Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Harry Potter and the Myth of Redemptive Violence

[Note: While this will engage some themes in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, it should still be relatively safe reading for those who have not yet read the book but wish to do so. In other words, it should have no spoilers, though, of course, any discussion of any aspect of a piece of art involves a degree of spoiling. That said, no plot secrets will be revealed here.]

As I noted in my last pseudo-post, I've finished reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and have now had a few days to ruminate on it. I meant to post some initial observations on the end of the Harry Potter series earlier, but circumstances conspired against me until today. Perhaps there is some providence in that, as what I'm sitting down to write right now is not what I would have written right after I finished reading.

The final installment in the epic tale of Harry Potter was, like all of the others, and engaging - nay, enchanting -read. But, much like its immediate predecessor, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Price, it was also a disturbing read. Much has been made of the escalating violence in the Harry Potter books. While they began as children's books, they have been maturing with their audience, taking on more and more adult content.

"Adult content" - I'm not quite comfortable with that phrase. It is so often a euphemism for the worst sort of juvenile depictions of sexuality and violence. And there is a great deal of violence in the final Harry Potter book. But when I use the phrase "adult content" it does not merely euphemistically skate around something crass; rather, it indicates a deepening of the social and ethical content in the book.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is a great story, but it is not just great because it captures the attention and imagination of the readers with compelling characters and an engaging plot. It is also great because it is an act of modern myth making. In fact, this is J.K. Rowling's genius: she creates modern myths, in an age in which mythos has all but been pronounced extinct.

I argued earlier that these modern myths - which I then called "fairy tales" - entailed both an existential and a mystical component. They also, I should add, contain an ethical component. As the Harry Potter books have matured, they have grappled with issues of racism, sexism, classism, totalitarianism, and violence. The final book brings all earlier ethical reflection to its telos, its natural end, its mature completion.

One of my biggest concerns about the Harry Potter series is that it, like so many other mythic works, divides the world into two basic camps: Good and Evil. This, coupled with the justification of the use of violence by the Good against the Evil, is an essential element of what Walter Wink identified as the Myth of Redemptive Violence. Wink calls this myth "the dominant religion in our society today," and its influence is not at all difficult to see. When president Bush identified an "Axis of Evil," he was speaking in the language of the Myth of Redemptive Violence. When he speaks of a war between Good and Evil, in which the Good will prevail if only they have the resolve to do what is necessary to fight and win, he speaks in the language of the Myth of Redemptive Violence. It could easily be argued that it is this myth - the true mythos of our culture - that lead us into the quagmire in Iraq.

And, it is no coincidence that Wink first noticed this myth not in his studies of ancient religions (though later he found it there) but instead watching cartoons with his children on Saturday mornings. Of the mythic structure of children's cartoons, he writes:

I began to examine the structure of other cartoons and found the same pattern repeating endlessly: an indestructible hero is doggedly opposed to an irreformable and equally indestructible villain. Nothing can kill the hero, though for the first three-quarters of the comic-strip or TV show he (rarely she) suffers grievously and appears hopelessly doomed, until, miraculously, the hero breaks free, vanquishes the villain or prevents his or her reappearance, and restores order until the next episode.

That's a familiar pattern that most of us recognize from our childhood entertainment. As Winks notes, you can see it in everything from Popeye to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. This is also a pattern that can be found in the Enuma Elish, the Babylonian creation story, circa 1250 BCE, which Wink sees as possibly the origin of the Myth of Redemptive Violence. This mythic structure, then, has been around for well over 3,000 years, and has long shaped how we reflect on the ethics of violence.

As I understand it, two important hallmarks of the Myth of Redemptive Violence are:

1. the ineffectual nature of redemption, and
2. the relatively low cost of violence.

These two together mean that, in such a polarized and polemical moral universe (Good v. Evil), the Good are justified in using whatever violence they must to resist and overthrown the Evil threatening them. Attempts to somehow convert or reform the Evil are seen as cowardice at best, if not a covert Evil. There are generally disastrous consequences for nonviolent attempts to resist Evil, but there are little or no consequences for violent resistance. Sometimes violence is, in fact, the only mode of resistance contemplated.

