Summer 2015

Society and Culture

Heroes and Villains, New and Old

Daniel Tompsett

In storytelling, the “good versus evil” theme has stood the test of time, and today’s entertainment industry has capitalized on that fact. People, it seems, have always longed for a saving hero. 

In December 2015 the much-anticipated seventh installment of the Star Wars saga will bring entertainment to millions. The popularity of the original trilogy, its subsequent three prequel movies, and now the extension of the series in the hands of director J.J. Abrams are reminiscent of the immensely popular Harry Potter books and movies. The reach of such modern myths is staggering, as multiple millions watch the playing out of these epics to the point where they have become culturally ingrained.

Also reaching cult status is a low-budget UK science fiction series launched in 1963; it was originally intended as an educational family show and featured a blue police box—a telephone kiosk for use by police or by anyone needing to contact the police. The show recently celebrated its 50th anniversary with an episode that reportedly reached more than 10 million viewers in the United Kingdom alone and was simulcast in another 94 countries around the world.

The adventures of Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter and Doctor Who have generated multiple billions of dollars in revenue, and between them they claim an unprecedented popular success, giving rise to conventions for the most devoted “Whovians,” “Potterheads” and perhaps less imaginatively named “Star Wars fans.”

Beyond the detailed portrayal of their respective imagined universes, the success of these stories seems to lie in part in their depiction of a titanic struggle between good and evil, between core heroes and villains. The struggle often takes place at both a universal and an individual level, with the eventual extinguishing of evil with good.

Considering the incredible reach and impact of these stories, it seems appropriate to ask who our modern heroes and villains are, and what messages they are reiterating in our collective culture. Do the main characters of these hit series share any historical or cultural precedents? And what is the basis of their particular brand of good and evil?

Supernatural Attributes

One of the commonalities among the central heroes in these modern myths is that they all possess some form of supernatural ability. They are not like regular people. As a Jedi knight, Luke Skywalker learns how to use “the Force”—but only the good or “light” side, as it is split between light and dark attributes. With this power he can not only exact his will over the weak-minded (a Jedi “mind trick”) but commune with dead Jedi, cause objects to move without touching them, and exercise other psychic powers.

Harry Potter is able to fly on a broomstick and perform multiple spells with a magic wand; he can summon objects, heal broken bones, conjure invisible shields, and so on.

Doctor Who is presented as hundreds of years old; he is a genius with a deep knowledge of physics and the workings of the universe, and he, too, wields a wand of sorts in the form of his “sonic screwdriver.” He has the ability to link his mind to others’ and to wipe a mind of specific memories; his TARDIS (Time And Relative Dimension In Space) time machine is depicted as a living being.

Doctor Who is both a television show and a global multimedia franchise. . . . It centres on a time traveller called ‘the Doctor,’ who comes from a race of beings known as Time Lords. He travels through space and time in a time machine he calls the TARDIS.”

TARDIS.wikia.com

Collectively, their supernatural abilities raise these heroes to a higher perceived status than ordinary humans, and in part, this accounts for their appeal. Indeed, the stories overtly present their heroes as other-worldly. For example, Luke Skywalker is from “a galaxy far, far away,” Harry Potter is of “wizardkind,” and Doctor Who is an alien from the planet Gallifrey.

All of these heroes are also depicted as powerful enough to renew themselves and even to return from the dead. In the Star Wars saga, a Jedi who has died is able to return from “the Netherworld of the Force” as a ghostly apparition. Yet regeneration doesn’t always happen all at once. For example, when Luke Skywalker’s hand is severed in a battle with archnemesis Darth Vader, it is replaced with a biomechanical one.

As an infant, Harry Potter is struck with a deadly blow from the evil Voldemort but miraculously survives to become “the Boy Who Lived.” Later he is struck down again, only to come back from Limbo and put an end to his archenemy. In the process he succeeds in unlocking the power of “the resurrection stone,” the last of three objects needed to make him “the Master of Death.”

The latest Doctor Who is his 12th incarnation. Each time the Doctor has died he has regenerated into a new humanoid form, though he is presented as the same Doctor. In one episode his hand is also severed, only to grow back. Meanwhile the severed hand is kept in a glass vessel and later imparts regenerative energy to one of his companions.

The Dark Double

Each of these heroes has a dark counterpart who retains either an affinity for or an actual connection with his heroic opposite; and each hero at some point must prevent the forces of darkness from steering him to evil.

