Tag: commonplaces

What Harry Potter inherits from Star Wars

For members of generation X like myself, Star Wars is one of the constitutive myths of our childhoods. The Force, lightsaber duels, the Millennium Falcon, “I am your father,” “he’s my brother,” “I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” and so on . . . this is what we grew up with. And because Star Wars was such a mega-hit, the characters and tropes and themes spawned a whole slew of allusions and invocations that continue to infiltrate popular public discussions of all kinds of things. Few pop culture artifacts achieve that level of saturation; few artists are able to shape the common cultural vernacular in such a profound way; few packages of commonplaces become that widely shared, widely enough that a non-obscure Star Wars reference like “use the Force” or the image of Darth Vader [a gargoyle of which adorns the National Cathedral as an iconic contemporary representation of Evil] is extremely likely to make sense even to people who haven’t even seen the films!

For members of the next generation, the “millennial” generation, I’d wager that a principal constitutive myth is the Harry Potter series. I say this not just because of the mega-blockbuster character of the whole Harry Potter phenomenon, although that helps something become a constitutive myth out of which large numbers of people are empowered to construct their senses of self; the more widespread the recognition of the symbols and tropes, the easier it is to gain social affirmation for one’s use of them in constructing one’s own story, after all. But I also think that one of the striking things about the Harry Potter series is how similar the story is to the constitutive myth it succeeds, how many of the same elements recur in lightly shuffled and reorganized form, albeit updated in a way that makes contemporary sense for the present world. Of course, this should not be too surprising, since both Harry Potter and Star Wars are mythological works, and mythology always works by re-telling some version of an old, old story — by recombining traditional elements so as to reaffirm and reinforce certain basic motifs and themes that are strangely familiar to the audience even as the specifics of the plot and the characters are anything but familiar.

Harry Potter thus inherits two things from Star Wars: a set of cultural commonplaces on which it draws for much of its evocative power, and the mantle of serving as a root experience for massive numbers of people — especially for younger people, into whose cultural lifeworld notions like “muggle” and the Ministry of Magic have now been firmly implanted. Just as much of cultural life in the industrialized parts of Europe and North America (and quite a ways beyond it) was decisively shaped or colored by the way that Star Wars updated and transmitted the cultural commonplaces that it deployed and utilized, so too will cultural life be divisible into pre- and post-Potter eras, with a “Potterian” flavor going forward.

Fortunately for us, the post-Potter world contains much of what the pre-Potter world contained, because the Harry Potter story — as mythology — is an old, old story. What is new here are the details and specifics, not the basic themes and tropes. I can’t substantiate this point without spoilers, which I have kept below the fold — you have been warned.

First, a little analytical history.

One of the most important things that George Lucas did in the opening moments of Star Wars was to insert a simple text-card on the screen before the opening title crawl and the main theme music begins: “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away . . .” it reads, and it’s a very important little clue to how the read and appreciate what’s about to happen on screen. Lucas’ brief intro serves the same function as “Once upon a time . . .” and similar phrases, signaling that we’re about to enter an alternate reality that is connected to our own thematically rather than literally or plausibly. A phrase like this announces a fairy tale, a bit of myth, and implicitly warns us that the story to come shouldn’t be evaluated for its representative accuracy or for its analytical incisiveness or whatever — instead, we’re in the realm of allegory, symbol, dream, and fantasy.

It’s important that Lucas puts this over the head of each of the Star Wars films, because the conventional cultural code seems to dictate that stories involving spaceships and laser swords should be read as “science fiction” rather than as mythology. It makes a difference: virtually all science fiction has a burden of appearing scientifically plausible, of providing some way for the scientifically literate reader to come to terms with things like faster-than-light travel and teleportation and the like. Star Wars has none of this: nowhere in any of the films is there even a half-hearted attempt to explain how hyperdrive works, and the attempt to demystify the Force by introducing “midi-chlorians” in Episode I falls so flat that we never hear another word about them after that film. This makes sense because Star Wars is more fantasy than science fiction, more mythology than systematic exploration of how technological changes and alien encounter affect human beings — after all, Star Wars (unlike, say, Star Trek) isn’t about Earth-native humans at all, making it somewhat absurd to try to connect our present science or present social order to that of Star Wars in any systematic way.

