[Deutsche Version ]

Oliver Jahraus

Harry Potter, Frodo Baggins and The Battle of “Good Versus Evil“

In the context of the narrative matter of a battle of “good vs. evil”, I examine the depiction of such a battle in the media in the examples given by the Harry Potter and the Lord of the Rings movies, but also glance at the reports covering the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

Towards the end of last year, the media, specifically: cinemas presented us with two aged men that resemble each other to a hair’s breadth. Which is no mean feat, as they both have a considerable amount of hair, long manes and even longer beards. But little wonder that they look so hairy, for these are mages: Gandalf is one, invented by Professor Tolkien and part of his epic “Lord of the Rings”, second in reaching the big screen; Dumbledore is the other, invented many years later by Jane Rowling for her Harry Potter stories and born again in the big screen’s light shortly before this version of Gandalf. The two aren’t just similar, they are alike, and I frankly surmise that Ms Rowling copied the good Professor’s image.

Both magicians play important roles in a battle of “good vs. evil”; they have fought that battle themselves, but in the times which the Professor’s and the single mother’s tales tell us about, they no longer take such an active part. They are teachers to and guide disciples, because it has become apparent that the ultimate battle will have to be fought and won by the latter. In the cloth of Nordic mythologems, this repeats the Mediterranean symposium of the philosophers’ Eros; although we no longer speak of Eros, nor of philosophy, but of war and battle, of saving or losing an or our world.

For such are the conditions of a conflict between “good and evil”: It has to be total, and totalitarian. It’s all or nothing, the world itself and the whole of that world hangs in the balance. The other side is absolutely the other side; it has no face to gaze into, and the very mention of its name elicits fear. It is the dark side, the evil side. But the evil side owns something that makes us tremble; it has power, and not just power but the ability to accumulate power, to entrance others and to render them adepts with no will of their own, but ready with violence. The world would be theirs but for the good side offering resistance, drawing its strength from resistance and from the knowledge of the cause for justice. But this resistance is not there from the beginning; on the contrary, the magicians’ disciples had never thought it possible that they would be turned into disciples. They would have lived their more or less happy lives to the end of their days, had they not been recruited by that great sorcerer who becomes their spiritus rector. Thus it is obvious that the strength to resist is not created ex nihilo; and that is why the good side depends on the separate roles of master and disciple. Of course it is assumed in that relation that the disciples grow in battle and become masters themselves. They are on that way; thus the narrative topos of the journey.

The conflict is the classic one, the mother of all conflicts: the battle of “good versus evil”. As such, it is the basic form of all narrative; it is the narrative principle itself. Whatever difficulties Rowling faced in her quest for publication, her recipe wasn’t wrong. And her success need not altogether surprise us now. But that her creation succeeded in the specific way it did might well render us breathless. Its ubiquity has become too large to survey, and I don’t intend to further express my astonishment at the fact that one can spend all of one’s day with various degrees of Harry Potter. I just want to note, in passing, this fact that has now become generally accepted. Nothing in the world of new media has won so many young and older children for the reading of books, from a generation we had assumed all but lost for their allure, nothing but Harry Potter, and now, in a second wave of Tolkien revival (or is it the Professor’s third, or fourth, or fiftiest?), the “Lord of the Rings”.

And the second thing we must note is that the success of the book pitched against other media is now re-affecting those other media. The battle of “good vs. evil”, of books versus new media, has taken on a new quality, and the front lines of that battle are no longer obvious. The effect is one of synergy: For the enormous success of movies again leads more viewers back to the book and turns them into readers. That conflict is suspended in the higher reality of universal media perusal; and the only remaining question is which motif bedclothes we will be sleeping in tonight.

Those of us interested in studying media were surprised and irritated by the first fact, as it puts our culturally pessimistic or optimistic faith in the eventual triumph of the new media in its place; but it is the second fact that leaves us completely flabbergasted: Cinema recapturing readers!

Well, cultural pessimism or optimism seem small-minded when the battle of “good vs. evil” looms. The good guys are those that join; the bad ones those that remain outside. Apocalyptic and integrated intellectuals is what another sorcerer, a semiotician called it, he too with a beard, though shorter, Umberto Eco is his name. But we all belong to the fellowship of the media, we have joined. I too can say: I was there!

