This week my friend Bela ClĂșa has visited to introduce my students in the Harry Potter class to the basics of writing about heroes. She spoke to them about how heroic narratives have been famously studied by psychoanalysis (Carl Jung, Otto Rank) and by scholars interested in myth (Joseph Campbell, Northrop Frye).
Next she mentioned Christopher Voglerâs twelve-step break-down of the widespread hero narrative in his well-known The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure For Writers (1992, see http://www.thewritersjourney.com/), inspired by Campbell and a must for any aspiring screen writer. She took Voglerâs twelve steps and contrasted them with the plot of Rowlingâs series (I was thinking all the time of how Alcoholic Anonymous also uses twelve steps in their own heroic narrativeâŠ). They matched reasonably well.
Voglerâs own website offers a presentation of the twelve steps, accompanied by another list of in this case 10 steps for The Heroine’s Journey (adapted from the 1990 eponymous book by Maureen Murdock, a Jungian psychotherapist). The rationale behind Voglerâs steps is that since they appear so frequently in our myths and favourite hero narratives, a good knowledge of them will guarantee successful screen writing. After all, Iâll add, George Lucas knew his Joseph Campbell fine and look at Star WarsâŠ
This is a very common mistake. Jung, Rank, Campbell and company took an immense corpus of extant myths and stories (mostly Western) and extrapolated from them a series of (dubiousâŠ) universal features that seemed common to most. Something in the human psyche, they argued, makes us retell a similar ur-story in many different variants. Vogler applied this to Hollywood scripts and the sad result is that what used to be part of the mystery of being human is now reduced down to trite formula. Even worse is the mistake that stories that match the formula are derived from the formula, when actually theyâre new blood added with great pains to the heroâs journey: see The Lord of the Rings, Dune, Star Wars, Terminator, The Matrix and Harry Potter.
Rowling is, then, telling us the ur-story that we know from so many other instances in a new way: Bela ClĂșa stressed how much the heroâs search for his own identity matters and the post-modern insistence on textuality in the construction of the characters. Rowlingâs claim that Harry materialised in her mind all of a sudden on a delayed train has been resisted by my students who quickly saw that no 20th or 21st century writer can claim an absolute ignorance of the other heroic narratives. I joked that perhaps she had had a direct insight into Jungâs collective subconscious and maybe Iâm not that wide off the mark. I proposed to my class as homework that they took Voglerâs twelve steps and wrote a story âthey all saw this might most likely lead nowhereâŠ without that insight.
So, suppose the insight theory is valid and, somehow, Jung help us, each new hero narrative taps directly into that mystical source. What the theory should also clarify is that, as Bela ClĂșa noted, the hero narrative is far from universal and has its own cultural markers. The clearest one is patriarchy for, as you can see, the heroineâs journey is narrated differently (by the way, it should be the female heroâs journey in current American-inspired parlance, for which a âheroineâ is just a female protagonist).
Many years ago as I did research for my doctoral dissertation on monstrosity (http://www.tdx.cat/handle/10803/4915) I learned about the oldest hero story: The Enuma Elish (ca. 1100 BC, perhaps earlier, Bronze Age), or Babylonian creation myth, discovered in the 19th century. In its thousand lines, we witness how the hero Marduk slays the ferocious sea female serpent Tiamat, from which later dragons descend. This combat has received metaphorical and allegorical interpretations but itâs clear to me that it is part of the Aryan and Semitic patriarchal religions onslaught against femininity, as Jules Cashford and Anne Baring argue in The Myth of the Goddess.
Still, the Bronze Age seemed not old enough. Thanks to Bruce Chatwinâs beautiful travel book The Songlines, about the myths assembled by the Australian aboriginals, I first read about the theories defended by palaeontologist C.K. Brain regarding how we stepped out of the predatory chain to become the hunters. In The Hunters or the Hunted?: An Introduction to African Cave Taphonomy, Brain (1981: 266-274) concludes that the fossils found in the Sternfontein caves in South Africa hint at a correlation between the appearance of the first men and the extinction of a carnivore which preyed almost exclusively on hominids: ‘Dinofelis’, a big feline similar to the sabre-toothed tiger, which lived in dark caves and hunted at night.
There is no definitive evidence as to why and how Dinofelis disappeared; however, Brain’s hypothesis is that its prey learned somehow to repel its attacks, at first possibly with fire until a more aggressive defence brought the first death of the beast. This supposition opens the way for Chatwin’s speculations (1988: 252): “Could it be, one is tempted to ask, that Dinofelis was Our Beast? A Beast set aside from all the other Avatars of Hell? The Arch-Enemy who stalked us, stealthily and cunningly, wherever we went? But whom, in the end, we got the better of?” Or notâŠ
Could it be, Iâll add, that the first death was brought about by a young prehistoric man of unknown origins who appeared one day to free the tribe from its night horrors? Could it be that this was Harry Potterâs original ancestor and that Dinofelis became somehow humanised once gone, first as female goddess Tiamat, later as the arch-villain âfrom Sauron to Voldemort?
Perhaps, just perhaps and speculating wildly, wildly, wildly if the hand that slayed Dinofelis had been female, the world would be a matriarchy (unfair or not, I donât know).
But then, thatâs another story.
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