John Galt, Harry Potter, and Hero Problems

There is a problem with heroes. Today we will not solve this problem, but we will look at two examples, John Galt and Harry Potter. Articulating the problem is often half the battle.

"Atlas Shrugged" by Ayn Rand is one of the most polarizing books ever written, people usually either love it or hate it. The book is about the slow fall and collapse of American society. John Galt is the hero, although we almost never see him, and even hear very little about him. He's a genius that created a way to generate unlimited free power, but because of the systemic corruption in the society he walked away from the entire society and started his own. (Atlas was the Titan that was punished by being forced to hold up the sky, although he's usually depicted as holding up the world. Ayn Rand states that the story is really a closer take on Prometheus. Prometheus is the Titan that stole fire from Olympus and gave it to man. For that he is chained to a rock and his liver is eaten every day by an eagle. "Atlas Shrugged" is Prometheus withdrawing his gifts.)

So, what's the problem? The problem is that Ayn Rand's depiction of the black and grey characters is beautiful. But, the white characters, namely John Galt, are a bit flat. I've seen that term used a number of times in reference to Rand's heroes in "Atlas Shrugged". I think it's a little off, and I'll explain why in just a moment.

Rand's villains are wonderful. It's quite disturbing how well she was able to clearly see the growing problems in American culture. When I read it in my teens I was amazed at how similar the book sounded to the news. The incompetent business people trying to protect their assets by buying off the government to pass laws that limit the opportunity for entrepreneurs is right on. The slipping away from focus on the individual as the foundation of society is true. Her grey characters are great too, people that struggle with adjusting to society and trying to reconcile their spirit and soul with the corruption. Heroes seemed to give her a bit more trouble.

There are two reasons that the idea of Rand's heroes being flat is a bit off though. One, there are grey characters that end up growing towards being greater heroes. As an example, Hank Rearden is compromising in everything in his life except his business. In the end he corrects that. This type of thing happens with a few characters. These are not "flat" characters at all.

John Galt is a bit different. Here Rand is trying to depict a version of the perfect man. What type of yogurt would the perfect man like? That's the problem. If you get too detailed then it's hard to depict perfection. What people are trying to say when they call him flat is that he is abstract. There is a lot left to the imagination. His character has a lot of variables. We don't know much about him on purpose. You can't be abstract and have vivid detail at the same time. The only thing that is very detailed about John Galt is his philosophy. Near the end of the book he articulates his philosophy in a radio broadcast. That speech is one of the foundation stones of the philosophy later known as Objectivism. (Objectivism was put together is a more explicit manner by Nathaniel Branden, but that's a whole other story.)

There's the first problem with heroes, perfection has to be abstract. Another quick example. I was watching a tv show with my mother that had a great artist in it. We saw a few of his pictures. They didn't seem that great to me, but whatever. Then we learned that there is a special painting that is completely different that he has never shown to anyone else. He shows it to one other woman. The shot is from behind the painting looking at the actors. My mother remarked that she wanted to see the picture. I told her that to show the picture would ruin the entire thing. No painting can live up to that kind of build up. The greatest painting of all time? That's hard to make. Even if you made a great painting not everyone is going to agree with it. To show the painting would have ruined that entire episode, so they didn't. Instead, it's better to see the reaction on the woman's face when she sees the painting for the first time. To show perfection, you can't show it directly. Rand did this same thing with Galt.

Here's a poem, then we'll look at Harry Potter.

- - - - - - -

There's a problem with heroes,
they're hard to create.
And they're most needed
as an answer to fate.

- - - - - - -

The "Harry Potter" series is the best selling book series in all of history. Harry Potter is a boy that is destined to fight the greatest dark wizard of all time, Voldemort. His mother died trying to protect him from a killing curse. That sacrifice caused the killing curse that Voldemort tried to use on the baby Harry Potter to backfire. Voldemort's body was destroyed, but he was able to survive by some special preparations he had made. Part of Voldemort's soul is transferred to Harry Potter at the same time. From there on their stories are linked until the end. It's a genius story.

So, what's the problem? The problem is that Harry Potter and his allies fight Voldemort in different ways for years. He seeks to destroy evil because that is his destiny, but he is only a destroyer, not a creator. After Voldemort is destroyed Harry Potter gets a job, has a family, puts on a couple of pounds, and is boring. The greatest destroyer of evil may not be that good at anything else. Destroying bad things is not the same as making good things.