But what we can do — what I’d wager that Lucas wants us to do — is to read Star Wars as a fictional realm wherein very current themes and issues, specifically philosophical and moral/ethical themes and issues, are played out. After all, that’s what mythology is for: it’s a purer exemplar of such themes and issues than the often-messy examples provided in the “real world,” and as such offers the reader/viewer a chance to experience and explore those issues and themes more or less directly. Mythology, unlike the real world or unlike “realistic fiction” which strives to tell it like it is (more or less), has a “moral of the story” — a set of lessons we’re supposed to take away, even if those lessons are somewhat ambiguous.

The Harry Potter series is like Star Wars in this respect — it’s mythology rather than literature or social commentary or any other genre of writing that you might care to mention. As such, it deserves to be interpreted as mythology, which makes complaints about (say) the “nonideological evil” in the series somewhat beside the point. No, neither Vader nor Voldemort have fully-fleshed-out ideological programs, but they’re not supposed to: these are less depictions of actual people than archetypal symbols, and their movements or organizations are just generically Evil in intent, bent on the usual Evil Overlord goals: power, domination, supremacy, immortality, and so forth. And the fact that there are disillusioned followers of both Evil Overlords who turn out to have a variety of reasons for turning away from their former masters should not, I’d argue, be read as some kind of commentary on leadership styles or whatever; instead, it’s the introduction of another archetype, the Remorseful Former Bad Guy who generally turns out to just be misunderstood and in need of a little community affirmation. In Star Wars, part of the twist is that the Remorseful Former Bad Guy is also the main exemplar of Evil: Vader, it turns out, is redeemable. In Harry Potter, it’s Snape who (contrary to my expectations) falls into Evil, sees the error of his ways [more or less — I still think that Snape is hedging his bets at least until after he kills Dumbledore in book 6, and he almost defects from Dumbledore’s plan once he learns what Harry is being prepared for . . . but that’s material for another post, I think] fulfills this role. The point is that these are archetypes, and shouldn’t be read as examples of some governance strategy failing; they present occasions for ethical reflection, not case studies for empirical dissection.

But the genetic connection between the two constitutive mythological works is a lot stronger than this. The parallel is most obvious between the original three Star Wars films (i.e., not the prequels) and the Harry Potter sequence: a young boy (Luke/Harry), orphaned, discovers that he has a Mysterious Destiny, goes into training, makes some close friends (Leia/Hermione and Han/Ron), is cultivated and shaped by a mysterious older wizard (Obi-Wan/Dumbledore) who has a history with the current Embodiment Of Evil, ends up confronting that Evil and defeating it by not fighting — indeed, by throwing away his weapon and allowing himself to be a noble sacrifice, but doesn’t end up really dead because of the intervention of some form of human affection. By not fighting, by simply presenting himself as the archetypal peaceful warrior (fight to disarm and no further, which is what both Luke and Harry do during their respective epic final battles — how perfectly appropriate is it that in the end Harry defeats the Dark Lord with a well-cast Expelliarmus spell, despite Lupin’s criticism of him for just that tactic earlier in the book?), the hero triumphs over Evil.

Of course this is a familiar story. The noble sacrifice motif, especially the noble sacrifice that ends up conquering or mastering death, goes back into antiquity, and in the “Western world” one can’t help but reference Jesus Christ as an exemplar. The spirit guide helping to engineer the epic confrontation has numerous precedents. The hero journey to mastery over death is what Hamlet undertakes, what grail seekers do in Arthurian legends, what C. S. Lewis’ characters do when visiting Narnia, etc. etc.

If we start looking at the Star Wars prequels, we find a further parallel in that both Dumbledore and Anakin start off as idealists, but Anakin ends up going into politics and trying to impose his ideas by force while Dumbledore resists that temptation and remains an academic. But both have their Citizen Kane moments — they just take different directions in response to that challenge.

