In response to Lesson 7: 'Folktale Structure as the Key to the Success of the Harry Potter series', MuggleNet fan Lauren asked the following question:
Hey! I just wanted to say that I really enjoyed this weeks podcast and I can't wait to read Professor Hunter's paper on Potter, the Propp scaffold and folktales. Please do let us know on the site here when that paper comes out because it's really peaked my interest. Professor Hunter and Rita were both great guests this week and I'm sort of hoping you invite them back again some time.
I just wanted to comment on a couple of points brought up on the show. It was mentioned that Potter wouldn't have been so successful or fit the Propp scaffold so much if Harry had died. But then later on when Dumbledore was considered as the hero in place of Harry, even though he died, there was still considered to be a victory at the end and so it was said that it would fit into the Folktale scaffold anyway. I think that it could have been similar had Harry died. Obviously I have a very limited knowledge on this subject, so I could be completely wrong and take this with a grain of salt, but if Harry had died in order to defeat Voldemort and end the war, would that not be considered a victory? And it could have fit the mould anyway? I think that Professor Hunter mentioned at some point that Harry was a Seeker-Hero who was searching to find his place in the world and discover who he was. I think Harry could have accomplished that had he had to sacrifice himself and died in the end. That sort of event would have really allowed Harry to delve deep into the kind of person he was deep down.
I'd also be interested to find out if it was possible for the story to fit the scaffold if Snape was placed into the hero's role. He has quite a complex story behind the scenes and it would be interesting to see if it fits as well.
Anyway, great podcast, I'm enjoying each one more and more as they come.
This email was sent to Professor Joel Hunter and the following is his response to Lauren's question.
Great question from Lauren. I jumped around a bit in the explanation on the show, so let me try to pull together some distinctions in a more coherent way here. I’ve attached a summary of Propp’s table for reference.
In the HP series, there’s no ambiguity *in terms of its folktale/fairy tale structure* that Harry is the hero. This is because the saga opens with his status as an orphan: it begins in classic fashion with an “Absentation”—Harry’s parents are absent from his life. We gradually learn about the Villainy done to him and his family. So the complete saga concerns the defeat or overcoming of that Villainy. Harry’s dramatis persona in the series is the hero (always a victim-hero, often a seeker-hero). Given the structural requirements then, as long as the HP saga *is* a folktale, then Harry cannot die (permanently) in the tale. If he did, then you’ve got a different kind of story.
Now *within* the full arc of the series you have these interesting sub-tales, one of which is Dumbledore’s. Dumbledore figures prominently in Books 1 and 6. In 6 especially, he shares the hero stage with Harry. His death at the end of 6 is a “Difficult Task” which sets up the completion of the final victory over Voldemort in Book 7 which Harry must accomplish. So Dumbledore’s death, even as a co-hero in Book 6, only fits within the scaffolding of the whole saga because it enables Harry to complete the task. But one additional feature of Dumbledore’s death in Book 6 is that it serves as what I call in my paper a “Creative Exploitation” of the folktale structure. It doesn’t violate any structural function; rather, Rowling exploits the structure of the “Preparation” and “Complication” groups of functions in an interesting and surprising way. This is one of the features that makes Book 6, according to my analysis, an “aesthetically satisfying” book in the series. But if Harry died, even in Book 7, that would be an outright violation of folktale structure, and such an extraordinary one that we’d have to analyze the HP saga as a different *kind* of story that a folktale/fairy tale.
It is worth point out, however, and Lauren is exactly right about this, that Harry *did* have to choose self-sacrifice in order to defeat the Villainy. Although this self-sacrifice didn’t ultimately cost him his physical life, he had to reach the point where he was willing for that to happen. (Otherwise, for example, the snitch might not have opened for him in the Forbidden Forest.)
As for Snape as hero, that would be a lot of fun to analyze. His story is in one sense much more like the classic fairy tale: the prince (!) must face and overcome a Villainy in order to win the princess. In this case, the princess would be Lily, but Snape fails to win her. Only through Harry is he able to express his love for her. So *within the HP saga* we definitely get Snape arising as a hero (after being misunderstood most of the time as a false villain), but again, dying for the sake of enabling Harry’s ultimate victory over the villain. However, if Rowling were to give us enough background on Snape and a little more of his story that we aren’t privy to through Harry’s perspective, *that* tale might conform to the folktale structure.
One might propose some interpretive latitude with the final function, the “Wedding,” to allow that the self-sacrificing hero who dies is “wed” in the sense of having attained a glorious or immortal status. But I think at that point you’re extending the meaning of the folktale/fairy tale beyond what Propp envisioned it to be. We consciously constrained ourselves to Propp’s methods and conceptions to see whether or not Propp’s scheme was robust enough to accurately describe the HP saga as well as provide an important factor in explaining the appeal of the series amongst a diverse readership.