Superman, Harry Potter and Frodo: exploring archetypes of Christ in the media
Posted April 13
This weekend, Christians around the world join together to celebrate the Easter holiday. While obviously the Easter story is most important to people of the Christian faith, its influence extends far beyond religion — cropping up in the broader world of art and pop culture.
It started early. Western writers living in medieval and enlightened Europe regularly enriched their writing by drawing on the imagery, symbols and themes of the Easter story. When those literary devices focused on one particular character, they are referred to as a Christ figure and they are everywhere in Western literature.
“The figure of Christ is rich and compelling in a number of ways,” said Maeera Shreiber, the director of the religious studies program at the University of Utah, in an email to the Deseret News. “This is a ‘man’ who made the ultimate sacrifice not for himself but for humanity — for a vision of a greater good. A man who embodied humility and compassion and cared for the outsider more than himself. A man who was a revolutionary at a time of political corruption and moral darkness."
They are themes that resonate across time and cultures — after all, the 20th century and beyond has had more than its share of revolutionaries, political corruption and moral darkness.
Ernest Hemingway often wrote about all three, specifically employing a Christ-figure in his Pulitzer Prize-winning novella, "The Old Man and the Sea." Here, the titular old man is lost at sea, his town believing him dead. However, he returns three days later, as if from the dead.
Christ figures, too, crop up in contemporary pop culture. It's not hard to see the Easter story in Harry Potter's sacrifices and resurrection. J.R.R Tolkien's much-loved character Frodo, considered small and weak by the those around him, bears the burden of the world’s evil, ultimately destroying it. Comic books writers, too, knew a good story when they saw one: Superman is sent by his father to save the people of Earth.
There is a spectrum of reasons for why an author might choose to include a Christ figure in their story.
C.S. Lewis, author of the Chronicles of Narnia, created a Christ-like character in the majestic lion Aslan. In “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,” the repentant Edmund ask the Aslan if he exists on Earth as well as in Narnia. The lion answers, “I am. But there I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name. This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there.”
Although he doesn’t explicitly say it in the book, Lewis later confirmed that the “other name” by which Aslan is known in our world is Jesus Christ. According to a 2013 BBC article, Lewis once described his series to a grade school class by saying, “Let us suppose that there were a land like Narnia, and that the Son of God, as he became a Man in our world, became a Lion there, and then imagine what would happen.”
Conversely, J.K. Rowling said she used elements of Christ’s story to work through her own struggles of faith as she wrote the Harry Potter series. Speaking at a press conference prior to the release of the series’ last book, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows," she said, “On any given moment if you asked me (if) I believe in life after death, I think if you polled me regularly through the week, I think I would come down on the side of yes — that I do believe in life after death. (But) it's something that I wrestle with a lot. It preoccupies me a lot, and I think that's very obvious within the books.”
Not all artists who use depictions of or references to Christ are Christian.
Twentieth-century Jewish artist Marc Chagall repeatedly painted Christ and made reference to his religion, showing Christ on the cross wearing Jewish symbols such as a tallit, a Jewish prayer shawl. Chagall did this, among other reasons, to “appeal to the Western world” for help when the Holocaust was beginning, Sheiber said. Chagall wasn't alone in this. Many other Jewish writers and artists have incorporated the Christ story into their work in order to “strengthen the bond between Jews and Christian,” she said.
There are challenges to writing a story that involves a Christ figure archetype.
From a religious context, a Christ figure can be seen by some as a blasphemous imitation of deity, in the same tradition as the golden calf that the children of Israel made while Moses was on Mount Sinai. In "The Christian Scholar," Robert Detweiler wrote that an author who attempts to depict Christ-like characters has historically been criticized for “committing irreverence” and “overstepping his literary boundaries.”
The charge of irreverence or even blasphemy often comes because Christ figures in literature are rarely perfect. Like Jesus Christ, who was the progeny of both human and deity, Christ figures often portray the duality of mankind. They have flaws, but they show man’s potential to transcend the evils of the world.
For example, the character of Sonia in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel "Crime and Punishment" exemplifies the redemptive and self-sacrificing characteristics of Christ, but also exhibits behavior that is normally considered sinful in Christianity. Due to her father’s alcoholism and mother’s poor health, Sonia sacrifices herself by becoming a prostitute to provide for her younger siblings. She also plays a crucial part in the redemption of the novel’s main character, Raskolnikov. It is only through Sonia’s example and encouragement that he is able to confess his crimes and find redemption.
With so many depictions and interpretations of the same story, one might wonder if the story of sacrifice, death and resurrection would start to become a cliche, but the archetype seems to be as strong and prevalent as ever.
“The story is so compelling that it doesn’t get old or stale,” Shreiber said.
It may not always be for religious reasons, but readers and audiences clearly respond to stories of sacrifice and redemption, making the Easter story one of the most popular and powerful allusions in artistic expression.