DECODING THE HARRY POTTER ENIGMA
Whatever else the Harry Potter series of novels may be, they are an exemplary demonstration of J.K. Rowling's ability to imaginatively adapt the Mythic Hero Cycle formula in the same manner that J.R.R. Tolkien and George Lucas did. From its very inception, Rowling carefully constructed Harry's torturous journey through life to embrace as many events relevant to mythic heroes as possible. The allusions to the Cycle popped up so often, one would think them bewitched! It was not an accident that the immortal soul-preserving power of a Horcrux corresponded closely with that of Tolkien's One Ring and that Tom Riddle's quest for immortality and absolute power coincided with the goals of a Sith Lord. Wearing the Locket had a similar effect on Harry that carrying the One Ring did for Frodo. The necessity of Harry's self-sacrifice to slay Voldemort is akin to Frodo's failure at the Crack of Doom, only to have Gollum force the issue. In addition, Gandalf's famous discourse in Moria about time and personal fate is strikingly paraphrased by Albus' statements in limbo about help for those that deserve it and pitying the dead. When asked whether she had ever contemplated writing another Potter story, J.K. Rowling hesitated before revealing that yes, she had considered the matter in great depth and the idea certainly appealed to her. However, she resolutely elected to forego this venture. Since she did not reveal the nature of her musings, this could mean many things but it's likely she was weighing the efficacy of extending her Hero Cycle story by telling the tale of Tom Riddle's dark side Hero journey á la Anakin Skywalker. While it is easy to infer that Rowling intentionally adopted the tried-and-true Hero Cycle formula hoping to emulate the literary and financial success of Tolkien and Lucas. However I was unable to discover any public admission by Ms. Rowling of her reliance on the Hero Cycle. Nevertheless she is to be congratulated for achieving both far beyond her wildest imagination.
Mythic Heroes are a class of epic characters usually born by a liaison between a god or goddess and a mortal human. Though the scion of this union (almost always male) is born mortal, he can inherit limited superpowers and great bravery from his godly parent. In 1936 while analyzing the lives of these Heroes, Richard Somerset (Lord Fitzroy Raglan, great grandson of Wellington's adjutant general) discovered that there was a common path that many of them followed. He listed 22 similar events that most Heroes underwent, then ranked each one according to the number of communal events he experienced. Oedipus ranked highest with 21 points; Theseus and Moses both scored 20 points; and Dionysus and King Arthur tied for third with 19. Other high scorers were Perseus, Romulus and Heracles. Raglan's concern with this Hero paradigm was not from a literary or psychology viewpoint but only with its relevance to the factual existence of these characters in human history. Raglan published his findings in The Hero: A Study In Tradition, Myth And Drama in 1936. He omitted discussion of Jesus for fear of public reaction.
Famed anthropologist Joseph Campbell refined Raglan's formula by showing that the steps of the Mythic Hero pattern formed a circular path with an ascending phase followed by a descending stage forming an arc. Campbell published his ideas in The Hero With a Thousand Faces in 1949. By accident, novelist John Barth stumbled upon Campbell's work and added refinements of his own. Barth realized that the formula was composed of four phases: ascendant; descendant; re-ascendant; and final decline. A diagram of Barth's cycle appeared in his collection of novellas Chimera in 1972.
Rowling's Hero Cycle references ranged from subtle to absolutely blatant. Harry was often reprimanded for his misdeeds (fall from grace). When Fawkes carried Harry, Ron and Lockhart out of the basilisk's cavern, Lockhart shouted "It's magical" (magic flight). The effect of drinking the liquid luck potion was described as "illuminating a few steps of the path at a time" (illumination). Like Mary Poppins or Lewis Carroll's 'Drink Me - Eat Me' scheme in Alice in Wonderland, Rowling condescended to conjuring up any expedient spell or magic talisman by simply pulling it out her bag of magic tricks (in several cases, quite literally) just like a magician pulling a bunny rabbit from a top hat. However, the resultant epic epitomized the mortal-but-magical nature intrinsic to Mythic Heroes. Motivated by the popularity and success of Star Wars, Lord of the Rings and R.L. Stine's Goosebumps series, Rowling explicitly lifted significant attributes from other literary sources. It was unavoidable that her novels would be heavily derivative of several similar stories: T.H. White's Once and Future King; The Worst Witch series by Jill Murphy; and Witch Week by Diana Jones. However, Rowling openly pilfered many of her story elements from Neil Gaiman's Books of Magic, including Harry's physical appearance.
