Harry Potter was an integral part of an entire generation’s childhood, but as children, we rarely get the opportunity to look at things with a critical eye. With the return of J.K. Rowling’s magical world to both stage and cinemas this year, ComicsVerse will take a look at the Harry Potter series. We will explore the cultural representation of the books, as well as try to identify how the books ignited such a massive and dedicated following. To read the entire ComicsVerse Harry Potter Series, check out this tag!

Every generation gets its grand story. There are myths, legends, fairy tales, films, and novels that have lasted, and will continue to last, long after the generations who loved those stories are gone. For kids who came of age in the late ’90s into the 2000s, that grand story is the HARRY POTTER series. The tales of the boy wizard made a generation of video gamers and one-hundred TV channel couch potatoes pick up a (sometimes 800-plus-page) book and give in to their imaginations.

Numerous authors have tried to spark that level of fervent love for reading since then, but none of those small flames of fandom have reached the burning pyre of the HARRY POTTER fans. In HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER’S STONE, first published in 1998, J.K. Rowling lays out the structure that the books will follow, bend, and even break, over the course of the series. What Rowling managed to do within this structure, particularly in HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER’S STONE  and HARRY POTTER AND THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS, is develop a story that is equal parts Campbellian Hero’s Journey and Bildungsroman. Rowling’s books won the hearts of readers by turning the trials of puberty and adolescence into an adventure story about the nature of good and evil.

Literary critic and scholar Joseph Campbell laid out the idea of a cultural monomyth in his book THE HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES. According to Campbell, all of the world’s mythology, folklore, and religious parables are based around recurring archetypes in both story and plot, the largest of which is the Hero’s Journey. The Hero’s Journey, in its simplest form, follows these basic steps:

  1. The Departure: Wherein the hero receives the “call to adventure” and steps into an unknown world with the aid of a guiding force.
  2. The Trials: Where the hero must face his or her fears in a literal or metaphorical sense.
  3. The Return: Where the hero receives his or her reward and is “reborn” with a deeper understanding of his or her own power.

Rowling’s novels send Harry Potter and his friends through a modernized version of the Hero’s Journey. However, Harry’s story is also very much a Bildungsroman, a coming-of-age story. A Bildungsroman is any story involving a young protagonist’s entrance into adulthood. And what is more harrowing than puberty? No moment in life is more dramatically suited for the battle between good and evil. Harry’s adventures resonate so well with audiences because readers see their own struggles with adulthood reflected in the fantastic world of magic. 

One of the ways Rowling accomplishes this merger of storytelling is through the Potter novels’ exploration of life and death. A Bildungsroman often revolves around a protagonist who has experienced tragedy (a death) and is searching for their place in a society (the meaning of life). In another way, the protagonist struggles to understand the balance of life and death. This struggle can be seen as a battle, making it easy to craft an epic adventure onto a Bildungsroman. It’s fitting then that Campbell pulls together the Freudian concepts of Thanatos (referred to as the “death-drive”) and Eros (often referred to as the “life-drive”) in his analysis of myth. These two concepts are the balance of existence. They are the opposites of the universe that keep each other in check, seen throughout cultural symbols like the yin-yang. In the HARRY POTTER books, these concepts make their presence known right from the first chapter of the first book, titled “The Boy Who Lived.” 

Love and Death

According to Sigmund Freud, one of the many psychologists who influenced Joseph Campbell’s work, Eros is called the “life-drive” because it is the best parts of humanity’s empathy. It is our capacity to love and help one another. Freud also refers to it in his book CIVILIZATION AND ITS DISCONTENT as man’s ability to “make an effort to assert himself in the struggle with an equally immortal adversary [Thanatos].” While he is speaking metaphorically, this Eros idea can be seen as heroic motivation. It is the reason the hero stands up against evil.

