The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

What Harry Potter inherits from Star Wars

July 27, 2007

For members of generation X like myself, Star Wars is one of the constitutive myths of our childhoods. The Force, lightsaber duels, the Millennium Falcon, “I am your father,” “he’s my brother,” “I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” and so on . . . this is what we grew up with. And because Star Wars was such a mega-hit, the characters and tropes and themes spawned a whole slew of allusions and invocations that continue to infiltrate popular public discussions of all kinds of things. Few pop culture artifacts achieve that level of saturation; few artists are able to shape the common cultural vernacular in such a profound way; few packages of commonplaces become that widely shared, widely enough that a non-obscure Star Wars reference like “use the Force” or the image of Darth Vader [a gargoyle of which adorns the National Cathedral as an iconic contemporary representation of Evil] is extremely likely to make sense even to people who haven’t even seen the films!

For members of the next generation, the “millennial” generation, I’d wager that a principal constitutive myth is the Harry Potter series. I say this not just because of the mega-blockbuster character of the whole Harry Potter phenomenon, although that helps something become a constitutive myth out of which large numbers of people are empowered to construct their senses of self; the more widespread the recognition of the symbols and tropes, the easier it is to gain social affirmation for one’s use of them in constructing one’s own story, after all. But I also think that one of the striking things about the Harry Potter series is how similar the story is to the constitutive myth it succeeds, how many of the same elements recur in lightly shuffled and reorganized form, albeit updated in a way that makes contemporary sense for the present world. Of course, this should not be too surprising, since both Harry Potter and Star Wars are mythological works, and mythology always works by re-telling some version of an old, old story — by recombining traditional elements so as to reaffirm and reinforce certain basic motifs and themes that are strangely familiar to the audience even as the specifics of the plot and the characters are anything but familiar.

Harry Potter thus inherits two things from Star Wars: a set of cultural commonplaces on which it draws for much of its evocative power, and the mantle of serving as a root experience for massive numbers of people — especially for younger people, into whose cultural lifeworld notions like “muggle” and the Ministry of Magic have now been firmly implanted. Just as much of cultural life in the industrialized parts of Europe and North America (and quite a ways beyond it) was decisively shaped or colored by the way that Star Wars updated and transmitted the cultural commonplaces that it deployed and utilized, so too will cultural life be divisible into pre- and post-Potter eras, with a “Potterian” flavor going forward.

Fortunately for us, the post-Potter world contains much of what the pre-Potter world contained, because the Harry Potter story — as mythology — is an old, old story. What is new here are the details and specifics, not the basic themes and tropes. I can’t substantiate this point without spoilers, which I have kept below the fold — you have been warned.

First, a little analytical history.

One of the most important things that George Lucas did in the opening moments of Star Wars was to insert a simple text-card on the screen before the opening title crawl and the main theme music begins: “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away . . .” it reads, and it’s a very important little clue to how the read and appreciate what’s about to happen on screen. Lucas’ brief intro serves the same function as “Once upon a time . . .” and similar phrases, signaling that we’re about to enter an alternate reality that is connected to our own thematically rather than literally or plausibly. A phrase like this announces a fairy tale, a bit of myth, and implicitly warns us that the story to come shouldn’t be evaluated for its representative accuracy or for its analytical incisiveness or whatever — instead, we’re in the realm of allegory, symbol, dream, and fantasy.

It’s important that Lucas puts this over the head of each of the Star Wars films, because the conventional cultural code seems to dictate that stories involving spaceships and laser swords should be read as “science fiction” rather than as mythology. It makes a difference: virtually all science fiction has a burden of appearing scientifically plausible, of providing some way for the scientifically literate reader to come to terms with things like faster-than-light travel and teleportation and the like. Star Wars has none of this: nowhere in any of the films is there even a half-hearted attempt to explain how hyperdrive works, and the attempt to demystify the Force by introducing “midi-chlorians” in Episode I falls so flat that we never hear another word about them after that film. This makes sense because Star Wars is more fantasy than science fiction, more mythology than systematic exploration of how technological changes and alien encounter affect human beings — after all, Star Wars (unlike, say, Star Trek) isn’t about Earth-native humans at all, making it somewhat absurd to try to connect our present science or present social order to that of Star Wars in any systematic way.

But what we can do — what I’d wager that Lucas wants us to do — is to read Star Wars as a fictional realm wherein very current themes and issues, specifically philosophical and moral/ethical themes and issues, are played out. After all, that’s what mythology is for: it’s a purer exemplar of such themes and issues than the often-messy examples provided in the “real world,” and as such offers the reader/viewer a chance to experience and explore those issues and themes more or less directly. Mythology, unlike the real world or unlike “realistic fiction” which strives to tell it like it is (more or less), has a “moral of the story” — a set of lessons we’re supposed to take away, even if those lessons are somewhat ambiguous.

