Harry's Heroic Journey
By Melissa L. Walls Lawson
From the Ashes
The Hero Master Plan requires a resurrection of some sort. So does that mean that Harry has to die and be reborn, a literal Savior of the wizarding world? Well… no. In fact, Harry has faced more than one figurative rebirth in each installment of his tale. Some are obvious; others require a mere symbol search. Birth is often associated with water (a la amniotic fluid), serpents who regenerate their skin, and yew, all of which are recurring symbols in the Harry Potter books. In addition, the phoenix has long been a symbol of regeneration or rebirth and appeared in some medieval Christian art and stories as a reminder of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, an association emphasized in these works through the healing tears that the phoenix produces.
In the first novel, Harry is reborn a minimum of twice. The initial rebirth is how the whole story begins—the third Avada Kedavra rebounds, leaving an infant alone in the world and reducing the most powerful wizard in the world to almost nothing. At eleven Harry begins anew, and discovering that he is a wizard allows him to escape his dreary Muggle upbringing. He crosses water twice with his new knowledge: the first time with Hagrid, returning from the Hut on the Rock and the second with all of the first year students on their journey to Hogwarts. It is important to note that only first year students cross the lake; older students approach the castle by coach. In addition, Harry is reborn as he reemerges from the chamber beneath the trapdoor. During this resurrection, he gains the knowledge that he can fight against Voldemort and also that his mother’s sacrifice continues to protect him.
It is easily apparent that Chamber of Secrets has a heavy focus on rebirth as well. The phantom of Tom Riddle is a reincarnation of Lord Voldemort. We meet Dumbledore’s pet phoenix Fawkes on a burning day and he is reborn from the ashes in time to save Harry from death at the last moment possible. However, the process of entering and reemerging from the chamber itself is easily a metaphor for this process as well. The entrance is in the girls’ bathroom and through a long, dark, wet tunnel under the school. During the process, Harry saves Ginny, who reminds many fans of his mother.Finally, when Harry reemerges with the help of Fawkes, he surfaces with knowledge that Tom Riddle and Lord Voldemort are the same person, a fact few know, and that the Dark Lord is the descendent of Salazar Slytherin. After this experience he also has a rudimentary knowledge about Horcruxes.
The spotlight in the next three tales is not on this regenerative cycle, but the signs appear nonetheless. During Prisoner of Azkaban Harry hears his mother’s screams while fainting from the Dementor attacks, believes he sees an ethereal form of his father saving them, and gains knowledge in his own strength and power through learning that neither of them will actually be able to return or rescue him. Through the ordeals, he is able to adopt a new father in Sirius. Additionally, Harry is incarnated in a double self after a fashion: the Time-Turner creates two simultaneous Harrys, one with knowledge the other does not have. While Rowling has never specifically explained the mechanics of Time- Turner magic we do realize that the first Harry “dies,” or at least disappears, as the two merge at the end of the time repeated.
In Goblet of Fire, Harry himself begins to be transformed. While he has help in preparation for the Triwizard tasks, he has none in his actual performance of them. Ron and Hermione are not in the Labyrinth to help him with the obstacles preceding the travel to the graveyard. According to Jung, the Labyrinth itself is a symbol of transformation, and it is during this episode that we see the true beginning of Harry’s personal growth into manhood. In addition, this event marks the transformation of the novels, which grow ever darker with the return of Lord Voldemort through his own rebirthing ceremony, a bastardization of both the Christian Eucharist and conventional birth.
In Order of the Phoenix, death, rather than resurrection, appears to be the center of attention. Because of this, one might argue that this death-centered novel could be the beginning of Harry’s preparation for his own rebirth, a more pronounced one than he has previously undergone. Hints of regeneration still exist alongside themes of death in Order of the Phoenix: Fawkes does fly in to keep an Avada Kedavra from hitting Dumbledore. During this episode Harry hears the prophesy in its entirety, and this knowledge is surely the elixir-knowledge that will save the wizarding world in the end. It is worth noting that Harry encounters both the Veil, symbolizing death, and the Love room in this battle, and the fact that Rowling will not admit whether or not we will see these rooms again is probably telling.
