July 16, 2009 at 04:00 PM EDT

Take your seats, class: We’re starting up week 3 of EW University, with a look at all things Harry Potter. Check out  yesterday’s class on why Harry Potter movies are a refuge for  British actors of a certain age, or our gallery HarryPotter: 10 Teen-Movie Parallels, or jump ahead and test your Harry Potterknowledge with our finalexam. Stick around all summer long for future EW University courses on Lost, Quentin Tarantino, and more.

Harry Potter: Hero worship
Harry Potter is our hero. Of course he is. He’s right there in the title of each of the films (and the books in J.K. Rowling’s series). He’s also part of the venerable tradition of stories about the journey of heroes. George Lucas famously leaned on the mythology theories of writer Joseph Campbell when he created the original Star Wars trilogy, and Luke Skywalker’s journey from bored farm boy to savior of the universe (and vanquisher of evil Darth Vader) follows all the elements of Campbell’s philosophy. Frodo’s adventures in The Lord of the Rings trilogy hews closely to a similar trajectory.

In each of these mini-epics, we meet an unlikely hero – typically a boy or person of diminutive stature and seeming powerlessness – and then follow his education under the tutelage of a wise elder (think Dumbledore or Hagrid). The hero discovers obstacles in his path that he must overcome (the Triwizard tournament, puberty) in preparation for a final confrontation with a figure of evil that he alone seems equipped to defeat. (Other common features of the quest —  trips to the underworld, fighting or tricking the guardians of the threshold, and the necessary and often equally challenging return journey to the ordinary world — also figure into Harry’s narrative in some form.) Even the Transformers films fall into the rubric: Shia LeBeouf’s Sam Witwicky is just another average Joe who — against all outward appearance of his ordinariness — is marked for greatness, educated in the ways to achieve greatness, and then primed for battle against the dastardly Decepticons. (Never mind that his role in the final showdowns is largely that of a bystander.)

While all these fantasy blockbusters are heavily dependent on special effects, the heroic quest is not exclusive to the studio tentpole. Samurai films and Westerns also follow the pattern, and suggest two different approaches to the rise-of-the-hero arc. Films like Akira Kirosawa’s Yojimbo or the Dollars trilogy of Clint Eastwood-Sergio Leone Westerns boast a lone gunman hero who rides into town to bring peace to quarreling factions, often with significant loss of life. On the other hand, Kirosawa’s The Seven Samurai (and later films like The Dirty Dozen, The Magnificent Seven, and even Ocean’s Eleven) focus on the recruiting of a gang of good guys and a more collaborative approach to the heroic endeavor. The Harry Potter films borrow from both traditions: Harry is clearly established as “the Chosen One” who alone can kill Voldemort, but he is also seen in The Order of the Phoenix rounding up Dumbledore’s Army, an elite group that can help him take on Voldemort and the dark lord’s minions. Early on, the series establishes Harry’s need for collaboration with allies. Without Hermione’s bookish knowledge and Ron’s chess-playing skills, Harry would not be able to confront Voldemort ally Professor Quirrell in The Sorcerer’s Stone. (All three get bonus points from Dumbledore for their school house, Gryffindor.)

In that sense, the adventures of Harry and friends also resemble the X-Men movie trilogy, which like the Potter films, uses a school setting to show the education and training of a cast of superpowered heroes who contribute roughly equally to the vanquishing of bad guys. (2005’s Sky High provides another gloss on the concept of a high school for superheroes.) But since Harry is clearly the supreme hero, the analogy does not entirely fit. Though Ron, Hermione, and the assembled allies in Dumbledore’s Army play significant roles in the final battle of the forthcoming Deathly Hallows, Harry alone is destined for the spotlight confrontation with the arch-enemy, like Frodo and Luke Skywalker before him (and like solo superheroes Superman and Spider-Man). Harry is, as Joseph Campbell put it a half century ago, the Hero With a Thousand Faces.

Extra credit viewing: Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, Yojimbo, Transformers

Extra credit reading: The Hero With a Thousand Faces (1949) by Joseph Campbell, The Odyssey by Homer

For discussion: What explains the continuing appeal of stories about a lone hero from a seemingly ordinary background? To what extent do Rowling’s books and the Potter movies depart from the familiar hero quest story? Would they have been improved if Harry wasn’t the Chosen One and if conquering Voldemort required even more of a partnership with Ron and Hermione? Please discuss in the comments section below.

For more Harry Potter EW U:
‘Harry Potter’: Home to great British actors
‘Harry Potter’: A high-school movie at heart
‘HarryPotter’: 10 Teen-Movie Parallels
EW’s’Harry Potter’ Trivia Challenge (Pt. 1)
EW’s’Harry Potter’ Trivia Challenge (Pt. 2)

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