Harry Potter, the Familiar Hero

Bachelor Thesis, 2010

33 Pages, Grade: 1,3

Maximilian Horsthemke (Author)



List of Abbreviations

1. Introduction: Harry Potter and the Monomyth

2. Departure
2.1 The Call to Adventure
2.2 Refusal of the Call
2.3 Supernatural Aid
2.4 The Crossing of the First Threshold
2.5 The Belly of the Whale

3. Initiation
3.1 The Road of Trials
3.2 The Meeting With the Goddess
3.3 Woman as Temptress
3.4 Atonement with the Father
3.5 Apotheosis
3.6 The Ultimate Boon

4. Return
4.1 Refusal of the Return
4.2 The Magic Flight
4.3 Rescue from Without
4.4 The Crossing of the Return Threshold
4.5 Master of the Two Worlds
4.6 Freedom to Live

5. Conclusion: Harry Potter, the Familiar Hero

6. Bibliography

Primary Sources

Secondary Sources

List of Abbreviations

CS Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. London: Bloomsbury, 1998

DH Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. London: Bloomsbury, 2007

GoF Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. London: Bloomsbury, 2000

HBP Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. London: Bloomsbury, 2005

OoP Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. London: Bloomsbury, 2003

PA Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. London: Bloomsbury, 1999

PS Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. London: Bloomsbury, 1997

1. Introduction: Harry Potter and the Monomyth

Since the publication of the first book in the series in 1997, Harry Potter has become a worldwide phenomenon: seven novels with an enormous commercial success - the whole series’ sales have exceeded 400 million copies up to now (see Flood) - six movies - three of which are in the Top 10 list of the highest grossing films of all time (see “All Time Box Office”) - countless merchandise products and a huge fan following. In 2010, three years after the publication of the last book in the series, there seems to be no end in sight: the last instalment of the film series Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (in the following: DH) will be released as a two-part film in 2010 and 2011. American and British Colleges and Universities have adapted Quidditch, the sport of Harry Potter and his friends, to a real-life version. Students at the University of Nottingham even think about establishing a “British Quidditch league” (“Harry Potter fans bid for Quidditch league”). And to top it all, a Harry Potter theme park opens at the Universal Resort in Orlando, Florida in June 2010 (see “Wizarding World of Harry Potter theme park”).

One can think of several explanations for this lasting popularity. It may be author J.K. Rowling’s surprising and new combination of well-known elements from literary and mythological tradition, as for example names from Greek mythology, mythic creatures like unicorns, giants or basilisks or prototype-characters, such as the “valiant juvenile” or the “wise wizard” (see Just 59). Maybe it is the blending of popular genres, like the criminal story (Harry has to solve crimes), the school story (the novels are set in a boarding school), fantasy literature (wizards, goblins, dragons etc. appear) or the gothic novel (the school is an old castle with secret passageways and living portraits), making it interesting for young and adult readers alike. Another factor may be that both male and female readers can identify with the protagonists. Rowling said in a BBC Radio interview with Stephen Fry that she wrote a “boy’s adventure book, but with girls” (“J.K. Rowling and Stephen Fry Interview Transcript”). Also, quite a few controversies have helped to keep the book in the public eye: Conservative Christians in the United States, Canada and England have tried to ban the books from schools (see Whited 5) and even Joseph Ratzinger (before being elected pope) condemned the book as “unchristian” (“Päpstliche Potter-Schelte”). Moreover, several authors have filed plagiarism suits against Rowling, among others Nancy Stouffer who in 1986 wrote a book called The Legend of Rah and the Muggles (see O’Sullivan 28). Yet, none of these controversial issues have diminished the books’ success, on the contrary, the topic even attracted academic attention, as several university courses have shown (see Lee).

Through this plagiarism controversy, Harry Potter’s position in the intertextual tradition has become obvious. Rowling makes extensive use of elements from ancient myths, sagas, legends and fairytales and transfers those into her own story (see Mattenklott 33). But literary critics and scholars have not only pointed out Rowling’s use of dragons and goblins but also the way her story resembles that of other’s. School Library Journal writer Laura Barack, for example, maintains that “while her stories are hugely popular, they do mirror many archetypes and story arcs found in popular tales”.

Maybe one reason for Harry Potter’s popularity lies in these “archetypes and story arcs”. As David Colbert writes, Harry Potter seems to be a “very familiar hero” (205). Just like Oedipus, Moses or King Arthur, he is “what readers might call a legendary Lost Prince or Hidden Monarch” (ibid.), because he never knew he was a wizard before he got the letter from Hogwarts, the wizard school. Harry is the son of two famous wizards who were murdered by the powerful dark wizard Lord Voldemort shortly after he was born. When he tried to kill Harry, his spell rebounded and rendered Voldemort practically powerless. The incident leaves him a mark on his forehead and makes him a living legend among the wizarding community. This heritage and his wizarding abilities are unknown to him up until his 11th birthday. The same is true for Arthur, for instance, who only learns of his origins through pulling the sword Excalibur from a stone or Oedipus, who finds out that his father was the king of Thebes only after he kills him, claims the throne for himself and marries his mother.

