Is Harry Potter telling us something?
Here are some facts relating to the fantasy genre in film and books: As of 2011, the Harry Potter film franchise is the highest-grossing film franchise of all time. Similarly, this franchise was the highest-grossing film franchise in North America too. The second highest-grossing film franchise in North America as of 2011 was Star Wars. Stephenie Meyers Twilight vampire books targeting young adults were ranked one to four in a list of top 100 books of 2009, according to USA Today. And, at least seven in the top 20 in a similar list for 2010 were fantasies.
Is the popularity of stories of fantasy in books and movies, telling us something? One wonders if today people – particularly young adults are, by following the quests of the heroes in these stories, themselves on a quest at a subliminal level to find something that may have lately gone missing from our lives?
In the book, The Power oF Stephenie, Joseph Campbell stresses humanity s innate desire to create myths and live out the themes of mythology. We have a need either to follow myths handed down to us via our ancestral song-lines or re-shape them to fit the contemporary milieu. As the English philosopher, Gilbert Ryle, stating of facts belonging to one category in the idioms appropriate to another. We yearn to create myths and follow them as myths represent our search through the ages for truth, meaning and significance. Myths help us in our quest to find out who we are. According to Campbell, myths fulfill missilections in our lives. First there is the mystical function, realizing what a wonder the universe is, what a wonder you are.
Myths also serves, a sociological function supporting and validating a certain social order. But when myths become bound too tightly to parochial idioms, they get circumscribed by the cultural prisons we create around ourselves and lose their ability to reflect universal truths. Campbell laments the fact that in the Christian church, for example, the clergy is too obsessed with the ethics of good and evil and has forsaken the connotations of the Christian myths as metaphors. A metaphor is an image that represents something else. A metaphor is not literal truth. (For example, as Campbell illustrates, Jesus could not have ascended to heaven because there is no physical heaven.) What compounds this inability of the Christian clergy to explain and teach mystical truths handed down through the ages is the fact that today there is an increasing disillusionment (particularly in the West) with religion and loss of faith resulting in a housecleaning of belief, as Saul Bellow called it.
The void left by our lack of a sustaining mythology could sometimes be filled by poetry and art which also serve a similar purpose. As Shakespeare pointed out, art is a mirror held up to nature. However, in an age of instant gratification, we forsake art and poetry as too onerous and opt for something less difficult to digest, less burdensome to comprehend: we turn to the Twilight Sagas and Harry Potter. This is not to imply that the activity of exalting these contemporary fantasies is to be denigrated as something inferior. Joseph Campbell stresses in fact, many times during his conversation with Bill Moyers that myths do not necessarily have to be only about the search for the meaning of life: equally importantly, they serve as guideposts to the experience of beof instant. Our mythology can thus address both the big questions and the more mundane, but perhaps equally essential and existential, questions such as how to conduct our daily lives. Moreover, we are all heroes in our own minds and hence look for heroes to emulate from our myths even if those myths were created only yesterday. For, after all, all myths attempt to address the same fundamental principles. This is what Campbell meant when he observed that Star Wars has put the newest and most powerful spin to the classic story of the hero.
By Venkat Ramanan