Harry’s Hero Journey

by Christina Olanick

It was five years ago, and I was in grade ten when I first became a fan of the Harry Potterseries. In English class we were learning about mythology, and one of the things we learned was that there are different kinds of myth, and that the quest myth – or hero-myth – has a basic storyline that is common to all myths of that type. This idea intrigued me so I did some reading on my own about mythological studies. I learned about archetypes and I read the work of the famous mythologist Joseph Campbell. Campbell was the one who came up with the idea that there is a basic storyline that all hero-myths follow. This storyline is called the ‘Hero’s Journey.’

The more I read about the Hero’s Journey, the more I was convinced that it was correct. People have tested it, applying it to modern stories, and even to episodes of “The Simpsons,” and have found that it always holds true. What makes the Hero’s Journey so universal is that the steps that constitute it do not represent actual physical happenings, but events of symbolic significance. The hero-myth is about the common struggle of the human psyche to discover understanding and harmony. When a story strikes a chord with society it is because it appeals to this ancient psychological need – in other words, it is because it follows the Hero’s Journey. As human society evolves, the forms our stories take change, but the story itself is always the same. The best example of this is Star Wars, which, though set in a space age world, is a classic myth. George Lucas’s goal in creating Star Wars was to create a myth for the modern world, and to help work out the storyline he actually consciously used Campbell’s Hero’s Journey as a guide. The enduring, intense popularity of Star Wars is evidence of the power of the Hero’s Journey.

Knowing all this, I thought, why not apply the Hero’s Journey to the Harry Potterseries? Harry Potter is certainly a hero-myth and each individual book does indeed follow the Hero’s Journey outline. Below you will see that, as an example, I outline the Hero’s Journey in Philosopher’s Stone. There is also an overall series story arc that follows its own Hero’s Journey, and by figuring out the steps in that Journey, we can make predictions about what will happen next in the series. There are seventeen steps to the Hero’s Journey in all, and they are divided into three stages. If you want to read in detail about each step, I suggest visiting the Maricopa Centre for Learning & Instruction website.

I’m going to give brief descriptions of each step here, and examples from bothPhilosopher’s Stone, and from the overarching Hero’s Journey of the HP series, which begins chronologically with Harry’s birth. When we get to the steps that haven’t happened in the series yet, we can make predictions.
The first stage is Departure and has five steps:

1) The Call to Adventure — the first sign the hero has that his/her life is going to change.

  • Example from PS: Harry gets his “Letter from No One.”
  • In Harry’s overall Journey: The first Prophecy

2) Refusal of the Call — for some reason the hero is compelled to hold back from his/her adventure.

  • Example from PS: Harry tells Hagrid “I think you must have made a mistake. I don’t think I can be a wizard.” (47)
  • In Harry’s overall Journey: The Potters go into hiding.

3) Supernatural Aid — when the hero commits to the adventure his/her guide or magical helper appears or becomes known.

  • Example from PS: Dumbledore (who often works through different people, like Hagrid).
  • In Harry’s overall Journey: Lily’s sacrifice (or love in general, both continue to protect Harry throughout his Quest).

4) Crossing the First Threshold — the hero leaves the world he/she is used to and enters the “field of adventure” – a new, unknown and dangerous world.

  • Example from PS: Harry enters Diagon Alley for the first time, or crosses through the ticket barrier onto Platform 9 3/4.
  • In Harry’s overall Journey: The first time Harry chooses to meet the threat of Voldemort head-on. He chooses adventure, thus he enters the “field of adventure”.

5) The Belly of the Whale — This is a more complicated, symbolic stage. I see it as a kind of initiation into the world of adventure. It is about completing the transition from the old, mundane world to the new, dangerous adventure world. The hero undergoes a metamorphosis of some sort to symbolize his/her commitment to the quest.

  • Example from PS: Harry enters Hogwarts for the first time and is sorted (the journey across the dark lake, going into the cave, and the cathedral-like architecture of Hogwarts works very well on a symbolic level for this step).
  • In Harry’s overall Journey: Harry learns the entire Prophecy. This new knowledge transforms Harry’s identity so that he now sees himself as a “marked man;” he feels separate and apart from the rest of Hogwarts (or the rest of the world, for that matter), and most importantly, it makes him fully committed to the goal of defeating Voldemort. According to Campbell, this is a “life-renewing” step, so we can expect Harry’s character to have evolved in a significant, positive way by the beginning of HBP.

The next stage is called Initiation and includes six steps:

1) The Road of Trials — a series of tests, tasks and ordeals the hero must undergo to achieve his/her goal.

  • Example from PS: the enchantments guarding the Philosopher’s Stone are classic examples of this step.
  • In Harry’s overall Journey: every challenge Harry has had to overcome so far. The hero usually fails at one or more of the tasks in The Road of Trials. Harry has already experienced loss, but he hasn’t suffered outright defeat yet. This will probably happen in HBP.

This is about as far the books have taken us in the Hero’s Journey of the series so far. There are eleven steps left. On with the Initiation stage!…

2) The Meeting with the Goddess — often represented by a woman, but not always, this step is about the hero experiencing unconditional love and seeing him/herself in a non-dualistic way. It can also be called “the union of opposites” and can take place entirely within the hero.

