Just What We Needed
By M.Y. Simms
In the words of Joseph Campbell who, until his death in 1987, was one of the world’s foremost authority on mythology: “You don’t need mythology […]. But you may find that, with a proper introduction, mythology will catch you. And so, what can it do for you if not catch you?” 1
We are bombarded everyday with current issues, whether they are of a personal nature or of community or international interest. Constantly presented with problems to solve and things that need tending to, we find ourselves in a whirlwind that leaves little time to turn our attention to our inner life. Without necessarily being aware of our longing to connect with our soul, a question lies silent inside all of us: “What is my purpose?”
“I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances within our own innermost being and reality, so that we actully feel the rapture of being alive.” 2 This is where mythology comes in. For me, in the past decade, it has taken the form of a young bespectacled wizard named Harry. He has caught many of us at a level so deep, it defies logic. And that is precisely the function of mythology.
The New Webster Encyclopedic Dictionary of the English Language defines the word myth as “a fable or legend of natural upgrowth, embodying the convictions of a people as to their own origin and early history and the heroes connected with it.” 3
“Mythology teaches you what’s behind literature and the arts, it teaches you about your own life. It’s a great, exciting, life-nourishing subject. Mythology has a great deal to do with the stages of life, the initiation ceremonies as you move from childhood to adulthood and responsibilities […].” 4
Mythological heroes remind us of the very fibre of our life. Each time we do something for a cause, join a group, commit to a relationship, recognize or challenge hierarchy, we are unknowingly the hero of our own life. Why do we love our heroes so? Could it be because we see ourselves in them? Consciously or not, it is likely that we identify with Harry Potter, just as we and others before us may have identified with Frodo, Luke Skywalker, Princess Leah, Indiana Jones, Superman and Spiderman, just to name a few. This is nothing new. It would seem that all cultures since the beginning of time have had their own mythology, their own heroes with demons to vanquish. I remember my first brush with ancient mythology. It was in 8th grade when we had to read The Odyssey. I was not thrilled by the large size of the book at the time but I soon became enthralled by the trials and tribulations Ulysses had to face on his way home. I didn’t realize at the time that his voyage was a metaphor for the deep, inner journey that we must take in order to reach our potential and become whole.
Yes, mythology catches us all very quickly.
What Makes Harry Potter a Myth?
According to Joseph Campbell, mythology serves four functions:
1. The Mystical
Myths open the world to the dimension of mystery, realizing what a wonder the universe is and what a wonder each of us is.5
In Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Harry discovers a whole new world he never knew existed as he is introduced to magical people, and places such as Diagon Alley and Hogwarts. Harry is told that he is special, he is a wizard and a great one at that; he finds out that he is the only one to ever survive the killing curse that condemned the powerful Voldermort to a half-life. A mystery is laid out before us in a magical universe where the protagonist is in wonder. We find ourselves walking in Harry’s footsteps and looking at this new world through his eyes.
2. The Cosmological
This is the dimension with which science is concerned. It shows us what the shape of the universe is, but in such a way that the mystery comes through: No, we haven’t got all the answers.6
Upon entering Hogwarts, Harry learns not only school rules but he discovers the wizarding world with its own structure and boundaries. Harry learns that as in the Muggle world, things are not always what they seem in this world. Magic is a very complex science and must not be taken lightly; many things can and do go wrong when one is careless. Potions and transfiguration are serious practices where mistakes can prove fatal and apparating is only taught to 6th years because it is so hazardous. Yes, witches and wizards can be powerful, but there are many unforeseen variables that remain a mystery even to Dumbledore, the most powerful wizard in the world.
3. The sociological
This is the support and validation of a certain social order. It addresses ethical laws as they should be in a good society.7
There are a great many examples of ethics in the Harry Potter books. Choosing between what is right and what is easy is at the core of many decisions taken by our hero. The theme of “Pure bloods” vs. “Mudbloods” raises ethical issues that we can all relate to in one way or another. Social order is clearly defined and of course, contested at times. The DA is a perfect example of resistance to an established order that is considered wrong by those who strive for justice and the right to defend themselves against evil.
4. The educational
Teaches us how to live a human lifetime under any circumstances. This is the school of life.8
With each year Harry grows up, not only physically but emotionally, as one would expect. This young man however, grows in ways far beyond his years. His early childhood with the Dursleys after the violent death of his parents could have turned him into an insecure or bitter person, but he somehow develops into a confident, loyal and courageous human being. Harry is pure of heart; he is an inspiration for those of us who have suffered at the hands of others who had power over us. As Dumbledore teaches him that love is the strongest protection against Voldermort, he is teaching us that love is what preserves our humanity even in the darkest of times!
“One thing that comes out in myths is that at the bottom of the abyss comes the voice of salvation. The black moment is the moment when the real message of transformation is going to come. At the darkest moment comes the light.” 9
Sounds familiar doesn’t it?
What makes Harry Potter a much needed myth for our time, what catches us, is a fresh new look at the universe that surrounds us and that we thought we knew, a sense of mystery as we learn the way of the world we live in, a questioning of the social order and ethics that rule our life, and finally, a way out of the darkness of pain and loneliness.
Harry the Hero
Joseph Campbell describes a hero as
“someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself […]. The usual hero adventure begins with someone from whom something has been taken […]. This person then takes off on a series of adventures beyond the ordinary, either to recover what has been lost or to discover some life-giving elixir. It’s usually a cycle, a going and a returning.” 10
In the context of this quote, we see that Harry has given (devoted) his life to defeating Voldermort, the most powerful evil wizard of the time, and his followers. His parents were taken from him. He takes off on a series of adventures at Hogwarts, a place quite beyond the ordinary. He cannot recover what he has lost; no one can bring back the dead… So this leaves the discovery of some life-giving elixir, life-giving not only to him but to the world around him. What can be more life-giving than love? It is the ultimate cycle: Harry leaves for Hogwarts and will discover, learn to use this life-giving elixir that will transform him into a man, and enable him to bring peace to the Muggle and Wizarding worlds he came from.
Mythology does not tell us what will make us happy, but it shows us what happens when we follow our inner purpose, what brings us fulfillment. It tells us that if we take chances, break the rules if necessary, we find ourselves in an adventure that, in itself becomes its own reward. This means that we may face danger of course, but the alternative is not to make the journey, the hero’s journey, the journey of life.
Harry Potter touches our heart because he, like other heroes before him, reminds us of our own worth and our quest for meaning and purpose. He reminds us that even when we are afraid, we can move forward; that when we are alone, we are not really alone; that when we are not recognized for our accomplishments, what we think of ourselves is more important. The boy wizard lives in all of us who learn to trust again after we have been betrayed. He lives in our longing to belong, to know a home and have loving friends who believe in us. Harry Potter may be braver than we will ever be but his bravery can inspire us in the face of life’s challenges and difficulties. He is the biblical David to the Goliath and in the end, he is the one left standing.
J.K. Rowling’s creative genius and extensive research into ancient mythology from a multitude of cultures has given us what I believe is the first great mythical hero of the 21st century. Thanks Ms. Rowling; he’s just what we needed.
1. Campbell, The Power of Myth, 1.
2. Ibid., 4-5.
3. New Webster Dictionary
4. Campbell, The Power of Myth, 14.
5. Ibid., 38.
6. Ibid., 39.
9. Ibid., 44.
10. Ibid., 151-152.
Campbell, Joseph, with Bill Moyers. The Power of Myth. Anchor, 1991.
New Webster Encyclopedic Dictionary of the English Language, Gramercy, 1996.