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Comparative Literature #3

There are several opinions regarding the role of comparisons in Comparative Literature. Engaging with each and every one of them would certainly take some doing. Hence, we shall not do so and as a change from the mood of the previous two articles we try a more hands-on approach at defining the scope of Comparative Literature. The article is longer than the previous two and I thus request you humour me because (to paraphrase Cervantes in accordance with my own needs), ‘Leisurely Reader: Thou must believe me without having to swear an oath that I do very much like the Book I am about to speak of.’

Note: Portions of this paper were presented at the UGC sponsored International Conference on ‘Myth and Cult in Literature’ organised by the English Department of St. Andrew’s College, Mumbai between the 27th and 28th of September 2012 where it was titled: “Does Albus Percival Wolfric Brian Dumbledore make a good Merlin?”

Heroes and heroism are the stuff of legends. Now this does sound a tad absurd, as though one were stating the obvious, because legends more often than not comprise stories of heroes and their heroism and whether we choose to admit it or not, we all like the hair-raising and nail-biting climax of a story where the underdog emerges victorious. This is embodied in a situation Sarah Joseph describes very beautifully in her introduction to a collection of Ramayana stories. The story of the Ramayana represents ideals one might aspire to attain. All said and done the story has all the elements of a block-buster success; action, tension, drama and romance all doused with a generous dose of moral values. Joseph notes the special appeal of Ramayanas written for children. These, as she remarks, are full of rakshahsas and rakshashis who make life miserable for good sages and helpless folk alike and it is Ram; the valiant hero who comes to their rescue. Ram slays the evil rakshashas and the gods pleased with his deeds shower down petals on him. The whole idea is so very appealing and reassuring; like a gentle pat on the back or an arm around the shoulders that says, ‘everything is going to be just fine’. Children have their own set of fears which are no more or no less irrational than the insecurities, we as adults have. One cannot go through life not believing in anything and the easiest things to believe in are all that are defined under the purview of the term “good”. This in a certain sense is the space of the Hero. As Kierkegaard explains in Fear and Trembling that a person who loves himself becomes great in himself, a person who loves other people becomes great in his devotion to others but a person who loves something greater that himself and the sum of humanity(Kierkegaard uses God) it is he whose greatness outshines all. Abraham was great because he conquered God with his helplessness; because his powerlessness becomes his greatest power. He submits completely to his fate and this submission paves the way for his vindication.

The pleasure of the Heroic narrative is in the fact that it represents the possibilities of becoming; it is bears testimony to the greatness latent in everybody. It bears testimony to the fact that the human spirit is indomitable. The precise moment that one takes away from the experiencing of Heroic narrative is none other than the moment of the Hero’s triumph and vindication. Now, in order to better understand the phenomenon that is the Hero let us begin with one of the earliest known pronouncements(in the western world) on the qualities that make a hero “click”; Aristotle’s Poetics where he describes the attributes of a successful tragic hero. He should certainly be lofty but not so larger than life that one can’t relate to him. He should be essentially good but must suffer for a critical flaw in his character and the list of course goes on. Aristotle advocates a certain in-between-ness as far as the hero is concerned. This is obviously so because Aristotle believes that all art functions on principles of mimesis and recognition and thus, while the hero must certainly represent achievements greater than the general run of humanity he must not be beyond the reach of the imaginations of the same. If he were not “different”, then why would one read about him but then again if he is so different that one can’t relate to him the entire enterprise comes crashing down. It is this in-between-ness that, as I have already remarked, qualifies the hero and lends to the myth of the hero, a certain universal quality. The hero represents something that can be aspired to and this is precisely characterises the myth of the hero. Thus, if we subscribe to Barthes’ definition of the myth, the deploying of the myth of the hero acts as a structuring function in a narrative.