Luke Skywalker is tied to Darth Vader. The connection is literal in that the big reveal of the second movie (Part Five in the sequence) is that Luke is Vader’s son. However, there is also a semi-spiritual connection: Vader can know Luke’s thoughts, and vice versa. But the ties go further. When Luke encounters and defeats a vision of Vader in a cave, behind his opponent’s mask Luke sees his own face. And just as Luke’s hand was severed by Vader, Luke later battles Vader again and severs his mechanical hand with his iconic light saber, the implication being that he is gradually becoming just like his father. Vader sees himself becoming the Sith master so that, with Luke as his apprentice, they can “rule the galaxy as father and son.”

Individuals who used the dark side drew their power from darker emotions such as fear, anger, hatred, and aggression. . . . The dark side was considered seductive and a Jedi had to maintain vigilance in order to avoid falling to the dark side.”

starwars.wikia.com

Harry Potter is connected with Voldemort in the Potter series. From the moment Voldemort attempts (and fails) to kill Harry as an infant, they are unwittingly linked. So in order to destroy Voldemort, Harry himself must die and thus extinguish the piece of Voldemort inside him. Harry and Voldemort also share the ability to speak to snakes in a snake language, a rare “gift” as presented in the fiction, and further demonstrative of their bond.

Doctor Who’s archnemesis is a fellow Gallifreyan and a brother Time Lord. The back story suggests that they grew up together as friends, though as adults they are at once enemies and intellectual equals. Further, the twin nature of the Doctor himself is seen in his maintaining an ambiguous good or bad persona.

Just as the heroes can regenerate, so can their dark doubles. Darth Vader is the former Anakin Skywalker, who, having been seduced by the dark side of the Force, becomes badly burned and dismembered in battle and is rebuilt as a part metal and mechanical rejuvenation of his former self, universally recognized by the sound of his breathing apparatus. Voldemort started life as a boy called Tom Marvolo Riddle (an anagram for “I am Lord Voldemort”), who, the story relates, splintered his soul by committing murders and hid the fragments in various objects, animals and people in hopes of gaining immortality. Doctor Who’s counterpart can also regenerate. In each case the evil doppelgänger is presented as a dark element connected with the hero himself, bound together with him in a shared destiny.

Once Anakin Skywalker, Tom Riddle and Doctor Who’s young Gallifreyan friend have assumed their evil nature, each is dubbed with the title “Lord” or “Master”: Darth Vader is called Lord Vader, a “Dark Lord of the Sith.” Tom Riddle becomes Lord Voldemort, “the Dark Lord”—though the mention of his name is a strict taboo, causing him to be called “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.” And the innocent youth on Gallifrey becomes “the Master.”

A Unity of Origins

The authors of these stories are known to have drawn on a mass of myths, personal eccentricities and interests, collaborative input and, of course, their own imaginations. That said, the basic makeup and presentation of their heroes and villains has long been entrenched in our culture.

Just how old are the similarities that connect these figures in our collective cultural heritage?

Myths, of course, adapt over time, and each new one is likely to have borrowed something from earlier myths. That is the nature of fiction, of storytelling. If we wind back the clock several thousand years, the idea of supernatural lords and masters, able to resurrect themselves multiple times, is not new.

For example, the Babylonians imagined a being called Tammuz, whom they worshiped as a perpetually dying and reborn god. They gave him the title “Lord.” They also invented a being called Marduk, who was associated with magic and incantation. He, too, was said to be resurrected each spring equinox, and he, too, bore the epithet “Lord” (Bel). The fertility gods of the Canaanites were called Ba’al, another word that means “lord” or “master.” Ba’al was considered a son of El, likewise called “lord” and, much like the “Time Lord” Doctor Who, a “master of time.”

A multitude of deities disappeared behind the generic terms Bel or Ba’al, sometimes because it was forbidden to utter their actual names. The idea of an unnameable superbeing like the “Dark Lord” Voldemort has thus also been around for a long time.

There is some evidence that the Phoenicians carried the concept of Tammuz to the Greek world via Cyprus under the name Adonis (from the Phoenician adon, “lord”). The fictional youth was believed to spend one part of the year in the world of the living with Aphrodite (goddess of love, known to the Romans as Venus) and the other in the underworld with Persephone (goddess of death). Adonis, then, is another perpetually resurrected hero, with one persona associated with life and light and the other with death and darkness.

The name Adonis is believed to be of Phoenician origin (from ’adōn, “lord”), Adonis himself being identified with the Babylonian god Tammuz.”

Encyclopaedia Britannica, s.v. “Adonis”

The life and death cycles of these so-called lords and masters are also reminiscent of the mythical sun-god Apollo, considered by the ancient Greeks to be a son of Zeus. Greek Delphic priests paired him with the dark figure of Dionysus, “the cyclic, or dying and reborn, inner being of Apollo” (Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being).

