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The Only Game in Town

...he not busy being born

Is busy dying.   

    Bob Dylan, It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)

Walk down a street in Disneyland and you'll sooner or later come to Pinocchio (the wooden puppet), the Beast (large and menacing), and Ariel (the little mermaid).

What on earth is wrong with this picture?  We know from the movie that Pinocchio ends up a real boy, that the Beast becomes a Prince, and that Ariel gets legs.  Yet here they are in the simulated spectacle, pre-transformed and pre-ending and what is more, this feels totally natural to us.

Why on earth are we not surprised to see them in their pre-end state, but actually expect to?

As with most things, there's the obvious reason, which I suggest is wrong, and then the slightly more subtle one, which at least has a chance of being right.

The obvious answer: well, we see Pinocchio as a wooden puppet struggling to become human for longer than we see him as human, ditto the Beast, or Aladdin-as-ragamuffin, etc.  We expect to see them this way for the same reason we're shocked when Felicity cuts her hair: that's the way the world is meant to be.

This argument carries with it the seeds of its own destruction.  Ask any video-viewing child what Pinocchio, or the Beast, or Ariel wants out of their life as portrayed in the Disney film (and indeed in the original stories as well), and you will hear the correct answer.  Ask what happens to Pinocchio at the end and you'll have again the correct answer.  There's no doubt where Pinocchio wants to go or where he's going to end up, and that we know both of these -- yet here he is strutting around "wooden" and untransformed.

We can't expect them to be one way knowing they're going to wind up another, can we?

Oh yes, we can.  In fact that's the summary of everything "literary" in the Western tradition since Sumerians wrote down Gilgamesh.

Literature is a one-trick pony. If somebody doesn't enter a story one way and come out the end a changed person you are not reading literature, you're watching TV.  The name of the game is transformation.  This can take many forms: actual fairy-tale transformation (i.e., the Beast becomes a Prince, Pinocchio becomes a boy, Fiona becomes an ogre), self-realization and a return home (Odysseus), self-realization and an escape from captivity (Huck Finn), self-realization and the final climactic battle scene to avenge wrongs (Hamlet).  There's anther way of looking at this which is to say that it's the difference between appearance and reality, but I submit these are one-and-the-same and we'll deal with that separately.

As any beginning screenwriter will tell you -- you need conflict.  Somebody's rubbing their fellow creatures, selves, or society the wrong way or you don't have a story that's going to make you very interested for longer than the average commercial break. 

The other way this gets thought of is that literature is the journey -- either transformation or journey capture the same idea.  One may be more an internal image (transforming the self), and the other a more external image (getting somewhere), but both are about the same thing. 

You cannot start a story a perfect world, have perfect things happening, and end it in a perfect world (this sounds suspiciously like a subscription to any fashion magazine).  The real reason Adam and Eve were expelled from paradise didn't have so much to do with their sin as with the stark realization on the part of the Deity that perfection is really really really boring.  (off-the wall aside: you need the argument that the ways of a supreme being are incomprehensible to mankind, because either they are completely comprehensible a la the Greek pantheon none of whom are all-powerful, or they are completely incomprehensible a la the Hebrew/Christian/Islamic god, and you wonder what the heck the deity is up to all the time.)

Nor can you start in complete dystopia and end up in perfection (if only because nobody with brains would believe it).

All of this means:  It is no mistake that Transformation and Transfiguration figure so prominently in the Potter books.  Charles Ryder says something very much to the point in Brideshead Revisited: It (change)'s the only evidence of life.

On the pure action level, the Dursleys are the anti-paradise Harry escapes.  Hogwarts is a refuge but is filled with even more life-threatening terror (I mean, Harry may have hated the Dursleys, but none of them were going to kill him as a way-station power).  Interesting thing: ask yourself if the Dursleys ever change?  Remember, even getting WORSE is a change.

We see the elements of Harry's own transformation before our eyes: Harry himself becomes both more aware of the Wizarding world and more able to act within it, all the while taking on his own inner demons (as we once so innocently phrased it before psychobabble devalued our language), and his very real external nemesis.

Dumbledore himself tells Harry that Voldemort had gone through so many magical transformations since he was Tom Marvolo Riddle that no one was sure how human he was. Notice that in transformation it is possible to become a LESS fully-realized human as well as a MORE fully-realized human (or as my sainted grandmother used to say not all change is progress).  Note that even sympathetic werewolves can be quick-change artists.

Professor McGonagle teaches Transfiguration, which is its own form of transformation, and Harry's dad (as well as an ever-growing list of wizards and witches) are animagi.  And let us not forget the soft drink-like quantities of Polyjuice Potion which are flowing through the pages of the canon.

So within the Potter universe, transforming and transformations are something which is built into the system (arguably it would be hard to put Harry in a Muggle academy setting and have this much emphasis on the malleability of the human form and spirit).

You sometimes see this mentioned as "symbolic rebirth," though that's taking it a little far.  The pages of literature are filled with these, from Huck Finn's journeys down the Mississippi to Hamelt's own realization that, yes, he does have it in him to kill his step-father, and Odysseus's ability to don a new identity with the speed of thought.  An alter ego is not something only an underwear-clad superhero possesses: we all have them if we're in the human race.

The trick is letting them out.

I still marvel at the number of people who create role playing games and ask me to list them on this site.  I do not believe these are unhealthy (though I'd love to see the creativity and imagination levels turned up on most of them).  Rather, I think it points to something fundamental in our own psychology and in our relationship with our treasured stories.  

And oddly enough, it's in pain.  The common theme of all these transformations is that they HURT LIKE HELL.  No symbolic rebirth comes without exacting its price, be it in the pain of self-realization or in conflict with society, and no magical transformation comes without its own pain and suffering (ask Peter Pettigrew about that one).  This is where the phrase symbolic rebirth earns its pay:  anyone who's seen a birth knows that it is not a pleasant experience.

That most archetypical of all literary characters, Odysseus has a name which literally translates as "to cause pain."  He both gives it and gets it, which given his biography is the best synopsis you can give the man.

Whether we realize it or not, the magic of the story and our identification with the characters therein, is almost exclusively in the struggle and the pain and the misery they feel.  We will not take Pinocchio as a boy walking around Disneyland because even in one of the most controlled, artificial environments yet devised by man (second only to life support on a moon mission), our own ability to role play means that we must recognize we must forever be in the game, or be out of it.  We are left with Bob Dylan's alternatives, and but is the choice a no-brainer?

Like Pinocchio, in that future theme park Time Warner is undoubtedly planning, Harry will forever be a boy: incomplete, but well on his way to becoming a full wizard; unvictorious, but more than willing to take on the fight; unvanquished, but always with the element of doubt that he might-not-make-it-this time.  

It is the fact that he is, like us all, on the way to some place else that continues to fire our imaginations.


Copyright 2002 Zyg Furmaniuk. All rights reserved.  

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