Saturday, April 17, 2010

More musings on Avatar, part 2

I had always felt life first as a story-and if there is a story there is a storyteller. ~ G.K. Chesterton

In Part 1, I talked about my theory that the Christian symbolism in Avatar contributes more to the movie's popularity than its pantheistic themes.

In Part 2, I'm looking at the mythic structure that you see in Avatar and in thousands of other movies and books. And relating that to the story of our own lives.

The Christian elements in Avatar are overshadowed by pantheism and deep ecology, but they are still there. In addition, the movie follows an archetypal story structure, the elements of the “hero’s journey”. We know that the great myths of almost every culture follow a very similar structure, as identified by Joesph Campbell in his "Hero with a Thousand Faces" - and that modern stories following this structure, such as Avatar, continue to be incredibly popular.

The mythic structure is all over the place. You see it mirrored in the plots of many movies and books, and not just science fiction and fantasy books. A hero is forced to leave his or her ordinary world (either physically or metaphorically) and go somewhere new and sometimes scary (Jake leaves earth and arrives on Pandora; he leaves his physical body and has to adjust to a new body and a new culture). On the way he encounters enemies and allies, and faces trials he must overcome. At some point he faces his darkest moment/greatest fear (he is imprisoned, the enemies destroy the Nav'ii home), gains important knowledge that helps him in his victory (he asks the Nav'ii goddess for help) which he is able to share with others to help them or even save them.

You find this basic structure in Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars and almost all Disney movies (here's a funny post that shows how the synopsis of Disney's Pocahantas can be changed to Avatar just by substituting a few names). But if you look close enough you also find it in classic novels, like To Kill a Mockingbird, Jane Eyre, Gone with the Wind, or stories from the Bible (Abraham, Jacob, Joesph, Moses, David, just to name a few) or other myths (Greek, Norse, Eastern, etc)... there are variations of course but the basic structure still fits.

So why are these archetypal elements of being forced into new and scary things, facing your greatest fears, learning important knowledge and sharing it, so universal? Do these archetypal elements predate Christianity and other current and historic religions or did religion create this mythic structure and propagate it?

I suppose that's like asking what came first, the chicken or the egg. No way to prove it. But I think myth came first (no comment about the chicken and the egg).

I think myth came first because the hero's journey is something that resonates with us so deeply because it is a reflection of our own journey. We are constantly having to face trials in our life. We look the hero myths to see how they dealt with even bigger, scarier trials than we've had to face. We discover that they found help even in their darkest hour, and victory. C.S. Lewis, in his essay "Is Theology Poetry?" tackles the relation of religion and myths. He says myths are a sort of divine illumination vouchsafed to all men.

We should, therefore, expect to find in the imagination of great Pagan teachers and myth makers some glimpse of that theme which we believe to be the very plot of the whole cosmic story - the theme of incarnation, death, and rebirth - [another type of the hero's journey]. And the difference between the Pagan Christs (Balder, Osiris, etc) and the Christ Himself is much what we should expect to find... It is the difference between a real event [Christ's death and resurrection] on the one hand, and dim dreams or premonitions of that same event on the other. It is like watching something come gradually into focus; first it hangs in the clouds of myth and ritual, vast and vague, then it condenses... as an historical event in first century Palestine.

The hero's journey, as retold over and over again in different stories, condenses into our own lives, too. We can see our lives as a random mix of wonderful and awful events, which abruptly ends in our death -story over. Or we can see it as a journey through trials, where we receive help and learn things along the way, and ultimately we face our greatest enemy- death - and overcome it with the faith we learned - that there is an even better life waiting for us.

What do you think about the hero's journey?


  1. Hello!
    Great post! I enjoyed the comparisons to other movie/novel structures.
    And I too have enjoyed Lewis' view of myth types as divine premonitions.

    I saw that you are a university professor...are you also writing fiction? If so what genre? And how is it going?

  2. Thanks for your kind words! I'll be stopping by to visit you on your literary journey!