Like Harry Potter and Voldemort, Apollo was associated with snakes; one version of his myth claims that at four days old he defeated the serpent Python and absorbed its power. And Hermes, of the ancient Greek world, wielded a magic wand, the caduceus—a staff entwined with two snakes, related as a gift of Apollo.

To the Greeks, Apollo was Phoebus, or “shining”—emblematic of the sun and thus associated with the overworld and the underworld into which he was believed to journey each night. His priests would go into trances and there be free from space and time, writes classicist Peter Kingsley: “One name given to those priests of Apollo was ‘skywalker’—a term used as far east as Tibet and Mongolia in just the same way” (In the Dark Places of Wisdom).He suggests that, in their state of trance, they would attempt to follow their sun-god into the underworld.

Anakin Skywalker’s dismemberment and burning on a volcanic planet, prior to his regeneration in a new metal body, may not be the first conception of that idea either. Centers of worship for gods associated with the underworld were sometimes established in caves or near volcanoes, both being seen as doors to the underworld. At least one scholar sees a link between this practice and metallurgy. For example, legend purports that Pythagoras, a Greek mystic, had a golden thigh, which Kingsley views as an allusion to “an initiatory scenario of death, descent to the underworld, and ritual dismemberment of the body followed by its reassembly and regeneration” (Ancient Philosophy, Mystery, and Magic). As reflected in the tie between Luke and Anakin Skywalker, initiatory ideas of this kind were part of “the established tradition throughout the ancient world of transmitting esoteric and magical powers on a one-to-one basis from spiritual (as well as physical) ‘father’ to ‘son.’”

Physician’ and ‘physicist,’ ‘physics’ and ‘physical’ are all modern versions of a word that used to mean much more than any of them. . . . We have to get back behind them, back to where they all came from.” 

Peter Kingsley, In the Dark Places of Wisdom

Apollo was viewed as not only a sun-god but a healer. His son was Asclepius, god of medicine and also identified with snakes. Our modern perception of doctors of medicine was shaped in part by Hippocrates, said to be descended from Asclepius and thus Apollo. In the ancient world, writes Kingsley, a physikos, from which we get words like physicist and physician, does not seem to have been a medical doctor as we know them today but someone “concerned with the basic principles of existence,” with “the bare bones of what things are” (Dark Places of Wisdom). His power to heal, much like Doctor Who’s, was believed to be at the universal level. A doctor or physikos, then, was a figure of mystery (Who?), closely linked with the god; the term physikosthus came to be used for magicians and alchemists.

Real Reality

The core attributes of the heroes and villains we see so universally played out to audiences around the world are not new. But their particular brand of good and evil is actually all part of the same thing—not really opposed but rather unified in a common origin already seen in the dual nature of the defunct gods of ancient polytheistic cultures.

The Bible, a cultural resource that we would do well to revisit, teaches that what is genuinely good can come only from the true God, who is revealed in its pages. It demonstrates that a fallen angel once known as Lucifer (from the Hebrew heylel, “shining one”) rebelled against God, was cast out of heaven, and became Satan the devil (“Adversary”). In the form of a snake this Satan deceived humankind into rejecting the true God and Creator in the Garden of Eden, convincing the first humans that they were fully qualified to distinguish good and evil. At that point humankind became slaves to Satan and his corrupt will, a will that he still exercises today as he seduces people to give themselves over to darkness. Interestingly, the word ba’al also denotes “owner,” indicating to whom the god’s devotees belonged.

The Bible shows that the Ba’als, the so-called lords of the Canaanites, were only ever empty nothings, said to be able to deliver as saviors but in reality having no power at all. (See Elijah’s encounter with the prophets of Ba’al in 1 Kings 18:1–40). In fact, in this context, only Jesus Christ and His Father are worthy of the title “Lord” (Adonai).

[The prophets of Baal] called on the name of Baal from morning even till noon, saying, ‘O Baal, hear us!’ But there was no voice; no one answered.”

1 Kings 18:26, New King James Version 

The good news for us today is that Christ, the real Son of God, came first in the form of a man, died once, and was resurrected by God the Father. It is this monumental act alone that opens the way for the reconciliation of all of humankind with the Father and to the gifts of repentance and eternal life, as well as to the ultimate vanquishing of evil and the Evil One, Satan (Revelation 20).

As proven by the immense popularity of shows like Star Wars, Harry Potter and Doctor Who, the world has an appetite for a saving hero, someone with the power to truly fix things and completely overcome evil with good. Perhaps we should ask ourselves, are we focusing on the right hero?