Not just the plot’s initial situation bears resemblance with known “archetypes and story arcs”: to accept his inheritance, Harry has to go on a journey, metaphorically and literally spoken, since the “Hogwarts Express” transports him and his schoolmates each year to their school. It therefore connects the magical and the non-magical worlds; the latter is the one where Harry grows up with the Dursleys, his only living relatives after the death of his parents. In Greek mythology, Achilles and Odysseus also have to leave their homeland to meet their destiny in the Trojan War. During his years in Hogwarts and on his quest to defeat Lord Voldemort, Harry is supported by wise and powerful protectors, like the half-giant Hagrid or the white-bearded Professor Dumbledore, just like Merlin was a guide and counsellor to Arthur or as Mentor was to Odysseus’s son Telemachus. Thus, Harry “is the scion of earlier heroes” (Pharr 54).

American mythologist Joseph Campbell wrote at length about these heroes and their journey, the “monomyth” (Campbell 23) as he calls it, in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces in 1949. He analysed myths from all over the world and found parallels between them:

Whether we listen with aloof amusement to the mumbo jumbo of some red-eyed witch doctor of the Congo, or read with cultivated rapture thin translations from sonnets of Lao-tse; or now and again crack the hard nutshell of an argument of Aquinas, or catch suddenly the shining meaning of a bizarre Eskimoan fairy tale: it will always be the one, shape-shifting yet marvelously constant story that we find. (ibid. 1)

He found out that the mythological hero’s journey follows a pattern that is subdivided into three stages which he calls “Departure”, “Initiation” and “Return” (ibid. 28 f.). Campbell gives the following summary of the monomyth:

The 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. (ibid. 23)

This coherent pattern holds true for all cultures throughout the world: “Whether the hero be ridiculous or sublime, Greek or barbarian, gentile or Jew, his journey varies little in essential plan” (ibid. 30). He thus implies that there is a pattern for popular stories throughout all cultures. But the pattern is not only restricted to ancient cultures. It has been shown that successful stories of today also follow the scheme Campbell outlined. “How Star Wars, Star Trek, The Matrix, and Harry Potter are Actually the Same Movie” is the title of an article on the film website Spiteful Critic. Campbell is not named, yet the author outlines the four films’ plots in a way that resembles Campbell quite strongly (Root). George Lucas, director of Star Wars, has even stated that The Hero with a Thousand Faces influenced his writing of the Star Wars script (see Larsen 541). Scholars have also found the pattern in other recent works of fiction, such as The Lord of the Rings, or in superhero stories like Superman (see Pharr 54 ff.).

This thesis will examine in what way and to what extent Harry Potter can be added to that list, first by describing the different stages Campbell laid out in his book and then by applying them to the Harry Potter novels. The analysis is divided according to the three stages Campbell uses, starting with “Departure”.

2. Departure

The first stage of Campbell’s hero’s journey is called “Departure”. It is further subdivided into “the call to adventure”, “refusal of the call”, “supernatural aid”, “the crossing of the first threshold” and “the belly of the whale” (Campbell 28).

We first encounter the hero in his normal, ordinary environment. He then receives the “call to adventure” through a herald or announcer which is often “dark, loathly, or terrifying, judged evil by the world” (ibid. 44), like the frog in the Brothers Grimm’s The Frog Prince, which Campbell cites. He announces the hero the new stage in his life. Nevertheless, there is an “atmosphere of irresistible fascination” (ibid. 46) about the mysterious stranger and the “new stage in the biography” (ibid.) of the hero seems, although frightening at the beginning, “familiar to the unconscious” (ibid.). The hero may be at first reluctant to answer the call (see the next step of this stage), yet he cannot divert himself with his usual occupations and slowly acknowledges that “destiny has summoned” (Campbell 48) him to a “zone unknown” (ibid.), often inaccessible places, such as secret islands, underground kingdoms or forests (see ibid.).

The hero may refuse the call because he may not want to give up “what one takes to be one’s own interest” (Campbell 49) since he understands the call as a threat to one’s system of “ideals, virtues, goals, and advantages” (ibid.). Yet, the “refusal of the summons converts the adventure into its negative” (ibid.): the hero’s world becomes dull and his occupations senseless. Or even worse, as in the biblical example of Lot’s wife who, after she was hesitant to leave the city of Sodom on Jehovah’s orders but nevertheless looked back, turned into a pillar of salt.

After having decided to heed the call, the hero receives “supernatural aid” in the shape of a protective figure, “often a little old crone or old man” (ibid. 57) who endows the hero with “amulets and advice” (ibid. 59) that the hero will need on his journey. They are often old and wise; guides, teachers or ferrymen like Hermes in Greek or Thoth in Egyptian mythology (see ibid. 60). The hero can thus not be harmed since those figures represent the “benign, protective power of destiny” (ibid. 59).

