Harry Potter, the Hero Cycle, and Cinderella

Because of my curiosity, I sneaked the first Harry Potter book into an assignment for my Myth, Legend, and Folklore class as an undergraduate college student.  The Harry Potter series (number 4 on the BBC list) became popular during those years, and because we had been studying Greek Mythology, Harry’s story seemed to obviously follow the hero cycle, making my book report effortless and amusing.

If you haven’t heard of the hero cycle, here’s the essential gist.  A hero faces great danger as an infant.  A hero bears scars, usually as a result of saving his people.  A hero saves people.  A hero descends to the underworld as part of his journey.  A hero has a mentor.  Below is a simple diagram of the hero cycle.  There are several versions, but this one seemed the most straightforward.

Harry Potter has all of these because he is a typical hero.  As a baby, he first defeated Voldemort through his mother’s love.  From that dangerous encounter, he bears a lightning shaped scar on his forehead.  Harry has many mentors – Hagrid, Sirius Black, and even Severus Snape – but the most significant is Albus Dumbledore, a grandfatherly father-like figure to Harry.  Dumbledore, before dying, passes his legacy onto Harry, the task to find all the horcruxes and destroy them.  Through this journey, Harry descends to an underworld of sorts, fights off Voldemort’s armies, and ultimately triumphs, saving all of wizardom.

This close following of the hero cycle is what I appreciate most about the Harry Potter series.  (I also see value in the fact that these books encouraged millions of kids to read who otherwise wouldn’t have.)  Many series follow the same age-old story: Star Wars, The Chronicles of Narnia, and The Lord of the Rings, among others.  And of course, if we’re talking about the hero cycle we cannot ignore Jesus Christ.  He too faced great danger as an infant, with King Herod’s order to kill all male babies.  Christ bears the scars from saving his people, the marks on his hands and feet from the nails and the wound in his side.  As part of his crucifixion and atonement, he descended below them all, a journey to the underworld.  His mentor?  Well, God the Father seems to fit that role as well as Dumbledore fits it for Harry.  Perhaps Joseph, the carpenter and step-father from whom Jesus learned his craft, is another mentor.  Certainly, there were many others, Mary included, who influenced and mentored Christ.

And that’s why I really LOVE the Harry Potter series.  It is a Christ story.

Harry Potter is also connected to the fairy tale Cinderella.  It’s basic plot is that of an underdog triumphing over his or her enemies.  This is another common theme that many movies and books follow.  The little guy triumphs in Rudy, Ratatouille, 12 Angry Men, The Shawshank Redemption, and must I go on?  For Harry, his beginnings are magnificent, but when we meet him we don’t know that and neither does he.  He sleeps in a cupboard and is often treated like Cinderella by his aunt, uncle, and cousin.  They are somewhat abusive and unkind.  Nevertheless, Harry is special.  He doesn’t know it and the Dursleys don’t know it, but he is.

Likewise, we are all special.  We are all miracles when we are born, even though we haven’t defeated Voldemort.  (If you don’t agree with me, give birth.  A baby is an absolute miracle, and giving life to one is an indescribable miracle.)  But we don’t have to defeat any Voldemorts to be special.  We just have to discover who we are (as Harry did) and live up to that potential.  In essence, we must do our best, even if that best isn’t as good as somebody else’s.

This is the other reason I absolutely LOVE the Harry Potter series.

The summer after my husband and I graduated from college, we read all of the Harry Potter books that were published at the time.  Because we were too cheap to use the air conditioning in our apartment, we often sat around in our underwear reading.  It is embarrassing to admit this, but we did.  As to these books inspiring kids to read, they also inspired my husband to read.  He’s not a reader, but he has read all of the Harry Potter books.  There’s something about the magical world of witches and wizards that appeals to even the oldest of us.  However, I contend that perhaps the mirroring of the hero cycle (the Christ story) and the Cinderella story is what really attracts people, whether they realize it or not.

I’ve only just touched on these themes, but surely dissertations and books could be written about Harry Potter’s connection to the hero cycle and fairy tales.  Maybe you’ve already thought of other pertinent links that I haven’t mentioned.  If you’ve never heard of the hero cycle and are anxious to learn more, check out Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949).

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51 thoughts on “Harry Potter, the Hero Cycle, and Cinderella

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  1. Hello Emily! I am writing a seminar paper about the connection and the change of the motif of the fairytale hero in the Harry Potter books. I haven’t heard about this cycle before, but thanks to you I know more now. 🙂 I was wondering if you have any ideas where I could find more information about the connection of fairytales and Harry Potter, especially concerning the hero. I am glad I found this article during my research and would be very happy to hear from you. Thank you! Best regards, Dayyan

    1. Dayyan,
      My version of the hero cycle is from this book:
      Harris, Stephen L., and Gloria Platzner. Classical Mythology, Images and Insights. 3rd ed. Mountain View, California: Mayfield Publishing Co., 2001.
      I am sure you will find more than enough connections in other academic sources. You may want to search the JSTOR database or Academic Search Premier. Also, peruse a copy of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. What do they write about elves, trolls, dragons, and such?
      I haven’t done any formal research on this, but I think it’s a great project and I wish you luck. Where are you a student and what class are you taking? If you’d like to talk more, please email me at januarypetersen@yahoo.com.
      Emily