The sixth book strikes an intriguing balance between death and resurrection. We are introduced to Voldemort’s life-assurance plan through the Horcruxes, a system that allows him to continue living through killing others to survive and gain power for himself. His effort to re-create himself through these objects is striking, as it is one of the only methods of rebirth encountered in our collective history that is not a cleansing, healing process. We see much the same problem in the Death Eaters’ use of the Inferi. While these bodies are not literally reborn, they are corpses resurrected for someone else’s evil use. In contrast Fawkes, a symbol of a clean and healing rebirth, is once again an important addition to the plot. His song expresses the grief that Harry feels and helps Harry articulate his acceptance that Dumbledore will not return.
With such a strong history of this reincarnation process, it is assured that Harry will face at least one figurative resurrection in Deathly Hallows, and a possibility that there will be several. Harry will learn far more about himself and his abilities during the upcoming installment through additional trials with the Horcruxes and through learning about the past. “In the context of a children’s story, it is unlikely that this will result in the ultimate sacrifice of Harry’s life. The resurrection is just as powerful a metaphor.”30
Moreover, Rowling has said multiple times that there is no literal resurrection to be had in her story. Through Dumbledore, Rowling tells Harry and us that “no spell can awaken the dead.”31 Additionally, in a question and answer session during an interview with Christopher Lydon, Rowling answered to a child,
Magic cannot bring dead people back to life; that's - that's one of the most profound things, the - the natural law of - of - of death applies to wizards as it applies to Muggles and there is no returning once you're properly dead […] once you're dead, you're dead.32
There are two particularly popular theories for saving Harry’s literal life through a figurative death and resurrection. One is that Harry will use the Draught of the Living Dead in order to fool the Dark Lord and gain an advantage. However, outright deception is not often Harry’s modus operandi. He often strives to face challenges head-on, and faking death seems unlikely as it is such a passive way to deal with Voldemort. In addition, the Draught has not ever been fully explained in the Harry Potter series, and while this purpose seems a likely guess, we do not actually know that this is the use. Another popular theory is that Harry will lose his powers, and once again live as a Muggle. This is highly unlikely. First of all, Harry never was a Muggle. He was not given these powers on his eleventh birthday; he was given the knowledge that he had them. He had already used these powers multiple times without any explanation of how these things worked the way that they did. Harry was born special, and will continue to be so.
In addition, this scenario would be particularly cruel for Harry and the readers who love him in part because after only a short time at Hogwarts, Harry feels that the wizarding world is more his home than Privet Drive ever was. “Muggle culture is emotionally and imaginatively barren,”33 argues one critic, and Rowling would agree; she has said several times that the magic found in her stories represents the influence of imagination in the real world. In most myths, a return to the real (Muggle) world would be probable as often the hero is faced with the decision whether to return to his roots or stay within the newfound world. However, the Harry Potter books are different in this aspect because Harry learns that the Muggle world was not actually his home; instead, his real identity had been hidden from him for the first 11 years of his life. In addition, if Harry succeeds in defeating Voldemort, he is creating a safer existence for both wizards and Muggles alike without a literal return being a necessity.
As readers, we know nothing of Harry’s friends or strengths outside of those found in the wizarding world. His only friends are wizards. Harry has shown he is uninterested in any Muggle careers or ties to that world, including familial ones as they stand at the end of Half Blood Prince. A Muggle-fied Harry could still be connected to the world of magic because the Weasley family and Hagrid, at least, would still accept and love Harry, but this outcome would be unsatisfactory for all readers and for Harry himself.
In The End
An epic battle of good against evil serves as the basis for Rowling’s Harry Potter world, but she has also broken the mold by using elements from many other genres of literature. Ultimately, Harry Potter is a hero like no other in history, yet no less a hero than Odysseus himself. His journey to defeat evil, set at a magical British boarding school in the present era, rings true to us as reality, as fantasy, as mythology, as ancient history, and as modern social commentary. It taps into our need for adventure and it reaffirms our values by reminding us that love is the greatest weapon of all. Whether Harry will survive or perish in the final showdown will keep readers guessing until the very end.
Genre is often the easiest way to forecast the outcome in literature, but because Harry’s tale is not easily pigeonholed it is nearly impossible to predict the end of the tales. In the end, no one can forecast Harry’s fate, no matter how brilliant of a literary critic, how gifted a Seer, or how huge of a Potter fan they are. Ultimately, Rowling has fused too many styles for there to be any one “sure thing.” It is possible that Harry lives happily ever after. Equally possible is the chance that he sacrifices himself for wizardkind. Additionally, it is probable that someone else dear to him will provide the sacrifice that will protect him again, a concept that is a full essay’s worth of discussion in itself. The only elements that are predictable are that not every reader will see the finale that he or she would like to find, and that while fans are busy celebrating Harry’s triumph, we will also be mourning the loss of our need to predict.
