The theme of a hero’s journey appears repeatedly in the narratives of many cultures. Joseph Campbell, in his 1949 book, inspired by his studies of James Joyce, sets forth his formula for the monomythological adventure, found across most cultures (Monomyth Home Page):
“A hero ventures forth from the world of 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.” (Campbell 30).
Books such as the Harry Potter series fit into the same mythic tradition, a feature which might explain some of the books’ massive appeal and success (Sickels 110).
Campbell’s formulation for reading legends has gained popularity because it can help readers to re-frame their own life events as stages in the hero’s process of departure, adventure, and return. This exercise can add clarity and distance to even very painful or confusing situations (Campbell 382-391)
Finding parallels between tales from widely disparate cultures, well beyond the Classical, encourages young readers from diverse backgrounds to engage with “old school” literature, some of which may be less palatable than others. As another benefit, youthful readers may identify personally with otherwise alien protagonists, in the course of discovering the hero over and over again in literature.
Likewise, in an era of disaffection for “great books”, any print publication which kids stand in line to buy (Turner-Vorbeck 329) is a welcome arrival for those who teach. That the Harry Potter books are written in a fashion robust enough to allow for close reading, for example, in the context of the monomyth of the hero, or in light of philosophical concepts, is another gift (Cline).
Additionally, the Hogwarts youngsters behave like normal kids (unlike the Dursleys, who want to think of themselves as normal (Natov 67)), and the quotidian challenges of their lives include a mass of vivid detail (Behr) . This makes it easier to reflect on personal parallels with the reader’s life.
Consider Harry Potter’s journey in light of the hero’s journey. Concealed and neglected for 10 years in Little Whinging, for his own safety, his identity concealed, he is yanked away by avalanching owl-borne letters and Hagrid’s strength. His Muggle relatives vociferously try to refuse the call for him.
Hagrid (fulfilling the role of crone) explains his miraculous infancy (Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone 35-58). The wizard world quickly alerts him that he is destined for special achievement by having survived his encounter with Voldemort merely scarred (Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone 69, 83-85, 95). How he fulfills this special destiny is the meat of the story over the next books (Rowling, Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets passim) (Rowling, Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkhaban passim).
Temptations abound, e.g., the mirror of Erised, offering a precious glimpse of his lost parents (Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone 209), the sorcerer’s stone which threatens to revive Voldemort, and the yielding up of which could save Harry from the Dark Lord’s wrath (Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone 294). Even the Marauders’ Map offers a temptation to break rules and take unfair advantage (Rowling, Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkhaban 192-194).
Challenges also abound, e.g. trolls (Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone 172-176) hexed broomsticks (Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone 189), three-headed dogs (Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone 161), the giant spider Aragog (Rowling, Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets 275) , and sentient trees.
Some of the perils come from the very teachers who are entrusted with his care, such as Quirrel (Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone 291-294), and others are perpetrated by the very guardians of order in the wizard world (Rowling, Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkhaban 83).
Sometimes they only seem to be perpetrated by teachers – Severus Snape is an ambiguous, but ever-recurring figure throughout the series (Appelbaum 93), reminiscent of the dangerous supernatural guides in the mythic tradition, who are just as likely to eat you, or turn you to stone, as to help you.
He gradually comes to realize that his destiny is try to eliminate the threat to both the wizard and Muggle worlds by Voldemort and those he influences. His career at Hogwarts – the classes, the study, the social life – all this is the surface of his life. The real thrust consists of his preparation for an ultimate conflict with the Dark Lord (Appelbaum 85).
Like the hero of myth Harry forays riskily past the threshold of the seen world into non-normal realms, often in subterranean locales, with which Hogwarts is so plentifully endowed (for example the hole into which he conveniently, and in prime archetypal fashion, slides headfirst to access the Honeydukes establishment (Rowling, Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkhaban 195-196).
He returns safely from these “places”, but often only with the skill of Madame Pomfrey’s nursing (another crone figure), or the help of the brilliant and talented Hermione Granger, an obvious stand-in for the gray-eyed Athena!
Harry also encounters father figures, just as in the Campbell formulation, and the father in himself: the unreal image of his father in the mirror of Erised, the Patronus stag that seems to appear to help him, (Rowling, Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkhaban 237-241), Albus Dumbledore, Sirius Black, Mr. Weasley, and even Severus Snape, the character we all love to hate.
Over the course of the series, Harry must lose most of these mentors, and his idealistic picture of his real father; all are taken from him save the father within himself.