    2. Emily, thank you very much. I am from Germany and I’m in grade 11. There is no english translation for the class I am writing this paper for. It is a class that prepares us for the scientific work at universities. I will probably contact you soon. Dayyan

  2. I really, really like this post!
    For me, Harry Potter is actually one of those cases of books that I normally would not have read, but my sister, knowing I liked to read but not knowing what to buy me for Christmas, gave me the first four books. I absolutely love the series!
    I really like how you brought Christ into this post as an example of the hero cycle, he is after all the greatest hero there has ever been. A fact that society seems to often forget.
    I like your brief comparison of Harry Potter to Cinderella as well. I wrote an essay about Cinderella for a comp class in college, arguing that she’s a good influence for children unlike what many feminists depict her as, I even compared her to Gandhi. Your post here has inspired me to post my essay on my blog, Rhyme N Review, something I hadn’t really considered before. So thanks for the inspiration!
    God Bless,
    Donna

    1. Yes, Christ is the greatest hero. Good luck on your post. I often use old papers when I need some inspiration, so I am glad I sparked some of that for you. Thanks for reading!

  3. I find the hero cycle really fascinating as well. The Cinderella reference is interesting; I’ve never thought of her story fitting the hero cycle before. Do you know of any other hero cycle stories in which the hero is female? I’ve been trying to think of some, because I’ve been wanting to read them, but it seems like there are so many more male heroes.

    1. I am surprised that as someone who really enjoys feminist theory, I haven’t yet thought about female heroines as fitting into the hero cycle! Silly me. I can’t think of many off the top of my head, but maybe Disney’s Mulan? I have read an interesting essay by Deborah Ross about how Disney characters tend to give up their gifts and talents for men (i.e. Ariel). But Gloria Steinem has a great essay about Wonder Woman, who definitely fits the hero cycle.

  4. Hi,

    I absolutely love this post! Apart from being a major fan of Harry Potter (and Lord of the Rings), I think you’ve really summed up why the whole world loves it. I think perhaps people identify with Harry and Ron, and Hermione of course. They want to overcome their problems and battles and end up the hero, and after all that they are a better person, because they’ve experienced loss and failure. The saying ‘that which doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger’ is so true I think.

    Thanks for and interesting read 🙂

    Emma

    1. You’re welcome. Thanks for reading! I do think that as a human race we are very attracted to heroes and their stories. We are all heroes because of the way we overcome struggles in our own lives, however small they may be.

  5. O!Thank U very much for this post! You inspired me to continue my reseach work about Harry Potter books when I lost all hope of ending it!! Your post is very informative for me and special thanks for these words: “Likewise, we are all special. We are all miracles when we are born, even though we haven’t defeated Voldemort. (If you don’t agree with me, give birth. A baby is an absolute miracle, and giving life to one is an indescribable miracle.) But we don’t have to defeat any Voldemorts to be special. We just have to discover who we are (as Harry did) and live up to that potential. In essence, we must do our best, even if that best isn’t as good as somebody else’s”
    And sorry for my bad russian English)

  6. I am a huge fan of the Harry Potter series but I have never thought of the Cinderella aspect before, but now that I think about it HP might just be about overcoming fear and facing your true destiny. I think what is the most admirable about the Harry Potter books that they are really simple, like the hero is a hero. He is not the tragic hero, he isn’t. Funny thing about Harry Potter is, even though he is the hero, there are tragic heroes in that book. Just think about Dumbledore and Snape. They were the real tragic heroes in the book.
    Something else I would like to add, is about Voldemort, the villain. The odd thing I find is, that Voldemort doesn’t have much a character. Rather, he is just evil because he wants to be. He is not unmotivated to get power but rather, there is no strong story as to where his motivation comes from. He is just soulless (which in his case is 1/8th of a soul).

  7. I could be wrong, but I’ve always thought that the ‘underdog’ thing has ties back to Jesus as well. The ‘hero’ arrayed against all the powers of sin and death is the carpenter’s son, rejected by society, alone and broken, yet triumphant. I seem to remember reading that, prior to that, heroism had rarely had such ‘underdog’ sides to it.

  8. Sitting around reading in your underwear? Sounds perfect to me! :p

    This was a fascinating read – I’ve never heard or seen this kind of hero diagram, so thank you for that! I guess when you grow up reading so much, you kind of internalize this diagram, and know what should happen next.

    Your analysis was really interesting, and I’m sure there are hundreds of dissertations about Harry Potter! I like that you compared it to Cinderella and Jesus Christ, as I think those are very valid arguments!

    Thanks for opening my eyes to an interesting discussion!

    1. I know, right? Reading in one’s underwear must be some sort of luxury! I am glad you liked my analysis. I am sure there are many more mythical and cultural stories that have the hero cycle in them. It is a great story, and one that I think resonates with us.

  9. *Laughs* I read in my underwear all the time! I think we all, subconsciously, recognize the hero cycle in books, I have anyway. I think Harry Potter also appeals to us because we like the idea that an seemingly ordinary person could turn out to have amazing mind blowing powers and save the world. We want to be like Harry.

    We all want to have supportive friends, a wise mentor(s) and go on wild adventures. We all want to be wizards of sorts.

    Every single one of us wants to be ordinarily extraordinary.

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