Do you want to have a hero that can only fight evil? What if there's no evil? If your hero can only fight evil, and you want to be like your hero, and there isn't a great evil to fight, do you find something to fight anyway? If you're finding things to fight even if they aren't necessarily evil, doesn't that make you the villain? What do you do if you win? Settle down? Find another fight?

I think this is a serious problem. Let's look at a few definitions of hero. Here's what Google says.

- - - - - - -

a person who is admired or idealized for courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities.
"a war hero"
synonyms: brave man, champion, man of courage, great man, man of the hour, conquering hero, victor, winner, conqueror, lionheart, warrior, paladin, knight, white hat
antonyms: coward, loser

the chief male character in a book, play, or movie, who is typically identified with good qualities, and with whom the reader is expected to sympathize.
synonyms: male protagonist, principal male character
antonyms: villain

(in mythology and folklore) a person of superhuman qualities and often semi-divine origin, in particular one whose exploits were the subject of ancient Greek myths.

- - - - - - -

To show noble qualities you need to have high stakes, and there's nothing higher than the potential or real destruction of the world. For courage, there's nothing better than standing up to the greatest dark wizard of all time. There isn't a more outstanding achievement than defeating that dark wizard. Harry Potter also has a semi-divine origin with special love magic protecting him from death and having part of another soul in him. Harry Potter is a great hero. Harry Potter is a destroyer. I think that's a problem.

Now, to have creation there must be destruction. To have good stuff someone must protect that good stuff. But, is protection primary to creation? It seems to be in our hero stories. Is this good? I'm not so sure. Alas, I have not worked out good alternatives. That may be work for a lifetime.

Part of the problem might be this. In order to create something great you may have to do some things that aren't that great. Maybe by creating a large business you put another small business out to pasture. That's not great. But, it's not evil. The problem is that it's hard to justify it. "I'm trying to make a great business." isn't a justification that a lot of people like. "I ignore my family because I'm obsessed with making great paintings." also isn't something people like to hear. Harry Potter does a lot of sketchy stuff too. But, "I'm trying to save the world from the greatest dark wizard of all time, and I'm the only one that can do it." is a great justification for breaking rules and doing morally sketchy stuff if need be. I think this justification issue may be a big part of it.

John Galt is abstract and Harry Potter is a destroyer. These are two of the greatest literary heroes in history. And, they are great heroes. It just seems to me that we're still searching for a way to make a better hero. Notice too that neither John Galt nor Harry Potter are able to actually improve society. John Galt withdraws from society and Harry Potter defeats evil, but neither make the society better, they just try to stop it from being worse. These are both takes on dystopia. Maybe it's more important to avoid a dystopia than it is to try to create a utopia? Utopias usually go poorly, so maybe.

Heroes are needed to show values and behavioral patterns. Whether we are successful or not, the struggle to create better heroes is always worth it. And a struggle it is.

Here are some side notes.

All living things are slanted towards putting more emphasis on avoiding bad things. That's because you can only take so many bad things before your light goes out. You can experience an infinite amount of good things, there is no limit there, so it's more important to avoid those bad things. That's why the news draws our attention with bad things. Even when things are getting better the news is always promoting bad things, it's the only way for them to stay in business. So maybe these aren't solvable problems because they are built into human nature. There is much to think about here.

Historically, many of the great heroes were prophets. Now we think of prophets as being predictors of the future. They didn't use to be though. Historically a prophet had the function of showing where a society was going wrong and in which direction it should move to correct itself. This is kind of the same idea as Ayn Rand and J. K. Rowling pointing out where the society is going wrong and what we should avoid.

I think Prometheus is one of the most important stories in the history of Western civilization. Ayn Rand used it in "Atlas Shrugged" and in her novella "Anthem". Lord Byron and Percy Shelley both wrote poems on Prometheus. Mary Shelley wrote "Frankenstein", most people forget the rest of the title, "The Modern Prometheus". And of course, there's the original "Prometheus Bound" by Aeschylus. We forget this work at our own peril.

Here are my other Harry Potter articles where I focused on evil.

What Makes Voldemort, Grindelwald, and Slytherin Bad?

Why is Slytherin House Bad?


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