Friday, May 15, 2015

Harry Potter and the Butt-Plant of Destiny

J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter novels
I recently reread two of my all-time favorite genre fiction series, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels and Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles. The latter I’ve carried with me since elementary school, while the former I discovered… well… somewhat later. Rereading each in middle age, however, I noticed something remarkable regarding these two exceedingly popular fantasies. Though both represent modernized takes on classic heroic journeys, only Alexander’s story involves actually going anywhere. Harry Potter is notably stationary.

Joseph Campbell, in his famed treatise of comparative religion, Hero With a Thousand Faces, describes a phenomenon he calls Monomyth, a recurrent pattern of narrative momentum that crosses cultures, epochs, religions, and traditions. It applies in various scriptures, Grimm’s fairy tales, and epic adventures across genre divides. Campbell’s Monomyth describes a hero’s journey from ordinary earthly existence, into an otherworld of transcendent discovery, back to real life, where the hero’s breakthroughs transform their tradition-bound world.

This journey isn’t only religious. George Lucas, who read Campbell in college, deliberately used Campbell’s Monomyth in writing his iconic Star Wars movies. J.R.R. Tolkien apparently followed Campbell’s template inadvertently. It’s difficult to know whether Lloyd Alexander knowingly appropriated the Monomyth, but since his story partially retold classic Welsh myth—he recycles names, events, and plots from the Welsh Mabinogion—the continuity between his novels and comparative religion seems appropriate. Alexander is a monomythic writer.

Campbell divides his Monomyth into seventeen distinct stages (though later authors simplify his pattern). Stage three, Crossing the Threshold, involves our hero’s complete separation from banal reality. Each of Alexander’s five books begins with Taran, the orphaned pig-keeper, leaving his bucolic village and venturing into trackless, monster-haunted forest. The first six Harry Potter novels involve the Hogwarts Express; the seventh involves Harry’s comrades packing their bags and running. However it’s depicted, leaving home is paramount.

Lloyd Alexander, author of the Prydain Chronicles
But there, paths diverge. Leaving means something different for each hero. In five books, Taran leaves home deliberately only once; adventure is thrust upon him, and Taran rises to the opportunity by assembling a cohort and confronting unexpected challenges. Harry, by contrast, goes to boarding school. Departure happens at scheduled times, under predetermined circumstances, for a known destination. Once there, Harry mostly stays put. Harry doesn’t sally forth; adventure invades his carefully programmed, structured world.

The idea that our hero needn’t physically move to undergo trials isn’t unprecedented. Jesus sat in the desert, and Satan came to him bearing temptations; the Buddha sat beneath the Bodhi tree, wrestling with uncertainty, before enlightenment overcame him. But a stationary journey, if not unheard-of, is nevertheless extraordinarily rare. Generally heroes, from Odysseus and Sinbad to Captain Picard and the Doctor, must travel to their next challenge before meeting it. Taran travels; Harry doesn’t.

Certainly, Harry isn’t altogether sedentary. Especially as the series progresses, he often ventures outside Hogwarts, to Hogsmeade, Grimmauld Place, or the Ministry of Magic. Near the end, Dumbledore takes Harry wandering in pursuit of Voldemort’s horcruxes, very briefly. But these excursions are always brief, dangerous, and exceptional. Even in Book Seven, the least geographically rooted, Harry’s “tent” contains an entire mock-Tudor house, less rugged than an American Winnebago. Harry’s quest is largely circumscribed by buildings.

This happens because Harry’s quest, unlike Taran’s, occurs substantially within himself. Taran ventures beyond his confines, encounters the world in ways both violent and nurturing, and eventually establishes such rapport with his people that, in mastering himself, he inherits his kingdom. Harry mainly encounters himself. Relics like the Pensieve and the Mirror of Erised connect Harry with his own mind, or bridge the gap between his own and others’ perceptions. This is uncommon in mythology.

Daniel Radcliffe as Harry Potter
Rowling doesn’t blow her nose on traditional mythology. Her millennium-old castle, teeming with ancient ghosts and cherished artifacts, reflects not only fantasy fiction’s infatuation with antiquity, but also Britain’s numerous preserved historical buildings and myths. Unlike America, where colonists destroyed many pre-Columbian landmarks and communities, the distant past is physically present in Britain. But unlike, say, King Arthur, Harry’s quest doesn’t circulate throughout Britain. Tradition, for Rowling, is a fixed backdrop to an internal quest.

Perhaps Harry’s situation reflects modern needs. Alexander’s “forest primeval” setting doesn’t exist in today’s Wales, and besides hitchhiking, few opportunities for self-discovery happen “out there” anymore. Yet Rowling’s story nevertheless makes a noteworthy deviation from established mythic patterns. In bygone days, prophets, paladins, and conquerors, ventured outside themselves to discover their callings. Harry Potter remains, with significant exceptions, sedentary. This is a new kind of journey. And it represents a new kind of quest audience.

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