Did you ever wonder why certain movies resonate with audiences all over the world? Why do some films hold you in their spell for years while others grab you for two hours in the dark, but then like so much cinematic MSG, you forget the flash-in-the-pan by the time you get in the car? Given their mega franchise appeal, certain movies yield the power of myth. Such Hollywood movies include: Star Wars, The Lord of The Rings, Chronicles of Narnia, and Harry Potter films.
Turns out, these examples all share common elements that invite the viewer (or reader of the book) into an adventure that forces a choice, a crisis, which ultimately leads to a catharsis or cleansing of the soul.
Father Robert Spitzer explores the phenomenon of franchise movies appeal in his book, The Souls Yearning: Clues to Our Transcendent Nature from Experience and Reason. In his book, he outlines how these Hollywood hits become mega stories in every country, every culture, and are not just subject to teenage mall-rats.
As Jordan Peterson is fond of saying, "One way to communicate complex ideas is through a story." People are lovers of stories. Stories speak to something greater, and good stories often invoke the souls upward yearning for the divine. The craft of storytelling boils down to unveiling a revered message in an enthralling narrative. The stories that bring out the human desire for the sacred will garner attraction as deep down, everyone has the salvation story itch to scratch. The concept of the myth scratches such an itch. When people hear the word myth, they likely think of a false, fairytale-type story. This is not a myth. The definition of a myth is a type of story that reveals cosmic or sacred significance. In short, a myth is a tale about the sacred breaking into our world.
The famous psychologist Carl Jung often wrote about the power of myth. Jung believed that myths were expressions of the collective unconscious in that they express core ideas that are part of the human species as a whole. In other words, Jung held that myths express wisdom that has been encoded in all humans. For our purposes, the human fascination of myths suggests that God embedded this wisdom in us and myths merely bring it out. While it might not seem like the Biblical narrative, a myth draws out core concepts of the faith in a gripping story.
Why do we have the sense of this myth in us? Even though the myth has different expressions culturally, we bare a keen awareness within us of its existence and the power it yields in its message. Myth occurs when religion intersects with an epic story. The story of religion is intrinsic to human beings, and the meanings in God’s story keep surfacing in popular human tales that draw the average person into wonder and awe.
In his book, The Sacred and The Profane, author Mircea Eliade describes that every person not only has an interior desire for the sacred, a sense of the presence of the sacred, of the mysterious, but shows how the spiritual manifests itself to us through stories. Eliade alludes to an alert within the human psyche, almost like God is saying to us, “hear I am in this story." It is a mysterious, inviting, fascinating, holy Other present to you that comes not through feelings but through deep contemplation. Within the inner being, God is whispering to us that all is not well in the world. Here, we become aware that we are being brought into a cosmic struggle between good and evil. And this theme of a spiritual battle is present in adults and kids alike. Kids already have the symbols that are present in that myth. They hold in them a concept that begins to push the mythological symbols inward into their consciousness. My nine-year-old son is fascinated with the Star Wars saga. I often hear him and his friends argue about who will play on the good side and who’s on the dreaded dark side. Within their small minds, they are drawing out the aspect of good and evil.
What psychologists like Eliade suggest is that God's presence in our conscience is signaled to us in myths. In Catholicism, the conscience is described as God’s inner voice within the depths of the person (CCC 1776). Here, conscience cannot be reduced to a psychological emotion such as fear; rather, its own existence calls one to respect and adhere to the messages of the sacred. What the myth accomplishes is to articulate the core message in the conscience - the cosmic struggle between good and evil.
David Howard teaches screenwriting at USC. He defined a story simply as what happens when someone wants something very badly and is having a difficult time getting it. Within the clash between good and evil, the person longs to be a heroic character - yet he is struggling in his quest to be a hero and overcome obstacles set in his way. The myth showcases the hero with a thousand faces. It is about everyman like Frodo Baggins, Luke Skywalker, Peter Pevensie, or George Bailey. In these Hollywood stories, we witness ordinary characters who suddenly have this call to a noble adventure that, in turn, becomes a ceremonial right of passage. At first, they resist the appeal for adventure because the quest requires them to give up their comfort and ultimately give up themselves. Yet, they have to choose to cross that threshold and plunge into an adventure that will test their character. When Luke Skywalker was reluctant to face Darth Vader, Obi-Wan Kenobi proclaimed to Luke, “You cannot escape your destiny.”
These everyday heroes have a date with a destiny they must face. In a similar fashion, everyday people can sit on the fence about standing up for a noble cause, but eventually, they need to choose if they are ready to face evil and fight for a greater life. This dilemma to join a just cause is what pulls at every person. On one hand, they crave to be an everyday hero, yet on the other hand, the pushback from such a quest is filled with opposition and attacks. For example, those who attempt to fight for God’s teaching in a world that has gone woke (i.e. Marxist) may quickly end up experiencing the wrath of cancel culture.