The Harry Potter series is like Star Wars in this respect — it’s mythology rather than literature or social commentary or any other genre of writing that you might care to mention. As such, it deserves to be interpreted as mythology, which makes complaints about (say) the “nonideological evil” in the series somewhat beside the point. No, neither Vader nor Voldemort have fully-fleshed-out ideological programs, but they’re not supposed to: these are less depictions of actual people than archetypal symbols, and their movements or organizations are just generically Evil in intent, bent on the usual Evil Overlord goals: power, domination, supremacy, immortality, and so forth. And the fact that there are disillusioned followers of both Evil Overlords who turn out to have a variety of reasons for turning away from their former masters should not, I’d argue, be read as some kind of commentary on leadership styles or whatever; instead, it’s the introduction of another archetype, the Remorseful Former Bad Guy who generally turns out to just be misunderstood and in need of a little community affirmation. In Star Wars, part of the twist is that the Remorseful Former Bad Guy is also the main exemplar of Evil: Vader, it turns out, is redeemable. In Harry Potter, it’s Snape who (contrary to my expectations) falls into Evil, sees the error of his ways [more or less — I still think that Snape is hedging his bets at least until after he kills Dumbledore in book 6, and he almost defects from Dumbledore’s plan once he learns what Harry is being prepared for . . . but that’s material for another post, I think] fulfills this role. The point is that these are archetypes, and shouldn’t be read as examples of some governance strategy failing; they present occasions for ethical reflection, not case studies for empirical dissection.

But the genetic connection between the two constitutive mythological works is a lot stronger than this. The parallel is most obvious between the original three Star Wars films (i.e., not the prequels) and the Harry Potter sequence: a young boy (Luke/Harry), orphaned, discovers that he has a Mysterious Destiny, goes into training, makes some close friends (Leia/Hermione and Han/Ron), is cultivated and shaped by a mysterious older wizard (Obi-Wan/Dumbledore) who has a history with the current Embodiment Of Evil, ends up confronting that Evil and defeating it by not fighting — indeed, by throwing away his weapon and allowing himself to be a noble sacrifice, but doesn’t end up really dead because of the intervention of some form of human affection. By not fighting, by simply presenting himself as the archetypal peaceful warrior (fight to disarm and no further, which is what both Luke and Harry do during their respective epic final battles — how perfectly appropriate is it that in the end Harry defeats the Dark Lord with a well-cast Expelliarmus spell, despite Lupin’s criticism of him for just that tactic earlier in the book?), the hero triumphs over Evil.

Of course this is a familiar story. The noble sacrifice motif, especially the noble sacrifice that ends up conquering or mastering death, goes back into antiquity, and in the “Western world” one can’t help but reference Jesus Christ as an exemplar. The spirit guide helping to engineer the epic confrontation has numerous precedents. The hero journey to mastery over death is what Hamlet undertakes, what grail seekers do in Arthurian legends, what C. S. Lewis’ characters do when visiting Narnia, etc. etc.

If we start looking at the Star Wars prequels, we find a further parallel in that both Dumbledore and Anakin start off as idealists, but Anakin ends up going into politics and trying to impose his ideas by force while Dumbledore resists that temptation and remains an academic. But both have their Citizen Kane moments — they just take different directions in response to that challenge.

And further: both Harry Potter and Star Wars feature an intriguing double moral message structure in which a second teaching contradicts the first, more obvious teaching. At the most obvious level, both myth cycles celebrate the individual and her or his choices; self-actualization seems central, and individual empowerment against a faceless overwhelming mass seems to be the name of the game. Choice over capacity seems central: Luke has to choose between Dark and Light, and even the Sorting Hat listens to Harry’s (and Hermione’s!) preferences about which house he wants to be placed into, and Dumbledore highlights this choice as an essential difference between Harry and Voldemort. But on closer examination, neither mythology actually ends up with this kind of liberal individualist decisionism: Harry’s most important moments are those in which he just acts in the way that he feels that he is supposed to be acting, and just knows what he is supposed to do, much like Luke when he gets better acquainted with the Force. And the choice situations that we see are engineered and enabled by a lot of prior social action, both by individual mentors and by the broader community: Harry can’t confront Voldemort, and Luke can’t confront Vader, absent the actions of a multitude of people whose effort makes the confrontation possible. No one is an isolated individual, and people get in trouble in both mythologies when they try to act alone, without friends and colleagues supporting them.

In the end these are communal mythologies rather than individualistic ones, affirming the conceptual priority of the intersubjective over the subjective and of the cultural context over the bearer of aspects of that context. They’re not collectivist; call them “post-individualist,” since we still have valuable and worthy individuals floating around and individuals do matter; they just don’t matter as Lockeian or neoliberal atoms out of which societal polymers are constructed. Shades here of Heidegger, I think: individual people are the occasions for existence to exist in a self-conscious or reflexive way, the moments for the Force or the deeper magic of love (which is the Force-analogue in the Harry Potter books) to manifest and triumph.

So: they’re old, old stories. I’m not completely sure what to make of the fact that the new mythology (Harry Potter) is more archaic-fantasy while the older mythology (Star Wars) is techno-futuristic in flavor; maybe this says something about the way we view ourselves now? Magic rather than spaceships. Hmm. I wonder if that’s a post-Challenger thing, a general diminishing of the excitement of space exploration — Star Wars was only a few years removed from the moon landings, after all, so some of the romance of space travel was still around to be drawn upon. But I’m not confident about that, and I’d be curious to hear other people’s ideas.

website | + posts

Patrick Thaddeus Jackson is Professor of International Studies in the School of International Service, and also Director of the AU Honors program. He was formerly Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of International Relations and Development, and is currently Series Editor of the University of Michigan Press' book series Configurations: Critical Studies of World Politics.