My Star Warsie preferences more often than not boil down to one thing: my childhood love of the franchise. This is why, for example, I am a die-hard fan of the infamous Grand Admiral Thrawn. Since I read The Thrawn Trilogy over and over as a kid, I naturally became obsessed with the strategically gifted Chiss. And, since I watched The Empire Strikes Back (ESB) far more than the other two Original Trilogy films, the characters, places, events, and creatures from ESB stuck with me. Which leads me to the wampa.
Something I have always appreciated about The Empire Strikes Back is how the initial tension in the film is unexpected, coming from a natural cause – an indigenous creature. With little warning other than the agitation of Luke’s tauntaun, a wampa – Hoth’s apex predator – suddenly appears, launching itself at Luke and his mount. The last time we saw Luke, at the end of A New Hope, he was receiving a medal for heroically destroying the Death Star, but within the first few minutes of The Empire Strikes Back, our hero is incapacitated and being dragged away by a massive snow beast. Absolutely brilliant!!! The use of the wampa at the outset of ESB is a perfect reminder that the galaxy far, far away, while exotic and exciting, is also exceedingly dangerous. Not even our heroes can prepare for every eventuality and danger that may be lurking, and Luke was certainly unprepared for this ambush.
But the wampa deserves a lot of credit. Luke may have been caught unaware, but so was his tauntaun, which doesn’t see or smell the predator until it’s already too late. Sneaking up on Luke is one thing but the tauntaun is a different matter. Remember, the tauntaun is native to the ice planet, and are natural prey for wampas. Certainly these snowlizards have evolved defensive mechanisms such as their sense of smell to warn them of danger, especially important since the wampa’s pristine, white coat camouflages it in the snow. The fact that the tauntaun is caught unaware is proof that the wampa is not to be trifled with, a clear testament to the keen hunting skills of these monstrous beasts.
I can imagine the wampa stalking the tauntaun, and the strange “thing” on top of it, with incredible stealth, moving closer and closer to its prey. As it moves closer, the wampa observes the body language of the tauntaun and listens the sounds it’s making, gauging whether the snowlizard is aware of impending danger. Realizing that its prey has not caught wind of danger, the wampa sets itself up for a strike, attacking while the tauntaun and the “thing” idle on the open tundra. The ambush complete, the wampa drags the spoils of its victory through the snow, back to its cave.
The Wampa Cave
When we see Luke again, after being dragged away, he is hanging upside down inside the cave the wampa calls home. At the same time, off in the distance, we can also hear the wampa and the tauntaun, the former letting out a bloodcurdling howl while the latter cries out in terror and pain. But we don’t just hear the wampa, we also see it feasting, ripping into the limb of (I presume) Luke’s still living tauntaun. Disturbing but pretty cool, especially since we see blood and drool dripping down its pristine white fur. Plus, watching the wampa eat – which was not added until the Special Edition of ESB was released in the 90s – also provides perspective, allowing us to witness how massive and deadly this creature truly is. When the wampa becomes aware that its other captured prey is attempting to escape, and it begins moving to intervene, this new perspective on the wampas size should make us thankful that Luke has his father’s old lightsaber. Or let me say it like this: I’m not entirely sure a blaster would have helped Luke survive.
Yet, survive the encounter Luke does. Freeing himself in the nick of time, Luke is able to awkwardly wield the lightsaber and slice off the wampa’s right arm, causing it to let out a cry of pain and agony. Honestly, I have always felt a feeling of remorse for the wampa in that moment. Its capture of Luke was nothing personal, just survival, a matter of securing a meal. The wampa would hardly starve if it allowed Luke to escape, but why WOULD it let him escape? When it attacks Luke the second time, it certainly isn’t thinking this “thing” will fight back – does anything, other than another wampa, ever fight back? Of course not, but in this case its prey happens to do just that, and as a result the wampa suffers.
It’s easy to forget that as Luke flees the cave, scrambling his way into the windswept tundra of Hoth, the now one-armed wampa remains behind. At that point, the wampa simply falls out of our minds as the events of the film unfold. However, I can’t help but wonder what happened to it after Luke fled, and I bet I’m not the only one. To be fair, the Expanded Universe novel Darksaber, set many years after ESB, involves Luke heading back to Hoth where he re-encounters the wampa he maimed years before. I won’t go into all the details about this particular meeting, but will say that I never really cared for Darksaber. Still, you should check out the book if you’re curious about Luke’s (non-canonical) second run-in with the beast.
Of course, I do think it reasonable to believe the wampa survived its vicious wound. Chances are it would have needed to change its hunting techniques, but I think our one-armed friend could handle the task. Granted, if the wound did cause its eventual downfall, it would probably be due to a run in with another wampa or perhaps poachers. Still, until I find out otherwise, until some new and official story establishes the death of the one-armed wampa, I’m just gonna keep believing it’s still out there, roaming the cold, windswept plains of Hoth.