What is intriguing is that this mental crisis is paralleled in the myth story. Take for example, Bilbo and Frodo Baggins' journey in The Hobbit and Lord of The Rings. Bilbo bears a remarkable resemblance to each of us. He initially seeks the slow-paced life of comfort in the Shire. Here, life is predictable and manageable. He has built his home orderly full of things that please him - his tea, his food, his clothes, his dishes, and everything else in his home is all neatly arranged to bring him comfort. The furthest thing from his mind is the threat of an adventure where his tidy life gets thrown upside down. He is dedicated to the easy life and would find the prospect of taking up his cross and following the heroic path of self-sacrifice utterly crazy. This is why when the dwarfs hold a feast at Bilbo’s house, Bilbo becomes unhinged. However, this scene is a necessary distraction for Bilbo as it beckons as a precursor for what he must go through on his upcoming adventure with the dwarfs. While life at the Shire is unsurprising and convenient, it is also incredibly boring, for it lacks the thrill of a dangerous voyage to become heroic. Thus, the element of inconvenience or suffering serves to him and all of us as a wake–up call to make a choice - do we want to go on a challenging yet rewarding adventure or sit in our comfy home and stay in the same rut?
Yes, living out the Catholic faith is an adventure. Having many kids and leading them to heaven through the Church against a hostile culture is an arduous adventure full of twists and turns, yet it is a mission that puts a sense of purpose and zeal into parent’s lives. Alas, we take a pass on authentically living out the Catholic faith. Instead, we become spectators of those courageous men and women who choose to go “all in” on the hard task of living out the faith. This is why Frodo, Bilbo, and Luke’s journey from immaturity to maturity is so appealing to us for they have what we long for.
In his book, Fr. Spitzer believes that the ordinary nature of the hero is the key to why these stories have gotten so popular. We’ll notice these are not supreme type heroes. They hold shockingly average qualities at the beginning of the story. Therefore, they become relatable to the everyday person. With this insight, the everyday person, in turn, sees the hero's odyssey as their own odyssey in life. These myths illustrate the priceless truth that we only become wise and virtuous when we realize that we are pilgrims on a purposeful quest to a life of holiness.
People are so deeply resonated with the archetype of the myth within themselves they literally become at home in the myth. In the myth, we are dealing with a strong identification residence within people, an internal story that depicts a hero with a thousand faces. Fr. Spitzer shows these myths are more than a good adventure story with amazing cinematography and dramatic images. These stories are about entering into a domain of the cosmic struggle where I become heroic. These hero genes draw kids and adults alike to a fascination of what stirs inside of them. And we, as audience members, vicariously participate in the choices and actions of the hero. The hero's actions are the jet fuel that carries us along in our lives with the desire to do great things. For this reason, the hero's actions in the myth mimic the saints as the lives of the saints have an uncanny ability to attract us to be virtuous.
Another key element surfaces from mythological characters - the crossroads of wanting to do the good but being sucked up by doing the evil. St. Paul talked of this human dilemma in a frank manner. “For I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate. . . The willing is ready at hand, but doing the good is not. For I do not do the good I want but the evil I do not want” (Romans 7:15-19). This phrase translates into the myth context as: “I know I’m supposed to do heroic things and defeat evil, but instead I slowly participate in evil."
We know we are called to be heroic in the struggle against good and evil; we want to be on the side of the cosmic good, we want to have the courage to face evil even though it is terrifying. Yet, at the same time, our conscience alerts us not to be seduced by evil. Interestingly, we witness the seduction scene in these epic tales. Recall how both Anakin and Luke Skywalker were cunningly asked to join the dark side. Or, how throughout his journey Frodo was constantly being seduced by the power of the ring. This transcendental seduction ultimately boils down to the choice - will the person obtain power to become a god or will the person become passive to God's will and power.
The idea is that the ordinary person becomes a hero by inserting himself into an arduous mythical and transcendent dimension of life - we enter the cosmic struggle between good and evil. The stakes are high so this journey is not for the timid soul. But, the person that allows God to work through him plays a major role in defeating the cosmic spread of evil. As St. Peter declares to us, “Be sober and vigilant. Your opponent the devil is prowling around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, steadfast in the faith, knowing that your fellow believers throughout the world undergo the same sufferings” (1 Peter 5:8-9). And as Jesus lets us know, “In the world, you will have tribulation, but take courage, I have conquered the world (John 16:33).
The undercurrent of the myth story is there is something that needs to be sacrificed. Something needs to be lived out, or the fate of the world will be greatly impacted. In myths, something deeply wrong needs to be made right again by having the transcendent break into the world. And the hero must go on a demanding journey to allow the sacred to impact the world. We, as the audience, know that all is not right in the world. Something is deeply wrong, and we need to tap into the sacred element that transcends us to find a solution. This spiritual component is fascinating, energizing, mysterious, inviting, present to us and from it one can overcome evil. The spiritual also gives us clues about evil. We’ll notice that the villain in all these stories of mythical significance is called the dark lord in one respect or another. Within the myth, we harbor feelings of horror of the evil that comes from the dark lord. This horror mimics dread - a draining out of life. It leads to despair. This horror of evil apes the sense of awe and hope that comes from the holy transcendent.
