Out of the Cave, into Hogwarts

by Joseph

Abstract: I recently had to write a paper comparing a piece of literature to Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave”. Being the fan I am, I found a way to wiggle “Harry Potter” into it easily. I compared several aspects of “Allegory of the Cave” to different symbols, characters, and events in the Harry Potter series.

Around 380 BC, Plato, a Greek philosopher, wrote The Republic, his most renowned and influential piece of writing. The book focuses on the definition of justice and the role of philosophers. It is a collection of conversations between Plato’s mentor, Socrates, and various other philosophers. One of the most well-known segments of The Republic is “The Allegory of the Cave.” In it, Plato uses an analogy to explain his ideas on becoming a philosopher and gaining knowledge to fully understand the world around him. The Harry Potter series, written by J.K. Rowling, is one of the many literary works that was influenced by Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave.” The seven-book fantasy series follows a young boy named Harry Potter that started off like any other child, only to be immersed into the wizarding world when he turned eleven years old. He attended Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry where he studied magic and began to understand the full extent of the world and not just the magical side. Seemingly, Rowling incorporated several elements from Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” to make the Harry Potter series the most successful series of the 21st century.

Every symbol in “The Allegory of the Cave” can, in some way, be compared to an aspect in Harry Potter. In the allegory, Plato writes about a group of prisoners chained to a cave floor by puppeteers, forced to face a wall throughout their entire life. On the wall, shadows of people outside the cave are projected, by fire for the prisoners to see. The chained prisoners cannot turn around to look out of the cave, so they do not fully comprehend what the shadows are. To them, the shadows are more real than what is actually outside the cave. In the Harry Potter series, the wizarding world deliberately attempts to hide the existence of magic and their society from the non-magic people, commonly known as Muggles. The Ministry of Magic, the wizarding government, can be compared to the puppeteers in Plato’s analogy; the Muggles can then be the prisoner puppets held hostage in their cave, the Muggle world. The Ministry of Magic tries to chain the Muggles strictly to the Muggle society just like the puppeteers try to chain the prisoners strictly to the cave. In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry’s Uncle and Aunt, both Muggles, are introduced with, “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense (Sorcerer’s Stone 1).” Both the Muggles and prisoners believe that their respective worlds, the Muggle world, and the cave, are all that exist, and they consider themselves “normal,” based on that principle. Anything out of the Muggle world or the cave would seem surreal to them because they are chained down to their respective places.

In the “Allegory of the Cave,” Plato explains that the prisoners “have their legs and necks chained so that they cannot move, and can only see before them, being prevented by chains from turning round their heads.” The chains hide the entire truth. In Harry Potter, the chains are like the spells and charms that the Ministry of Magic utilizes to keep the wizarding world concealed from the Muggles. For example, Hermione Granger, Harry’s friend, explains that Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry is “bewitched… If a Muggle looks at it, all they see is a moldering old ruin with a sign over the entrance saying ‘DANGER, DO NOT ENTER, UNSAFE'” (Goblet of Fire 166). It is one of the many chains that hide magic and the rest of the wizarding world from Muggles. Another is used to mask the Quidditch World Cup, the final match of a wizarding sport played on flying brooms. Arthur Weasley reveals to Harry that there are “Muggle Repelling Charms on every inch of it. Every time Muggles have got anywhere near here all year, they’ve suddenly remembered urgent appointments and had to dash away again…” (Goblet of Fire 166).

The fires projecting the shadows, and the shadows themselves, also have corresponding symbols within the Harry Potter series. Plato describes a fire behind the prisoners that projects shadows on the blank wall that the prisoners face their entire life, shadows that are simply obscure traces of the people outside of the cave. The prisoners see the shadows, but they do not understand the full extent of who they are. The shadows are considered ‘the others,’ and the fire is what causes the shadows to even appear in the puppets’ views. The fire, in Rowling’s series, is the circumstances that connect wizards to the Muggle society. Many different events and actions cause the fire in Harry Potter’s world to connect the wizarding world to the Muggle’s world. In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, it is established by Hermione Granger that some wizards and witches are born into muggle families which automatically integrates them into muggle society at birth. “Nobody in my family’s magic at all, it was ever such a surprise when I got my letter, but I was ever so pleased, of course, I mean, it’s the very best school of witchcraft there is, I’ve heard” (Sorcerer’s Stone 105). Not only are wizards born into Muggle families, but they also marry into them. Seamus Finnegan, Harry’s classmate, explains that “I’m half-and-half… Me dad’s a Muggle. Mom didn’t tell him she was a witch ’till after they were married. Bit of a nasty shock for him” (Sorcerer’s Stone 125). Due to birth, marriage, and many other connections, wizards, and Muggles associate with each other and even share homes and cities, even if muggles do not know about the magical side of them. The wizards that Muggles see, but do not fully understand, are the shadows of Rowling’s series. Within the first chapter of Sorcerer’s Stone, Vernon Dursley, Harry’s Muggle uncle, witnesses some wizard ‘shadows’ in his own town.

