Harry Potter, Infinitus and the Last Airbender

I’m presenting this summer at Infinitus, a HPEF Harry Potter fan conference. I really enjoy presenting at the HPEF events, because they’re an opportunity to be a stuffy academic without the stuffy academic environment. For example, you can sit through several serious presentations about Harry Potter and things like education, religion, or literature studies, then at lunch go watch a live water Quidditch match or Wizard Chess. I’ve only every attended HPEF conferences, but they’re not the only ones available each year, but I think they were the first organization to offer the conferences.

My presentation is about the Wizarding World of Harry Potter section of the theme park. I’ll post the transcript of the presentation once I finalize it. When I made my proposal, I thought it might be kind of fun to explore my dissertation topic using Harry Potter as a practice round. Of course, that means elaborating on my dissertation topic: Although I haven’t received the official go-ahead from the school yet (hopefully in the next few weeks!), I plan to write about how Disneyland is a space where we can interact with our culture’s mythologies and how Disney and Disneyland have essentially helped define what some of those mythologies actually are. It it seems kind of far out, consider this: ask a handful of children under the age of 10 who their hero is, and I would bet that a number of them would list someone who is a Disney character. Is this simply the product of successful targeted marketing? That would be the answer of many of the negative Nancys who write about Disneyland, which is perfectly acceptable and understandable. However, it is my contention and the driving force of much of my academic research that popular culture has become the dominant mythic paradigm for a percentage of the American population, and two of those dominant myths are Disney and Harry Potter (and from Harry Potter, we could stretch to include many of the other myths that have arisen as a result of Potter’s success. Excellent stories are being written and published that would not have had that much opportunity before Potter; of course, there are many icky stories being written and published that are given the opportunity because of Potter, but they’re usually the ones I don’t find the inspiration or the mojo to bother writing too much about. Except Twilight, because someone needs to be a champion against campy vampire romance and bad writing. When Twilight comes up in my classes, I often ask my students to consider the importance of vampires in our culture right now at this point of time AND why many of these vampires are someone we should be in love with.)

In vein with exploring modern myths in popular culture, I decided last week to start watching Avatar: The Last Airbender in light of the recent negative criticism of M. Night’s adaptation of the show. I didn’t want to see the film without knowing the show, and since I haven’t had cable in over 10 years, I missed the initial phenomenon entirely. The story of Avatar is that the world is divided into four types of people (read: races) themed around the four primary elements of the world: fire, earth, water, and air. Each of these peoples can interact with their elements, controlling them and all that jazz. In each generation, an Avatar is born who is the one person in the ENTIRE WORLD who can control all four elements and keep all the people at peace. [the requisite chosen one complex of any successful hero] The current Avatar went missing for 100 years, during which time, the Fire Nation began the process of world domination. They have taken over most of the world by the time the show starts. The current Avatar emerges, and is an Airbender (meaning he is from the Air people and can control the air element). Since the next avatar was supposed to be an Air person, the Fire Nation wiped out the Air people, making Aang the Last Airbender. See? It’s not just a smart name. The show is centered around his education of the elements and his growth into the hero that will bring peace back into the world by restoring balance in the Force. I just started the second season on Netflix. I see the mythic advantage of this story: using an Eastern frame of reference, Avatar teaches us Westerners the benefits of balance over world domination – a theme that everyone would be good to learn and sooner rather than later. It makes sense that the dominant power would be fire, as that is the only element that cannot be easily controlled and can potentially dominate the other elements if not properly tended and monitored.

It’s interesting that the prevalent myths of the current generations surround bringing some kind of balance. From Star Wars through Potter and many other current stories, there is the theme that someone is off kilter, and it is up to the hero to make everything right again sooner rather than later, because later leads to more catastrophic results. in contrast, more “adult” sectors have been focusing heavily on Apocalyptic scenarios about the world ending in 2012 or what the state of the country will actually be in a few hundred years. Somehow, I’m getting the impression that many “adults” or “Muggles” are giving up on the future of the world, whereas “children” or those who believe in magic still have hope that someone will bring about the needed balance. My inner realist would like to remind everyone that it won’t take a single hero, but it is a collective effort from each of us who still believes in the future, and it won’t fix itself overnight, but over time if we all make a concerted effort.