The metaphors and meaning within the story hold significance to the audience. For example, look at the Orcs in Lord Of The Rings. They represent hideous deathlike qualities. With the Orcs, we understand the face of evil when we see it.
We also notice a theme in which an older, wiser leader surfaces throughout the story. This mentor-like figure is portrayed in characters such as Gandalf, Yoda, and Obi-Wan Kenobi. These men represent a manifestation of God’s goodness and hold a saint-like quality in which they’ve endured the battle and become prophetic in guiding others into the struggle. They represent the notion that God will send others (saints, angels) to help the common man throughout the journey. Take, for example, Obi-Wan who sacrifices himself to Vader so Luke and company can escape the death star. Recall, before his death, Obi-Wan told Vader, "If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possible imagine." Interestingly, this phrase reverberates the saints that were martyred as their death gives them heavenly power as earthly intercessors.
While these mentor figures symbolize a conduit of God’s goodness, they also represent a father figure to the fatherless heroes. Perhaps these stories have tapped into the culture of fatherlessness with the increased frequency of dads absent from our day's cosmic struggle.
Another prominent theme that surfaces in these stories is how evil tempts us with a power that really should not belong to us. The subtext of such a theme is embedded in the Adam and Eve story. That is, human beings should not have all-access to a transcendent power, otherwise things will go terribly awry. However, the serpent cunningly lures us to grasp this power. As the serpent alludes, “God is holding back on you. You need unlimited power and be equivalent to God in knowing, doing, and controlling.” Here, the tempter essentially says that God doesn’t want you to be like Him. Therefore, you can’t trust God, but you can trust me.
So, the trick of evil is always to feed off people's quench for power. This is why the temptation always builds off egocentric, domination, and self-worship. In Lord of The Rings, the ring represents just that concept - power. It is called the ring of power for it personifies sin as being addicted to the ring is analogous to being addicted to sin. When you put the ring on, what happens? You disappear. While you physically disappear from the pure world God created, you become more visible than ever to Sauron the dark lord.
Because Frodo represents the hero, we might assume he would be immune to the power and pride of the ring, yet it sucks him in. The more the ring influences Frodo, the less wisdom he holds. Do we relate to this? Of course, the everyday man gets this for the everyday man is bombarded with temptations that ultimately curtail his intellect. Therefore, when we see heroic character types, be it Anakin Skywalker, Frodo, or Boromir be seduced by temptation, it resonates with us.
This dynamic of temptation is part of the reason why these stories have a universal message - we vicariously participate in the choices that they are being faced with. These franchise movies in a sense already have the Biblical narrative caked into them. Here, they take Jung’s term “the unconscious mind” insinuating that we already have an awareness of these temptations - temptations toward power of the self, knowledge that we shouldn’t have, temptations to place us as God Himself. We have this sense in us that we’d rather be God than be a creature. But, we also have this counter-intuition that evil is horrible. Fr. Spitzer acknowledges there is a love-hate relationship in which we’d like to be a little more like God. Still, we’re scared to death of any personification of evil because it represents a feeling of despair, darkness, and alienation. Of course, no person is articulating this definitively, but Fr. Spitzer maintains there remains an attraction towards God’s power (which is pride) while at the same time a repulsion towards the manifestation of evil (which is pride). In short, there exists a dueling desire to disobey God to get what we want, while there is a repulsion to what evil is - disobeying God. This conundrum is portrayed in Genesis. The serpent's image signifies a frightening looking creature that can kill you, yet at the same time, his fruit (i.e. his teaching) is attractive to your psyche.
That same love-hate relationship in the myth resonates with us. As Tolkien says, "What the myth is doing is internalizing the articulation of what we already know." When we internalize our thoughts and make them explicit we are tapping into the spiritual realm - putting good and evil into a transcendent framework. The myth brings out these thoughts that shape us and bring them to life.
Fr. Spritzer believes that while myths appeal to an intellectual itch of exploration, there is a much deeper intuition that goes beyond emotion that the myth taps into - that is the ultimate meaning of life is not limited to this world. These stories bring out our nature to draw closer to the sacred story and break into our world to encourage us to become a saint. While the author’s of these stories aren’t devout Catholics (with the exception of Tolkien), within their work is the theme of the personal call to holiness. These authors are open to the fact that a greater power (i.e. God) is influencing our world and calling us all to greatness.
The interior draw to the myth within the human person exists through generations ever tattooed in history; thus it must come from the same transcendent source. In these tales, God’s influence gives us the archetype symbols within our conscience that draws us closer to His story, and, in turn, a conversion.