Wednesday, January 11, 2006

The Journey to Adulthood

Shakes has a post up talking about Action Heros and Unlikely Heros (inspired by Mannions series on Hollywood's Right Wing Agenda: part 1, part 2, part 3). She ends with: "Maybe we're getting tired of watching perfect heroes with presaged destinies who come out of battles unscathed." (empahsis mine)

I was arguing this recently with someone with regard to the Harry Potter books. He thinks that the fact that all this stuff starts happening to Harry only because of choices others have made is a fatal flaw in the series. I find it to be an interesting way of anointing Harry the hero of the story without falling strictly into noble blood/preordained path that hero's journeys usually have. I'm a fourth of the way through Eragon and, I must say - after reading hundreds of fantasy stories - the whole orphan of questionable parentage discovering his noble blood is getting more than a bit old*. I understand why it's so popular, but that just makes me appreciate the Potter books so much more. Rowling found a way to play with the stereotype just enough so that kids can still see the typical hero on the surface - but they can also dig deeper and find so much more if they want to.

There are really several hero's journeys occurring at once throughout the series. Structurally, Harry's adventure began at the end of the first book when he defeated Voldemort and thus accepted his role as Good Guy to Voldemort's Evil Nemesis. Thematically, though, Harry is still in the process of starting his adventure. The big question on every adult's mind isn't "is Snape bad/good?" or "who is going to die?" (we all think we've got those figured out) but rather, "will Harry finally become the hero of his own adventure?" I think that the series will end with Harry finally "answering the call" of adulthood.

It's essential to the story that Harry's hero status is thus far mostly defined by what others have done. We can tell by Harry's reactions to Rita Skeeter's attempts to make him out to be a hero that he doesn't consider himself to be one, and neither should we, outside of literary terms. To adults, Harry's lack of leadership can feel like a fundamental flaw in his character; the amount of depth that can be found in Harry's character falls well short of the complexity of the story being told. To adolescents, on the other hand, his inaction is simply an acknowledgement of their stage in life and his reluctance to fully accept the role of hero is symbolic of their ambivalence about growing up.

Most hero's journeys are about becoming an adult, but the Potter series, like our favorite Spiderman and Batman movies, focuses on the choice to become a hero rather than just the physical process. In Rowling's books (presuming she ends it as I suspect she will), true maturity is something that must be chosen, it is not simply the default of having made the "right" choices along the way or having enough experience to attain wisdom. The purpose of Dumbledore's speech at the end of Goblet of Fire is to turn the standard dichotomy of good vs. evil into one of responsibility vs. selfishness. This is why, so far, Harry remains an incomplete hero, despite having made (mostly) good choices and having suffered more than many of his classmates. He is still very much a child and fear and lack of empathy for his enemies often clouds his judgment.

If Harry becomes a hero it will be because he, and those around him, chose that path, not because of his abilities or birth. Even the "accident" that made him "The Boy Who Lived" was a direct result of his parents choice to be self sacrificing adults. Harry will be a hero simply because he, and the people in his life, took it upon themselves to do what was right, and not what was easy.

**I may be assuming to much here, but it seems quite obvious where it's going. I keep hoping Paolini will surprise me, but no luck so far.

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