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Harry Potter and the Literary Tradition
By Severina Aequitas

At the present time, literary criticism tends to be directed mostly to works that society perceives as holding great social and literary significance. These works have changed the way people look at art or literature, either by sparking controversy or through their considerable popularity. The Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling has done just this, but has yet to be accepted as a serious literary work. It has received much acclaim as an outstanding piece of children’s literature, but the novels contain much more than a simple tale about a boy wizard. Rowling follows in some very old traditions of literature, and by applying German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s theories about the cruelty of life and the inherent Apollonian and Dionysian qualities in all forms of art, and French philosopher and critic Jacques Derrida’s theories of the pharmakon and the pharmakos, one begins to see how the Harry Potter series deserves to be regarded as a significant piece of literature. Furthermore, instead of using the entire Harry Potter series for this undertaking, I’ve chosen to use just one text from it, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, and demonstrate how it draws on those sources.

Nietzsche and the Theory of Apollonian and Dionysian Qualities

Nietzsche felt that every work of art, whether it is music or drama or writing, contained two aspects: the Apollonian and the Dionysian. The Apollonian aspect is that of order and laws, which can constitute the illusion that things are in control even if in reality they are not. The Dionysian aspect is about the “cruelty of life” or not being able to ever escape one’s fate; and also that of escaping to an alternate state of being, usually a temporary one. These themes run quite strong in Order of the Phoenix with Harry unwilling to accept his destiny. Nietzsche notices in Greek tragedies that the heroes show “tremendous distrust of the titanic forces of nature: Moira [destiny], mercilessly enthroned beyond the knowable world,” 1 and uses Oedipus as an example of one who learns of what his future holds for him, tries to run away from his fate, but unknowingly runs closer towards it.

Harry is in a similar situation. Not only was his being born a wizard kept secret from him until he turned eleven, but, like Oedipus, a prophecy was made that would affect his entire life; in Harry’s case, the prophecy stated that a child would be born who would vanquish Lord Voldemort. When Voldemort unintentionally turns Harry into the prophecy’s fulfillment, Harry constantly questions, both internally and to those closest to him, why he must be the “Chosen One”. When the wizard newspaper, The Daily Prophet, continually writes stories implying that Harry’s motives in saying Voldemort has returned are to garner himself more fame, he bursts out: “I didn’t ask—I didn’t want—Voldemort killed my parents! I got famous because he murdered my family but couldn’t kill me! Who wants to be famous for that? Don’t they think I’d rather it’d never [happened?]—”2

Harry’s feelings of unhappiness continue throughout the text, and after Sirius Black dies, his feelings intensify to the point that he wishes he wasn’t himself: “He could not stand being Harry anymore….He had never felt more trapped inside his own head and body, never wished so intensely that he could be somebody—anybody—else.” 3 Eventually he becomes so frustrated with his life that he doesn’t see the point in living anymore, yelling at Dumbledore “I DON’T CARE! I’VE HAD ENOUGH, I’VE SEEN ENOUGH, I WANT OUT, I WANT IT TO END, I DON’T CARE ANYMORE—” 4 Dumbledore helps Harry see why he must accept his destiny, and even though Harry feels a sense of isolation because of it, it also seems to give him a sense of motivation and purpose that most fifteen-year-old boys don’t have yet:

An invisible barrier separated him from the rest of the world. He was—he had always been—a marked man. It was just that he had never really understood what that meant…. And yet sitting here on the edge of the lake, with the terrible weight of grief dragging at him […] he could not muster any great sense of fear. […] The grounds around him were full of laughing people, and even though he felt as distant from them as though he belonged to a different race, it was still very hard to believe as he sat there that his life must include, or end in, murder….5

Harry has transitioned from wanting to avoid his destiny to realizing and accepting that he must face and vanquish Voldemort. He overcomes “the cruelty of life,” moving into an acceptance of his fate.

The Dionysian quality of wanting to escape to an alternative reality not only affects Harry, but the reader as well. When staying with the Dursleys, Harry is unable to use magic and readers empathize with his frustration. When members of the Order come to take him to Sirius’s house, they use their broomsticks to fly there, and the effect on Harry is intoxicating, “He felt as though his heart was going to explode with pleasure; he was flying again, flying away from Privet Drive as he’d been fantasizing about all summer, he was going home…. For a few glorious moments, all his problems seemed to recede into nothing.”6 For many readers, they feel a similar effect whilst reading the Harry Potter novels. The reader is aware that the books are fiction and such a magical world cannot exist, but they create a retreat, away from the realities they deal with in their life:

Despite the high intensity with which these dream realities exist for us, we still have the residual sensation that they are illusions […] the essence of Dionysiac rapture, whose closest analogy is furnished by physical intoxication […] the individual forgets himself completely.7

This is evidenced by the record-breaking numbers of books sold on their first day of release, showing how many people enjoy escaping into Harry Potter’s world, and that these Dionysian qualities exist both within and outside of Rowling’s books.