However by using the Hero formula as guiding principle, Rowling was able to extend her epic tale far beyond the scope of these influences. Her paint-by-number reliance upon the Hero pattern is undeniable: there are several citations for each step of the Cycle from all the stories; and additionally, Harry's lifelong quest matched the entire circular model almost perfectly. From the very outset, Rowling intentionally plotted out Harry's adventures by cleverly and efficiently adapting the steps of the cycle to the novels' milieus. Since each novel constitutes one turn of the wheel and Harry's entire adventure comprises a meta-cycle, this represents an astounding eight full revolutions, an outstanding and unmatched literary achievement.
However, her central reliance on the Hero pattern should not be deemed as a dearth of creative prowess, her interpretation of the Cycle was comprehensive, inventive and and compelling for anyone with knowledge of the process. As an example, consider her choices for the Dragon Battle requirement: the lavatory troll and Cerberus; the willow tree, the giant arachnid and the subterranean bailisk; the Dementors; the Triwizard and Gringott dragons; and Voldemort's serpent Nagini. These icons are as creative as any similar instances from Greek and Arabic mythology and far surpass the cheap gimmickry of superhero movies. One can imagine college literature professors around the world giggling over Harry's predicaments. It may also explain why the stories were so inexplicably appealing for such a high percentage of adults, the same way Star Wars was.
Unfortunately, Rowling's prose and style are inanely adolescent and at times amateurishly clumsy even when considered from the perspective of children's literature. Like a hackneyed Western, Harry figuratively kicks the wand out of a Death Eater's hand, plucks it out of midair and starts blasting away. Several distinguished children's authors and critics have characterized the author's style to nothing more than a Disney cartoon and her prose to warm flat beer. This is overstating the case a bit but if Tolkien's wondrous style is taken as a theoretical paradigm of the genre, then Rowling is a 1960s Ford Cortina, the same model as Mr. Weasley's automobile. In Half-Blood Prince when Harry is forced to serve detention during a quidditch match, Rowling resorted to the classic sports fiction ploy of miraculous underdog victory. Yet she is apparently unaware of the correct formula: she never provided a play-by-play explanation of how the substitute players magically performed herculean athletic feats at unfamiliar positions. This is but a minor example of an unfortunate tendency by Rowling: her description of Harry's encounter with the army of spiders in the Forbidden Forest and his confrontation with the Hungarian Horntail dragon were pitifully short, dull and substandard. These events had to be expanded and jazzed up by the movie script writers to achieve sufficient excitement.
These traits did not improve during the course of the series and Deathly Hallows may be the most egregious example of all. Just to make sure that the reader got the point, the author abandoned, isolated and exiled Harry five separate times during the novel. In addition, the Hogwarts battle resembled the madcap absurdity of the climax of Time Bandits or Woody Allen's Casino Royale (the movie version was presented in a more dramatic fashion). In the midst of the battle, Ron and Hermione descended to the basilisk's cavern to retrieve its fangs and used one to destroy the Hufflepuff Cup. However, Rowling glossed over this subplot in just a few words and the precious fangs were not used again (again, the movie version differed). Dumbledore used the Gryffindor Sword to destroy the Peverell Ring but when Ron and Neville used the Sword, they suffered no ill effects akin to Dumbledore's injury. So there must have been some special magic protecting the Peverell Ring but the author failed to elucidate this fact. Rowling turned the ultimate showdown between Harry and Voldemort turned into a tedious, superfluous recounting of Riddle's conspiracy while they circled each other like two bantam roosters in a cockfight. thus the screenwriters were forced to redact this scene.
However, Rowling's stylistic limitations and imperfections were mitigated and superceded in the later novels by the escalating intricacy of the story arc of the entire series. It was eminently enjoyable to see so many plot threads finally tied together along with the completion of the Hero Cycle. Imitating the success of Anne Rice's modern-day vampire series, Rowling concealed existence of her wizard society in a modern-day real world setting. Contrast Harry's privileged English academy environment with Tolkien's purely fictionalized fantasy world, Lucas's lightspeed universe and Buffy's American high school high jinx. To her credit, Rowling did not avoid the conundrum of the final quadrant's gloomy, depressing dharma. There are anecdotes about younger Potter fans being unable to read the last two novels due to their more tragic nature. To her credit, the dramatic tension of the later novels was critically augmented by the convoluted sophistication of of Rowling's plot. The movie versions of Deathly Hallows followed a different path however, particularly Part 2. The director, Peter Yates, dissipated what dramatic tension the story generated with tiresome directorial mismanagement and by the trite trick of reducing the scenes' sound levels and overdubbing with exceedingly sappy music.