As similar as the two magicians are, the books and their cinematic adaptations differ. It was long considered impossible to make a movie of “The Lord of the Rings”. Now that movie has been made, after an intermittent attempt at an animated version. What is surprising is that both stories turned out to be transferable to the big screen, while that old topos resurfaces at the same time, more evidently than usual, that the media conditions of movie and cinema determine that transfer. But even so, several things remain to be said as we compare both movies not only with each other, but their pair with each of their written templates.

The book and movie “Lord of the Rings” catapults the book and movie “Harry Potter” back to the place where it belongs: into the children’s playroom and their afternoon enjoyment. It is true: Harry Potter has earned his right to live in this realm, and no-one will begrudge him that. A nice book, a nice movie, many amiable ideas from Ms Rowling amiably realized in images. But then we also realize that the two sides, the Lord’s side and Potter’s side, should not be compared – not if we want to play fair. The Professor is far ahead of the single mom; his vast array of education, textual strategy and narrative options is stuff Ms Rowling can only dream of. But she need not dream; for Harry Potter is definitely more than good enough, and Ms Rowling, meanwhile, has grown rich enough.

Concerning the movies, this is all still rather harmless; although the powerful imagery of the Lord’s movies does outdo Potter’s movies by far (as of my writing this, they are yet single movies, but the other episodes are in production and foreseeable). This is not least the result of the imagery textually and in parts explicitly included with the “Lord of the Rings”. And the images are terrific. This is how we should imagine the first staging of Wagner’s operas, still driven by the fresh idea of the synthesis of the arts. And in their content, these images are filled with the pictorial codes of the 19th century, readily recognizable in the ornaments amongst which Professor Tolkien grew up. It is interesting to see how close some of the images come to the illustrations that Tolkien has created himself; it is anyone’s guess just how closely Tolkien’s own creations were studied in the preparation of the movie.

Tolkien has created an epic in the truest sense of the word, a whole world with its own history and mythology. Whoever wants to survey the whole of this universe cannot stop at the “Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings”, but must also read the mythological prehistory of Middle Earth in the “Silmarrilion” and others. That book proves boring for those not already taken in by Tolkien’s world, as it neglects any greater story arc in catching up with all the details that make the cultures, mythologies and histories of Middle Earth.

Much more than in the case of “Harry Potter”, the movie made of “The Lord of the Rings” had to shorten the material. These cuts, pertaining less (but also) to the plot structure but most of all to its narrative constitution of a world, need to be balanced by other inclusions; and this is what the sheer force of the imagery accomplishes. The movie continues (though I surmise: will not surpass) an aesthetic program first established by the genius of George Lucas in his “Star Wars”. This, too, depicted a battle of “good vs. evil” for its own time.

What I am interested in, but can only pose as hypothesis here, is the connection between the conflict that develops in accordance with the totalitarian principle of “good vs. evil”, the narrative development of the resulting program and its audiovisual compatibility and realization.

And so I will conclude these deliberations by raising an awkward topic: For there was another bearded man in that autumn, a magician of his own kind, that appeared in the media; his name, too, sounds strange to our ears: Osama bin Laden. I hope to be forgiven: I am well aware how shady this continuation of the comparison must seem. But my interest in this context is again limited to exploring the connection between a narrative program and its realization in the media. Here is another lord involved in a battle of “good vs. evil”, he too has disciples fighting his battles for him. But he is not fictitious, he is real, so they tell us, although we cannot experience this firsthand, and all evidence for his existence has since acquired a touch of the fictional (not: fictitious). But now the sides have become blurred. He believes that he is the good guy, but the other side (that’s us, right?) knows that it has the good guys. And so the man is hunted, by almost all of the world now.

What I’m about to come to is this: What the “Lord of the Rings” as well as “Harry Potter” demonstrates with such elegance is a principle that can also be applied to areas in which the fun is long over. The principle of “good vs. evil” is a tool, by use of which humans constitute their own world so they can find their orientation in it. Whoever overlooks this is as ridiculous as any good-will pedagogue teaching us differentiation. We must not be quick to ridicule such approaches, but they do become ridiculous wherever the power of such programs that are driven by that narrative principle is overlooked or ignored, or wherever people consciously refuse to see it.

