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Mything in Action: Harry Potter Must Die!

Mything in Action: Harry Potter Must Die!

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I realize it’s only summer, but excitement is already building toward the November 19th theatrical release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 1. And starting today (Thursday, July 8), ABC Family is giving you a chance to prepare for the newest installment by reacquainting you with the previous six. This cable channel’s “Harry Potter Weekend” (which runs through Sunday, July 11) also promises “never-before-seen interviews with your favorite cast members” as well as a “sneak peek” of a scene from the seventh movie.

As you watch, see if you notice one theme that seems to dominate all the Harry Potter stories. Do you know which theme I’m referring to? Yes—it’s “death.” As author J.K. Rowling, quoted in London’s Daily Telegraph in 2006, explained: "My books are largely about death. They open with the death of Harry's parents. There is Voldemort's obsession with conquering death and his quest for immortality at any price, the goal of anyone with magic. I so understand why Voldemort wants to conquer death. We're all frightened of it."

The death theme takes center stage in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, beginning, of course, with the volume’s title. So it’s not surprising that the biggest controversy preceding the book’s July 2007 publication centered on this question: “Would J.K. Rowling kill off her title character…or would ‘the boy who lived’ continue to live?”

SPOILER ALERT! If you haven't yet read Deathly Hallows and don't want to know Harry's fate, then you may want to skip the next three paragraphs.

For me, the answer had always been obvious: Harry was toast.

Follower's of the Hero's Journey knew all along what Harry Potter's fate would be in Book 7
Followers of the Hero’s Journey knew all along
what Harry Potter’s fate would be in Book 7.
Harry Potter publishing rights copyright J.K.R.

No, I was not being clairvoyant—nor had I managed to sneak a glance at Rowling’s super-secret Book 7 manuscript. Instead, I was equipped with the knowledge that the narrative arc of the previous six Harry Potter novels was closely following the Campbellian model of the mythic “Hero’s Journey.” (If the late mythologist Joseph Campbell and his theory of the Hero’s Journey are new to you, take a few moments to look at my “Hidden in Plain Sight” introductory article. You’ll be glad you did.)

Furthermore, I recognized that each of those stories was also a self-contained Hero’s Journey, and that Harry had “died” (either figuratively or vicariously) at some point in all six novels. So I knew beyond a sliver of doubt that Harry was fated to die in the final installment … but that he would also be resurrected. And through his rebirth, Harry would have the means to decisively vanquish Lord Voldemort and complete his epic quest.

Though I always knew that Harry would be resurrected, Harry himself had no such expectation. By courageously sacrificing his own life anyway, Harry proved that he had fully absorbed the lessons of all his previous adventures and was at last fully in control of his new insights and abilities. Through his selfless act, Harry finally met the definition of a true mythic hero: one who puts the welfare of others before his or her own, and is prepared to make the ultimate self-sacrifice for their sake.

Harry generates a patronis to save Serius Black from the dementors
By the end of the series, Harry has conquered death and proven
himself to be a true hero.  Copyright Warner Bros. Ent. All rights
reserved. Harry Potter publishing rights copyright J.K.R.

I believe Rowling’s mastery of this and other powerful and intensely resonant mythic ideas goes a long way toward explaining why her books have become such massive best-sellers…and why the movies based on those books have all been blockbuster hits, both critically and at the box office (the first six movies have collectively pulled in over $4.5 billion to date in worldwide receipts, making it the highest-grossing film series of all time when not adjusted for inflation).

Now Universal Orlando’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter, which officially opened to the public on June 18th, seems well on its way to becoming as popular as the books and movies. Moreover, by translating the “Potterverse” into a physical, 3-dimensional, immersive experience, the designers have given audiences a means of connecting with the stories and characters in a more compelling and personal way than ever before. And this aspect of the experience makes its mythic qualities all the more powerful. Thus, instead of engaging the mythic content vicariously (as in the books and movies), you can now feel that you are actually “in the story.” You are no longer a bystander or witness or passive observer. Instead, you have become an active participant in the Potterverse. As Universal’s ubiquitous Wizarding World billboards and banner ads proudly proclaim: “His journey is now yours.”

Hogsmeade Village is forever in winter at Universal's Wizarding World of Harry Potter
By making the Potterverse tactile and immersive, Universal also makes it
more personal.  Copyright 2010 Universal Orlando. All rights reserved.
Harry Potter publishing rights copyright J.K.R.

Like all mythic Hero Journeys, your Wizarding World experience begins with a Call to Adventure. If you don’t count those aforementioned ads, that Call will take the form of your first glimpse of the soaring spires of Hogwarts Castle, which beckon to you from afar as you traverse the Lost Continent section of Islands of Adventure. Soon enough, you are crossing the First Threshold into the Special World, which Joseph Campbell described as “a dream landscape…where [the hero] must survive a succession of trials.”

