Being forty and being a teacher in a juvenile correctional facility for a few years has taught me that life is full of challenges. Obstacles are always in our way, from the trivial to the overwhelming. They remind us of our humanity, and the quest to clear them makes that humanity shine. Without them, we would wither in boredom and self contentment. Challenges can lead us to despair, sure, but they can propel us to wondrous things. “We can’t go the moon in 10 years!” many had shouted. And many nerds responded, “Bullshit!” Then we walked on the moon. We did it because it was hard, not because it was easy (thanks JFK).
Ok, WTF does this have to do with Star Wars? Well, in a general way, Star Wars is a story with characters, and any story with characters has conflicts. Overcoming conflicts leads to drama, and thus, good stories. That’s what makes our heroes. This is pretty obvious, I know. I bring this all up because there is one challenge in particular that I want to focus on: the “sessile tree-dwelling creatures from a distant, third-rate planet.” Yes, a lizard thingy. A ysalamiri. A non-sentient 50 cm hairy thing that literally grows into a tree. Why would I focus on this? Because of challenges.
For those who aren’t legends fans or Timothy Zahn fans in particular, a quick synopsis. First, a quick warring: if you are new legends, and have interest in the Thrawn trilogy, then stop reading this, go read the books, and come back. Still here? Ysalamiri are creatures native to the planet Myrkr, where the smuggler Talon Karrde had a secret base during the events of Heir to the Empire. These creatures, as Grand Admiral Thrawn describes them, have the ability to “push back the Force.” In other words, when a Jedi is near one, they lose their ability to do cool shit, like sense things, anticipate in battle, or wield a lightsaber in a useful way beyond what you or I could do. The ysalamiri are harvested by Thrawn to both help in cloning operations and to aid him in his alliance with the crazy Jedi Master C’baoth.
Got it? Basically they cancel out the Force for a certain distance around themselves. A small area for one, a large area for a bunch of them. I’m not concerned with how they work, only that they do, and that it’s bad for the Jedi. Also, I’m not concerned about the above mentioned purposes that Thrawn has for the Ysalamiri. The creatures served those plot points well enough and beyond that they are not that remarkable. What does concern me about these creatures is what they did to my hero, Luke Skywalker.
When I read Heir to the Empire for the first time, mostly all I had of Star Wars were some bits of licensed and random collectibles, worn VHS tapes, and memories. Lots of memories. Probably enough to render the VHS tapes superfluous. Chief among these was my unyielding, implacable belief that Luke Skywalker was the greatest hero to ever exist anywhere at anytime. Yes, that’s perhaps a bit much; I’m talking about childhood memories here. The point is, to me, he was pretty sweet. Thus, armed with my hyperbolic memories, I began reading. This was post-Jedi, so I was ready to see Luke as a full Jedi, maybe even a master. I was ready for him to unleash his Force powers on the remnants of the Empire and dazzle us with his Jedi skills. Then Zahn gives us the ysalamiri. Space lizards.
Luke can’t Force his way out of Karrde’s imprisonment, nor slash his way through the forest. He can’t pull down the Empire’s chase vehicles or mind-trick some stormtroopers. And he defiantly can’t take out the former Emperor’s hand that is chasing him. Luke is rendered a regular person. Seems like that would be a boring thing to do, right? Take a Jedi and make him normal, like Superman 2. And it would have been had it been the adventures of me, Dan Naymik, and not Luke Skywalker. That’s where Zahn deserves a lot of credit. He had a character with a reputation stored in the memories of a million nerds everywhere and he showed restraint. He made the character human. He made Luke real. Zahn didn’t need a super-villain Sith lord to challenge the hero, just a lizard thingy that hung out in the trees and played no active role in the story whatsoever. I read on, waiting for the Luke I knew to Jedi his way out. To find a way to meditate a way through the effects of the ysalamiri. To burst the bubble and go nova on the waiting Imperial forces.
Zahn was better than that. Instead we got the Luke we truly remembered. Compassionate, smart, resourceful. We got Luke Skywalker, the noble hero and champion of the light side. There, in the forest of Myrkr, held as prisoner by Mara Jade, with the Imperials waiting to deliver him to Thrawn and then to the insane C’baoth, he is most defiantly challenged. There are obstacles. And then Zahn gives us the space lizards, stripping him of his “vaunted” Jedi powers, just to make sure the odds are against him. So, instead of Superman we get MacGyver, minus the mullet. Don’t get me wrong, I love the Force and Jedi, it’s one of the main reasons I love Star Wars so much (I say as much here: Easy to Try, Impossible to Master), but there is something about the challenge he has to face here and how Zahn writes it so well. Luke is calm and cool. He’s using everything he has learned. He puts himself out there as the solution rather than risk his friends, despite being “blind.” How can you not admire the character and respect his accomplishments? Furthermore, I think you get better insight into him this way. The ysalamiri give us a window to see Luke as a person and not a Jedi. We see the core values he holds, his strength, and his wisdom. Later, we get see the Jedi layers applied, but for now we get to see that they don’t define him. This is important for the character, but also it was perfect for a trilogy that was attempting to reacquaint us with characters that were just memories.
I get why the ysalamiri won’t be brought back in the new canon. I see why they are problematic for the current and evolving views of the Force. If the Force is supposed to be in all living things, then how can we have ysalamiri existing outside that rule? It is possible to explain that away, to find a backdoor or a loophole or something. However, I won’t argue for it. They are, after all, just space lizards. I will just have to be content with what we have of them and remember that they gave us this, one of my favorite Luke moments of all time, including movies and the legends:
Karrde walked around the mass of stone to where the crumpled nose of the Chariot assault vehicle poked out, a sense of slightly stunned disbelief coloring his vision. “One man,” he murmured.
“Well, we helped some,” Aves reminded him. But the sarcasm of the words faded beneath the grudging respect clearly there behind it.
“And without the Force, too,” Karrde said.
So there you have it; add it to the list. Another moment that cements Luke Skywalker (not to be confused with Luuke) as the baddass that he is. All thanks to the ysalamiri.
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