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.
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).