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Harry Potter – A New World Mythology?
By Lynne Milum
Copyright © 2003, 2007 by Lynne Milum. All rights reserved.

In our modern world, where news is instantaneous, language is of minor limitation, and technology allows us to go where no one has gone before – boundaries take on a new nature. Where do our human limitations end? Each person is on a hero’s journey to contend with his mortality (as measured by the passage of time) and his selfish human nature. Our hope and salvation is in overcoming these limitations.

Near the end of his life, Joseph Campbell refocused his work in mythology on the alignment of humanity in our common purpose. He felt that a new set of narratives was needed to address the world as we come to know it. This new "world mythology" can elevate us above our former tribal and sectarian separations that heretofore societies have leveraged for survival.

Specifically, George Lucas was influenced by Campbell and developed the original Star Wars trilogy based on this concept of world mythology. More recently, the narratives created in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series appear to carry on this tradition. This world mythology framework provides a new means for enjoying and experiencing these new "great" stories – Mythology continues to rewrite itself just as nature renews itself.

The first criterion for a world mythology is one of general accessibility and understanding. At the risk of sounding "Euro-centric" in the discussion of the English language, a personal experience is warranted for example:

I was attending a business meeting in Frankfurt/Main Germany; of the 14 attendees, about half were French, half were German and I was the sole attendee who spoke English as a native tongue. I remember gazing around the room and listening to some very animated discussions in English. In that moment, I realized that even if I had not attended, English would still be the language of choice for it is the world language of business a true lingua franca.

In a similar manner, a world audience not content to wait for native-tongue translations is nonetheless rabidly absorbing J.K. Rowling’s writings. So many of these world citizens have read the English versions, absorbing what they can and discussing with others. And the ever-plodding translations gradually fill in the language gaps for those not comfortable with English. So the world is hearing the Harry Potter story in numbers that few other stories can match.

A second criterion for a world mythology is the development of universal ideas common to all humanity. This type of mythology does not select one religious or societal focus, but seeks unifying themes that supercede sectarianism and gently touch all of humanity. J.K. Rowling (JKR) develops many of these themes in the Harry Potter series, often but not exclusively through Professor Dumbledore’s advice to Harry. We know that Harry’s ultimate means of ‘conquering’ Voldemort (the evil wizard of the series) is through the power of Love and Unity, rather than through physical conquest. JKR also has consistently emphasized that each person is responsible for his or her choices – and by their choices alone should they be judged. JKR has also emphasized that even in a magical world, there are prejudices rampant — terms such as "Mudblood" and "Squib," are offensive labels that should be rebuked.

The third and final criterion for a world mythology is to remove boundaries that separate person from person (and, taken to another level, one element of creation from another). In a world mythology, the ideal is that there is only one world. Unity goes beyond perceptions of good and evil. Boundaries to be overcome are no longer necessarily geocentric (e.g., Star Wars introduced the idea of interstellar "race" relations – human and otherwise). And those that are earthbound are artificial – created by the psyche of man to separate tribe from tribe; nation from nation; race from race. A world mythology recognizes that there is just one race – a human race. There is just one physical world, and existing resources are all that we have. There is but one body of water, ever in cycle. One atmosphere. One land mass. One sun. A world mythology illuminates the falsehood in the barriers. Muggle vs. Magical. Nation vs. Nation. Beasts vs. Beings. And most radically, Good vs. Evil.

Yes, the world myth truly flirts with breaking all barriers. What separates Harry from Voldemort? And what brings them together? Doesn’t Harry think that evil originates from himself in the Order of the Phoenix? These thoughts are inside his brain. And he truly has difficulty with his own darker nature in the Phoenix episode. We now know that his life is inextricably linked to Voldemort – and his choice is positioned as destroy or be destroyed. But there is a third choice – far less satisfying for many entrenched in the Good Conquers Evil motif. But for those ready to be Peacemakers, Harry’s potential to redeem Voldemort would be the greatest victory of all. After all, what created the hatred in Tom Riddle (Voldemort’s true identity) to start with? Why can’t he accept who he really is? Even in this characterization of overwhelming evil, there is an opening. Tom has been overcome by the Ultimate in selfish behavior. He sees himself as Supreme over all others and is justified in his own actions. In essence, the rebirth of Tom Riddle is the death of Voldemort and the end of Harry’s obligation to the world. So the reader now knows this author’s hope for Harry’s destiny, life and the series finale!

Regardless of how Harry Potter ends, this unique series clearly meets the first two criteria for a world mythology
(1) broad accessibility and (2) universality of theme. J.K. Rowling may be on the path to recasting the traditional myth of good conquering evil, with an entire generation of children (of all ages!) actively participating in its unfoldment. Or, Rowling may be pursuing a new outcome for our age, fully a world mythology. This outcome recognizes the only true battle of good vs. evil is within our "selves," such that each person must come to terms with the reality that is humanity itself.

Postscript 2007

At 1 minute past midnight (local time) on July 21, 2007, the world witnessed a cultural event that rivaled (and perhaps surpassed) the global fervor The Beatles must have experienced - the introduction of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. In it, the last episode of the Harry Potter saga was unveiled.

Jo Rowling successfully recasts the traditional myth of good conquering evil in this closure to the series. While the ending is decidedly Christian in nature with strong parallels to C.S. Lewis's Aslan character, it remains a valuable narrative on agape love to all readers who hold hope for the human race.

Harry is a christ, a bodhisattva, a buddha in multiple senses whose story transcends religious dogma. Harry observes serious flaws in those he loves dearly, and observes love and compassion in those he has learned to despise. This realization becomes his trump card. Harry does not fear death, rather, resigned to his fate, he faces it directly while surrounded by the love of those who went before.

In the end, Harry calls on Tom Riddle to feel remorse for his actions - for he knows what Tom will become if he doesn't seek forgiveness. Harry's last spell is one of compassionate disarmament - and Voldemort's last spell cast his own karmic fate.

While there is no unification of Muggle and Magical worlds, there is an acceptance of co-existence and self-determination of those worlds. Similarly there is a distinct rejection of imperialism and objectification so desired by Voldemort, Grindelwald and even Dumbledore himself. All houses of Hogwarts ultimately collaborated in the overthrow of evil, and several individuals previously deemed as "bad" were redeemed by their actions, by Harry's forgiveness or both.

Thank you Jo for allowing us to live in this world you imagined, and for preserving hopes and pitfalls in pursuing a life well-lived.




Copyright © 2012
All rights reserved.