August 23, 2007


The Christian Resonances of Modern Epic (Hal G.P. Colebatch, 8/23/2007, American Spectator)

The phenomenal and enduring worldwide success of The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars and Harry Potter tells us something which many cultural commentators may be missing.

Let us look at part of what these tales have in common. In each of them the hero begins as a young man who has lost his parents and is driven into exile as an orphan. He knows of a "Great Enemy" and, from a relatively carefree beginning, gradually becomes aware of the "Bad News" -- the worst news possible. He comes to be aware that this Enemy, bad enough if only a sort of generalized threat to the natural order of things, is also after him personally. This Great Enemy is robed in black and/or is referred to by names like "the Dark Lord." This Great Enemy is a representation not only of evil, but, most fundamentally and unmistakably, of Death. This is Everyman's story. The "Bad News" that comes to Everyman is that Death is after him personally and he is going to die.

The hero sets out on a long and perilous Quest, at first advised and protected by a wise and powerful old guide, and aided by various friends. In each case, however, the guide is killed, or rather, lays down his life to save the hero, who, without guide or friends, must in the end confront the Great Enemy alone. The guide had been indispensable and had brought the Hero a long way: in each case he may be seen as representing the tradition and heritage of goodness and wisdom -- even after he had "died" he continues in some way to offer advice, as traditions and wisdom from the past do.

In each case the hero explicitly expects to die in the final climactic encounter. He should be annihilated, but is saved by an unexpected intervention.

The Great Enemies is these stories not only are death but also dread death. They are in a situation of ultimate horror. They cling to a withered, ghastly life because that is the only form their desire for deathlessness can take. In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Lord Voldemort speaks of "I who have gone further than anyone along the path that leads to immortality. You know my goal -- to conquer death." Yet a few pages later he identifies himself with death: "Bow to death, Harry." In "Attack of the Clones" Anakin Skywalker, as the corruption that will turn him into Darth Vader begins to claim him, vows: "I will even stop people from dying."

In each case a crucial reason for the Enemy's defeat is the hero's willingness to sacrifice his own life. But another crucial reason is the fact (set out by Boethius in The Consolations of Philosophy just after the end of the Roman Empire in the West) that evil cannot understand good as good can understand evil. Evil cannot understand love and self-sacrifice.

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 23, 2007 12:00 AM
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