The hero then has to cross the “first threshold”, behind which lies the “unknown” (ibid. 64), thus marking the end of the hero’s life horizon. The place outside the known world is associated with danger: “The usual person is more than content, he is even proud, to remain within the indicated bounds” (ibid.) and folk mythology supports this attitude. Places outside of the known space of the village, such as deserts, jungles or the deep sea are populated by all kinds of monsters or dangerous figures, for example Pan in classical mythology (ibid. 66) who try to stop the hero from entering. Only through overcoming these dangers, the hero can enter a “new zone of experience” (ibid. 67).

The “belly of the whale”, eventually, symbolizes the hero being “swallowed into the unknown” (ibid. 74). The hero appears to have died, yet may be reborn. Campbell cites the fairy tale of Little Red Riding Hood who was swallowed by the wolf as an example. The hero thus undergoes a metamorphosis, a “life-renewing act” (ibid. 77). With this final step, the hero has finally separated himself from his world.

When one tries to apply the “Departure” stage to Harry Potter, it must be noted that all examples need to come from the first book in the series, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (PS), because it is there that the reader encounters the protagonist before he becomes a wizard, i.e. before he receives the “call to adventure”.

2.1 The Call to Adventure

The reader first meets Harry in his common day world, namely his miserable life at the Dursleys, his uncle Vernon, his aunt Petunia, and his cousin Dudley, Harry’s only living relatives. He is called to adventure first through the letters he receives from Hogwarts (PS 28 ff.) which his Uncle intercepts, so that Hagrid, the half-giant “Keeper of the Keys and Grounds” at Hogwarts, has to collect him at a tiny, lonely shack on top of a rock that Mr Dursley chose in order to escape the letters. Hagrid then informs him of all the things that the Dursleys have hidden from him: that he is a wizard, that his parents did not die in a car crash like they told him and that he is to go to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Hagrid therefore, together with the letter he finally gives Harry, is the herald of the story, which brings irreversible change to the hero’s life. Both the locality of the call and the outer appearance of the herald fit with Campbell’s generalising observations: The shack on the rock corresponds to Campbell’s typical places like dark forests (see 43), while Rowling’s description of Hagrid is in agreement with Campbell’s herald being “terrifying” (ibid. 44): “A giant of a man was standing in the doorway. His face was almost completely hidden by a long, shaggy mane of hair and a wild, tangled beard” (PS 39). Hagrid tells him of his actual “destiny” (Campbell 48): “Yeh don’ know what yea are ?” (PS 42, italics in the original); “You’ll be right famous at Hogwarts”, ibid. 47). Through this his “spiritual center of gravity” (Campbell 48) shifts from his everyday world to the world of magic and wizardry. He thus resembles famous examples of the “call to adventure” from myth and literature, such as Buddha whose father provided him with luxury and would not let him leave the palace in order to keep him from getting to know the realities of life so that he would not leave the kingdom (see ibid. 46 f.). Just as Buddha’s father stopped his son from knowing certain things, Mr Dursley intentionally withheld all knowledge about the wizarding world from Harry, because he swore to “stamp it out of him” (PS 43) when he and his wife took him in as a baby after his parents were killed and to “put a stop to that rubbish” (ibid.).

The unknown world which Hagrid presents to Harry is “of both treasure and danger” (Campbell 48). On the one hand, Harry is happy to have a possibility to escape his dreary life at the Dursleys, on the other hand there seem to be hidden “unimaginable torments” (ibid.): even Hagrid, who is described as very imposing and scary (see PS 42) is still afraid of Lord Voldemort, even though the dark wizard has lost his powers some ten years before. He is even afraid to call him by his real name: “’ Voldemort.’ Hagrid shuddered. ‘Don’ make me say it again’” (ibid. 45, italics in the original).

2.2 Refusal of the Call

Harry also refuses the “call to adventure” at two times in the first book. When Hagrid first tells him that he is a wizard, Harry doubts this: “Harry, instead of feeling pleased and proud, felt quite sure there had been a horrible mistake. A wizard? Him?“ (PS 47). He cannot believe Hagrid, since, if he was a wizard, why did he not turn his relatives “into warty toads” (ibid.) every time they harassed and mistreated him? Yet, Hagrid reassures him by telling him that the many strange things Harry had previously made happen when he was angry or furious, like setting free a large Boa Constrictor in the zoo, were typical of a wizard without training (see ibid.). Hagrid thus makes sense of a lot of Harry’s unanswered questions and this makes for Hagrid’s “irresistible fascination” (Campbell 46), which is typical of the herald: “Even though everything Hagrid had told him so far was unbelievable, Harry couldn’t help trusting him” (PS 53).


Excerpt out of 33 pages


Harry Potter, the Familiar Hero
Ruhr-University of Bochum  (Anglistik/Amerikanistik)
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ISBN (Book)
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Harry Potter, Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Mythology, Heroes
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Maximilian Horsthemke (Author), 2010, Harry Potter, the Familiar Hero, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/171223


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