Archives for December 2015

Guest Post: Keep Your Eye on the Ball! Circular Imagery in New ‘Force Awakens’ Echoes the Rings in Harry Potter?

Kylo 2Keep Your Eye on the Ball
by Emily Strand

J.K. Rowling has insisted many times that there will not be an eighth Harry Potter book because, after Deathly Hallows, Harry’s story is essentially complete. She will fill in the details for us on Pottermore and explore tangential characters in other works for stage and screen, but of Harry’s life we will hear no more of consequence. Unlike Rowling, to my knowledge, George Lucas has never alluded to such an ending point in his Star Wars saga. Even Lucas’ own supposed retirement is merely the passing of the franchise’s heavy mantle of story creation to others to continue. Like Hubble’s discovery that the universe is expanding from a single point, so the Star Wars narrative seems to expand in all directions from a single, vague bit of context: “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.”

f39171174And while the Star Wars narrative’s infinitely expanding character differentiates it from Rowling’s universe, their audiences (which include many of the same fans) are attracted to both these epic tales due in part to the careful and related internal organization of each. In both Star Wars and Harry Potter, the repetition of significant elements in intentional ways serves to make the most of each narrative’s best qualities, while pointing to important themes and ideas which will come to bear significantly on the plot, characters and outcomes of the story. Simply put, both Star Wars and Harry Potter are ring cycles.

Before we suppose ring composition was something the Potter books simply borrowed wholesale from Star Wars, we need to be reminded of the ancient tradition of ring composition Lucas and Rowling both drew upon to create their sagas (for a fine, 2000-year old example, read the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles back-to-back). Brave souls like Mike Klimo and John Granger have meticulously laid out the precise ways in which Star Wars (episodes 1-6) and the Harry Potter books, respectively, form organized, symbolic, concentric circles within themselves and as a whole until the ring is complete.

But what does a complete ring look like in a story which, in Star Wars’ case, goes on and on?

SW3The short answer is: it will be difficult to say until this new cycle of tales is complete, if we dare use the word “complete” with reference to Star Wars. Let not the franchise’s expanding state render us silent on its circular nature, however, especially in light of The Force Awakens. Because when we take a look at the ways in which The Force Awakens “circles back” to its immediate story-line predecessor, A New Hope, we find something unexpected. Certain (circular) elements of The Force Awakens may appear as simple throw-backs meant to bring the story and its audience “full circle,” as it were. Rather, these same elements prove ironic, reversing the audience’s expectations to introduce a new story with new heroes, even from the ruins of the old.

From Plato to Dante to Black Elk, John Granger has made clear the centrality (ahem) of circular imagery in Western literature in describing the numinous, calling the notion an “esoteric touchstone of Western thought.” (Ring Composition, 24) It is this round imagery for God which inspires the ancient tradition of composing great works of literature around a circular, ringed scaffold: the sub-creation (as Tolkien would have it) of the created order reflects its Creator in turn.

SW2Into this long, profound tradition of circular significance rolls a little orange and white droid, no bigger than a Golden Retriever: BB-8. When I first saw BB-8 in promotional materials for The Force Awakens, my first reaction was a dismissive eye-roll: “ok, here’s the R2D2 of the story.” Seeing the film confirmed, in many ways, my initial assessment. That BB-8 is meant to recall and remind audiences of R2D2 is clear from his (her?) scale, design and role in the story. If Droids had relations, BB-8 would be R2’s lil bro. Their functions in the plots of each film also demonstrate the intentional parallels between them. Both droids possess the information which is central to the story: information which requires the interpretation of a seemingly defunct figure from the past (for R2, the long-exiled Obi-Wan Kenobi, and for BB-8, R2D2 himself who has long been dormant on “low power”). Both droids are abandoned to desolate deserts (Tatooine, Jakku) by their masters (Leia, Poe Dameron), where each is captured by scrap scavengers and rescued in some way by each story’s hero (Luke, Rey). Both droids escape their desert exiles on the (round, yet flat) Millennium Falcon.

SW1These similarities are striking, but if we dismiss BB-8 as mere audience-pleasing throw-back on par with “having a bad feeling about this,” we miss an important thematic development which takes Star Wars into the next era. Like BB-8’s design, the significantly circular design of R2D2 points the viewer of A New Hope to that sense of completeness found only in the divine: a smooth contrast to an otherwise sharp-edged universe of TIE-fighters, Star Destroyers and lightsabers. (R2’s original partner in conspiracy, Princess Leia, echoes his round design with her own round hair buns.) And yet, R2’s circular design is incomplete: his dome is only half a circle, and the rest of him looks more like a trash can. BB-8 steps up the circular imagery: that he is working, on-set, puppeteered droid (instead of mere CGI) is a source of wonder on and off screen. “Move, Ball,” Han Solo snaps impatiently at BB-8 on the Millennium Falcon; Han’s lack of warmth for the adorable droid echoes his perpetual role as the skeptic who is, nevertheless, cyclically confronted by numinous reality and forced (Forced?) to acknowledge it.

