Chewbacca, the devoted Wookiee sidekick, died earlier this week as the planet he was trying to save collided with one of its own moons. He was about 200 years old.

The seven-foot-tall, brunet-furred creature (once called "a walking carpet" by Princess Leia Organa) was killed on Page 271 of "Vector Prime," the new, briskly selling "Star Wars" novel by science-fiction writer R.A. Salvatore. An editor at Del Rey Books confirmed that life had grown too predictable in the galaxy far, far away; a tragic plot twist was conceived, and George Lucas approved.

Wide swaths of the Internet have been in mourning since the book's release. Chewbacca was a better man than all of us. And he wasn't a man.

There is denial, complaining and, naturally, a fatwah upon the author. Online, Wormie2 feels like she lost a friend, and asked others to eulogize. But the chat turned ugly. Wormie2, a 27-year-old fan in Kansas City, Mo., named Beth Hawley, wishes people would just focus on the Wookiee, not their anger. "I'm beginning to wonder about the maturity level in that area," she said by phone, with a sigh.

This is, after all, a community that is still coming to grips with Jar Jar Binks, the dorky sidekick from last summer's "Star Wars--Episode I: The Phantom Menace," who (to put it nicely) lacks Chewbacca's complexity. It's a terrible time to lose a friend.

Although he was always a second fiddle, Chewbacca--"Chewie" to friends--is highly revered in the "Star Wars" canon. Have more 10-year-old boys ever loved--ever been allowed to love--something so, um, hairy and macho? An entire generation slept with Chewbacca as a plush toy, between bedsheets emblazoned with his hirsute visage. He spoke only in growls and woofs that sounded like a vacuum cleaner set on reverse, and gave off the tough, cool loyalty of a '70s biker.

Welder. Droid-fixer. Co-pilot. Sharpshooter. Holographic chess player. Punch it, Chewie. He provided uncomplicated companionship to Han Solo. He was conscientious but short-tempered, and good in battle; from 1977 to 1983, he assisted Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia in defeating Darth Vader and the Galactic Empire. A native of the woodsy planet Kashyyk, he was a movie star, action figure and lunch pail. He was also a husband and father.

"He was very loyal--probably loyal to a fault," Del Rey editorial director Shelly Shapiro said Friday. "Here he was following Han Solo all over the galaxy and meanwhile, he has a wife and kid at home. He made choices. . . . There were many layers to him. He breathed a morality."

But he was also, it turns out, expendable.

In meetings earlier this year at secretive Skywalker Ranch in Marin County, Calif., a hit list was proposed by the publishers to jazz up a new series of books. "Star Wars" creator Lucas (a k a "The Flanneled One," who once said Chewbacca had been based on his dog) eventually recommended the Wookiee be killed.

"Vector Prime" author Salvatore was at first reluctant to heed the execution orders."I won't take responsibility for the decision," he said yesterday from his home in Massachusetts, "but I will take responsibility for whether or not it was done well."

He has since received equal amounts of praise and criticism. "Some of it is pretty scary," Shapiro said, adding, "People are writing in saying, 'You killed Chewbacca. If I ever see you, I'm going to kill you.' " Salvatore has scaled back publicity tours for the novel, in part because he is caring for his brother, who has pancreatic cancer.

"Vector Prime," now on several bestseller lists, is part of the Harlequin Romancing of the "Star Wars" saga. Since 1992, more than five dozen novels have been published about the ongoing lives of Luke Skywalker and his many, many associates. Lucas still approves some story lines.

"It's too complicated for a normal person to follow," Shapiro admitted: Princess Leia and Han Solo got married and had three kids. (As a babysitter, Chewbacca "practically raised the Solo kids," Shapiro said.)

When "Star Wars" fever first abated in the 1980s, Chewbacca kept a low profile. That seemed in character. By the mid-'90s, the Wookiee became reluctant icon. At the MTV Video Music Awards in 1997, the audience gave him a two-minute standing ovation. There was, as they say, a lot of love in the room: Two minutes of 25-year-olds wanting to be kids again, two minutes for what is basically a rug.

Chewbacca was not in "The Phantom Menace," although when an estimated 40 million people skipped work in May for its release, the media dubbed the phenomenon "Wookiee Hooky." He did, however, have a rich and wonderful post-career, opening shopping malls and appearing at comic-book conventions. He once appeared, with actress Bea Arthur, in an ill-conceived 1978 television Christmas special. Like Cher and her shampoo infomercial, the holiday special is the only uncool thing Chewbacca ever did.

It should be noted that actor Peter Mayhew, who played Chewbacca in the films, is still very much alive and will doubtless be appearing soon (as himself) at a convention center near you, along with the guy who was Boba Fett.

Mayhew took the news of Chewbacca's death "very well," said Scott Chernoff, the managing editor of Star Wars Insider, an official fan magazine. Chernoff has just finished a forthcoming Chewbacca tribute. "It was amazing to me, when I was a kid, that Chewbacca was simply there, that he existed," he said. "Here was this giant, hairy, growling Wookiee sitting in a chair at the controls of a starship and nobody seemed to think twice about it. He symbolized a kind of loyalty and friendship that everybody wished they had."

Didn't he, though?