Being an avid reader myself, it’s something I want for both my sons — not just to be well-read, but to develop a love of reading for reading’s sake. In my life, I’ve found it makes learning a lot easier, but makes the world a bigger and more fascinating place, by extending learning throughout life.
Hell, the years I’ve spent since college could be considered a very long independent study program, based on what I’ve read. (Add what I’ve written about what I’ve read, and I’m convinced I could almost qualify for some kind of advanced degree.)
But that’s not the reason I recommended the Harry Potter books.
Maybe it was because I was tired of reading about Star Wars and dinosaurs — two of his favorite topics. Every three weeks, we take Parker to the library and have him pick out five or six books to read over the next three weeks. Some are books he can read easily by himself, and others we read with him.
His picks veered towards Star Wars and dinosaurs initially because that what he was most interested in. He seen of of the “Star Wars: The Clone Wars” series on television, and the “Walking With Dinosaurs” video we have at home. But, after a while, I started steering him towards a few other things, for the sake of variety: like Magic Treehouse series of books, which he loved. Noting his interest in all things Indiana Jones, I started nudging him to pick some books about the cultures in the Jones movies/games. We started with the Mayans, but Parker was much more interested in the ancient Egyptians.
Me, I enjoyed reading the Magic Treehouse books with him, because I found fiction refreshing after spending my day reading and writing about politics. Plus, I instantly found my theater background coming in handy, by casting myself in the role of narrator moreso than reader. I found myself trying to create different voices for the characters, and Parker loved it when I used the speed and tone of my voice to heighten the suspense It felt like I was acting again, for the first time in years, and to an appreciative audience.
The Harry Potter books gave me a huge range of characters to play — coming up with voicings for Hagrid, Prof. McGonagall, Dumbledore, Malfoy, Dobby, and others. But they also fired my imagination not just as an actor whose acting chops had atrophied, but as a writer whose fiction-writing muscles are woefully underused.
I started noticing how many stories, television shows, and movies seemed awfully similar to the Potter epic. Some people will deride the authors for “ripping off” a successful work, instead of coming up with “something original,” but I tend to subscribe to the philosophy that there’s “nothing new under the sun.” Besides, a good many stories that seem to appeal to adults and children are essentially “ripoffs” of and old, old story archetype or “monomyth” called “The Hero’s Journey.“
[pro-player width=’400′ height=’380′]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8AG4rlGkCRU,http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NwKeOpAZHac[/pro-player]
Joseph Campbell’s term monomyth, also referred to as the hero’s journey, refers to a basic pattern found in many narratives from around the world. This widely distributed pattern was described by Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949). An enthusiast of novelist James Joyce, Campbell borrowed the term monomyth from Joyce’s Finnegans Wake.
In a monomyth, the hero begins in the new world, and receives a call to enter an unknown world of strange powers and events. The hero who accepts the call to enter this strange world must face tasks and trials, either alone or with assistance. In the most intense versions of the narrative, the hero must survive a severe challenge, often with help. If the hero survives, the hero may achieve a great gift or “boon.” The hero must then decide whether to return to the ordinary world with this boon. If the hero does decide to return, he or she often faces challenges on the return journey. If the hero returns successfully, the boon or gift may be used to improve the world. The stories of Osiris, Prometheus, Moses, Buddha, for example, follow this structure closely.
Campbell describes some 17 stages or steps along this journey. Very few myths contain all 17 stages — some myths contain many of the stages, while others contain only a few; some myths may focus on only one of the stages, while other myths may deal with the stages in a somewhat different order. These 17 stages may be organized in a number of ways, including division into three sections: Departure (sometimes called Separation), Initiation, and Return. “Departure” deals with the hero’s adventure prior to the quest; “Initiation” deals with the hero’s many adventures along the way; and “Return” deals with the hero’s return home with knowledge and powers acquired on the journey.
What I’ve read of the Potter epic thus far seems to follow the course of the hero’s journey, making most of the stops along the way. I’ve even seen a few suggestions that Harry Potter is a Star Wars ripoff.