SW4What the two droids, by comparison, reveal about the heroes of the story and their points of divergence is perhaps most interesting. While R2D2 in A New Hope is sold to Luke Skywalker, he immediately escapes to find Obi-Wan, whereas, in The Force Awakens, after Rey rescues BB-8 from the scavenger, the little droid will not leave her side, even when requested. Luke sets out to rescue R2D2, but his motivation for doing so is to avoid trouble from his uncle, and, we can assume, his fascination with the pretty-girl-hologram R2D2 contains. Rey, in her rescue of BB-8, acts merely out of compassionate instinct. Luke looks at his uncle’s new droids and sees the realization of his own self-centered dreams of adventure far away from Tatooine. Rey, who literally lives in the wreckage of Luke Skywalker’s greatest adventure, looks at BB-8 and with great empathy, sees something – she knows not what – more valuable than even her own food security and survival. Luke had to learn this kind of compassion in the original trilogy; Rey seems hard-wired for it in The Force Awakens. Each hero’s relationship to his or her little round droid draws out this distinction between them.

f38703334Medievalist Rhonda Dubec said something that truly delighted me in a recent episode of the podcast Mugglenet Academia. She said Dumbledore wears half-moon glasses, while Harry wears full-circle glasses, because Harry completes the hero’s journey: a journey Dumbledore, because of his weaker, more self-absorbed nature, could not complete. It delighted me because it was such a simple observation, and yet I’d never spotted it in many years of Potter appreciation. Fans of ring cycles such as Harry Potter and Star Wars should look not merely for meaning in these sagas’ circular structure (which, for Star Wars, is still unrolling), but in each story’s circular symbolism.

In a story that has historically relied so heavily on circles both for its story scaffold and its aesthetic imagery, the character of little round BB-8 and his relationship to Rey could very well point us to what it means – and what it will take – to be a hero in this post-Lucas Star Wars universe. Rey is learning, just as Harry learned on the Quidditch pitch, that sometimes fulfilling your own heroic potential is a matter of keeping your eye on the ball.

Guest Post: Kylo Snape? Is ‘The Force Awakens’ the Eighth Harry Potter Story?

Kylo 1Kylo Snape?

by Emily Strand

I know it’s hard to believe. It’s even harder to admit, but until this fall I’d never seen Star Wars. Any of them. I was too young to watch the original films in the 1970s and 80s, and while I know I went to see the one with Jar Jar Binks when I was in college (because who can forget Jar Jar?), it certainly wasn’t my idea, and my brief encounter with the franchise was just that: brief.

You see, I am a Harry Potter person. Although I’m too old to have grown up with Harry, still he has been, for me, the portal of my interest in imaginative fiction of all kinds, including Tolkien, Lewis, Chesterton, etc. And happily, many of the authors and books to which my interest in Potter has led me, I have come to realize, inform Rowling’s own books. Harry Potter has been, for me, a literary boomerang.

Kylo 2Content in my love of Potter and related works, and blinded by my ignorance of the ‘verse, I had not even heard that a new set of Star Wars movies would roll out beginning this year. Still something (grace? the Force?) pushed me to investigate George Lucas’ epic, just in time for a seamless transition to The Force Awakens. I borrowed all the released films from my niece and began my journey. With my Potter-colored lenses, I immediately noticed resonances with the Potter series: the influence of the hero’s journey, the “rhyming” or ring composition of the plot, minor elements like “life debts” and mis-directive titles (eg. Attack of the Clones and Prisoner of Azkaban), and major themes such as the redemption of ambivalent characters.

Kylo 3These observations made me wonder: how much had Star Wars influenced Harry Potter? I filed the question away for future investigation and readied myself to enjoy The Force Awakens, having become, in just a few short months, almost as big a Star Wars fan as I am of Harry Potter.

So, despite being a very recent convert to all things Star Wars, on December 17, this self-proclaimed Harry Potter person sat in her local cinema, trembling with as much excitement as anyone who has worshipped the franchise since 1977. Yet I’d like to think I came to The Force Awakens with a considerably different (lighter?) set of baggage. I came without treasured vintage collectibles or directorial partiality. I came without preferences for animation style or positions on the film’s genre (fantasy or sci-fi? or who cares?). I came only with my Great Lakes Christmas Ale, and a newly-awakened love of the Star Wars saga acquired, in no small part, from loving Harry Potter first.

f39174246Like Potter, I came to love Star Wars because it is a story set in a believable and comprehensive universe, with genuinely interesting and compelling characters whose adventures propel the viewer’s interest both forward and backward in time. Like my more fundamental love for the Potter story, my love for Star Wars also has to do with what lies at the heart of the story: the Force, that mysterious power that takes the characters beyond the mundane, beyond themselves, beyond hatred and even death, and appears both systematic and magical in its origin and application.

