What do Katniss Everdeen, Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker, Percy Jackson, Superman, Batman and Dorothy, the savior of Oz, have in common?
Here’s the cool thing about literature–it’s life. And I don’t mean that in a “I’m an English teacher, and my subject matter is the most important topic in the universe” kind of way. I’m referring to the fact that what humans write about are universal themes; common symbolic steps; everyday fears, hopes, obsessions–our collective experiences, our archetypal journey.
Ever notice how books and movies reflect society’s nightmares? For example, The Dark Knight’s Joker embodies the American fear of the terrorist, the anarchist and the unpredictable foe. Ross Douthat of the New York Times writes:
“[The Joker has] solidified the Batman movies’ status as a cultural touchstone for our era of anxiety. Every human society has feared the anarchic, the nihilistic, the inexplicably depraved. But from the Columbine murderers to the post-9/11 anthrax killer (a literal mad scientist, most likely), from the Virginia Tech shooter to Jared Lee Loughner, our contemporary iconography of evil is increasingly dominated by figures who seem to have stepped out of Nolan’s take on the DC Comics universe: world-burners, meticulous madmen, terrorists without a cause.”
As villains reflect our collective fears, the heroes we create are ingrained with our ideals and values.
It’s all about archetypes, but I’ll get to that later. Don’t let the word “archetype” scare you. It’s a fancy way of referring to patterns.
Basically, the hero’s journey was coined by Joseph Campbell who devoted his life to studying mythologies from all over the world, and he recognized certain prevailing patterns (archetypes) shining through the lives and experiences of the characters within these stories.
Fun fact: Joseph Campbell is one of the reasons Star Wars is a success. George Lucas consulted Campbell when struggling with the script. Han Solo was a slimy, green alien before Campbell came onto the scene and told Lucas to try a mythological approach in his writing.
Take a minute to watch this animated Ted Talks’ video describing the hero’s journey. It’s one of my favorites:
Mind blown? Right? I know. It’s all connected. You’ll never be the same again.
Back to my initial question: What do Katniss Everdeen, Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker, Percy Jackson, Superman, Batman and Dorothy have in common?
These characters follow a heroic archetypal journey/pattern. Similarities include:
- Orphans/family (mostly father) issues: Think of how many Disney movies feature orphans or have heroes with a single parent. Batman, Harry Potter and Superman are orphans. Where are Dorothy’s parents? I’m sure you’ve all seen Star Wars–those daddy issues are iconic.
- Unusual birth: Most of these heroes are special and don’t really belong where they are in their humble beginnings–these heroes have a past setting them apart.
- The wise guy: Each hero has a wizard or mentor guiding them through their perspective paths. Dumbledore, Gandalf, Yoda, Rafiki, etc. I could go on. These mentors are usually spiritual guides and impart their apprentices with wisdom and magical items.
- Magical weapons: Invisibility cloaks, light sabers, ruby slippers, lions, tigers and bears–oh my!
- Struggle of good and evil (antithesis): Cosmic struggles of opposing philosophies exist here (light vs. the dark side–heroes vs. villains). There is conflict. The knight must defeat his adversary, the dragon (which is also symbolic–hold on to your hats and keep reading through the series!) before he can return home–if he hasn’t changed too much in the mean time. Will home be the same? Will he be able to adjust to normal life?
In the words of one of my favorite Doctors, “We’re all stories in the end. Just make it a good one, eh?”