Myth Placement: How and Why Popular Media Monkeys with Mythology–Part 2

In the early 1980s, Joseph Campbell indicated that mythology had fallen out of favor in the media, but he could not have foreseen the rampant popularity of mythological themes, characters and structures;  from comic book-like TV series like Hercules and Xena to the epic big-screen journeys of the Fellowship of the Ring and the fall and rise of Anakin Skywalker, mythology has experienced a revival among the general public. More recently, of course, the Greek pantheon has been embraced by an even wider audience through the Percy Jackson novels and inevitable movie, the Clash of the Titans reboot, and a forthcoming War of the Gods. Although mythology is seldom taught anymore in an academic setting (I am finally up to teach a college myth in human culture class next year after ten years of asking), and few college students can recognize the simplest of allusions to classical myths, Perseus is an action figure, Zeus is on keychains, and schoolchildren can dress up as Athena or Ares for Halloween. As mythology loses its place in the academy while being embraced by the popular media, the themes, characters, and events of mythology are being morphed from their traditional forms to fit modern sensibilities and values. At last, here is part two on the subject of how and why the mythical world is altered in text and on-screen. If you missed it, here’s part one.

1. What ARE they teaching them in these schools?

One reason, surely, that film makers and writers use mythological themes and elements is because they themselves like the mythology. Some of them were undoubtedly Latin nerds like me, who always thought, “You know, this stuff is great; if it had the right presentation, it would catch on faster than Spider-Man!”  Thus, authors like Percy Jackson’s Rick Riordan operate from a deft and deep knowledge of mythology to bring their stories to life.  Other media mongers, however, seem to be under the impression that mythology is not widely taught, certainly not in public schools if the scant knowledge of college freshman is the indicator, so therefore they are at liberty to make any changes they like, assuming no one will actually notice.  Like filmmakers who think no one knows much about the original book on which their film is based (read: Tim Burton’s movie that was charming, but was not Lewis Carroll’s story!) these folks depend on the gullibility and lack of mythological knowledge among the general public to pass off shoddy versions of the myths. Unlike C.S. Lewis and J. K. Rowling, who include great in-jokes assuming their readers actually do know a classical allusion is not a magic trick performed to the accompaniment of Bach music, such writers and filmmakers trust in the general lack of knowledge  to get away with whatever changes they want to make. Sadly, this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: because the general public watches television instead of reading Edith Hamilton or Bullfinch, most viewers and readers are duped into thinking the “tinkered with” version of the myth is authentic. This has been clearly illustrated to me as I give a reading quiz on “Leda and the Swan” in my literature survey class, and I always offer extra credit for names of other women with whom Zeus dallied. The most frequent wrong guess? Xena. [Read more…]

Searching for Christian Imagery in ‘Harry Potter’

NPR reports that Christians and University Professors have discovered edifying Christian content in Joanne Rowling’s Hogwarts Saga. In a piece last Saturday titled Searching for Christian Imagery in Harry Potter, Guy Raz breathlessly interviews professors from Pomona and Brite Divinity School who think that Harry — and Dumbledore! — are Christ figures.

Who would have thought!

We have officially reached the end stage of the literary equivalent of scientific discovery, having worked our way through “Absurd!” (2003) to “Needs More Study!” (2006) to, at last, “We’ve always known that!” (2009). Congratulations, All-Pros, we have moved from fools and Procrustean projectors to NPR Orthodoxy.

Does the article title remind you of anything? (H/T to Lynn!)

The King of the Golden River – Ruskin

Another tale of three brothers, subtitled ‘The Black Brothers: A Legend of Stiria,’ this fairy tale by the very young John Ruskin (1841) should get you in the mood for Tales of Beedle the Bard. I couldn’t find a version online with Dumbledore’s commentary so I hope we can fill it in. My bet is that Ruskin, as a serious reader of Coleridge and as a Romantic in recovery from consumption, wrote this with the Dantean three layers: narrative line, moral line, and almost invisible alchemical artistry to transform our vision in a kind of esemplastic epiphany. Let me know what you see, especially in the description of the glacier and the transparency of nature.

The King of the Golden River

By John Ruskin [Read more…]

PDay Minus One: Prediction #7 “Does Harry Die?”

Here are the Six Previous Predictions in this Series for your convenience and easy reference:

Prediction #1: “Deathly Hallows Will Be Very Much Like the First Six Harry Potter Novels” (with 3 Sure-Things We’ll See at Deathly Hallows’ Publication)

Prediction #2: “The Master Plan Will Be Revealed”

Prediction #3: “Mistaken Identities”

Prediction #4: “Through the Veil”

Prediction #5: “The Rubedo”

Prediction #6: “The House-Elves”

Prediction #6.5: “Tale of Two Cities: Why We Should Expect a Beheading in Deathly Hallows”

There isn’t much here that’s especially mind-boggling or off-the-wall (unless you count some of the guesses at mistaken identities) because each prediction is an illustration or pointer to one or many more of the Five Keys that Serious Readers use to get under the surface of the Harry Potter novels. Ms. Rowling works in patterns and formulas, some of which are fairly easy to understand and see (the Hero’s Journey for instance), others of which require some study (the Literary Alchemy and Postmodern Themes come to mind).

I like these predictions, not because I think they’re “winners” or “bull’s eyes” — I’d be more foolish than I am if I thought more than a few have a chance of proving to be Ms. Rowling’s actual plot points — but because they require readers to think seriously about the patterns Ms. Rowling will be following in what ever direction she takes the series in its finale. Sales of Unlocking Harry Potter: Five Keys for the Serious Reader continue to be strong while other Interlibrum titles like the MuggleNet guesses about HP7 have fallen off; readers are telling other serious readers that it isn’t just a pre-Deathly Hallows title.

