The Mentor and the Mentee

Elements of the Arthurian Legend in J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” Series

Term Paper, 2013

14 Pages, Grade: 1,7



1. Introduction – Heroes

2. The Medieval Legend
2.1 History
2.2 Definition of Myth and Legend

3. Forms and Usage of History in Harry Potter
3.1 The Passive and Active History Concept
3.2 Historical References

4. The Medieval Legend in Harry Potter
4.1 Merlin
4.2 King Arthur
4.3 Mentor and Mentee

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography

1.Introduction – Heroes

In his article “Heroism: Why heroes are important” Scott LaBarge states that “we need heroes first and foremost because our heroes help define the limits of our aspirations.” Heroes can be found in history since the beginning of mankind – although the term ‘hero’ was not used until the ancient Greeks (LaBarge). It can be said that we always were and still are fascinated by outstanding skills and personalities.

One timeless tale in which two famous heroes can be found is the Arthurian legend, namely King Arthur himself and the wizard Merlin. The story can be referred to as timeless because “it is full of universal ideas that we still feel connected to” (Hardyment). This means that, even though King Arthur and Merlin are heroes of the past, they are significant today because we still appreciate the values they embody. Down to the present day, the legend was adapted numerous times in different forms of media or used as an inspirational source. Consequently, it also found its way into children’s literature, for instance into Joanne K. Rowling’s famous fantasy book series “Harry Potter”, which was published between 1997 and 2007 (Eldridge). In her essay “Is Dumbledore another disguise? Where to find Merlin in Harry Potter”, Florence Marsal puts forward the thesis that “the consensus of [the series] is an amalgam of popular myths, foes, and heroes, reworked into a modern fantasy tale (...)”.

The aim of this seminar paper is to prove Marsal’s thesis to a certain extent, by examining the elements of the medieval legend in the “Harry Potter” series, focusing on the characters of Merlin and King Arthur as well as Dumbledore and Harry Potter. First, a closer look at the history of the Arthurian legend, together with a definition of the terms ‘legend’ and ‘myth’, will give the reader a better understanding of the topic. Subsequently, the subject of history in “Harry Potter” will be investigated from two different angles: the handling of history within the story and the reflection of ‘real historical events’, together with an explanation of J.K. Rowling’s usage of the past. The following sections will deal with the above-mentioned characters and in which way the ancient heroes can be rediscovered in the modern children’s story. Annotating, it has to be said that, as Merlin is a “’multi-faceted’ character” (Marsal), his history and characteristics cannot be discussed completely in this seminar paper.

2.The Medieval Legend

2.1 History

The Arthurian legend, which can be defined as “the mass of legend, popular in medieval lore, concerning King Arthur of Britain and his knights” (The Free Dictionary), has a long history and also “[seemed] to have had a historical foundation” (English, p. 67). For example, “the Celtic historian Gildas reported that at the beginning of the century a warrior named Arthur halted the Anglo-Saxon conquest of western Britain and won a number of battles” (English, p. 67). Furthermore, King Arthur was mentioned very early in Welsh sources, for example in the poem 'Gododdin' in c. 600 (The Free Dictionary).

However, the most popular version of the legend was published in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s work “Historia Regum Britanniae” (History of the Kings of Britain), a Latin pseudo-historical account of the British kings (“Historia Regum Britanniae”), which was completed between c. 1135 and c. 1139 (“Arthurian legend”). As the prefix “pseudo-” implies, the historical accuracy of Monmouth’s work is controversial (“King Arthur”). Nevertheless, Monmouth “brought the figure of Arthur into European literature” (“Arthurian legend”), and as a consequence established the onset of many appearances of “new Arthurian works in continental Europe during the 12th and 13th centuries, particularly in France” (“King Arthur”). Furthermore, he also brought the characters Merlin and Arthur together, which were originally “separate and linked to historical figures living at different time periods” (Marsal).

Another author who was especially important for the development of the Arthurian legend was the French poet Chrétien de Troyes, who wrote five Arthurian Romances at the end of the 12th century (English, p. 175), which showed diverse aspects of the tale and also introduced new themes, for example, the search for the Grail and the love between Lancelot and Guinevere (“Arthurian legend”).

