Harry Potter: A Modern-Day Mythical Hero
Heroes have been portrayed in literature for generations. The early mythological heroes served as a mold for our modern heroic characters. Joseph Campbell wrote of heroes in his book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, describing his theory of the monomyth (Leeming, 1990). Many heroic characters seem to follow this pattern. The books of J.K. Rowling telling the heroic journey of Harry Potter, a young boy he finds he has magical powers and goes on to save the wizarding world. This story provides a modern version of the early mythological figures found in Greek mythology and also follows a similar path of the monomyth.
Background on Harry Potter
Harry Potter is a mythical character that was invented by the creative abilities of J.K.Rowling. The Harry Potter story is told through seven books. The story opens with the eventful early childhood of the young boy. Harry is born to parents with divine nature. His mother is a witch and his father is a wizard. The couple and the young boy are not just practitioners of the ancient arts of witchcraft but have mythological divine powers including the ability to perform magic spells and fly on magical brooms. Harry’s parents are murdered at the very beginning of this series of books. An evil wizard by the name of Voldemort kills Harry’s parents. Harry lives through this ordeal because the love of Harry’s mother forms a protective power that makes Voldemort unable to kill Harry. The killing curse Voldemort tries to use on Harry backfires and causes Voldemort serious damage, forcing him to go into hiding. The now orphaned Harry is sent to live with his non-magic relatives until his eleventh birthday when he returns to the wizarding world at a boarding school for young witches and wizards. Harry learns of the events on his parent’s death and starts on a seven-year quest that ends with him realizing his wizard powers, creating bonds of friendship and trust, and eventually defeating the evil wizard Voldemort and saving the wizarding world.
The idea of a hero is much different today than it was in ancient times. By today’s standards, the hero is someone who “stands out”, who performs an act of bravery, or some action of merit (Powell, 2002). In ancient mythology, a hero was a noble person or someone born to an aristocratic family, such as kings and queens. These heroes also had extraordinary physical and personal qualities, such as strength, beauty, and courage (Powell, 2002). There were also divine heroes such as gods and goddesses found in Greek mythology, such as Hercules and Achilles. These heroes were similar to their human counterparts as being courageous and extraordinary. Their divine powers also made them more capable of heroic deeds. Despite the differences in past and present heroes, there is still the common thread of people doing extraordinary things. The mythological hero also follows the pattern of the mythological quest.
Campbell’s idea of the monomyth brings a recognizable pattern to the heroic story. Campbell’s theory is that there is one myth with “a hero with a thousand faces” (Indick, 2004). The story follows a three-step pattern of separation, initiation, and return that can be further broken down into seventeen specific stages. Campbell gives a wonderful description of the heroic myth pattern that each hero follows “A hero ventures forth from the world of the common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man” (Indick, 2004, para. 21). The stages of the quest begin with the departure.
The first portion of each heroic journey begins with the departure. This departure is broken down into five parts. The first is the “call to adventure” followed by the “refusal of the call”. This beginning is typical as the hero is called to duty and then seeing himself (or herself) as an ordinary person denies they could perform the task. The third part is supernatural aid. We see this in many heroic stories. The Greek myths would have the assistance of a god or goddess, a superhero of modern literature, such as Spiderman, might have a technological event, such as exposure to a new drug or in Spiderman’s case a mutant spider bite. From there the next step is “crossing the first threshold” into the “belly of the whale” (Indick, 2004). Campbell recognizes in this step that the hero has undertaken the task and is now in the middle of the trouble. The next portion of steps is the “initiation”.
The “initiation” much like the “departure” is broken into steps. The first is the “road of trials”. This is a series of hoops the hero must jump through to achieve his goal. Aeneas had to survive the storm of the sea, travel with his men through strange lands, and perform battles in “The Aeneid” (Damrosch, Alliston, & Brown, et al, 2008). From there the hero “meets with the goddess”. In the ancient myths like “The Aeneid” this was an actual goddess, in modern stories, this could represent some other feminine character important to the hero, in Spiderman, it was his grandmother with words of wisdom. The next steps are “woman as temptress”, who may take the hero temporarily from his goal, atonement with the father” this common theme of problems with the father-son bond is a common theme in heroic stories, “the apotheosis” as the hero becomes “godlike” or ascends with the ranks of the gods (Merriam Webster, 2012). The final step of the second phase is “the ultimate boon”. This is when the goal is met and the hero has completed what he intended to do. Often society benefits from this and the hero gains knowledge or such. The final phase in the story of a hero is the “return”.
The “return” is when the hero has completed his journey and has to return to his life. There is the “refusal of return” followed by the “magic flight”. Often the hero does not wish to return to his ordinary life. “The rescue from without” happens after the “magic flight” as someone assists the hero on his path to return to his old life. The final steps are “crossing the return threshold”, “master of two worlds” and the “freedom to live”. Harry Potter is a character that follows this pattern of the hero in his story.
