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'Harry Potter, 'Lord Of The Rings Tap Into Fairy Tales, Fascination With Medieval History
DURHAM, N.C. - Beneath their veneer of sorcery, scary effects and fancifully named characters, "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" and the upcoming "The Lord of the Rings" have moviegoers excited because they are tales about morality and choosing between "good" and "evil," say two Duke University scholars.
Both films - and the best-selling literary series by J.K. Rowling and J.R.R. Tolkien upon which they are based - feature earnest male characters who learn about themselves by facing evil and trying to do the right thing, said Thomas Robisheaux, an associate professor of history who teaches a course on magic and witchcraft, and doctoral student Rebekah Long, the instructor of a literature course this semester on Tolkien.
"I think both are concerned with learning to be good, what it entails, the exercise of free will," Long said. "They are also stories consumed with the idea of loss."
In this way, Rowling and Tolkien are both employing the structure of the classic fairy tale, said Robisheaux. And that explains, at least in part, their crossover success in appealing to both younger and older readers.
These tales - from "Little Red Riding Hood" to "Goldilocks and the Three Bears" - have their origins in story form popularized in Europe and the United States in the mid-1800s, he said. These stories, told by adults to children, take place in imaginary places and are meant to teach important moral concepts. In the process, ancient ideas and beliefs that were once feared, such as witchcraft, are transferred and tamed.
"These stories, like fairy tales, take readers out of their normal, everyday world," Robisheaux said. "They take them to an often pleasing world and, once there, really important things are worked through for the hero."
For Harry Potter, it's learning how to be a wizard and who he really is. For the hobbit Frodo in "The Lord of the Rings," it's his fate to undertake the terrible journey to destroy Sauron's evil ring.
"Stories like this have always been meant for adults, too," Robisheaux said. "It's a moral story. You've got to learn about good and evil, right? So adults can relate to it and approve what is going on there."
Harry's orphan status also fits right into the fairy tale tradition, Robisheaux said. In classic fairy tales, the parents are absent. This absence serves the important psychological role of allowing the children to grow up and learn about themselves through deeds and action.
"It's ultimately a voyage of self-discovery," Robisheaux said. "Harry's learning who he is."
Rowling and Tolkien also, to varying degrees, employ the technique of fictional historicism, Long said. While set in the realm of fiction, the authors borrow heavily from historical elements to comment about relationships between the past and present.
Tolkien, a professor at Oxford University, a respected medievalist and a Christian theologian when his fiction appeared in the 1950s, tapped into a revival of interest in the Middle Ages, Long explained. From the popularity of gothic novels and architecture to the idealization of chivalry and King Arthur's court, "representations of the Middle Ages continue to capture our imaginations, even in our modern world," she said.
Rowling's books, while apparently set in the present, also dip into that medieval history, Robisheaux said. While the details may be lost on an American audience, Rowling discusses alchemy and the whole range of occult arts - including natural, or "good" magic, and divination - so well known in the Renaissance.
"She's tapping into some historical fragments and reworking them on an original framework," he said. "She takes the notion of ancient worlds, which are so appealing, and makes them acceptable."
Neither Rowling nor Tolkien would have captured the imagination of generations of readers, though, if they lacked writing talent.
"On the most basic level, 'Lord of the Rings' is a brilliantly told story, an engaging tale," Long said. "On a deeper level, it's a beautiful elegy."
Is "Harry Potter" great literature? No, acknowledged Robisheaux. "But Rowling does know how to write," he said. "It's an incredibly well-told tale. It's a classic story of a boy who is special but misunderstood. And it's the hero's tale. Everybody can identify with that."
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