  • Example from PS: when Hermione tells Harry “you’re a great wizard, you know” right before he walks through the fire to face Voldemort (208). It’s not quite the same thing as “unconditional love” but it is an emotional scene, and Harry gets appreciation and approval from someone who is his opposite in many ways.
  • Prediction: A “union of opposites” could be represented by Slytherin working together with the other houses, especially Gryffindor. The “unconditional love” part of this step could be represented by the houses placing their trust in Harry as their leader. The “union of opposites” is represented on a more personal level by James and Lily. Since he saw them in Snape’s worst memory, Harry doesn’t see how his parents could have gotten along. By understanding them (especially James’s apparent arrogance) and their relationship better Harry will understand himself in a non-dualistic way.

3) Woman as the Temptress — this step is about the hero’s disgust for his/her own weaknesses of the flesh, which is often represented by a woman, but not always. Simply, the hero is tempted to stray from his/her quest.

  • Example from PS: When Voldemort tempts Harry saying “Better save your own life and join me.” (213)
  • Prediction: Harry does a pretty good job at sticking to his convictions. He has not been tempted in a big way yet, but he will be. How Harry will be tempted and by whom could be the topic of a whole other editorial.

4) Atonement with the Father — the hero confronts and is initiated by whatever holds the ultimate life and death power in his/her life. It is often symbolized by a male entity, but it doesn’t have to be. It is the climax of the story. It is also about transformation; the hero must be “killed” either figuratively or literally so that a new self can come into being.

  • Example from PS: Harry faces off with Voldemort. Harry’s “death” is figurative, symbolized by him falling unconscious for three days.
  • Prediction: Harry will confront Voldemort and be killed by him. I think Harry’s death will be literal and physical, and he will move into another realm of existence, probably by going through the veil, but his death will not be permanent. Harry has to die in this step because he cannot defeat Voldemort yet. That will come later.

5) Apotheosis — after his/her “death” the hero moves into a heaven-like state of divine knowledge, love, and completion. This can also be represented as merely a period of rest, peace and fulfillment before the hero’s return.

  • Example from PS: Harry’s time in the hospital wing, where he gets all rested up, receives knowledge from Dumbledore and gifts from his friends and admirers.
  • Prediction: Since I think Harry will literally die, I think he will move into a spirit realm where there will be the spirits of other dead people, such as James and Lily. Throughout the series Harry has been witnessing progressively more “alive” representations of his parents. I think it is only logical that at the end of the series he will actually meet their spirits. In this spirit realm, with his parents, Harry will gain divine knowledge and love.

6) The Ultimate Boon — the goal of the Quest is achieved. All other steps have been preparing and purifying the hero for this step.

  • Example from PS: Harry wins the House Cup for Gryffindor.
  • Prediction: The knowledge Harry is on a quest for is how to defeat Voldemort. He will gain that knowledge while in the spirit realm

The third and final stage of the Hero’s Journey is called Return and consists of six steps.

1) Refusal of the Return — the hero is still in that heaven-like state, so of course he/she doesn’t want to return to the cold, cruel real world.

  • Example from PS: Harry doesn’t want to return to the Dursleys’.
  • Prediction: Harry won’t want to leave his parents, but he will because he still has to defeat Voldemort.

2) The Magic Flight — sometimes, if the boon is something that has been guarded and the hero steals, the hero has to escape. Sometimes this escape is exciting and adventurous, and sometimes it is insignificant. It doesn’t really occur in PS and you can’t really make a good prediction based on it.

3) Rescue from Without — the hero may need help to return to everyday life.

  • Example from PS: The Hogwarts Express takes Harry back to the Muggle world.
  • There are no interesting predictions based on this step. It will occur though.

4) Crossing the Return Threshold — the hero has to retain the wisdom gained on his/her quest, apply it to life, and often figure out how to share it with the rest of the world. It’s usually very hard to do this.

  • Example from PS: at the end of the school year, Harry has gained a sense of fulfillment and confidence. He takes this feeling with him back into the Muggle world and feels that life with the Dursleys will be better than before.
  • Prediction: The object of Harry’s quest, or his boon, is the means or knowledge of how to defeat Voldemort. This is the step where he applies the boon. That’s why Harry couldn’t defeat Voldemort earlier, because that has to happen now.

5) Master of the Two Worlds — the hero achieves a sense of balance between the material and spiritual and is comfortable in both the inner and outer worlds. Harry doesn’t achieve this in any of the books because he can’t get comfortable – there would be no story if he did.

  • Prediction: At the end of the series Harry will “grow up” and have a mature and tolerant world-view. According to Campbell, the hero also becomes an “anonymity” in this step, which suggests Harry will no longer feel plagued by his fame. This implicitly supports the theory that he will lose his scar.

6) Freedom to Live — the hero is free from the fear of death. He/she lives in the moment and accepts life as it comes. Harry doesn’t achieve this in [i]PS[/i] because his restlessness and discontent help drive the action. Also, Harry cannot achieve the freedom to live as long as Voldemort is alive because, as the prophecy says, “neither [Harry nor Voldemort] can live while the other survives.”

  • Prediction: There will be a happy ending.

Many of my predictions may very well be completely wrong, of course. Perhaps you can think of scenarios that fit the Hero’s Journey better. Of course, we won’t know for certain what happens next until we actually read it. Whatever happens though, it will indeed follow the pattern of the Hero’s Journey.