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Within the series, Harry Potter is Eros. His moniker given to him in the first chapter of the first Harry Potter novel is, after all, “the boy who lived.” Harry is given this nickname due to his survival against Avada Kedavra, the Killing Curse. To the wizarding world, the boy defeated certain death and represents life against Voldemort, who is the symbol of Thanatos in the series. While the Eros concept represents life in psychology, Eros is also the Latin name for Cupid, making it a word literally meaning “love.” As Rowling reveals at the end of the first novel, Harry’s mother sacrificed her own life to protect him from Voldemort’s Killing Curse. Dumbledore explains:

“You mother died to save you. If there is one thing Voldemort cannot understand, it is love. He didn’t realize that love as powerful as your mother’s for you leaves its own mark. Not a scar, no visible sign…to have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection forever. It is in your very skin.”

Harry’s survival means he is more than just Eros as life-drive—he functions as Eros’ avatar of love. This conceit of love and life’s interrelationship becomes vital to Rowling’s portrayal of Voldemort as Harry’s enemy.

Voldemort’s death and resurrection personify him as the Thanatos entity within the novels. His first two appearances in the series are as undead entities. His followers take on the name Death Eaters and when he is resurrected, his appearance is not dissimilar to that of a skull. All of these elements make Voldemort the obvious avatar of Thanatos in the series, but when contrasted with Harry as Eros, there is a deeper significance to be found in the way these archetypes play out as characters in a coming of age novel.

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Secrets and Stones

In the first novel, Harry turns 11 years old, meaning he is on the cusp of puberty and young adulthood. Harry’s entrance into the wizarding world acts as his initial awakening into adulthood. He has left childhood behind and begins the journey towards becoming an adult. When Harry chooses his first wand in Ollivander’s, this is presented as an epiphanic moment:

“Harry took the wand. He felt a sudden warmth in his fingers. He raised the wand above his head, brought it swishing down through the dusty air and a stream of red and gold sparks shot from the end like a firework, throwing dancing spots of light onto the walls.”

This scene functions as both Hero’s Journey and Bildungsroman metaphor. For the Hero’s Journey, this is Harry’s call to adventure. His “first step into a larger world,” to quote Obi-Wan Kenobi. Within the Hero’s Journey framework, every hero has a moment where they are shown a hidden truth or world. As Campbell states, that event “reveals an unsuspected world, and the individual is drawn into a relationship with forces that are not rightly understood.” From Harry’s first letter by owl to meeting Hagrid to the first reveal of Diagon Alley to this moment in Ollivander’s shop, Rowling parcels out Harry’s call to adventure through the book’s opening chapters.

This is also a moment of self-discovery for Harry that can be interpreted into a Bildungsroman context. This is Harry’s wizarding communion or bar mitzvah. It is his first rite of passage as a wizard. He has taken on a symbol of adulthood and the responsibilities that come with it. It’s a moment of maturity where Harry begins to find a deeper understanding of himself. Diagon Alley is to Harry as New York City is to Holden Caulfield. It’s a wide-open world of possibilities. Harry’s experiences are an inversion of Holden’s, but the idea remains the same: this is their first taste of self-reliance in the realm of adults.

A Little Help From My Friends

Although he is slowly becoming an adult, Harry begins to learn that adults cannot always be relied upon. One of Rowling’s great themes is a healthy distrust of authority. While Harry finds role models in Albus Dumbledore and Minerva McGonagall, many adults in the Harry Potter franchise (Gilderoy Lockhart, Severus Snape, and Dolores Umbridge, to name a few) are presented as authority figures who rarely have the best interest of their students in mind. Instead, Harry’s protective figures come in the form of Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger.

This provides an interesting subversion to the Hero’s Journey structure. Once the call to adventure has been accepted, the hero encounters a figure to provide aid to them on their journey. Campbell explains this aid as “a protective figure (often a little old crone or old man) who provides the adventurer with amulets against the dragon forces he is about to pass.” Dumbledore certainly fits the traditional role of “protective figure,” not unlike characters like Gandalf the Grey and Obi-Wan Kenobi, but he is not consistently by Harry’s side. Rowling, instead, makes Harry’s true Supernatural Aid come in the form of his best friends Ron and Hermione.