In the books and movies, the Special World of Hogwarts, Hogsmeade, Diagon Alley, the Forbidden Forest, and other locales, are fully fleshed out, imaginatively detailed, and remarkably self-contained. In the course of his adventures in these realms, Harry encounters one potentially lethal challenge after another—including dragons, Death Eaters, Dementors … and many other threats that don’t begin with the letter “d.” Each of these adventures brings him closer to his fateful final confrontation with his immortality-obsessed nemesis, Lord Voldermort.

The cast of the "Harry Potter" films marvels at all the detail found in Universal Islands of Adventure's "Wizarding World of Harry Potter"
The cast of the “Harry Potter” films marvels at all the detailing found in Universal
Islands of Adventure’s “Wizarding World.” Copyright 2010 Universal Orlando.
All rights reserved. Harry Potter publishing rights copyright J.K.R.

At The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, you are in the hero role and your Special World is the hyper-real environs of Hogsmeade Village and Hogwarts Castle. If you’re not in a huge hurry to line up for Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, you really should take some time to explore the intricately detailed shops and other locales within Hogsmeade. They not only create a brilliantly evocative atmosphere—they also fulfill a crucial mythic function. For it is within the Special World that the hero traditionally learns the “lay of the land” and gains the knowledge, training, and essential “gifts” (magical weapons, tools, clothing, talismans, etc.) that will be vital to his or her ultimate quest.

The Hogsmeade shops help you equip yourself for the next stage of your mythic adventure
The Hogsmeade shops help you equip yourself for the next stage of
your mythic adventure.  Copyright 2010 Universal Orlando. All rights
reserved. Harry Potter publishing rights copyright J.K.R.

Thus, within the Special World of Hogsmeade Village, you will find a collection of quirky shops stuffed to the rafters with all manner of magical items which no self-respecting Hogwarts student should be without — from wands to Sneakoscopes to Firebolt broomsticks. Elsewhere in Hogsmeade, you’ll have the opportunity to familiarize yourself with the local culture of this Special World as you are introduced to such oddities as its owl-based wizard postal system and unique beverages such as Pumpkin Juice and Butterbeer.

Hogwarts Castle takes the idea of the mythic "Approach to the Inmost Cave" rather literally
Hogwarts Castle takes the idea of the mythic
“Approach to the Inmost Cave” rather literally.
Copyright 2010 Universal Orlando. All rights
reserved. Harry Potter publishing rights
copyright J.K.R.

When you are ready for the next stage of your heroic journey, you’ll find that the Approach to the Inmost Cave leads you to the entrance of Hogwarts Castle — the threshold of which happens to be built around a cave-like opening at the foot of a craggy mountain. (Coincidence? I think not.) Winding your way through the long network of corridors, chambers, and halls leading to the ride load platform, you’ll meet threshold guardians (a gallery of talking paintings, the Sorting Hat), a herald (Professor Dumbledore), and a trio of mentors (Harry, Ron, and Hermione).

Talking portraits fullfill the role of threshold guardians
Talking portraits fulfill the role of threshold guardians.  Copyright 2010 Universal
Orlando. All rights reserved. Harry Potter publishing rights copyright J.K.R.

At last, you will be launched out of the castle aboard an enchanted “flying bench” for a tour of the Hogwarts Quidditch pitch that instead sends you hurtling through a succession of harrowing and potentially deadly detours. You’ll have too-close calls with one of Hagrid’s pet dragons, an army of giant spiders, the notorious Whomping Willow tree, and a swarm of soul-sucking Dementors.

The Forbidden Journey ride challenges you to face and conquer some of your worst fears
The Forbidden Journey ride challenges you to face and conquer some of your worst fears.
Copyright 2010 Universal Orlando. All rights reserved. Harry Potter publishing
rights copyright J.K.R.

Though you may be a mere Muggle, your ability to endure and survive this “Supreme Ordeal” reveals that you, like Harry and his mates, are already showing the traits of a mythic hero. You discovered reserves of courage and fortitude you never realized you had, as you bravely conquered some of your worst fears. Soon, your initial feelings of post-adventure exhilaration may give way to the realization that this breathtaking “initiation” has subtly altered your way of looking at yourself and your world. (If nothing else, you may come away with a renewed appreciation of the joy of being alive.) And who knows … you may have the makings of a future wizard in you after all!

(By the way: I am hardly the first person to explore the connections between the Campbellian Hero’s Journey and the Potterverse. So if you’d like to explore the mythic themes and archetypes of the Harry Potter stories in more detail, just Google the search terms “Harry Potter Hero’s Journey” and you’ll come up with plenty of excellent resources…including websites such as this one.

Adam M. Berger is president and senior writer at Berger Creative Associates, Inc., an Orlando, Florida-based creative writing and consulting firm serving the themed entertainment and attraction design industry. You can read more of Adam’s thoughts on mythic storytelling in popular entertainment at his blogsite: www.TheMythingLink.com.

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