And further: both Harry Potter and Star Wars feature an intriguing double moral message structure in which a second teaching contradicts the first, more obvious teaching. At the most obvious level, both myth cycles celebrate the individual and her or his choices; self-actualization seems central, and individual empowerment against a faceless overwhelming mass seems to be the name of the game. Choice over capacity seems central: Luke has to choose between Dark and Light, and even the Sorting Hat listens to Harry’s (and Hermione’s!) preferences about which house he wants to be placed into, and Dumbledore highlights this choice as an essential difference between Harry and Voldemort. But on closer examination, neither mythology actually ends up with this kind of liberal individualist decisionism: Harry’s most important moments are those in which he just acts in the way that he feels that he is supposed to be acting, and just knows what he is supposed to do, much like Luke when he gets better acquainted with the Force. And the choice situations that we see are engineered and enabled by a lot of prior social action, both by individual mentors and by the broader community: Harry can’t confront Voldemort, and Luke can’t confront Vader, absent the actions of a multitude of people whose effort makes the confrontation possible. No one is an isolated individual, and people get in trouble in both mythologies when they try to act alone, without friends and colleagues supporting them.

In the end these are communal mythologies rather than individualistic ones, affirming the conceptual priority of the intersubjective over the subjective and of the cultural context over the bearer of aspects of that context. They’re not collectivist; call them “post-individualist,” since we still have valuable and worthy individuals floating around and individuals do matter; they just don’t matter as Lockeian or neoliberal atoms out of which societal polymers are constructed. Shades here of Heidegger, I think: individual people are the occasions for existence to exist in a self-conscious or reflexive way, the moments for the Force or the deeper magic of love (which is the Force-analogue in the Harry Potter books) to manifest and triumph.

So: they’re old, old stories. I’m not completely sure what to make of the fact that the new mythology (Harry Potter) is more archaic-fantasy while the older mythology (Star Wars) is techno-futuristic in flavor; maybe this says something about the way we view ourselves now? Magic rather than spaceships. Hmm. I wonder if that’s a post-Challenger thing, a general diminishing of the excitement of space exploration — Star Wars was only a few years removed from the moon landings, after all, so some of the romance of space travel was still around to be drawn upon. But I’m not confident about that, and I’d be curious to hear other people’s ideas.

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Expelliarmus!

It’s always fascinating to me to see certain traditional arguments, arguments that I would have liked to think were long dead and buried, resurface in slightly altered form. Highbrow intellectual critics whom I would like to think have been suitably disarmed as a result of their prior encounters with their opponents seem to reincorporate and revivify as if by magic when a target at all similar to the prior object of their criticism emerges; out they spring, wand in hand, ready to cast a hex or three and ruin everyone else’s fun.

That’s what Ron Charles seems to have in mind with his anti-Potter editorial in this weekend’s Washington Post. All the traditional pieces of the elitist dismissal of any and all elements of popular culture are present: Rowling isn’t a good writer, the Potter books are intellectually thin, people aren’t reading really serious (which means: “unpopular”) novels but are instead submerging themselves and being taken in by the “orgy of marketing hysteria” surrounding the Potter books, and so on. My favorite bit, though, is the sanctimonious self-congratulation the author pours on himself for having read and enjoyed an obscure novel last year:

My favorite was “The Law of Dreams,” a first novel by a 56-year-old writer named Peter Behrens. It’s the story of an orphaned boy who doesn’t know why he survived the evil force that killed his parents — and left him scarred. Set during the Irish potato famine of 1847, it’s not a fantasy, and it’s not for children, but there are plenty of monsters here, and Behrens writes in a style that’s pure magic. As of this writing, it has sold 8,367 copies in the United States. It’s enough to make a book critic snap his broom in two.

Oh, bully for you, you read a book that didn’t sell very many copies. Big deal. I am not sure where the nobility is supposed to lie in the mere act of reading (or watching, or listening to) something obscure, especially since that sentiment is conjoined with the notion that there is nothing of real value to be found in more popular works.

This kind of intellectual snobbery has been going on at least since Plato.