Tolkien’s fable takes on a very special quality, missing in Rowling’s stories, where he deals with that very power. And it is hardly surprising that George Lucas’ “Star Wars” series deals with that same powerful force. Both recognize an essential structural principle of that power: the accumulative totalitarization which only an ultimate effort of resistance can counter. This power corrupts, it corrupts so totally that the personal subject is lost in the process. Tolkien and Lucas show what Foucault (the middle Foucault) has taught us: The subject is a subject only if and whenever it makes use of its chance to resist subsumption by such a power. Once subjected to such power, it looses its status as a subject. Bilbo faces that threat, while Darth Vader has failed to resist it, he has joined the dark side. But that also shows us that what was good today might be evil tomorrow. This is not about a differentiation in which the good guy – at the bottom of his heart – is always also a little bit evil, and the bad guy is always also a little bit good. Instead, the narrative media program functions in such a manner that the possibility always remains for good or evil to turn into the other extreme.

Both movies can hardly resist the fascination of this power and of the dark, the evil side (note how the metaphors of enlightenment merrily follow in the wake of such phrases). And both movies depend upon the allure of such power. But lest it become too strong and force the readers and viewers to join the wrong side, certain security circuits are included: The dark side either lacks a face or owns such a horrid face that we are inclined to close our eyes. In these aspects, the realization of the media subverts itself. And it is here that the transformation into movies opens an area of conflict not fully effective for the books: The depiction of the undepictable. Both movies, the Lord movie with its own symbolism much more distinctly and drastically that the Potter movie, have each solved this dilemma in a specific way. And these solutions from the storyboards of movie directors are apparently unavailable to news casters. We know the face of Osama bin Laden; by now, we have grown to know it better than we might choose.

And this comparison would indeed be shady, aiming only at the connection between realization in media and narrative programs, if we did not have clues in Tolkien’s case that he conceived his fable not least with an eye on another historical conflict of yet another dimension. One might read this between the lines of his book or recognize it as distinctly in the movie; in fact, it can hardly be overlooked. The Black Riders evidently remind us of SS lackeys, hunting those with utmost brutality that could threaten the power of the powerful. The lackeys of power (in white plastic uniforms) in “Star Wars” were also compared with nazi lackeys. Mordor a depiction of Nazi Germany? Tolkien himself refused such direct comparisons, which can only serve to incite our speculations further. And this would yield a view that defines literature as a medium for imagined acts: The conflict is dealt with in literature and additionally situated in world history – within the fiction. Literature demonstrates and cinema imagines our perception of the world. The conflict “good vs. evil” is a basic pattern of perception. And it is indubitable that in Tolkien as well as in the Lord’s movie, and even in Potter, there remains a hint of the literary, fictional treatment of such experiences.

On the other hand, people such as Bruce Willis have announced that they will produce no more action movies because those movies develop scenarios that terrorists might use as a plan, or at least as an inspiration, for their attacks. What we saw in the news, we had long seen in the movies.

The one has nothing to do with the other (news and movies, that is), except for that one point of comparison that deals with the connection of a totalitarian conflict and its realization in the media. It is no coincidence that the term ‘terror’ belongs both to politics and to the study of drama. I offer this formula for describing that connection: In that manner in which media use the conflict of “good vs. evil” as a narrative program for their textualizations, the depiction of the conflict “good vs. evil” has to use the media’s means of realization, i.e. (literary) narrative and (audiovisual) imaginative means. The conflict of “good vs. evil” is too abstract to be understood without narratives and images. Evil is nothing unless it has a face. We must only be careful not to confuse that face with evil itself.

It is not the least aim of media studies to point out such facts. But neither should that aim remove all fun from our subject. It is only when the supermedial principles are understood that media-specific differentiations become possible; and it is only differentiation on such a basis that allows us to find a somewhat certain orientation in a world that is conveyed to us by media to a large, even to the largest extent.

For whoever intends to escape from the binary scheme of “good vs. evil” must first understand its function, and recognize its specific potential for structuring and orienting the world. Realizing that it can never be wholly escaped is the first step towards escaping it to a certain extent. But that can only be understood by examining the media.

Ausführlichere Angaben zum Thema über e-mail beim Verfasser des Artikels: medienobservationen@lrz.uni-muenchen.de

    Sämtliche Beiträge dürfen ohne Einwilligung der Autoren ausschließlich zu privaten Zwecken genutzt werden. Alle Rechte vorbehalten.
© Medienobservationen 1997.