Ask the Expert: January-February 2002


Between them, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone and The Lord of the Rings have brought in more than $500 million in box-office receipts, and counting. What explains the appeal of these fantasy tales?

Harry Potter has the structure of a classic fairy tale, and this always involved a hero or heroine catapulted into an extraordinary situation to face and overcome evil. Almost everyone can identify with Harry: He's special in some mysterious way, misunderstood and mistreated by his family, but he is learning to overcome those handicaps in life to enter into an extraordinary destiny.

The magical dimension is particularly effective in the film and story because author J.K. Rowling uses it to create a parallel world, one that exists right under our everyday noses. All you have to do is drop your normal perspective, and suddenly this other dimension comes into focus. A good story, laced with magic like this one, can reach deeply into the unconscious or barely conscious desires many people have to understand their own lives as somehow special, charged with meaning and adventure. Which everyday life really is, when we drop our habits of mind and identify with the characters.

The Lord of the Rings works on another scale altogether. Harry Potter is a domestic tale: We know there are larger stakes than Harry's life and well-being, but mostly the story centers on those smaller consequences. J.R.R. Tolkien takes us into an epic story where one unassuming and young person--naïve in so many ways--is thrust into a drama of epic proportions. Not only his own life is at stake, but the fates of his and other peoples. Does he have the courage to assume his destiny?

This tale was written against the backdrop of the massive political and ideological conflicts of the first half of the twentieth century. It doesn't take much to understand that the Shire and the Hobbits are the English, and they stand pretty much alone against the terrible combined forces of Fascism and Communism. This is also a tale about power--and what power does to people, how it corrupts them, and the terrible temptation of making the wrong use of it.

Many people want to believe that their own lives really count for something, that they have meaning in a much larger context, and that they can measure up to the tasks placed before them. So however much these tales appear to be about the fantastic, they really are about the drama of the everyday life. Everyday life really is a drama. It is a fantastic adventure with unknown challenges, setbacks, and enemies. It can even be epic. When you finish such a tale, you are meant to feel encouraged, heartened, even if, as in Lord of the Rings, it becomes clear that the price for living out one's destiny is high. But we all know that, don't we?

----Thomas Robisheaux, professor of history, whose courses include "Medieval Worlds" and "Magic, Religion, and Science since the Renaissance"

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