Harry's Heroic Journey

By Melissa L. Walls Lawson

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Harry Potter is a character with whom almost all readers can identify. He is (mostly) honest and kind; he doesn’t choose friends who are the coolest in the school, but surrounds himself with those whose company he enjoys or who embody qualities that he admires. He makes sound choices and believes in doing what is right, but has a good sense of humor and takes enough risks that his life is interesting to follow. We like to think that Harry has the best of our qualities, and sometimes we are willing to admit that even such an admirable guy can make big mistakes. However, Harry’s tales hold our attention not only because he is easy to relate to, but also because mixed in with his normal teenager problems he has to save lives, battle and befriend beasts, and in his world, you may just get to see someone he dislikes develop a pig tail or turn into a bouncing ferret.

Because of this interest, millions of people are eagerly awaiting the final installment of his story. We know that we will cry when he cries, laugh when he laughs, and call our friends to crow about his triumphs. So which of those will we be able to do the most in this book? Could Harry… maybe…die? Would J.K. Rowling do that to the world? Or will he marry Ginny and become a part of one big happy Weasley family? Will Harry ever have the ability or desire to purposefully hurt or murder someone, as has been suggested? Perhaps, if we look closely enough at the literary tradition upon which Rowling has based her books, and if we dig deeply enough into her books themselves, we may be able to uncover some answers.

A Unique Hero

Harry intrigues us because of the balance of his life. He faces similar problems to those we know, but it is also his task to defeat one of the worst wizards the world has ever known and save humankind. This necessity, determined before he was born, is not unusual for the hero archetype.

A hero usually fulfills the definitions of what is considered good and noble in the originating culture. Some scholars place the willingness to sacrifice the self for the greater good as the most important defining characteristic of a hero.1

However, Harry is not the Beowulf, Odysseus, or King Hal of legend. In fact, it is sometimes easy to forget that he is a hero in the truest sense because each of us can identify with him. Until Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, his concerns have been ones that every person faces when young: classes, crushes, rude adults, bullies. While he breaks some rules, he usually only bends them for the greater good and often feels badly that he has done so. He is not the smartest in his year, so he does have to study. He relies on his friends even when his abilities exceed theirs.

Oftentimes it is merely a normal person who is able to overcome evil through extraordinary circumstances. However, this standard is simply not true for Harry Potter either. Before we even meet Harry, we have heard that his name will be known all over the wizarding world. We are temporarily deceived when we meet him more officially as an incessantly bullied ten-year-old draped in his cousin Dudley’s enormous hand-me-down clothes, but are soon reminded of his abnormalities as the first mail he has received in his life begins to arrive. Harry grows less “ordinary” in each book. In fact, at the beginning of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Jo tells us “Harry Potter was a highly unusual boy in many ways.”2 Even though we can easily identify with this child and all of his concerns, we know that he is more special than any of us, or any “regular” hero we may encounter, partially because of our own literary tradition: “The vision of the child leading and healing a troubled world has never left us… The expectation that the child would reform the world has saturated the Judeo-Christian tradition.”3 Moses grew to lead the Israelites, Jesus grew to sacrifice himself, C.S. Lewis’s Pevensies became some of the best rulers Narnia had seen, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Hobbits were the ones who destroyed the ring, Roald Dahl’s Matilda terrifies the Trunchbull, and E.L. Konigsburg’s Claudia and Jamie are half of those who know that Michelangelo carved the Angel.Whether or not Harry Potter is a Christian story, it is this shared cultural history that guides a great number of works produced. Well before Dumbledore spelled it out for Harry, probably early in their reading or viewing of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, almost all readers knew intuitively that at the end of that final novel it would come down to Harry versus Voldemort.

Heroic Circumstance

For each mythological hero, there is a checklist that can be readily applied. According to critic Katherine Grimes, Harry has met eight of these ten qualities; however, one could easily argue that Harry has met each of the ten qualities in at least one instance throughout the series.