So as I sat waiting for the opening scroll of The Force Awakens, I knew that as long as these elements remained central to the newest film as they are to the franchise as a whole (and how could they not?), I was going to love it. The Force Awakens did not disappoint.

However, I did not expect to find Severus Snape in the film. And yet, there he was, just as bold as brass. And Severus Snape’s film equivalent to a photo-bomb on my Potter-shaped imagination pointed me to a question even more compelling than my first: how much does Harry Potter influence Star Wars?

Kylo 4Let’s talk about Kylo Ren. He’s young, he’s stoic, he’s emo. He runs around in a cassock and mask. He’s got daddy issues. He flies a ship that looks like an overgrown bat. If these aesthetic echoes of Severus Snape (plus the casting of Ren with an actor who is far more believably Alan Rickman’s son than Harrison Ford’s) aren’t enough to convince you of the power of Potter to influence even Lucas’ ancient and venerable franchise, let’s take a deeper look.

Like Severus Snape, who was born to a witch mother and a Muggle father, Ben Solo (Ren’s given name) is of mixed origin. Ben/Ren is the child of one Force-sensitive (Leia Organa) and one Force-skeptic (Han Solo). As Snape inherited his mother’s magical abilities, Ren inherited his mother’s sensitivity to the Force. Both young men entered into formal training to harness this inherited power for the good (Ren with Skywalker, Snape at Hogwarts), but both men, in the course of their training, became seduced by a fixation on the shadows of their own heritages (recall Snape’s self-aggrandizing moniker “The Half-Blood Prince”), and joined an order of mask-wearing evil doers (the Knights of Ren, the Death Eaters). Both men take new titles for themselves, presumably, in part, out of a distaste for associating with their mundane fathers (though Snape does not use his new moniker professionally as Ren does).

f39080230Though both men are besotted with the dark side in their youth, neither can make a permanent commitment to this way of life, especially in light of former attachments (for Snape, Lily Evans Potter; for Ren, familiar and familial figures such as Poe Dameron, Han Solo and Rey seem to test his resolve). Snape is an accomplished Legilimens, and – not surprisingly by this point – Kylo Ren has the same talent for invading others’ minds. Importantly (and most spoilerifically), both men murder their fathers (in Snape’s case, father figure): for each, that figure who represents a last chance at redemption. Finally, both of these father/redemption figures are hurtled from a great height after each murderous confrontation.

It seems to this Star-Wars-via-Harry-Potter fan that the connections between Kylo Ren and Severus Snape are more than aesthetic. Although Snape’s redemptive trajectory is clear now that the Potter series is complete, Ren’s is still shrouded in mystery. Given the similarities I outlined above, it seems safe to suppose the redemption of Kylo Ren will be essential to the coming Star Wars installments, even if, like Snape’s redemption in the Harry Potter books, it is not the story’s main focus. But anyone interested in the cross- pollination between the Harry Potter and Star Wars franchises will keep a close eye on Kylo Ren.

Quidditch! Emily Strand Explains the Artistry and Meaning of Wizard Sport on MuggleNet and in a Live Webinar

Emily Strand ‘gets’ Quidditch. Really2cover red front gets it.

Working with Dr. Amy H. Sturgis at the Mythgard Institute, Emily wrote an essay on why and how Quidditch makes sense. That essay, ‘The Second War was Won on the Quidditch Pitch of Hogwarts: Quidditch as Symbol Set in the Harry Potter Series,’ explains the details and structure of Wizards’ favorite sport as reflections and highlights of the surrounding story. I invited her to MuggleNet Academia and she explained her theory in conversation with Keith Hawk, me, and Ashley McCann, a Senior in Religious Studies at Virginia Commonwealth (see below for the link to that podcast).

Emily StrandAt the end of our discussion, I asked Prof Strand if she had applied her global theory of Quidditch, i.e., that the two levels of action within each game (with Bludger mediators between the intersecting aerial fields) corresponds to like separation of stories in the series narrative between the Trio and the School, to each book. Does the Quidditch in each novel reflect the narrative of that book and its meaning?

She said “No, but we need to know that, don’t we?” So…

I have invited Prof Strand and a group of other Potter Pundits to a review of the Quidditch in each book and how it reflects — or fails to reflect — the story in which it is featured. Is it decorative or a dynamic symbol of the story we are experiencing? We’re meeting next Tuesday night, 29 December 2015, at 9:00 EST post meridian.

And you’re invited to this live, free webinar in which the understanding of the Hogwarts Saga will be expanded significantly, one way or the other! If you want to join us or to watch the replay, register here. Share your questions, corrections, and insights with world class Pundits live and without paying a cent.

Listen to Emily Strand talk Quidditch on MuggleNet Academia and then join us for the party next Tuesday night!

Hufflepuff Rules! A Parody Music Video

For my daughter Sarah, who has always thought Hufflepuff House was the coolest place to hang out.

Fantastic Beasts: “Just A Smidge”