Bakhtin in his typology of the novel identifies various species based on the how the hero is located in the world of the novel. One such species is the bildungsroman that follows the story of the becoming of a hero. There are also categories like the narratives of travel where as Bakhtin defines it, the hero is a point moving in space or that of ordeal where the hero is faced with many hurdles that he must overcome. These are categories that help us understand how the myth of the hero is deployed in a narrative. The myth as Barthes defines it is a codified system of what one can call for the lack of a better term, communication. It is familiarised by its repeated use in culture and this familiarity lends it a certain universal quality. Consider any Heroic narrative from the labours of Hercules to Lazarillo de Tormes or David Copperfield. Consider the birth of Krishna or Sundiata or for that matter Harry Potter. One observes a commonality in the manner in which the hero is conceived within the space of a heroic narrative. There in almost every case some form prophesy, usually at the beginning the hero’s life, that he must fulfil through the story of his becoming and finally in the moment he has become. Krishna is born to fulfil his destiny of slaying Kamsa, Rama is born to fulfil his destiny of killing Pulasthya, Sundiata to restore the glory of the Kingdom of Mali, Achilles to slay Hector and aid the fall of Troy and Harry James Potter is born to bring an end to the Dark Lord reign of terror. There is also the commonality between the stories of the birth of a hero and his up-bringing. The hero is born under certain extenuating circumstances that cause him to be separated from his birth-parents either at the moment of his birth or early on in his life that in turn becomes a condition for the fulfilling of his destiny, much like the section in the Shahnameh that tells the story of Sohrab and Rustum. Sundiata is born and circumstances demand that he leave his father’s kingdom to be raised in the homeland of his mother and through what seems like a dues-ex-machina he returns to claim his rightful place at the head of the kingdom of Mali, not very much unlike Arthur. Harry James Potter too after the death of his parents if forced to leave the world of magic to grow up in the world of Muggles with his mother’s sister and her family until he is ready at the age of eleven to reclaim his rightful place in the world of his parents; in the world where even while he does not realise it, he is a legend for having stopped the Dark Lord as an infant in his crib. In the narratives discussed by Bakhtin, like in Lazarillo, this idea of destiny gets transformed into a certain sense of relevance and a place in society considering of course the location of their heroes in relation to heroes like Arthur who are in many ways their predecessors. Both the orphaned Lazarillo and David Copperfield strive for a standing and relevance in the societies or worlds that they inhabit. There is also usually a character who is like a guide or guardian figure, who in the absence of the hero’s birth-parents fills their shoes partly. Sundiata has his griot, Ozidi has his grandmother; Oriame, Ram has Vishwamitra, Luv and Kush have Valmiki, Arthur has Merlin and Harry has Dumbledore. Also common is the fact that these guides are usually a part of our heroes’ lives only until a certain point, beyond which our heroes’ must continue their journey alone. The ultimate fulfilling of his destiny is only the hero’s and at times his companions’ moment of glory. This is the case with Arthur, Frodo from the LOTR series and most certainly the case with Harry Potter.

These form what one may call the structuring elements in the myth of the hero. The myth may be deployed in any way within a narrative but it is these codes that form the structural elements of a myth that make it discernible. This is what makes the myth as Barthes defines it a self contained system of signification. Myth is after all a kind of speech and speech is comprised of certain codes, which on being deciphered make meaning possible. Thus if considered in semiological terms as defined by Sassure the myth itself functions like a langue and the instances of its deployment constitute its parole. The langue as we know, to put it very simply, is the underlying structure that makes individual speech-acts meaningful. Myth as Barthes says is a peculiar system of signification in the sense that it is constructed out of a semiologic chain that precedes it and thus making it, what he calls, a “second-order semiological system. This becomes crucial in understanding a myth for it cannot be treated as factual because it is in fact a semiological system. Myth in Literature exists as a form of language use; as a specific kind of speech-act. Language as we know is a form and a form is not expected to be realistic or unrealistic. This is why Barthes calls myth depoliticised because it strives to be a-historical. This in no way means that myth is divorced from either history or reality. Myth does not conceal anything but talks about things by lending to them qualities of natural and eternal justification making them innocent. Myth states things with a matter of fact kind of clarity without offering any explanations. But this again is a digression from the purpose of this exercise… So getting back to the system of signification discussed earlier on in this paragraph, the myth of the hero is in itself a structure. In order for it to be meaningfully deployed the narrative must fulfil the codes of this peculiar mode of signification. Thus the narrative that employs the myth of the hero must enter into a relation with it that is mutually reflexive. The narrative in a certain way structures its use of the myth and is in turn also structured by the requirements of the myth in order to, as one understands in semiological terms, complete the act of signification.

As Barthes explains a narrative has to do little with the skill of the author or individual narrator but rather with structure. Of course the skill of the narrator is a factor but the skill is in the way the structure is employed in the crafting of the narrative. In this sense J.K Rowling is a truly gifted storyteller. As Professor Chanda states in her essay on the subject; “Rowlings books about Harry Potter have become a part of publishing lore, as the series returned a generation of television addicted children suffering from severely truncated attention spans, to the written word.” The Potter books and J.K Rowling are remarkable in the way they reinvent the myth of the hero and the heroic narrative. Tolkien did the same with his series that inhabited “middle-earth” but Tolkien’s narrative in a certain way lacked the immediacy of appeal the Potter books have. This is of course in the way Rowling structures the world that Potter and his friends inhabit. It has the exact measure of in-between-ness that makes the world of Potter and his friends not to mention his enemies both distant and at the same time recognisable. Harry James Potter inhabits a world that is magical and yet is surrounded by the real world. It is a secret world that inhabits the “down-low” of the world we know, for example places like the Leaky Cauldron; a place which normal non-magical human beings or Muggles as they are better known in Potter’s world wouldn’t even touch with a barge-pole leave alone consider entering and ordering a drink in. As Professor Chanda exclaims, “To think it too the most dated, clichéd trick in the book, namely magic, to work this miracle!” One honestly does not any form of high-flying theoretic engagement to understand what is so very special about the stoff of the Potter books. It has been used over and over again since the times of Homer. But again as Professor Chanda argues, “…. with the reign of Reason for two odd centuries, the impossibility of flying broomsticks and wands had been established conclusively, once and for all…” The Potter books are truly in every sense of the term old wine packaged in new bottles and it is of course this new bottling that lends them their appeal. Thus, it can turn a generation of individuals (children and adults alike) once again to the pleasures of willingly suspending their disbelief and partaking in the magical world of Potter and friends. Rowling makes the myth of the hero more accessible in the sense that Harry Potter and the world he and his friends inhabit is located bang in the middle of the world we also know and inhabit, but none other than the characters themselves and the readers know of its existence. This reminds me of an incident of which I shall now make an anecdote. My nephew who was recently hooked on to the Potter books turned eleven last year and was thoroughly disappointed and disgusted at not receiving his Hogwarts letter.