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Both characters are familiar with the wizarding world in ways Harry is not—Ron coming from a large wizarding family and Hermione having read every book on the subject before arriving at Hogwarts— and both provide Harry with insight and knowledge about what he finds himself getting into. Right from their first meeting, Ron is giving advice to Harry: “‘You have to be careful with [Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans],’ Ron warned Harry, ‘When they say every flavor they mean every flavor.” While it seems silly to qualify this as sage advice from a wise man, this scene is a perfect illustration of Rowling’s merger of Hero’s Journey and Coming-of-Age. 

The duo even performs the advisor sacrifice at the end of the first novel. Consider scenes like Obi-Wan’s death in A NEW HOPE, or Gandalf’s confrontation with the Balrog in THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RINGPart of the advisor’s job is to give his or her life for the protection of the hero. This will allow the hero to take what they have learned and independently use it to defeat the adversary. When the trio enters the secret chamber to find the Sorcerer’s Stone at the conclusion of the first novel, both Ron and Hermione allow Harry to go forward on his own. Ron does it by acting as a sacrifice piece to win the chess game, while Hermione leaves Harry to find help. Both act in service and protection of their friend after using their wisdom to guide Harry to his destiny. 

Harry has moved away from the life he once knew. He’s is no longer receiving advice from controlled sources like his relatives the Dursleys, but real, practical advice from people his own age. It is here where adolescents learn about the world in ways that will further shape them as individuals. Rowling’s subversion of the advisor shows the ways adolescents act as wise mentors to their peers as much as adults do.

Whose House?

Harry’s adventure through adolescence continues when he reaches his first day at Hogwarts and is exposed for the first time to social hierarchy via the Hogwarts Houses. The concept of the Sorting Hat is, at best, an allegory for school cliques and, at worst, a fascist removal of free will. Perhaps that’s a bit hyperbolic, but look at how cliques typically form: groups of people make judgments of others based on personal interests and personality traits and form bonds based on these traits. The hat doesn’t leave room for choice—it makes these judgments for the students. Gryffindors are brave, Slytherins are cunning, Ravenclaws are smart, Hufflepuffs are…a fourth thing. This forced grouping functions as a statement on the way many social groups are formed not by choice, but by societal backgrounds. Sociologist Daniel McFarland’s study on the cause of social grouping in schools found that schools with larger populations made students feel they had to cling tighter to new social groups. They looked for friends who shared “race, gender, age and socioeconomic status. Considering the population of Hogwarts lives in a castle, we can assume that it has a large population wherein cliques form according to these standards.

Although Slytherin is unfortunately stereotyped as the “bad guy house,” it becomes useful shorthand for Rowling to identify the dark underside of the wizard world. By contrasting Harry’s traits with a Slytherin like Draco Malfoy, who values purity of blood and economic standing, the reader has a better understanding of Harry’s inherent morals. The social group metaphor suits both the Bildungsroman elements of the series and gives the reader an idea of the principles of the protagonist and antagonist.

Harry’s Journey

These principles are put to the test through a specific plot structure laid out by Rowling in books one and two. In both HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER’S STONE and HARRY POTTER AND THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS, Harry goes to Hogwarts, confronts a threat manipulated by Voldemort in some form, and confronts Voldemort in a series of challenges that ends in what is referred to in the Hero’s Journey as “The Belly of the Whale.” The name derives itself from the biblical story of Jonah, but represents in the Hero’s Journey an adventure into unknown depths where a hero emerges reborn with new understanding or knowledge. Campbell describes this part of the journey as “instead of passing outward, beyond the confines of the visible world, the hero goes inward to be born again.”

