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Myth in Film

THE SYMBOLIC LIFE (Summer 2011)


This summer we have been treated to an assortment of fantasy/adventure movies. Some are fast paced and symbolism is hard to catch, while others offer mythic themes that pop out (this is pop culture after all) and give us a glimpse of important psychological/mythological dynamics. Such films bring fantasy and myth into our lives in an immediate and accessible way—this may be a new experience for many, unless one has been a comic book aficionado, steeped in science fiction literature, or a reader of Joseph Campbell and C. G. Jung.

Modern filmmaking’s ability to bring mythic imagery within live action movies makes archetypal symbolism more easily available to the viewing public. I’d like to touch on three of this summer’s films. First, we’ll consider Thor, a Norse god who comes to film via Marvel Comics. (Marvel has also brought to the cinema the Hulk, Iron Man (twice), and Captain America.) Thor, the son of the Norse father god Odin, is an engaging figure, who evokes loyalty from his followers, but is also arrogant. Evil forces are released through his brash actions and his father banishes him to earth. Psychologically Thor would represent the archetypal energy that needs to be humanized, to be contained, to accept mortality, so that it isn’t out of control. Banished to earth, Thor becomes more grounded, and can act with clear focus. Once this has been achieved, the Hammer that has been given to him, but now cast in stone by Odin, once more becomes available for his use. (Compare King Arthur drawing the sword Excalibur from the stone.) He is now worthy to wield it, and for the right reasons.

At the other end of the spectrum is DC Comics’ Green Lantern. The primary figure is a human, Hal Jordan, who like Thor, has personal issues. Yet he has been selected by a green lantern, a mystical representative of a greater galactic conglomeration, the Green Lantern Corp. For some strange reason, this mysterious energy chooses him, the first human to receive the call. Hal learns that he has qualities that he hasn’t yet realized, and that it is his humanity that makes him the best choice to fight against the dark force that seeks to dominate the universe and comes to threaten earth. Psychologically Hal Jordan represents a human whose calling by archetypal energy allows him to fulfill his best potential, despite any personal short comings. His will, his passion for life, can overcome the greatest fear. Campbell would call it the hero’s journey, Jung the call of the Self for individuation.

Harry Potter has been with us now for many years in print and in film. This summer with the release of “The Deathly Hallows, Part 2” we view his cinematic swan song. Not necessarily the most gifted wizard, it is his humanity that most deeply serves Harry, and thus makes him an extraordinary wizard. Like Thor’s hammer, and Green Lantern’s ring, wizards have wands which allow them to express their unique powers. We could say psychologically that the wand allows the wizard to express in reality what he can imagine, both for good and for evil. Transpersonal archetypal energies are brought to life. The extraordinary is brought into the ordinary.

One of the deathly hallows is the elder wand, the greatest ever made. Wizards have fought and died to possess the wand either, as the story of the deathly hallows reveals, to escape death, or in the case of Tom Riddle/Lord Voldemort, to be the most powerful of all wizards. But wands, like Thor’s hammer, and the green lantern ring, have to be matched with the right person. As the wand master Ollivander reminds us, the wand chooses the wizard. So while Voldemort has sought and found the elder wand, it really doesn’t belong to him. Voldemort has stolen and killed to get it, but it won’t serve him. We learn that by various twists of fate the wand now belongs to Harry, who actually never went in search of it. So try as he might Voldemort cannot kill Harry with it. In fact in his last attempt to annihilate Harry, Voldemort is killed by his own spell, one he directed at Harry, and the elder wand presents itself to Harry.

So is Harry now the most powerful wizard? No. As he says in the first book and film when told that he is a wizard, Harry replies, “No, I’m just Harry.” And so at the end he remains. In the film he breaks the elder wand so no one can use it again. In the book he uses it to repair his original wand, the one that chose him in Ollivander’s shop when the story began, and then returns the elder wand to Dumbledore’s tomb. Harry rejects power or contact with what doesn’t really fit him. He stays within the energy that he is meant to have and use. He, like Thor and Hal Jordan, keeps a proper relationship to that which allows him to express his creative energies in a personal way, and use them to serve others.

Editor: Steve Galipeau

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