Whatever their attitude towards the spiritual or the religious, many people have a need to make sense of their lives. The spiraling journey of the hero that Harry follows over the course of the series allows readers to articulate a personal life narrative. This can be a useful aid in reflection and self-awareness.
The availability of a hero narrative, conveniently embedded within such a wildly popular book, accessible to young readers, places this tool for reflection within the reach of a broad population of kids and adults world-wide (especially since the series has been extensively translated).
In the hands of a wise instructor, the theme of the hero, expressed so entertainingly in the Harry Potter books, can serve both as a valuable bridge to the consideration or re-examination of the ancient tales of classic literature, as well as to self-discovery.
Appelbaum, Peter. “The Great Snape Debate.” Critical Perspectives on Harry Potter. Ed. Elizabeth E. Heilman. 2. New York: Routledge, 2009. 83-100.
Behr, Kate. “Philospher’s Stone to Resurrection Stone: Narrative Transformations and Intersecting Cultures across the Harry Potter Series.” Critical Perspectives on Harry Potter. Ed. Elizabeth E. Heilman. 2. New York: Routledge, 2009. 257-271.
Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1949.
Cline, Austin. Harry Potter and Philosophy: If Aristotle Ran Hogwarts. 3 March 2010
Cosentino, Donald J. “African Oral Narrative Traditions.” Cosentino, Donald J. Teaching Oral Traditions. Ed. John Miles Foley. New York: Modern Language Association, 1998. 183.
Dickens, Charles. Oliver Twist, Or The Parish Boy’s Progress. Vol. 2. Cambridge: Riverside Press, 1869.
L’Engle, Madeleine. A Wrinkle In Time Quintet. 5 vols. Harrisonburg: R.R. Donnelly and Sons Company, 2009.
Monomyth Home Page. Ed. Michelle Delattre. Office of Resources for Area and International Studies of the Universiity of California, Berkeley. 3 March 2010
Natov, Roni. “Real Lessons From A Fantasy World.” Readings on J.K. Rowling. Ed. Gary Wiener. Farmington Hills: Greenhaven Press, 2003. 64-78.
Rowliing, J.K. Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phioenix. New York: Scholastic, 2007.
Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets. New York: Scholastic, 2007.
—. Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows. New York: Scholastic, 2007.
—. Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire. New York: Scholastic, 2007.
—. Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince. New York: NY, 2007.
—. Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkhaban. New York: Scholastic, 2007.
—. Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone. New York: Scholastic Books, 1997.
Sickels, Amy. Mythmaker: The Story Of J.K. Rowling. 2nd edition. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 2008.
The Minoan Bull Leaping Fresco. 1999-2005. 3 March 2010
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Return Of The King. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1956.
Turner-Vorbeck, Tammy. “Potter Mania: Good Clean Fun Or Cultural Hegemony?” Turner-Vorbeck, Tammy. Critical Perspectives On Harry Potter. Ed. Elizabeth E. Heilman. 2nd edition. New York: Routledge, 2009. 329-341.
Protagonists such as Gilgamesh, Odysseus, Oedipus, Theseus, Moses, Jesus Christ, King Arthur, Oliver Twist (Dickens passim), the Bagginses (Tolkien passim), and even Meg Murry, Madeline L’Engle’s spunky heroine (L’Engle passim), exert a continuing fascination, arising, according to Joseph Campbell, from their stories’ underlying conformance with the monomyth’s narrative arc. Harry Potter is a worthy addition to this list of heroes (Sickels 110).Campbell’s model also stimulates ongoing and very lively criticism. He has been faulted for over-emphasizing universality, thereby obscuring ethnographically significant detail in oral traditions (Cosentino 183). This seems to be a quite legitimate caution. For example, the tale of Theseus and the Minotaur should be examined in cultural context, including mysterious portrayal, on Minoan artifacts, of bull-leaping (The Minoan Bull Leaping Fresco)
Although the final denouement occurs past the scope of the third book, his ultimate vanquishing of the forces of Voldemort, in company with Dumbledore’s “army”, bequeaths to the wizard world a safer future, albeit sadly bereft of dear friends. The relatively normal wizard family that he is foreshadowed to eventually build with Ginny represents the return to life that completes the hero’s journey (Rowling, Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire passim) (Rowling, Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince passim) (Rowliing passim) (Rowling, Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows)
What constitutes our call to adventure, our leap into the unknown? What positive, constructive gift of insight or maturity can we bring back from a powerful experience such as illness or loss of a loved one? How can we reconcile with the progenerative parent figure or figures in our lives or within ourselves? How can we atone for our misdeeds? How can we re-integrate ourselves into the world after a transformative time of internal struggle?