THE TWELVE STEPS: HARRY THE HERO, A COMMON MISTAKE ABOUT WRITING ON HEROES AND A SCARY MONSTER

This week my friend Bela Clúa 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 Vogler’s twelve-step break-down of the widespread hero narrative in his well-known The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure For Writers (1992, see https://www.thewritersjourney.com/), inspired by Campbell and a must for any aspiring screen writer. She took Vogler’s twelve steps and contrasted them with the plot of Rowling’s series (I was thinking all the time of how Alcoholic Anonymous also uses twelve steps in their own heroic narrative…). They matched reasonably well.

Vogler’s 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 Vogler’s 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, I’ll add, George Lucas knew his Joseph Campbell fine and look at Star Wars

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 (dubious…) 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 they’re new blood added with great pains to the hero’s 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 Clúa stressed how much the hero’s search for his own identity matters and the post-modern insistence on textuality in the construction of the characters. Rowling’s 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 Jung’s collective subconscious and maybe I’m not that wide off the mark. I proposed to my class as homework that they took Vogler’s twelve steps and wrote a story –they all saw this might most likely lead nowhere… 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 Clúa 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 heroine’s journey is narrated differently (by the way, it should be the female hero’s journey in current American-inspired parlance, for which a ‘heroine’ is just a female protagonist).

Many years ago as I did research for my doctoral dissertation on monstrosity (https://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 it’s 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 Chatwin’s 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 not…

Could it be, I’ll 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 Potter’s original ancestor and that Dinofelis became somehow humanised once gone, first as female goddess Tiamat, later as the arch-villain –from 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 don’t know).

But then, that’s another story.

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