I. “The boy is the son of royal or even immortal parents—Harry Potter’s parents are a wizard and a witch”4 Moreover, it appears that James and Lily were stars during their time at Hogwarts. James was wealthy, popular, and a Quidditch champion while Lily was well liked, beautiful, and one of the most intelligent students that Slughorn had seen. Hagrid even offers what might be the first positive comment Harry ever hears about his parents with these words: “Now, yer mum an’ dad were as good a witch an’ wizard as I ever knew. Head boy an’ girl at Hogwarts in their day!”5

II. “Difficulties precede the conception, and in some cases the mother is a virgin… we do not yet know the details of Harry’s conception”6 However, we do know that we can expect to learn important information about Harry’s parents, particularly Lily, in the upcoming novel. There are a few circumstances that may affect this requirement: Harry’s parents were hiding from Voldemort, presumably from around the time of his birth until they were discovered and killed. We do not yet know how James and Lily began their courtship, but we do know that a relationship between them seemed unlikely in the Pensieve scene of Snape’s worst memory. Of course, even if Harry’s birth itself was not unusual, Harry’s infancy was far from normal. At just one year old, he was the only known wizard to survive the Avada Kedavra curse and is still the only person to our knowledge who has weakened Lord Voldemort to date.

III. “The child’s life is threatened when dream or oracle warns the father or another royal personage that the boy will be in danger—Voldemort, a sort of prince of evil, has reason to fear Harry and tries to kill him”7 Actually, two of Harry’s surrogate fathers hear this prediction: Dumbledore is directly told by Trelawney, and Snape (the Half-Blood Prince) overhears that prediction and relays it to Voldemort.

IV. “The boy is separated from his parents—Harry’s parents are dead”8 In addition, Harry is routinely separated from his surrogate parents. Harry leaves the Dursleys, as well as Molly and Arthur, whenever he travels to Hogwarts. Once discovered to be his godfather, Sirius is forced back into hiding and later killed. Harry has been removed from the tutelage of each of his other surrogates as well: Remus Lupin resigns his post at the school in the face of prejudice and out of concern for the students, Mad-Eye Moody turns out to be a Death Eater in disguise, Snape has fled Hogwarts and Dumbledore is now dead as well. When Harry is initially separated from his parents he meets the next criteria:

V. “The boy is exposed, often in a basket or other receptacle—Harry is laid on the doorstep of his aunt and uncle,”9 however this is unnecessary each time a father figure leaves Harry.

VI. “The boy is put into water, either to kill him or to save him—Harry and the other first years are ferried to Hogwarts across a lake, and before Harry can be freed from the Dursleys, Hagrid must fetch him across a large body of water.”10 In addition to those instances in Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry has entered or crossed water as a test at least four other times in the series so far. In Harry Potter and theGoblet of Fire he retrieves a special golden egg and must soak in a bath to discover its secrets, which is followed by the second task of saving Ron from what Harry believes to be an underwater grave. In Half-Blood Prince, Harry is not challenged on his watery voyage to the supposed Horcrux, but on his return from it—a sign that he is fully capable of being the one on whom others rely. Harry’s efforts at this time are not without mistakes; he does forget that fire is the fastest way to repel the Inferi, but he also is able to return Dumbledore safely to the school.

VII. “The child is rescued by animals or underlings, often shepherds—Harry is rescued by Hagrid, a gamekeeper, and is later guided by his godfather in the form of a dog and his father in the form of a stag.”11 Additionally in the first book, the centaur Firenze removes him from Professor Quirrell/Voldemort’s threat in the Forbidden Forest. Furthermore, Harry is helped by the feral Ford Anglia and Fawkes the phoenix in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, as well as a hippogriff named Buckbeak in Prisoner of Azkaban. In the fourth novel, we see Harry’s transformation from needing this help to becoming a self-reliant young man. For the second Triwizard task, he is given helpful information by Dobby, a humble house-elf regarded by some wizards as nothing more than a slave. During his confrontation with Voldemort in the graveyard, Harry receives spiritual guidance in a literal form: the ghosts of those who Voldemort has killed reappear and his mother gives him advice. However, it is ultimately Harry who saves himself and returns to Hogwarts. This is one of the many signs of Harry’s preparation to enter his final battle alone. Because Harry is no longer a child, he has become a full-fledged hero. He undergoes a transformation in Goblet of Fire, and he no longer needs the help of “underlings” to ensure his success.

