Updated: Jun 25, 2020
By Ari Schwartz
A child has everything taken from him.
He is neglected, castigated, miserable. Suddenly he receives a call from a wise elder. It turns out, he is special. He is destined for greatness. He must go to a new world, and use that which had been the source of his suffering to stop some Big Bad Thing from happening.
The above bare bones story may sound familiar. It should. It is the kind of story that always will be, and always has been, extremely popular. Different people will have filled in that bare bones story with different particulars. Some may have thought of Harry Potter (I know I did); others will have conjured up Luke Skywalker; and still others will have found Joseph travelling across the desert of their mind down to Egypt. And there’s a reason for this. All these stories, and many more can conform to this bare bones structure. It’s not hard to find out why. The people living in Ancient Mesopotamia were dealing with the same foundational concerns that we today have to contend with: What is evil? How powerful is love? Why are we alive? Owing to the radically different contexts in which they asked this set of questions, however, their treatments can sometimes appear overly complex and closed off to our modern eyes. This would be a tragedy. For there is much to be gained from these stories. Luckily, we have a secret weapon, our own entry point. That secret weapon is--recognizing the ubiquity of narrative tropes.
You won’t be surprised to discover that J.K. Rowling herself majored in Classics at the University of Exeter. This is no coincidence. Her story of a young orphan, terribly mistreated by his aunt and uncle, plagued by the unshakeable feeling that he simply doesn’t belong, trades in many of the same narrative tropes (recurring scenes--like a shootout at high noon in an old western flick) as its Ancient Greek and Mesopotamian forerunners. By making these connections between Harry Potter and its mythic antecedents, we will be gifted with an enriched reading of the text at hand.
Stories are much like music in this way--they are not invented whole-cloth. Rather they are built upon that which has preceded them. They are refinements, rearticulations, and sometimes, innovative “recombinations” of inherited tropes. The beauty, and point of analytical investigation, lies in the way these tropes, this artistic inheritance, are put to use. And just as with music, where an understanding of the underlying theory is integral to a true appreciation of the significance of a given work’s innovation, where only with a firm understanding of the history of this minor chord’s conventional function can its use as a mechanism to suddenly inject life into this song be properly valued as the revolutionary musical gesture that it is, so it is with stories, where only a reader steeped in the history of narrative tropes can see the marvel in deploying that same trope in a radically new context.
But aside from deepening our appreciation for our primary text, in this case Harry Potter, this project has a twin goal as its object. This particular brand of systematic intertextual analysis makes foundational works of human myth become demystified, their truth revealed for all to see. And that truth is that these are not texts to be painstakingly deciphered, in a word, to be dreaded, but rather simple stories whose eternal truths have nourished humanity from time immemorial. Equipped with these tools, armed with the ability to identify the ceaseless patterning in the stories swarming all around us, we are able to read these tales, as it were, with 3D glasses--there is the text on the page sure, but beneath that (and above it perhaps) are layers of stories previously told, and those not yet even thought of. There is depth.
The benefit of such a project does not constrain itself to more enriched readings of story and myth (although this alone would certainly justify such an endeavor). Rather, it turns out that pattern-identification is an eminently transferable skill, one whose effective deployment is hotly sought after and handsomely rewarded in nigh on every discipline. A student who cuts their teeth identifying patterns between Harry Potter and its mythic counterparts in Ancient Mesopotamia or Ancient Greece will suddenly find themselves, quite instinctively, seeing such patterns in the “real world.” History will no longer be a confused stream of varied and incomprehensible events and political machinations, but rather, just as in story, an infinite canvas on which to trot out the same old tropes that have plagued and uplifted humanity for millennia.
Furthermore, the insight that large chunks of stories simply consist of variations on passed down tropes can be incredibly empowering for students. Suddenly, they will realize that the title of “writer” isn’t cordoned off to some preternaturally talented elites, but that it is instead their birthright as human beings, as natural born storytellers. This can serve to stoke the flame of students who already harbor ambitions of writing their own stories, as well as ignite that flame in students for whom that particular ambition had previously laid dormant. The benefits of such a project are truly endless. And the best part is--these invaluable skills can be acquired through reading stories, through following a young child discover their inner strength, discover that they are a wizard. In a word, these skills will be acquired while having fun.
Ari Schwartz graduated from Northwestern University with degrees in Economics and Film. When not writing plays or making music, Ari works as a College Consultant, helping high school students tell their stories to colleges. Let us know if you're interested in participating in his Harry Potter reading project.