I don’t remember when I first picked up my parents’ copy of Watership Down. For sure it was before the fifth grade, because that’s the year I tried to push it on a friend of mine. In what is an excellent example of how to make sure someone doesn’t like your favorite book, I pestered him nearly daily to find out where he was in the story and how he liked it. That would have been fine (probably) if he’d loved the book as much as I did, but alas, he did not.
I soon got better friends, and I got better at letting people tell me about why they loved books.
It was probably around that time that I discovered Star Wars and Princess Leia, the toughest and prettiest movie star I’d ever seen. I watched that movie obsessively, loving how Leia fit in perfectly with the sassy, smart-mouthed cast, holding her own against the idealistic young Luke and the jaded, sarcastic Han–even the huge imposing Chewie (“will someone get this walking carpet out of my way” remains one of my favorite lines).
(I had no idea then how difficult Carrie Fisher’s life was. Much later in both our lives, I got to see her one-woman show, “Wishful Drinking,” in which she openly discussed how the success of Star Wars exacerbated an already-difficult family life and a drug and alcohol dependency she would suffer from for years.)
One of the many things I loved about Watership Down was Hazel’s compassion and determination. He wasn’t the smartest or the strongest, but he was the one everyone trusted, the one who could figure out how to leverage the smartest and strongest, the one who encouraged them to build on small successes, kept their spirits up through failures, and never let them lose sight of what was important. He was one of the purest examples of what a compassionate leader should be that I’ve encountered in fiction, and I thought he was marvelous.
Princess Leia, in addition to being tough and smart, was also a great leader. She inspires Luke to stick around and help the rebellion. She suffers through horrendous torture and never gives up the secret of the rebel base. There’s never a doubt that she cares deeply about the people she’s leading, but there’s also no doubt that she understands the sacrifices needed to achieve her goal. She never loses sight of that goal, and I might not have understood at the age of 8 or 9 what a “rebellion” was or why it was important, but I understood her passion and her dedication.
Those two fictional characters were hugely important in shaping my ideals when I think of leaders, fictional or otherwise. And Carrie Fisher, moreover, grew to embrace her Star Wars character; in her show she railed against promotional materials that had Leia dressed in sexy skimpy clothing. That wasn’t her character! She was tough, and so was Carrie, building a successful life and career after a difficult start.
Richard Adams was 96 and lived a good, long life. Carrie Fisher was 60 and while she might have had many more years, you can’t say she didn’t make good use of the time she had. They both influenced me hugely and I’m sorry to see them both gone. But I’m glad that their work will live on after them, that for a long time kids and adults of any age will be able to watch Star Wars (or any of Carrie Fisher’s other work, depending on their age) and read Watership Down and be as inspired as I was.