The climaxes of the first two Potter novels take the “inward” part very literally, as they both take place within hidden areas of Hogwarts: HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER’S STONE’s climax occurs in Hogwarts’ forbidden area, while the second book’s climax happens in the titular Chamber of Secrets. Rowling even equips these two areas with Threshold Guardians, which, according to Campbell, are monsters or challenges that block the hero’s path. In book one, the trio must get past Fluffy the three-headed dog and solve a series of challenges created by Hogwarts faculty to finally reach the Sorcerer’s Stone. In book two, the Chamber of Secrets is guarded by a deadly basilisk that has been plaguing Hogwarts students.

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The crucial act in Harry’s “Belly of the Whale” experience is a confrontation with Voldemort. Both of these confrontations with Voldemort not only reinforce Voldemort’s position as Thanatos, but bring Harry the adolescent face-to-face with death and aging. With Harry representing life and youth, it’s only sensible that he confront death and aging. As a coming-of-age novel, these also function as perfect fodder for existential angst. Dating back to classics like HAMLET or ANTIGONE, fears of aging and death have hovered over young protagonists, acting as motivation for them to take action.

In HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER’S STONE, Voldemort refuses to allow himself to die and instead clings to Professor Quirrell like a parasite. In HARRY POTTER AND THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS, Harry faces what will later be known as the first of seven Horcruxes. The Horcrux in question, Tom Riddle’s diary, creates a teenage version of Voldemort. This particular narrative choice makes Voldemort seem like the archetype of the sad adult who can’t get over his high school glories (think Ben Affleck in DAZED AND CONFUSED).

When Harry emerges again from the Belly of the Whale in these first two novels, he leaves with a better understanding of himself and of his place in the wizarding world. At the conclusion of HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER’S STONE Rowling subverts the concept of the Sorting Hat when Dumbledore tells Harry, “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” This becomes Harry’s lesson in HARRY POTTER AND THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS, as well, when he learns that some aspect of Voldemort exists inside of him following the Killing Curse. The idea that choice defines a person acts as Harry’s Bildungsroman lesson. He has grown as a person and made a mature discovery.

Ashes of a Phoenix

Harry’s Hero’s Journey, on the other hand, concludes with his new knowledge acting as his reward. His reward in the first two novels comes in the form of his vision of his family in the Mirror of the Erised, his defeat of Voldemort for the first time, and in pulling Godric Gryffindor’s sword from the Sorting Hat. Each of these gives Harry something he wanted and validate his existence within the wizard world. Harry’s resurrection, however, comes much later in book seven, HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS.

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One of Rowling’s most important themes in the Potter novels is that death is nothing to fear, but rather it is an inevitability. Although Harry represents the “life-drive,” he still must learn that death is nothing to fear. It’s no coincidence that Harry is saved in the second novel by Fawkes the phoenix, a symbol of death and rebirth. Harry sees that if he tries to fight against death, he’ll become a shell of a human like Voldemort. This lesson becomes important in the climax of HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS where Harry must sacrifice his own life to protect his friends. This sacrifice purges the parts of Voldemort that lingered in Harry, but also symbolically purges Harry’s youthful fears of age and death.

Voldemort’s refusal to die makes his rivalry with Harry more thematically potent. It is no longer just a battle between good and evil, but a generational battle. Voldemort cannot accept that, for all of his power, he is still mortal. Harry, as Eros, as a young person, represents the future that will continue on without Voldemort.

Rowling’s alchemical mixture of Bildungsroman and Hero’s Journey took two literary genres that had already proven to be independently successful and brought them closer together. In many ways, those two genres already shared similar traits, but by explicitly bringing them together as one, Rowling created a phenomenon. Young people loved, and continue to love, Harry Potter because his story is equal parts escapism and realism. They understand the plight of the characters because they have lived it or are living it, and yet the characters exist in a world that they can only dream of visiting. That seamless combination is, quite frankly, nothing short of magic. 

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