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.
Sauron in The Lord of the Rings cannot believe (if the thought crosses his mind he rejects it) that anyone will seek to destroy the Ring of Power — he believes that anyone who possesses it will seek to wield it for his own benefit. Similarly in Star Wars the Emperor believes that the attraction of power will corrupt Luke Skywalker as he believes that it has corrupted Darth Vader forever. In Harry Potter, Lord Voldemort cannot understand that the power of Love can be stronger than sorcery.
These stories all have resonances with the great works of Christian art and literature of the past. They are not dramas, novels or tragedies of the sort in which the conflict is between two conflicting versions of the good, although in each there are a few characters (Boromir, Smeagol-Gollum, Anakin Skywalker-Darth Vader, Snape) who have mixed motives and conflicts within themselves. Harry Potter’s revered father is shown to have had an unpleasant side as an adolescent (one might say: “Who doesn’t?”). But these are definitely not stories in which there is nothing to choose between each side. They are stories about the conflict between Good and Evil, two qualities which are divided by a line even when, as Solzhenitsyn put it, that line goes down the one human heart.
The Great Enemies are rebels, and if there was something noble in their first ideas it has not survived their own raging egotism and spiritual pride. Further, the characters, good and bad, have Free Will. They become what they choose to become, and moral choice is before them not once but always (Saruman, Gollum, Darth Vader and Voldemort are all offered opportunities to repent).
C. S. Lewis’s A Preface to Paradise Lost has previously set much of this pattern out in a fascinating manner. It is unfortunate that Lewis’s book does not have a more attractive title because it deserves to be much more widely read. Paradise Lost is generally known today as a very long poem by John Milton, written in 17th-century English, and probably read by no one except students who have no choice in the matter. The fact Milton was in his life a harsh and rigid Puritan may be a further obstacle for some potential readers. Yet it has much in common with these great modern tales and in looking at it we can see a continuing Western artistic/religious tradition. Lewis in his book has elucidated this with his wonderful and customary clarity. (There is also, of course, something of the same in Dante’s Divine Comedy, for example in Dante’s Satan, once an Archangel, now like Sauron, Darth Vader, the Emperor and Lord Voldemort, grotesquely physically as well as spiritually deformed.)
Lewis’s book is full of good things and is in fact far more accessible for the average reader than the title might suggest. As we might expect from the creator of The Chronicles of Narnia and The Screwtape Letters, not only is the style an unending delight to read, but the combination of theological, literary and even historical insights are profound and fascinating. In his analysis of the character of Milton’s Satan, for example, Lewis writes on the point that evil cannot comprehend good as good can comprehend evil: “The blindness here displayed reminds one of Napoleon’s utterance after his fall, ‘I wonder what Wellington will do now? He will never be content to become a private citizen again.’ Just as Napoleon was incapable of conceiving, I do not say the virtues, but even the temptations, of an ordinarily honest man in a tolerably stable commonwealth, so Satan shows complete inability to conceive any state of mind other than the infernal.”
Lewis also shows how Milton delineates Satan’s progress: “From hero to general, from general to politician, from politician to secret service agent, and thence to a thing that peers in at bedroom or bathroom windows, and thence to a toad and finally to a snake….To admire Satan is to give one’s vote not only for a world of misery, but also for a world of lies and propaganda, of wishful thinking, of incessant autobiography. Yet the choice is possible…” Here too, the pattern is repeated in The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars and Harry Potter. In each the Enemy began by probably meaning well, with some grandeur or grand objective, and deteriorated into an object as pitiful as it is horrible. In the chapter “King’s Cross” in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, we see what Lord Voldemort is about to become (J. K. Rowling plainly puts much thought into names and titles and the title “King’s Cross” is not accidental). Lewis’s evocation of “incessant autobiography” is an example of his ability to hit the nail on the head. Who can doubt that, had the Great Enemies won in any of the three tales, “incessant autobiography” (their own, of course) is exactly what they would have inflicted on the conquered worlds.
Death is the “Bad News” in all these stories and for Everyman. The “Good News” is that, thanks to the intervention of another and greater power, Death shall be defeated. In this, as well as in other ways, though none of them contain what could be called a Christ-figure, and indeed hardly even mention a God, these stories seem specifically Christian and their astonishing success is a significant comment on the survival of the Christian state of mind and conception of the world and the human condition.