VIII. “The baby is suckled or reared by animals or lowly persons— Harry’s aunt & uncle, the Dursleys, are lowly persons, as is Hagrid, but in a very different way.” 12 The Weasley family, considered by some to be of a lower social class, has unofficially adopted Harry as well.

IX. “The hero is eventually recognized as such, often because of a mark or a wound—Harry’s attack by Voldemort has left him with a scar on his forehead, a sign that other wizards recognize.”13 Although it is less readily apparent, Harry is finally recognized as the Chosen One after the battle within the Ministry of Magic that ends Harry Potter and theOrder of the Phoenix, and his trials with Umbridge that result in another scar: “I must not tell lies” has now been carved into Harry’s hand and ironically becomes a sign that he was willing to stand up for the truth regardless of the pressures that he faced during his fifth year at school.

X. “The hero is reconciled with his father (or his representative), or he exacts revenge upon his father.” 14 Grimes argues that Harry has not yet completed this portion of his journey, but because Harry has encountered so many figures that represent his father he has done this at least once in every book as well. Remus Lupin and Sirius Black are obvious father figures who serve as Harry’s closest connection to his real father. Because Voldemort is linked to Harry through their wands and has been the cause of many unusual circumstances surrounding Harry, many would argue that he is the father figure on whom Harry must exact revenge. Arguably, the most ambiguous of Harry’s father figures is Severus Snape. Snape fills the same role as the evil stepparent in fairy tales who allows the child to dislike an authority figure without disliking his natural parents. Even this type of twisted father figure is one that must be separated from Harry—Snape fled Hogwarts at the climax of Half Blood Prince, so whether these two will experience reconciliation or revenge remains to be seen.

The Journey

In addition to these characteristics common to almost every mythological hero, there is a ten- (or sometimes noted as eleven-) step progression once the hero has been identified known as the Hero’s Journey, a theory popularized by Joseph Campbell. In the Harry Potter books, this journey occurs in each story individually as well as series as a whole. The format is as follows: the tale begins in the ordinary world, and we become acquainted with the hero before he knows that he has any special talents or destiny awaiting him. The hero is then called to an adventure, and almost always refuses initially, just as Harry did when he told Hagrid “I think you must have made a mistake. I don’t think I can be a wizard.”15 The hero then has an opportunity to meet with a mentor or mentors who will give especial knowledge or abilities and otherwise guide his quest. At this point the hero crosses the threshold, often literally and into a magical world, in order to begin his journey. The hero is faced with numerous tests, during which he meets allies and enemies. Finally, the hero approaches the final ordeal and accomplishes his goal. At this time he receives a reward. Then, depending upon the critic, the hero either begins the journey back or has a resurrection episode, and possibly has both.16 Finally, the hero returns to the real (Muggle) world with an elixir in hand that is used to help all others. This is a literal event in Sorcerer’s Stone, but is usually figurative as Harry returns with “healing information,” often about his own strength.

After Harry has faced and vanquished Voldemort, what else happens? The structure shows there are three or four steps remaining after the hero’s completion of his major task but before the conclusion of his saga. Do heroes murder? Is defeating the most dangerous dark wizard in at least a century reward enough in itself? Of course, not every detail that readers would like to know about Harry’s future life is predictable within this framework. Many questions are simply not addressed within these loose outlines, and all readers know that Jo is nothing if not fond of leading her readers avidly in the wrong direction while only including subtle hints toward the correct one.

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