enclave #2, a fan uses the concept of Luke struggling with his lingering romantic and sexual feelings for his sister as the jumping off point for a Dark Luke headcanon:
Does anyone over twelve buy the idea that Luke--after all this time--can automatically shut off his romantic/sexual interest in Leia? … Given Luke's personality, he's not likely to sit around dwelling on incestuous fantasy. I think a character like Luke would find such a thought appalling and ugly... but how will he deal with his "leftover" feelings for Leia? Will Luke accept his unwanted feelings and be able to face them without a self-destructive sense of guilt? Will he do some healthy and natural fist-shaking at Fate--or will he be misguided enough to repress what he feels: buried guilt and repressed anger? Do I sense another Skywalker with one foot in Darkness and the other on a banana peel?
There seemed to be at least one or two Luke/Leia fics after Return of the Jedi, such the pre-Return of the Jedi-set “Novitiate.” But Tim Blaes presciently pointed out in Southern Enclave #3 that if Lucasfilm hated slash and smut to the point of threatening legal action, then they would definitely hate incest. It’s likely that any such Luke/Leia material if it existed after Return of the Jedi, went underground for fear of legal repercussions. Still, it was present enough that a fan in Southern Enclave #5 exclaimed, “Have you guys read the zine stories yet? You may be talking about Force-bonding; they are talking incest! Isn’t it amazing how, in one swell foop, Lucas has made that a viable alternative for any number of fans.”
After Return of the Jedi, Star Wars fandom, like any fandom without an influx of new material, experienced some lean years. (Yes, Virginia, there was a time before Force Friday, when the Star Wars faithful had to warm themselves with repeat viewings of Caravan of Courage. How barbaric.) Luke/Leia, accordingly, fell to the wayside and out of view, if it existed at all. When the next generation of fans, reared on the Special Edition screenings and the prequels, picked up the torch as the fandom moved online, they weren’t really interested in what would now inherently be a dark and taboo ship. To this day, the Archive of Our Own lists only 117 Luke/Leia fics, which is a fraction compared to the 2,311 Han/Leia fics available.
(Of course, all of this pales in the face of the 6,000+ fics about General Hux and Kylo Ren getting it on, which I think proves that generating aggressive thirst in fandom is a skill that can be passed down from movie father to movie son. But I digress.)
As much as this ship is not my cup of tea, I do find something very heartening about this strange history. Early Luke/Leia shippers, when faced with a reveal they felt came completely out of left field, basically looked George Lucas in the eye and said, “Okay, Georgie, let’s dance.” If Lucas was going to so obviously pull a familial relationship whole cloth out of his butt, then they were going to take him at his word and actually explore the repercussions of how this revelation would affect their favorite characters. Such a defiant stance doesn’t make for a long-lived ship, but you have got to admire that guff.
So the next time I see someone gasp about Daenerys and Jon being aunt and nephew, I’m just going to roll my eyes. Please. At least that incest reveal was on purpose.