It All Ends

by Jeff on July 15, 2011 · 5 comments

in Stuff I Like

It’s problematic.

I look at a lot of the things I love in fiction – fantasy, science fiction, superheroes – and I see that that same basic story structure that props each hero’s journey up ultimately tends to be a little fascistic.  Because when Boy X gets Sword Y and learns how to fight from Bygone Hero Z so that he can confront Ultimate Evil Villain W all by himself, there’s a kind of wish-fulfillment tendency to put Boy X in charge of everything, because only he can save us all. If you delve deeply into genre, you see it all over the place; delve too deeply, and you might start thinking it’s the solution to other problems, too – that there’s One Magical Person who should just be able to do what they want and it will save everything (and I’m thinking primarily about political discourse when I say this).  It’s all just ‘I am Right because I have this weapon and I know how to use it.’

I think one of the things that makes the Harry Potter franchise special is that it very pointedly doesn’t do this. It has a propehecied hero, to be sure, and an ultimate villain and some very, very powerful magical baubles and artifacts. To the casual observer, just glancing at the surface of it, it certainly looks like another example of ‘Special Boy’ fiction.

On the contrary, the story of Harry Potter is the story of a normal boy who is faced with exceptional circumstances and rises to them. He achieves victory not because of his powers, but because of his virtues – loyalty, friendship, tenacity, compassion, selflessness, love. He has to rely on his friends and allies to help him win. And ultimately, when he gets that ultimate Elixir, that reward of godlike power, he rejects it. Because he is, after all, a normal boy now become a man.

It is deeply meaningful to me, then, that the “fuck yeah” moments in the finale belong to a housewife and awkward teenage boy who finds a hidden wellspring of fortitude and courage within him when pressed to the extreme. That is exactly where those moments belong.

That story is special. It may have wizards and dragons, but it’s also a rubric by which any person of any age can live their lives happily.

Potter gets compared to Star Wars a lot because of its epic scope and its rabid fandom, but it’s likely not a coincidence that the two stories have the same core narrative. In Return of the Jedi, Luke wins a mystical victory, it’s true, but it means nothing without the military victory of both the fleet and the ground mission on Endor, which itself hinges on the timely intervention of the moon’s native population.

One of the most resonant moments in Star Wars for me is the moment when Luke throws down his lightsaber.* It’s not a gesture of surrender or weakness, but of victory. It demonstrates not only that a real and meaningful victory is not won with weapons or with power alone, and also completes Luke’s arc as a character, his transition from craving instruction on how to fight Vader to realizing that he never needed the weapon to win in the first place.

Over the next few weeks, there will be a lot of talk about what the “next Harry Potter” will be, where it will come from. I think it’s impossible to tell what the next thing to resonate that richly and deeply with such a large audience will be, but I am pretty sure that whatever it ends up being will share the same message at its heart.


*There are myriad reasons why the prequels are not as effective as the originals, but the lack of a true emotional and philosophical echo to this scene is undoubtedly part of what feels ‘off’ to many critics of the prequels.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Matt July 15, 2011 at 11:18 am

(I am not sure I should type this)

What about the sequence in Sith where Anakin finally caves into the dark side? I agree it doesn’t have the depth, impact, or philosophy of the echo moment in Jedi, but I think it has a bit of punch. If the previous two prequels hadn’t sucked wind, it may have had even more punch.

Jeff July 15, 2011 at 11:44 am

There are definite structural callbacks to Jedi throughout the movie, yeah, but I guess, abstractly, what I mean is that, for instance, Obi-Wan (who in the denouement is our Luke figure) doesn’t really hesitate about killing his apprentice. He’s committed to it, or at least resigned to it, even though he tries to talk Anakin down. And that’s by design – he has to fail to set up Luke’s success later.

As a result, taken on their own, the prequels don’t really tell the story that Lucas wants to tell. They can’t ever really stand on their own – they just give extra context to the stuff that happens later.

mrflippy July 15, 2011 at 12:29 pm

Honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever actually considered taking the prequels on their own. Perhaps that’s part of the reason I was not extremely disappointed or angry over the prequels.

William Gatevackes July 15, 2011 at 8:16 pm

I think that project that you and Drees were discussing in NYC that one time is the next Potter.

FilmBuffRich July 19, 2011 at 7:47 pm

Only coming at Potter from the stories as films, I like your analysis of Harry’s rejection of the Elder Wand at the end of the this last film. Too bad the movie tosses away the moment as something almost inconsequential.

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