. . . a rational and quiet character, which always remains pretty well the same, is neither easy to imitate nor easy to understand when imitated, especially not by a crowd consisting of all sorts of people gathered together at a theater festival, for the experience being imitated is alien to them . . . an imitative poet isn’t by nature related to the
part of the soul that rules in such a character, and, if he’s to attain a good reputation with the majority of people, his cleverness isn’t directed to pleasing it. Instead, he’s related to the excitable and multicolored character, since it is easy to imitate. (Republic 604e-605a)

Sound familiar? The popular works can’t have enduring value, since they appeal to the baser emotions; real value is to be found in those obscure things that the majority of people can’t understand. That litany has pretty much been the staple curse of the intellectual snob for millennia; Charles isn’t adding anything even particularly novel to it. Nor does Charles seem at all concerned about, say, Nietzsche’s critique of this kind of intellectual asceticism, a critique which fairly clearly unveils the dismissal of the popular and the public as a kind of “weapon of the weak” directed against most of humanity by those who would deny their own commonality with the human condition.

Of course, Nietzsche also says that this is a sickness like pregnancy is a sickness — something good may come out of it in the end, but it is not an end in itself. What good, you ask? I can see two goods from where I sit. First, the dismissal of popular works might impel someone who is pissed off by that dismissal to defend those works more clearly, rising to perform the disarming charm that can render the snobs powerless. Second, that defense might promote a clearer and more profound understanding of those popular works.

Let me briefly endeavor to mount such a defense of the Harry Potter phenomenon.

I don’t want to try to claim that reading the Potter novels is some kind of a gateway to the reading of other novels; statistical data on that seems mixed, and my own anecdotal observations suggest that some people use Potter as a springboard while others start and stop their reading of novels with Rowling’s series. I also don’t want to claim that the Potter books belong on a list of “books that you should read before you die”; I can perfectly well imagine that people can get through their lives just fine without reading any of the Potter novels. (It’s much harder for me to imagine people going through life not having read, say, Tolkien or Shakespeare.) From just about any technical perspective, the Potter novels are not masterpieces, and I wouldn’t want to point to them as exemplars of the novelistic craft.

Nor is the universe that Rowling has created all that alien of a place to visit — indeed, that’s part of the secret of the Potter books’ success, since the world that they sketch is basically our ordinary world plus magic rather than something entirely different. There is very little displacement involved in reading the Potter books, and basically no aspects of the wizarding world that don’t map pretty precisely onto categories that are already familiar to us: classes, exams, pranks, jealousy, ambition, and so on. In this sense, the Potter novels are not demanding reads; this is not like reading Kafka or Joyce, or like reading Sheri S. Tepper or Iain M. Banks, all authors whose fictional worlds are not perfectly translatable into the categories of our own. Rather, the Potter novels are a pretty seamless reading experience, and the reader doesn’t have to continually work to make sense of them the way she or he has to with more disruptive novels.

Instead, let me defend the Potter phenomenon by saying that the key thing about it is its communal character. Like other mass media products, the experience of reading a Harry Potter book is less about the solitary encounter with the text and more about the public performance of being a Harry Potter fan: yes, the costumes and the toys and the like, but also and perhaps especially the conversations about the novels, the characters, the situations, the future. There’s something sociologically important about the existence of this kind of cultural commonplace (and let’s not kid ourselves about that — the existence of “Republicans for Voldemort” merchandise should be proof enough that we’ve entered that territory), and there’s something profound about participating in it. Profound, and literally inexpressible, since what we’re dealing with here is a communal experience that goes beyond mere spoken or written language and into what Wittgenstein would have called a “form of life.” Participating in such a form of life transforms the participant by making them a part of a collective effort to wrestle with or perform something; we become parts of a community of fans, able to interact in novel ways because of the novel possibilities afforded by the novel commonplaces presented by the mass media product. We literally construct ourselves differently through these experiences. As such, the “literary” merits of the Potter novels are quite beside the point; what matters is that they serve as rallying-points around which sense-making experiences coalesce.

Take that, Ron Charles.

[Oh, and for the record, I do not think that Snape is a good guy acting as a deep cover agent and only appering to cooperate with Voldemort; I think it’s more likely that Snape is trying to engineer a showdown between Harry and Voldemort in which they eliminate one another, so that Snape can assume Voldemort’s place. This weekend we shall see if I am correct or not!]

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