As he sat in the usual morning traffic jam, he couldn’t help noticing that there seemed to be a lot of strangely dressed people about. People in cloaks… He supposed this was some stupid new fashion. He drummed his fingers on the steering wheel and his eyes fell on a huddle of these weirdos standing close by… Mr. Dursley was enraged to see that a couple of them weren’t young at all; why, that man had to be older than he was, and wearing an emerald-green cloak! The nerve of him! But then it struck Mr. Dursley that this was probably some silly stunt- these people were obviously collecting for something… yes, that would be it. (Sorcerer’s Stone 3).

Mr. Dursley observed the wizards communicating in their standard wizarding cloaks, but he blew it off as some new fashion. He saw them, and he witnessed their existence, but he did not realize who they actually were, just like the prisoners in Plato’s allegory did not see the full truth of the shadows. This changed, however, when one prisoner was freed to leave.

Plato writes of a prisoner that leaves the cave and experiences the sunlight; Rowling also has one of her prisoners, Harry Potter, leave his muggle cave and experience magic. In “Allegory of the Cave,” one prisoner is unchained and set free to walk out of the cave and into the light so that he may see the rest of the world that he did not know existed. When discussing the prisoner’s first thoughts on leaving the cave, Plato wonders, “will he not be perplexed?” (Plato). He leaves the cave, but he is overwhelmed and confused; the cave is his reality, and it is more real to him, at the moment. Harry Potter, himself, is the prisoner that is unchained in Rowling’s series; he grew up with a Muggle family, and he found out about magic and the wizarding world when he turned eleven years old. Similar to the prisoner, Harry also is baffled when he leaves his Muggle cave and is introduced to the wizarding world. When Hagrid ‘unchains’ Harry by telling him that he is a wizard, Harry gasps, “I’m a what?” Shortly after, “Hagrid looked at Harry with warmth and respect blazing in his eyes, but Harry, instead of feeling pleased and proud, felt quite sure there had been a horrible mistake. A wizard? Him? How could he possibly be?” (Sorcerer’s Stone 57). Harry did not completely comprehend or believe what he was told, and attempted to deny it, at first, to stay in the Muggle reality he was used to. Both the unchained prisoner and Harry were obviously mystified by the experience of leaving their caves. Not until they see their ‘suns,’ do they fully accept and embrace their new extension of life. The prisoner saw the sun and finally understood his world completely. His gained knowledge achieved him an excellent comprehension of the whole world, not just his cave. Harry Potter’s ‘sun’ is magic. He is introduced to the wizarding world by Hagrid but does not come to terms with what that means until he visits Diagon Alley, a wizarding street full of magical shops. “Harry wished he had about eight more eyes. He turned his head in every direction as they walked up the street, trying to look at everything at once: the shops, the things outside them, the people doing their shopping” (Sorcerer’s Stone 71). As soon as Harry arrived in Diagon Alley, he saw the sun; he saw the magic. He no longer denied the existence of his true world, the wizarding world.

The unchained prisoner, in Plato’s allegory, returned to his cave to unchain others in order to enlighten their minds with the truth of the outside world. “And when he remembered his old habitation and the wisdom of the den and his fellow prisoners, do you not suppose that he would felicitate himself on the change, and pity them?” (Plato). After attending Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Harry Potter gained an understanding of the wizarding world, but he did not forget the Muggle world completely. He returned every summer to his Muggle cave, and, eventually, bestowed some wisdom about his world to his Muggle cousin, Dudley. He pitied Dudley like the unchained prisoner pitied the others still chained. Dudley leads a ‘puppets’ life. Not only does the Ministry of Magic hide Dudley and the other muggles from the wizarding world, but his parents push him even more into the cave by purposefully avoiding any ‘shadows.’ In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, two dementors, magical cloaked figures that suck the happiness out of people, attacked Harry and Dudley. Since Dudley had little understanding of the wizarding ‘shadows’ and the rest of the magical world, he was traumatized and confused as to what was happening to him. “All went dark… Everything dark. And then I h-heard.. things. Inside m-my head” (Order of the Phoenix 30). He even attempted to lift his confusion by blaming it on Harry. Dudley was a wreck, out of pity, Harry explained, “it wasn’t me! It was a couple of Dementors… they suck all the happiness out of you… and if they get the chance, they kiss you… It’s what they call it when they suck the soul out of your mouth” (Order of the Phoenix 31). Harry informed Dudley on part of his world, the dementors. Dudley, eventually told Harry, “I don’t think you’re a waste of space… You saved my life” (Deathly Hallows). With this new knowledge, Dudley managed to take one step out of the cave; he earned himself a better understanding of Harry and the rest of the shadows.

Overall, the symbols from “Allegory of the Cave” can effectively be compared to different elements of the Harry Potter series. The puppeteers and the puppets are comparable to the Ministry of Magic keeping the Muggles from finding the truth about wizards. They want to keep the Muggles in their society, their cave. The fires are the connections between the wizarding world and the Muggle world, whereas the chains are the charms and enchantments that the Ministry of Magic uses to try to lessen the connection. Harry Potter left the cave, saw his ‘sun’ full of magic, and found his real life. Harry understands both worlds, and with his newly-discovered knowledge of magic, he can strive to become the person he was meant to be.