Despite the lifelessness of Rowling's stylism, the movies have been horses of a different color: the screenwriters were quite succesful at boosting the energy and drama of the novels in their scripts. This effect was not just intentional on the part of the writers and directors nor was it completely resultant from the stories' transference to a visual medium; the films' vigor can be partly attributed to the necessity of heavily streamlining the text to conform to cinematic length. In addition to the exceptional casting of the principal roles for Sorcerer's Stone, the films' producers were extremely lucky that the original choices held up over the eleven-year span of the process, particularly Daniel Radcliff, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint. Their transition from inexperienced child actors to capably commanding their roles was remarkable to behold. Imagine the consternation if one of these three actors had become inappropriate to continue their part over the next ten years. Even the passing of Richard Harris wasn't too disruptive. As superb as Harris' performance was, the substitution of Michael Gambon was quite satisfactory. The selection of actors appearing in the secondary roles was also outstanding. Apparently every big name actor in the business wanted to get in on the fun.
There is a curious incongruity in the novels concerning the Deathly Hallows. The locations of the Elder Wand and the Resurrection Stone were closely guarded secrets but Harry simply inherited the Cloak of Invisibility from his father early on in Sorceror's Stone but no mention of how James acquired it is given. Owning the Elder Wand or the Resurrection Stone can have dire deleterious effects on wizards even if they have the purest of intentions. Yet Harry never displayed any malevolent consequences from using the Cloak even at such a young age and he simply abandons it in the Forbidden Forest at the end of Deathly Hallows. Another anomaly occurs at the climax of Deathly Hallows and concerns the Cycle itself. While Dumbledore fell from the pinnacle of the Hogwarts Astronomy Tower at the end of Half-Blood Prince (hilltop death), Harry figuratively dies in the Forbidden Forest hollow when he opens the Golden Snitch and reveals the Resurrection Stone. This is a physically exact inversion of this step of Cycle. Rowling probably did this intentionally to signify that the conclusion of Deathly Hallows would be different from the classic tragic ending of the Hero Cycle pattern. However when Harry and Riddle return from limbo, they appear upon the Hogwarts bridge and Harry forces both of them over the edge, thus fulfilling the hilltop death obligation. In such fashion, Rowling still managed to evoke the venerable Hero tradition in such a charismatic manner, she enchanted an entire world of readers, child and adult alike.
To consider Rowling's accomplishment from a financial aspect is to invite coronary failure. Her agent, Christopher Littel, originally had trouble getting a major publisher interested in the lengthy Sorcerer's Stone. The British rights were eventually sold to to the small publishing firm of Bloomsbury for $3600. The first print run was only 500 copies (300 copies are the property of public libraries; a privately owned copy is currently valued at $37,000). As the novel slowly gained recognition with major publishing houses, a bidding war for the foreign rights caught fire. The rest is literally literary history that may never be repeated again. Throw in the games, the toys, the trading cards, the costumes, the candy, the movies, the so-many-things-I-can't-even-count including a damn amusement park and you have such a fiduciary hurricane that Midas would have drooled to death before starving. Rowling's startling success spawned a flood of wanna-be imitators that never came anywhere close to matching her popularity.
Now that the Harry Potter experience is finally over, one wonders how it will withstand the test of time. Will it still be viewed with appreciation fifty years from today, perhaps achieving the status of Peter Pan, Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland or Mary Poppins? Truthfully, these cases are not equivalent, Rowling's extended story cycle and Harry's maturation process are much more analogous to Lord of the Rings and Star Wars. So considering the zillions of people who were caught up in the Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker and Frodo Baggins crazes (especially as children), this is not as far fetched as it might seem. Yet just think how it will feel to see yet another re-run of Goblet of Fire on CortexoVision in the year 2060.
Notes about the Hero Chart - Like Star Wars, the shuffling of sequential order and the transfer of traits or events to other characters is permissible á la George Lucas. Also similar to Star Wars, the Hero Cycle applies to the Potter series figuratively as one continuous revolution of the circle. However, the Potter novels are also self-contained, stand alone units with all of the steps of the Cycle relevant to each story. Some steps are interpreted figuratively like Joseph Campbell's theory while others are interpreted literally like John Barth's formula.
|QUADRANT I: DEPARTURE (Steps 1-5)|
QUADRANT II: INITIATION (Steps 6-10)
QUADRANT III: RETURN (Steps 11-15)
QUADRANT IV: REIGN and DEATH (Steps 16-20)
Harry Potter novels and films:
1) Sorceror's Stone ; 2) Chamber of Secrets ; 3) Prisoner of Azkaban ;
4) Goblet of Fire ; 5) Order of the Phoenix ; 6) Half-Blood Prince ;
7) Deathly Hallows (parts 1 and 2)