I don’t know how many of you have read Joseph Campbell, but I’ve been re-reading a lot of his work and I cannot help but think that Rowling has created a mythology for our time. When I say “mythology” I really mean a story, or system of stories that enlighten and give meaning and purpose to our lives and our culture.
Many people (including Harold Bloom, A.S. Byatt) have criticized Rowling for being “derivative” and “borrowing ideas” everyone from Tolkein to C.S.Lewis to Star Wars, but that the sort of foolishness that results from seeing the world at a literal level. At its best the Harry Potter saga is a pure, mythological journey that utilizes universal themes to reveal the journey of the soul. Should we quibble over the details and accuse Rowling of stealing ideas such as Muggles and horcruxes, etc? Hardly, these are still at some level, very universal ideas. Even the idea of hiding your soul (or your heart) in another object is fairly common in myths and folk tales ranging from European to Asian to Native American. It does not mean that Rowling “stole” an idea at all. It simply means that she is capable of using these symbols to create new meaning.
To say that she ripped of George Lucas or Tolkien is to say that they ripped off Thomas Mallory (who compiled Le Morte d’Arthur in the 15th century and, yes, that was based on the work of unknown poets) or even the Epic of Gilgamesh. Stories are stories and they are extremely powerful. Hero’s are powerful images that reflect the journey that each one of us takes. And all of this contributes to the mythology of our time.
Rowling’s characters are very powerful archetypes which have resonated in stories of the past and continue to resonate today through her vivid imagination. We have Harry as the hero who begins his journey. Often the hero is given a magical object (sword, ring, cup, musical instrument), but it Harry’s case he’s originally given the gift of magic itself. He also has quest or purpose (to slay a dragon, find a grail, dispose of a ring, defeat evil) which gradually reveals itself along the way. This quest is a journey in which the hero must engage the unknown (a forest, Narnia, another land, Hogwarts) and then face some sort of abyss of hopelessness (swallowed by a monster, drowning, participating in the thoughts of Lord Voldemort) and finally emerge from it a stronger, more complete person. And the factor of the unknown is important because this foreign situation enables the hero to engage his (or her world) on a more profound level.
There are those who can assist or hinder the hero. In Dumbledore we have the archetype of the wise old man (Merlin, Galdalf, Obi-Wan, etc.) who is able to aid and to teach, but cannot accomplish said quest himself. Why? Because it is not his place. There is often a side-kick (Han Solo, Samwise Gamjee, Papageno, Enkidu, Ron, Hermione, etc.) who assists in the quest, but cannot often experience it on quite the same spiritual and psychological level. The hero represents the soul and the journey of the soul through some sort of trials in order to reach enlightenment. The teacher can communicate wisdom, but there is often a figure who takes that wisdom and corrupts such wisdom.
While the hero must rely upon a melding of heart and soul and mind, the villain (or he who corrupts wisdom) forsakes the heart and soul in favor of pure intellect. He can be Sauron, Darth Vader, Green Goblin, Voldemort… whoever. He is “evil” because he exists as an empty shell who lacks love or, more particularly, self-actualization. Voldemort appears to me a “motiveless villain” because he lacks the heart and soul to truly posses real motivation. He enjoys nothing, he only fears and hates. In some mythological tales (like Siegfried, for example), this villain is represented by a dragon or serpent and it is important to note that, in the Western tradition, the dragon itself is sort of an empty shell who angrily hoards (gold, virgins, treasure, etc) that which it has no use for and cannot enjoy. All of these “evil” characters lack the ability to enjoy and to truly feel. Their world is the literal world and they are trapped by the despair which comes with such thinking.
Meanwhile, the hero (Frodo, Arthur, Tamino, Luke Skywalker, Gilgamesh, Harry) often feels as much as he thinks and must learn and grow along the journey. And it is a journey. That’s the entire point. Often, this hero must die (or at least descend to the land of the dead) and often they return. What is important is not the death itself, but the idea and self-sacrifice behind it. It is the willingness to die and to understanding that death is not an end, but simply another aspect of the universe. Death is a choice, but one that is made willingly because one realizes that that is simply the natural path and a part of the greater pattern of the universe. It is symbolic of leaving behind that which is childish, worldly, and literal and awakening to something higher. And, yes, in most tales the hero wins.
But what makes Rowling so amazing is the tools that she uses to tell this age-old tale. These books are fantastically imaginative and endlessly engaging. What’s more, the magical world she has created, echoes our own in ways that bind it to us emotionally and spiritually. These characters, although magic, experience the same issues and emotions as we do. They go to school, struggle through classes, make friends and enemies, play sports, lose friends and family, fall in love, face fears, etc. Rowling’s world is, at once, foreign and familiar. She uses the basic bones of modern human experience and surrounds them with the flesh of the fantastic, thus creating something that resonates deeply and will continue to resonate for generations.
Every culture has its mythology and these can be religious or non-religious. Mythologies can be based on historical events, spiritual and literary situations, or a myriad of other sources, but as long as people can relate to them, they remain very powerful. Mythology teaches us about aspects of our culture and our psyche that we need to know. It serves as a guide of sorts, to give power and meaning to our world and our personal journeys. I truly believe that Rowling’s Harry Potter series functions as a modern mythology for this generation. And what do we learn? Many things: cultivate love, feel, trust in your friends, be fair, do not seek revenge, think for yourself, follow your heart, look deeply, realize that those who are not appear to be like you are like you and have value, think outside tradition, forsake prejudice, be brave, death is not the end, pain can be overcome, good and evil are interconnected, beware of the falsehood of outward appearances, and so much else. Yes, these values can be learned elsewhere, but that is not the point. They can be learned many places, but we must gravitate toward mythologies which resonate for us on a personal level and, for many, this series is just the key.