Philip Pullman, writing for The Times this week, discussed the first action heroes - the heroes of the ancient epics. Pullman notes that epics are big because they
are about big things — death, courage, honour, war, shame, vengeance. [...] large and public matters — the fate of a nation, the return of a king, the success of an army, the origin of a people. [Therefore the] principal characters are larger than human beings, and perhaps simpler too: they are heroes.
Fantasy authors are fond of epic tales: Pullman's own "His Dark Materials" trilogy is described as an epic by many reviewers. Probably the most famous modern fantay epic is Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, which is a physically big book as well as about the big themes of war, courage, death, honour, the return of a king and the fate of several nations. The other characteristic of epics is that they are tragic; as Pullman observes The epic is not a place where anyone lives happily ever after; it obeys a mightier realism than that. And this is certainly true of both "His Dark Materials" and The Lord of The Rings; Lyra and Will save the multiverse from destruction and ensure the continuation of humanity's intelligence, but they cannot be together. And who can help wondering if either one of the will ever be truly happy, no matter how hard they work to achieve the Republic of Heaven on Earth, without the love of the other ? Similiarly, Frodo saves the Shire by ensuring the destruction of the Ring (even if he couldn't cast it into the Fire at the end), yet he cannot settle down, like Sam, and be happy with a wife and children, or even as an uncle to Sam's children. Instead he must leave his beloved Shire and seek healing in the West, before he can return to Middle-earth to die. Sam is more fortunate than Frodo, he remains in the Shire with his wife and children, yet he too must pass into the West, though he bore the Ring but a short time.
We might speculate then, whether the Harry Potter series as a whole can be described as an epic, if Harry himself does survive to live happily ever after. I'm not sure the characters can be described as larger-than-life, but the series has got epic themes: war, death, courage, vengeance (Harry's desire for revenge against Voldemort for the deaths of his parents, against Bellatrix for the death of Sirius, and against Snape for the death of Dumbledore), and honour all feature largely. But Harry is not really a larger-than-life hero: indeed, my first paper about Harry Potter suggested that Harry is more of an Everyman, a fairly ordinary boy to whom extraordinary things happen. He's talented at Quidditch (and flying in general), and he's very good at Defence Against the Dark Arts, but he's not a very dedicated student (if it hadn't been for Hermione, he wouldn't have passed his first year exams, let alone his OWLS). And whilst he's both brave and loyal, he still has a tendency towards impulsive and reckless actions that is dangerous (even if it was only directed at Malfoy and Snape in HBP). I have yet to be convinced that the Harry Potter series is epic, but maybe J K Rowling will overcome my doubts in the final book.
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Going back to the theme of yesterday's poetry post. I'd forgotten Coleridge's "Work Without Hope" until I was reminded of it today whilst watching Groundhog Day (a favourite film of mine) in which Phil (Murray's character) is heard quoting the third and fourth lines:
All Nature seems at work. Slugs leave their lair -
The bees are stirring - birds are on the wing -
And Winter slumbering in the open air,
Wears on his smiling face a dream of Spring!
And I the while, the sole unbusy thing,
Nor honey make, nor pair, nor build, nor sing.
Yet well I ken the banks where amaranths blow,
Have traced the fount whence streams of nectar flow.
Bloom, O ye amaranths! bloom for whom ye may,
For me ye bloom not! Glide, rich streams, away!
With lips unbrightened, wreathless brow, I stroll:
And would you learn the spells that drowse my soul?
Work without Hope draws nectar in a sieve,
And Hope without an object cannot live.