Thank you for these word-of-mouth sales.

My last prediction is in answer to the question Ms. Rowling has fostered in our minds, “Will Harry die in Deathly Hallows?” I am certain the answer is, “Yes, he will.”

But what sort of death will it be?

Harry, after all, has died a figurative or “near death” in every book so far, only to rise-from-the-dead in the presence of a symbol of Christ. Will that pattern be continued in this last episode or has that periodic resurrection only been a prologue or perumbration for the hero’s real and final demise in Deathly Hallows?

Both versions, of course, would satisfy Ms. Rowling’s patterns that we see in the Five Keys so I won’t pretend to have a definitive answer. My thoughts about specific plot points are perhaps better than the average readers but not so much more that I’d want to bet more than I have in my wallet (never very much, alas).

I don’t know what Harry will learn at the Dursleys’, at Godric’s Hollow, or at the Alchemical Wedding in The Burrow, or even if Harry’s itinerary will conform to his stated destinations at the end of Half-Blood Prince once VoldeWar II breaks out in earnest. I doubt very much there will be the grand Horcrux Hunt many expect or, if he does find the Horcruxes, that he’ll find them in working order. The Rubedo will reveal what happened in the White Stage of the work and much of that Harry just doesn’t understand (see prediction #2). I have a hard time seeing Albus and Severus leaving Horcrux destruction to a self-important man-boy without any clear instructions about destroying them or clues about finding them.

I do imagine that Harry will travel underground and visit the Dead (see prediction #4). If he goes through the Veil, we’ll know why Ms. Rowling had Harry go deep every year and, perhaps, why she thought her faith would be self-evident in the finale. A three day “harrying of Hell” and return-to-life would suffice for that, no?

As much as this trip would satisfy a checklist requirement for “death” and “resurrection,” even Ms. Rowling’s assertion that we’d see in Deathly Hallows how near we could get to the dead, my gut feeling is that we’ll see another death, this time by beheading (see Prediction #6.5). Harry may learn something about his ScarCam Horcrux (which I think Severus disarmed at the end of Prince before leaving the Hogwarts grounds) and foolishly believe his decapitation will destroy the Horcrux (logic says it wouldn’t; only blowing up his head entirely or removing and destroying the Horcrux itself would do that because it isn’t dependent on Harry’s life, it rests on his skull).

Whatever, it seems there is so much beheading and near-beheading in the books that I suspect, as Linda McCabe has said, Chekhov’s Dictum that a loaded gun brought on stage must be fired seems to require that we have a Sydney Carton-like finish to Deathly Hallows. I hope you’ll forgive me for not believing that it will be Harry’s demise.

We know that Unicorn blood will save your life no matter how weak your hold on existence (if drinking this cipher for the Blood of Christ will damn anyone drinking it unworthily, a la 1 Corinthians). We know, too, that Dumbledore was the man who discovered the 12 uses of Dragon’s Blood and that Dragon’s Heart Strings are magically powerful. It turns out that “Dragon’s Blood” is alchemical language for the “Elixir of Life,” another cipher for the Blood of Christ. We saw a little of this power in Phoenix when Hagrid manages to endure Grawp’s beatings for months via the judicious application of Dragon steaks.

Look for Norbert to return like the calvary to Harry’s Cavalry and, with some help, to do for him what Fawkes did for his wounds in the Chamber of Secrets. A little trickier, of course, if Harry is doing his impersonation of Nearly Headless Nick, but certainly doable.

Harry then, may die not only once but twice in Deathly Hallows. He may pass through the Veil and join the Dead. He almost certainly will return. I expect then that Harry will die in a way that convinces us he is “dead and gone” but we will be wrong. In a “big twist” and probably via the services of the Dumbledore men on the scene, Hagrid and Snape, Harry will be revived with Dragon’s Blood. Severus, however redeemed and revealed as a hero and the Great Physician and the Man the World Knew Not, will not be so lucky. Look for Wormtail to be Severus’ bane, thinking he is doing what Harry (and Harry’s father) would want….

It’s getting late and I have a very long night ahead, speaking at Barnes and Noble Saucon Valley and then reading aloud to my three youngest children, Stasia, Timothy, and Zossima. Thank you for reading these predictions and, in advance, for your charity in the coming hours as you find out that all my guesswork has been wrong, at least superficially, as it must prove to be. Reflection on the Five Keys of Narrative Misdirection, Literary Alchemy, the Hero’s Journey, Postmodern Themes, and Traditional Symbolism will help us unravel the meaning of Deathly Hallows more than these guesses made using the Keys have unraveled Ms. Rowling’s finale beforehand.

I hope you have had even half the fun and friendship through your thinking about Harry Potter, here and elsewhere, that I have had. If you have, these books will always have a very special place near your heart.

“Accio Tomorrow!”

Hogwarts Professor will be closed until Monday when I will be appearing at the Barnes & Noble Book Club online as Guest Host for a day, beginning the international and all-comers discussion there of Deathly Hallows. “See you there and then!”

Tale of Two Cities: Why We Should Expect a Beheading in Deathly Hallows

A week or so ago, my computer mailbox filled up with e-owls from friends everywhere about an article that had appeared on the MSN network. Called “Death of Harry Potter Makes Mythological Sense,” it argued that Harry’s death was not only possible, it was likely because of mythic and classic precedent. [Read more…]