Harry Potter has many of the characteristics of a hero as depicted in the ancient stories. Harry comes from a “god” and “goddess”, his parents were magic people. His beginnings are very humble. He is an ordinary, small boy who does not seem exceptional at all as he enters his wizard schooling. When faced with his past and the adventure that is his fate Harry shows courage, bravery, strength, and ingenuity. He forms bonds with friends who assist him on his journey. Harry studies and begins to really exhibit magical aptitude as well as linking him to his “god-like” parentage. Much like the ancient stories Harry also has a very human side and his emotions are evident. He mourns his lost parents, is angry at the man who took them away, he is fearful that he is not good enough to take on his opponent, he feels great affection for his friends and teachers, hatred to those who work for evil, pride in his athletic abilities, and even young love for a fellow classmate. Harry Potter is a modern-day character that follows the ancient path of the hero as he fights evil to avenge his parent’s death and save the world from the oppression of an evil wizard.
Harry Potter’s story follows the pattern of the monomyth set forth by Joseph Campbell. Harry’s story opens with his “departure”. The “call to adventure” comes when Harry is invited to join Hogwart’s School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. He was unaware of his magic nature until this point. His aunt and uncle try to stop him from going and “refuse the call” for young Harry. The “supernatural aid” comes when Hagrid, a man who is half-giant comes to take Harry away to school through magical means. Harry is not sure that he could be the magical person that Hagrid believes him to be. He sees himself as ordinary “I couldn’t be a wizard…I’m just Harry” he says (Rowling, 1998). Harry goes with Hagrid and begins his journey. The “crossing of the first threshold” happens as Hagrid takes Harry through a secret portal to the magical world that lives parallel to his own. Once he enters the magic world Harry meets with many people who know him. He is famous in this place, and Harry is very surprised by this. He learns of his parent’s murder and how he miraculously lived when Voldemort tried to kill him, as well as the fact that many see him as a hero because Voldemort was stopped (temporarily) when he was hurt trying to kill Harry. This was the event that put Harry in “the belly of the whale” and immersed him in the problem.
Phase two of the monomyth plays out in the quest of Harry Potter. The “road of trials” are the battles with Voldemort and Harry’s school issues that set him up as Voldemort’s equal so that Harry may eventually win against him. The “meeting with the goddess” may be a bit different than the ancient idea of the goddess. Harry has the assistance of a divine nature, but it is from Dumbledore his headmaster, not a female deity. Although it could be argued that Hermione, Harry’s good friend, could be the goddess since she is brilliant and assists Harry on his path. The “woman as temptress” may be Ginny who is the girl that Harry eventually falls in love with. He turns her away towards the end of the story so she is not a distraction, nor a way for Voldemort to work against him by hurting her. “Atonement with the father” happens as Harry settles his arguments with Dumbledore since Dumbledore has kept information and affection from him. The “apotheosis” comes when Harry learns from a prophecy that he will be the one to kill Voldemort or be killed by him. Voldemort was recognized as a brilliant and powerful wizard, relating him to the status of god in myth. Harry is at this point seen as his equal therefore acquiring god status himself. The “ultimate boon” happens when Harry realizes he is not alone in his journey, and he has everything he needs to accomplish his task.
Phase three of the monomyth, the return, presents the end of Harry Potter’s story. The refusal of the return is when Harry does not go back to Hogwarts, instead goes after Voldemort. The magic flight occurs is when Harry, with Hermione and Ron, travels to acquire the relics needed to defeat Voldemort. The rescue from without happens when Ron, unable to deal with the pressures of the journey, leaves for a time to go back to his family, he returns and finds an important relic needed to defeat Voldemort. Harry crosses the return threshold by returning to Hogwarts to face his past and Voldemort. Harry becomes “master of two worlds” when Voldemort is killed. Those who did not believe in Harry now do, he has become friends with his non-magic cousin and goes on with the “freedom to live” by staying in the wizarding world where he belongs and marries Ginny.
The purpose of the mythical quest is one that has been written about for generations. The story of the hero gives the reader a sense of hope. The story of Harry Potter uses the popular theme of good versus evil. Harry at times sees evil in himself. Often people look at themselves and have doubts about their own self worth and potential. Harry had humble beginnings and performed amazing things. Despite many problems Harry prevailed. Readers benefit from reading stories of heroism and triumph over evil as a way to cope with their own inner demons.
Heroic stories have been enjoyed by readers for a very long time. Mythological journeys by knights on horseback have evolved to our modern-day idea of what a hero should be. The story of Harry Potter gives readers an unlikely hero who starts the story as a scrawny eleven-year-old boy. Despite Harry’s limitations, he grows into a courageous and powerful wizard overcoming evil and saving the wizarding world from a horrendous enemy. Campbell’s theory of the monomyth allows readers to relate ancient heroic myths to the myths of today. Harry Potter is a modern version of the ancient mythological stories providing readers with a sense of hope and proof that anyone can be a hero.
Damrosch, D., Alliston, A., Brown, M., duBois, P., Hafez, S., Heise, U.K., et al. (2008). The Longman anthology of world literature: Compact edition. New York, NY: Pearson Longman.
Indick, W. (2004). Classical heroes in modern movies: Mythological patterns of the superhero. Retrieved from http://www.calstatela.edu/faculty/sfischo/ClassicalHeroes.html
Leeming, D.A. (1990). The world of myth an anthology. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Merriam Webster. (2012). Apotheosis. Retreived from http://www.merriam- webster.com/dictionary/apotheosis
Powell, B.B. (2002). A short introduction to classical myth. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Rowling, J.K. (1998). Harry Potter and the sorcerer’s stone. New York, NY: Scholastic Press.