It seems more likely that Star Wars, the Potter stories, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the Chronicles of Narnia, and any number of other books just borrow from the same story archetype: the hero’s journey. Where they get into trouble may be when they borrow too heavily from each other, with characters so similar as to be easily recognized as thinly disguised copies.
While some of the so-called Potter “ripoffs” seem to have inspired copyright lawsuits, some of them seem to either shift the setting to some other magical/fantasy real, while others reinterpret the elements of the Potter saga in particular cultural contexts in a way that perhaps an British Author simply cannot.
Even as I was finishing the novel for NaNoWriMo this year, I started to get ideas for another novel. Immersed in the writing process as well as reading the Potter books with Parker, I stated imagining another story, similar to Potter, but decidedly different — with a more American flavor and setting, a more multicultural cast of characters as well as a broader approach to magic, with an eye towards incorporating folk magic from across a variety of cultures.
And I’d have an African-American boy as the hero, because I think it would be great for Parker to have a character to admire who looks more like him. He’s even asked me if the main character in this story, which he thinks I should write, will be a boy like him.
Maybe I suggested Harry Potter because Parker had seen part of the movie on television and enjoyed it. Maybe I suggested it because I was ready for something more challenging, and thought Parker was too.
Maybe I was just curious. I’d seen the first Harry Potter movie, and while I didn’t read the books at the time everyone was reading them (that was also the year the Lord of the Rings movie series started, and I was busy reading the books before seeing the movies), I found the story intriguing. In some way I couldn’t quite define, I found myself sort of identifying with Harry Potter, and even wishing there had been a Hogwarts academy for me as a kid.
Parker immediately took to the stories, and felt a strong identification with Harry too. As I read the books with him (We’re up to Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban now) I realized that the story might have a strong appeal to Parker as an adoptee. Harry’s situation is similar to that of many adoptees: he doesn’t live with his birth parents (he does live with some rather nasty relatives, though), knows very little about his birth parents, and is deeply aware of how different he is in the “muggle world.” Nonetheless, he’s the hero of the story, and ultimately triumphant. (Now that I think of it, Luke Skywalker’s story probably has a similar appeal.)
I started thinking, could Harry Potter have some level of gay appeal? That cubpoard under the stairs seemed an awful lot like a closet, and his relatives are so ashamed of his magical nature that when they’re not literally locking him in a closet, they do so figuratively by constantly demanding that he either lie or support their lies about who he really is. But once he’s of age, he discovered a world where he’s no longer strange, but actually belongs.
From the first moment we met young Harry, he was trapped in a childhood where he knew that he was different, and was reviled by his aggressively “normal” Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia. You think you grew up in the closet? This kid was raised in a cupboard under the stairs.
The Dursleys always knew that Harry was different, were frightened by it, and tried desperately to hide it from the outside world and from Harry himself. Until, of course, the giant Hagrid fatefully informed him, “Yer a wizard, Harry!”
Identifying his difference was a major step, but “coming out” as a wizard is something else entirely. The dynamic between the muggle (non-magical) world and the wizarding world is strikingly similar to that of the straight and closeted gay worlds. They exist side by side, but the wizards must keep their identities and powers secret for fear of frightening the muggles.
…Once Harry entered this magical world, he discovered what many LGBT folks have found: there are lots of new and strange rules, you may or may not know who’s really on your side, but by and large the whole thing is frickin’ fabulous.
Like I said, it sounds pretty queer to me. But then the hero’s journey, as with the Potter story and all the others, is about growing up, finding one’s place in the world, having the courage to step into the unknown and forge one’s own path, the strength to stand alone, the wisdom to seek help when needed, being true to yourself, and ultimately becoming who you were mean to be.
That sounds pretty queer to me too, in as much the journey of coming out mirrors the above. It sounds pretty human too. No surprise there, though. Queer, after all, is another aspect of human, and our story is undeniably part of the human story.
Maybe that’s why so many stories follow that old archetype: there are as may legitimate ways to tell the human story as there are human beings.