In the late 15th century, the English writer Sir Thomas Malory wrote the first prose version of the medieval legend entitled “Le Morte Darthur” (“Sir Thomas Malory”). It was completed around 1470 (“Sir Thomas Malory”). During this time there was also a renewed interest in the ‘Historia Regum Britanniae’ and the legend “became more or less incorporated with official national mythology” (“Arthurian legend”).

Monmouth, de Troyes and Malory are just three exemplary authors of the Arthurian literary tradition. Multitudinous variations of the legend were created throughout the course of history, though the basic story always remained the same.

2.2 Definition of Myth and Legend

A variety of different definitions is available for the term ‘legend’. Originally, it was used to refer to stories about lives of saints, “which, in monastic life might be read in church or in the refectory and therefore belonged to hagiography” (Cuddon, p. 391). However, for the analysis of the Arthurian legend, one of the subsidiary meanings is essential: “a story or narrative which lies somewhere between myth and historical fact and which as a rule, is about a particular figure or person” (Cuddon, p. 391). These stories are often about popular folk heroes and are extended through time (Cuddon, p. 391). Passage 2.1 showed that these are two features of the medieval legend around King Arthur. Moreover, it was already pointed out that a historical background seemed to have existed at the time the story originated in, which later on got more and more blurry and corrupted by fictitious additions to the story.

Since the term myth, which comes from Greek ‘mūthos’ (‘anything uttered by word of mouth’) is included in the definition of the term ‘legend’, it is important to understand its meaning (Cuddon, pp. 453-454). The “Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory” defines it as follows: “In general a myth is a story which is not ‘true’ and which involves (as a rule) supernatural beings – or at any rate supra-human beings.” Clearly, the supernatural being in the Arthurian legend is the fabulous wizard Merlin, who will be characterized later on. However, like the term ‘legend’, the concept of myth has additional sub-meanings which changed through time. For instance, the Greek word “‘mūthos’ [was] used to mean fiction” and “Plato [referred] to ‘mūthoi’ to denote to something not wholly lacking truth but for the most part fictious” (Cuddon, pp. 453-454). Furthermore, myth has always something to do “with creation and explains how something came to exist” (Cuddon, pp. 453-454). This is also applicable to the Arthurian legend, since, in most versions, the first part of the tale describes the birth and creation of the person who later becomes the great knight Arthur.

3. Forms and Usage of History in Harry Potter

3.1 The Passive and Active History Concept

Throughout the “Harry Potter” novels, two divergent concepts of history are recognizable, one characterized by passivity and the other by activity (Curthoys). The former occurs in the context of history studies in the ‘Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry’, which are described as “dead, dull and boring” (Curthoys). This can be explained with regard to Benedetto Croce’s statement that “’only an interest in the life of the present can move one to investigate past fact’ for ‘past fact’ comes alive when it is unified with an interest in the present life’” (Curthoys). The history lessons in “Harry Potter” are described as “the most boring subject ever devised by wizard kind”, mainly due to the teacher Professor Binns, who “had a wheezy, droning voice that was almost guaranteed to cause severe drowsiness within ten minutes, five in warm weather” (Harry Potter and the order of the Phoenix, pp. 206-207). In this case, the past facts are both not of current interest and are presented in an unappealing fashion. The active concept on the other hand links the past with present life. Whenever there is a problem to be solved, the characters are willing to deal with history, as they need to go back to understand their enemies “and his or her moral formation and motivation”, as well as the influence of the past on the present and future (Curthoys). Edmund M. Kern sees this as one of three explicit usages of the past in “Harry Potter”. He argues that Rowling “places each of her characters in a present that is the consequence of past events, and she gives them the intellect to recognize how those events continue to influence and shape the future.”


Excerpt out of 14 pages


The Mentor and the Mentee
Elements of the Arthurian Legend in J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” Series
University of Leipzig
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mentor, mentee, elements, arthurian, legend, rowling’s, harry, potter”, series
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Beatrice Dietel (Author), 2013, The Mentor and the Mentee, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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