In some respects, the modern myth of Harry Potter participates in this ancient but endlessly repeating Myth of Redemptive Violence. The magical world is essentially divided into two camps. There is a monolithically evil threat, Lord Voldemort and his Death Eaters, who use Dark Magic. This threat must be resisted, and the resistance to it is often quite violent.

In one moment in the final book, for instance, Harry attempts to disarm an attacker rather than kill him, and the consequences are almost disastrous. He is chastised, reminded that this is war, and that he must be prepared to kill if he does not want to be killed himself. Toward the end of the book we see both Harry and one of his former teachers using so-called "Unforgivable Curses" - curses which, we are told at the beginning of the seven-book series, may never be justified - against threatening Death Eaters, with no apparent remorse.

This participation in the Myth of Redemptive Violence is quite compelling at times, which is one of the reasons that myth has survived and thrived for so long. I shed many, many tears reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows; some tears of sorrow, some tears of joy, and many, many mixed and confused tears. One of the most gripping moments in the book, one of the moments that drew out of my at least half my daily intake of water, was when Hogwarts rises up against Voldemort, and prepares for battle. As the defenses are raised, as each character - including the school itself, which becomes a character - girds themselves for battle, I realized just how gripping the Myth of Redemptive Violence can be.

But despite those participations in the Myth of Redemptive Violence, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows deviates in some important and ethically instructive ways from that dangerous if compelling myth. Most importantly, it challenges two of the most basic assumptions of the Myth of Redemptive Violence: the irreformable corruption of the Evil, and the relatively low cost of violence.

In the Harry Potter series, the magical world seems divided into two camps: Good and Evil. I noted that above. But, as the series matures, the moral universe in it becomes more complicated. There is some bleed-through between the camps. There are other camps that are not so easily identified. Characters become more complex, more human, and less easily identified as monolithically Good or Evil. In the final book, not only does Severus Snape - long the sole question mark in the series - become even more complicated; but also do such polarized figures as Albus Dumbledore and Lord Voldemort - long personifications of Good and Evil - become more fully human, more complex, and less monolithic.

This book explores the errors of Dumbledore's youth, making him a more tragic, more flawed, and ultimately more human and therefore more heroic figure. It also sheds some light on Voldemort's motives for his behavior, making him - like Dumbledore - a more tragic and more human figure. He is no longer a pure personification of Evil, but is instead a corrupt human being who has at least the option of redemption, whether or not he chooses to accept it.

Also, in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the escalating death-count makes real the high cost of violence. Even though, ultimately, violence is imaged here as the best response to the threat posed by Evil, there are tragic consequences for the violence used, even when that violence is deemed just. There is simply no way to walk away from this book thinking that violence is ever easy. Too many friends lay dead at the end for that. It is, then, a very realistic depiction of our own moral universe, a universe in which we may occasionally find violence unavoidable (though my pacifist friends would say that situations in which violence is unavoidable are brought about not by the inevitability of violence, but instead by a lack of creativity) but never without harsh consequences.

Finally, this book deviates from the Myth of Redemptive Violence by its use of Grace. While not all in it are redeemed, there is no one in this book ultimately so intractably evil that Grace is not offered to them. No one, in other words, is beyond Grace. And that may be the most morally instructive aspect of this book, and the way in which it - despite its justification of violence - more closely resembles the Gospel than the Myth of Redemptive Violence.

If J.K. Rowling's epic tales of Harry Potter are to be our new modern myth, then they are a welcome replacement for the Myth of Redemptive Violence that has long gripped us, even if they contain some elements of that troubled myth.

1 comment:

crystal said...

I was thinking about this when I watched the last few episodes of Battlestar Galactica last season. The bad guys were so bad, they aren't even human, which makes violence against them less morally troublesome, I guess (?), but there were also humans who had helped the enemy.

It seemed they would be executed, but they were instead granted amnesty. The leader of the traitorous humans went on trial for his life, and in an upset (with a great speech about scapegoating), he was found not guilty.

But there was a group of vigilanties who worked behind the scenes, murdering those who had helped the enemy. Eventually they realized what they were doing was not right and they stopped.