In Order of the Phoenix, there is a great emphasis on the Apollonian aspects (order and law) of the magical world. Wizards have all the same forms of government that Muggles (or non-wizarding folk) have, most notably a Ministry of Magic (and Minister of Magic, whose function is like that of a President or Prime Minister) that forms the central place of government over various aspects of wizarding life and a Wizengamot that oversees all judicial aspects of the laws. In the beginning of the text, Harry is forced to use magic to ward off Dementors, and breaks one of the laws that forbid underage wizards to use magic. Because of this, he must go to a hearing to determine whether he should be reprimanded because of this, and at the hearing the charges mentioned show the extent to which the wizarding community has developed their laws:

The charges against the accused are as follows: That he did knowingly, deliberately, and in full awareness of the illegality of his actions, having received a previous written warning from the Ministry of Magic on a similar charge, produced a Patronus Charm in a Muggle-inhabited area, in the presence of a Muggle, on August the second at twenty-three minutes past nine, which constitutes an offense under Paragraph C of the Decree for the Reasonable Restriction of Underage Sorcery, 1875, and also under section thirteen of the International Confederation of Wizards’ Statute of Secrecy.8

The Wizarding society depends on laws to try to prevent chaos and also to stop wizards like Voldemort from gaining too much power. The Ministry’s big mistake is refusing to believe Voldemort has returned, which would force them into actions they are unwilling to make. Hence Fudge’s displeasure when Harry is re-admitted to Hogwarts after being acquitted in the misuse of magic charge. Indignant, Fudge places Dolores Umbridge in Hogwarts as a tool of the Ministry to exert force at the school, something that had never before happened. Hogwarts typically operates outside of the limitations of the Ministry, and has its own sets of rules, again reflecting the Apollonian aspects of their society.

Derrida and the Pharmakos/Pharmakon

Jacques Derrida’s theories concerning the pharmakon and the pharmakos apply to the Harry Potter series as well. The pharmakon translates to the dual meaning of being both a remedy and a poison. This can pertain to when Voldemort first tried to kill Harry:

Voldemort himself would ‘mark him his equal.’ And so he did, Harry. […] He gave you the scar that has proved both blessing and curse. […] In marking you with that scar, he did not kill you, as he intended, but gave you powers, and a future, which have fitted you to escape him not once, but four times so far—something that […] your parents […never] achieved.9

The very thing meant to kill Harry—the Avada Kedavra curse—made him stronger than he would have been otherwise. Derrida believes that words should show all possible meanings, and the words Rowling chose, “Avada Kedavra,” have interesting origins. The original Aramaic that became “Abracadabra,” it translates as “let the thing be destroyed.” It was originally used to cure illness, but Rowling changed it to a killing curse for any living thing. Again, this has interesting connotations concerning the remedy/poison duality of the pharmakon.

Another idea that intrigued Derrida was that of the pharmakos in ancient Greece, The word pharmakos means “wizard, magician, poisoner.” Derrida says:

The character of the pharmakos has been compared to the scapegoat […] the pharmakos represents evil both introjected and projected. Beneficial insofar as he cures—and for that, venerated and cared for—harmful insofar as he incarnates the powers of evil – and for that, feared and treated with caution.10

In the Harry Potter series, wizards live outside of Muggle society because of the persecution they endured. The Dursleys are an excellent example of this prejudice, secretly fearing anything magical, but trying to demonstrate their superiority over it: “ ‘Ministry of Magic?’ bellowed Uncle Vernon. ‘People like you in government? Oh, this explains everything, everything, no wonder the country’s going to the dogs.’ ” 11 The Dursleys show their fear of wizards at the end of the novel as well, when members of the Order confront them about their treatment of Harry:

Uncle Vernon turned a deeper shade of puce and glared at Mr. Weasley, but chose not to say anything, partly, perhaps, because the Dursleys were outnumbered two to one. Aunt Petunia looked both frightened and embarrassed. She kept glancing around, as though terrified somebody she knew would see her in such company. Dudley, meanwhile, seemed to be trying to look small and insignificant, a feat at which he was failing extravagantly.12

Muggles aren’t the only ones who persecute those who are different from them, though. In the magical world, wizards single out many for being different, and the hypocrisy of the wizards’ prejudice is shown in how they sometimes treat Muggles too. Mr. Weasley tells Harry about this, telling him that “Muggle-baiting might strike some wizards as funny, but it’s an expression of something much deeper and nastier.” 13 Wizards also mistreat house-elves, werewolves, centaurs, and other various creatures: “Hermione was talking very earnestly to Lupin about her view of elf rights. ‘I mean, it’s the same kind of nonsense as werewolf segregation, isn’t it? It all stems from this horrible thing wizards have of thinking they’re superior to other creatures….’ ” 14 Derrida says that in the case of the Greeks this keeping of the outside out and the inside in was a way to keep their self-identity intact, but he disapproves of that. With the prejudice shown towards the wizards by Muggles, and by the wizards to other creatures, the series shows that even though the magical world might look better than our own, it has to deal with the same problems as any society.

The Harry Potter series has been tested against some very influential methods of literary criticism and is able to stand on its own as a significant piece of literature that deserves to be taken seriously by the literary-critical community. The works mentioned here have had an enormous impact on what literature is, and the Harry Potter series follows in that tradition, by continuing to challenge present-day notions of what should be considered “Literature.” Literary criticism allows us to look closer at ourselves through the novels, and the popularity of the Harry Potter series has shone to be one of those that have hit a chord with our society and ourselves.


1. Nietzsche, “The Birth of Tragedy,” 422.

2. Rowling, Order of the Phoenix, 74.

3. Ibid., 822.

4. Ibid., 824.

5. Ibid., 855–56.

6. Ibid., 55–56.

7. Nietzsche, “The Birth of Tragedy,” 420.

8. Rowling, Order of the Phoenix, 140.

9. Ibid., 842.

10. Derrida, “Plato’s Pharmacy,” 130–33.

11. Rowling, Order of the Phoenix, 29.

12. Ibid., 868.

13. Ibid., 153.

14. Ibid., 170–71.


Derrida, Jacques. “Plato’s Pharmacy.” Tel Quel 32–33 (1968).

Nietzsche, Friedrich. “The Birth of Tragedy.” In The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends, 2nd ed., edited by David Richter. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1998.

Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. New York: Scholastic Press, Arthur A. Levine Books, 2003.

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