Monday, July 20, 2009
Harry Potter and the Golden Foundational Myth
So this past week I've been following the buzz surrounding the new "Harry Potter" film. As friends of mine who either a) don't have a 2 year old or b) have better babysitting saunter off for Midnight showings and get their Muggle on and the film cruises toward the $300 mil mark (first HP film since the first), I've been thinking of the meaning of all this Hogwarts hoopla. (Full disclosure: I like the films and am happy to wear t-shirts with the above image because it's funny. My wife, however, is pretty sure she's undercover for the Ministry of Magic.)
There have been other series of children's fantasy stories that have captured the imagination (CS Lewis' Narnia stories, Tolkien's the Lord of the Rings is an obvious example) of youth, but these books have been different. For one, their reach has been greater and faster. The Lord of the Rings may command legions of elf-eared followers today, but for years it didn't have the same cache. Additionally, unlike the other examples (and most similar literatures) this one was written by a woman. Yes, the chief protagonist is a lad, and there's nothing overtly feminine or masculine about the story (though the presence of a group of serious female secondary characters is a nice side bonus), and yet one can't help but notice the protection Harry and his friends enjoy is almost matronly; unlike Aslan, who encourages his charges to be brave and remains a distant figure, Dumbledor and crew are very much present in the lives of our merry band. Finally, though they're not obviously written with the intention of being a parable, they have spoken to an entire generation and very much have grown up with that generation, as Harry and company (and their readers) have gone from childhood through adolescence into early adulthood. While the last book came out some years ago, the movie release has all the trappings of a cultural phenomenon (it even comes with Hogwarts' themed pop music).
What makes these stories successful--or any children's literature--is that it's not just telling a compelling a story, nor trying to take itself too seriously (I'm looking at you, Eragon!), but somehow, telling our story. Yes, our lives are much more mundane; we do not go to schools with moving dormitories surrounded by man-eating spiders, we do not play soccer on broomsticks and mostly, the most evil person in the world isn't out to kill us, but we can easly empathize with his troubles; a family that doesn't know what to do with him, bullies on the playground, the angst and doubt and loneliness of being a teenager, as well as the more overt tales of ego, the abuse of power, authority figures preserving position rather than protecting their charges. And surrounding that we read the story of a boy evolving into a hero; through good mentors, loyal friends, adventures that raise him up and carry him down to the absolute depths. Whether intentional or not, Harry's story works because it doesn't stop at being a romanticized story of growing up nor a mere adventure tale, but is archetypal in its reach. It is, essentially, modern mythology, a foundational story. We understand who we are as a culture in this moment better through those books and these characters. Yes, it's escapist literature--so was the Illyad and the Aeniad. But like those two books (that were modern pieces of literature once) or Shakespeare, they teach us something about our society and our values.
I bring all this up because I think it's important for us to understand the idea of foundational literature, to appreciate what is meant by myth. So often we use the term to mean the opposite of true, and yet myths really get to the deeper truths. They convey through metaphor ideas that we may not be able to utter or identify but that we can all appreciate. This is why Torah (and the whole of Jewish literature) is so compelling; we may learn nothing 'historical' from the books of Tanakh, but we learn what values our ancestors held dear and come to appreciate what it means for us to be a society, a civilization, a religion, a people. Likewise, when we hear the stories of fellow congregants about their experiences in the congregation; those stories become foundational and eventually mythological and shape the culture of a place profoundly, such that the story ceases to belong merely to the original teller, but eventually belongs to the whole community, even generations later. When Sonia Sloan shares with the congregation the stories of her great aunt and grandparents and parents and their connections to Beth Emeth, they cease to 'merely' be the stories of one family and become everyone's stories, and even if we forget the details ('where did that priestly benediction come from?') we have some latent understanding--inarticulated, metaphorical--of what it means to be a member of this congregation.
So hopefully my wife (and maybe even I) will get to see the film before it's out on DVD. In the meantime, I'm going to be listening and learning the stories this congregation and its members have to share. While they may want for special effects, they're no less magical.