It is truly this aspect of the world of the Potter books and the world as we know it coinciding that makes their success rival that of Tolkien who in my opinion is a more thorough and skilled storyteller. Being born early on in the ‘pre-Rowlingian’ era meant that I grew-up reading Enid Blyton, Tolkien and others. When I grew slightly older, being as I was, born into a house filled with students of English Literature I was started on Classics like Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Jane Austen, Alcot, some of the Bronte sisters, Scott, Thackeray and there was of course the usual Agatha Cristie, Ian Fleming and Arthur Conan Doyle. Out of these the one thing that strikes me as interesting is that one finds a certain similarity between the child protagonists of say Dickens’ Novels and Harry Potter especially in the earlier books. What are also striking are the elements from school narratives, especially those dealing with boarding schools, like for example the Saint Claire’s or Malory Towers series by Enid Blyton or in Thomas Hughes’ Tom Brown’s School Days or for that matter in even in Nicholas Nickleby, Kipling’s Stalky and Co., Woodhouse’s Mike and several more. The aspects of school life are all there in the Potter series. The eccentric headmaster, the benevolent but stern house mistress and of course that one teacher whom everybody loves to hate and not exactly without cause, there is all of this and much more in the Potter books. Hogwarts is a boarding school in all the strictest senses of the term and a thumping good one at that and what is more children go there to get an education in witchcraft and wizardry, thus my nephew’s disappointment and disgust is not without cause you see. The Magical world also presents a de-familiarised view of the so called Muggle world. This comes across most clearly in the teaching of Muggle studies in the Hogwarts curriculum and also in Arthur Weasley’s recurring curiosity regarding artefacts and machines from the Muggle world; everything from rubber ducks to motor cycles. One can’t help but find resonances between the frenzy generated by the Quidditch World Cup and say the FIFA World Cup.

This in fact the skill of the narrator of the Potter tales in deploying the age old myth of the hero and creating a new heroic narrative that in its grandeur and breadth (literally considering the last book of the series is an astounding 780 odd pages in number, more than, as Professor Chanda states in her essay, any standard edition of War and Peace) rivals any other. It is in a certain sense a reinvention of the standard heroic myths. We could go on about where each specific element in the narrative comes from as David Colbert does in his book on the subject. We could effectively prove how in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Harry and Cedric were in fact the Knights of the Round Table, in a quest for the Holy Grail symbolised by the artefact in the title of the book. We may argue how the Holy Grail being crafted as legend would have it by a poor carpenter is far from the shining monstrances one finds popularly represented as the Holy Grail and thus the Goblet of Fire is in fact a direct allusion to the quest of the Grail. One may as many have compare Harry pulling the sword of Godric Griffendore out of the Sorting Hat in the Chamber of Secrets to Arthur’s claiming of the Excalibur or find traces of Hitler’s Nazism in Voldemort’s attempts at purging the world of Wizarding of all those who are not of pure-blood magical parentage, but all this is only permissible if it leads to a greater understanding and appreciation of Rowling’s work, not if it becomes and attempt of dissect and dismantle it. Doing so would defeat the very purpose of partaking of this event of the reinvention of the myth of the hero. What one might consider is what Professor Chanda alludes to at the end of her paper, which in my opinion is a new dimension that emerges from not just Rowling but also Tolkien before her. This is what Professor Chanda calls “the two-peas-in-a-pod” relationship between good and evil. The temptation that the ring represents in LOTR through its allure of eternal life and the possibility of eternal life in the art of making Horcruxes in the Harry Potter series show the seductive power of evil which is a theme going back to the Fall of Man through the aegis of Satan mediated by Eve. Gollum the erstwhile owner of the ring is reduced to a veritable wretch, Voldemort is reduced to a painful half-life and even when he returns from the undead the disfiguration caused by dabbling in dark magic is evident in his visage. It is not enough that Harry is tempted at the thought of resurrecting his parents, a temptation that hasn’t escaped his mentor Dumbledore either who toys with the idea of bringing back his sister from the dead but the fact that a part of the Dark Lord’s soul resides in Harry is what emphasises this almost side by side existence of good and evil. There are moments when Harry much to his shock succumbs to the temptation of the dark side but then it is as embodied in what Dumbledore says to Harry: “You are protected, in short, by your ability to love!” It is the ability to love that is Harry’s salvation in comparison to the loveless and remorseless Voldemort. As Dumbledore remarks somewhere; “Happiness can be found in the darkest of times… if one only remembers to turn on the light….”

This is something new that Rowling’s use of the myth brings to it and it is but natural because as Barthes explains…. myth always keeps reinventing itself because it never wants to die.

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