1. Wikipedia, s.v. “Hero.”
2. Rowling, Prisoner of Azkaban, 1.
3. Yeo, “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets: Feminist Interpretations/ Jungian Dreams.”
4. Grimes, “Harry Potter: Fairy Tale Prince, Real Boy, and Archetypal Hero.” Introductory sentence hers, additional notes mine.
5. Rowling, Sorcerer’s Stone, 55.
6. Grimes, “Harry Potter: Fairy Tale Prince, Real Boy, and Archetypal Hero.” Introductory sentence hers, additional notes mine.
15. Rowling, Sorcerer’s Stone, 58.
16. Wells, “The Hero’s Journey.”
17. J.K. Rowling Official Site. “Biography.”
18. Rowling, Prisoner of Azkaban, 17.
19. Ibid., Half Blood Prince, 465.
20. Ibid., Ibid., 562.
21. Ibid., Order of the Phoenix, 810.
22. Ibid., Half Blood Prince, 465.
23. Campbell, The Hero With A Thousand Faces, 20.
24. Rowling, Interview with Geordie Greig.
25. Le Lievre, “Wizards and Wainscots.”
26. Rowling, Chamber of Secrets, 333.
27. The Harry Potter Lexicon, “The Ethics of Rowling.”
28. Rowling, Sorcerer’s Stone, 215.
29. Rowling, Prisoner of Azkaban, 375
30. Yeo, Michelle. “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets: Feminist Interpretations/ Jungian Dreams.”
31. Rowling, Goblet of Fire, 36.
32. Rowling, J.K. Interview with Christopher Lydon.
33. Le Lievre, “Wizards and Wainscots.”
Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1949.
Grimes, M. Katherine. “Harry Potter: Fairy Tale Prince, Real Boy, and Archetypal Hero.”The Ivory Tower and Harry Potter, edited by Lana A. Whited, Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2002. Found on Literature Resource Center, 11/5/06.
The Harry Potter Lexicon. “The Ethics of Rowling.” Essays. 24 June 2003. http://www.hp-lexicon.org/essays/essays-ethics-of-rowling.html (accessed 1 November 2006).
J.K. Rowling Official Site. “Extra Stuff: Wands.” http://www.jkrowling.com/textonly/en/extrastuff_view.cfm?id=18 (accessed 10 October 2006).
———, “Biography.” http://www.jkrowling.com/textonly/en/biography.cfm (accessed 15 October 2006).
Le Lievre, Kerrie Anne. “Wizards and Wainscots: Generic Structures and Genre Themes in the Harry Potter Series.” Mythlore 91 (summer 2003): 25-36. Literature Resource Center. (Accessed 7 November 2006).
Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. New York: Scholastic Press, Arthur A. Levine Books, 1999.
———, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. New York: Scholastic Press, Arthur A. Levine Books, 2000.
———, Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince. London: Bloomsbury, 2005.
———, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. New York: Scholastic Press, Arthur A. Levine Books, 2003.
———, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. New York: Scholastic Press, Arthur A. Levine Books, 1999.
———, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. New York: Scholastic Press, Arthur A. Levine Books, 1998.
———, Interview with Christopher Lydon. The Connection (WBUR Radio), 12 October, 1999. Transcript, Accio Quote. http://www.accioquote.org/articles/1999/1099-connectiontransc2.htm.
———, Interview with Geordie Greig. 'There would be so much to tell her...'Tatler
Magazine. January 10, 2006. http://www.quick-quote-quill.org/articles/2006/0110-tatler-grieg.html.
Wells, Linda. “The Hero’s Journey.” Cartoons as Myth. 2003. http://library.thinkquest.org/03oct/00800/journey.htm (Accessed 20 October 2006).
Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia, s.v. “Hero.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/hero. (Accessed 26 October 2006).
Yeo, Michelle. “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets: Feminist Interpretations/ Jungian Dreams.” Simile: Studies in Media & Information Literacy Education. 4: 1 (Feb 2004). Literature Resource Center. (Accessed November 2006).