The “Adventurous Song”: Why Harry Potter is Epic Literature
Abstract: This essay looks at the “Harry Potter” series and makes the argument that it should be considered Epic Literature, owing to the fact that each book contains certain qualities that are traditional of epic works. The writer looks at such plot points as the hero having supernatural abilities, the hero facing quests/challenges and succeeding in those tasks, the presence of mythical creatures in the text, the theme of resurrection, and the hero suffering but then regaining his rightful place by the end.
We usually think when we hear of ‘epic literature’ of the classics such as Homer’s Odyssey or Milton’s Paradise Lost, or even JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings; but not often do people consider the Harry Potter series. It comes as somewhat of a surprise therefore that the entire series of Harry Potter contains qualities and follows the structure of epic literature, as they are generally considered “popular fiction”: excellent stories, but not necessarily excellent writing. However, the ever-expanding fandom and unremitting popularity of the novels suggest that there is something more than good story-telling, and I believe that part of this lies in the strong links the novels have to the epic genre.
There are general elements present in epic literature which all seven Harry Potter novels contain: whether or not intentional, this is strong evidence to suggest that these books are of the epic genre. Elements of the epic structure include the following: the hero having supernatural qualities, the hero being charged with a quest, the hero being tested and proved worthy, the hero being confronted with mythical beings, the hero’s quest taking him to a supernatural world, the hero facing a point in which he may be defeated, a resurrection taking place, the hero is victorious and takes his rightful place. I am going to address all these elements, explaining how they fit into the Harry Potter series and therefore verify the fact that the novels should be classed as Epic Literature.
The idea that the hero should have supernatural qualities evidently fits into Harry Potter, as his magical abilities set him apart from Muggles. However, in the wizarding community he is no longer “abnormal” (PS p.44 UK edition) so he needs something else to set him apart. His aptitude for speaking Parseltongue and his gateway into Voldemort’s thoughts and feelings serve to give him yet more “supernatural” qualities necessary for an epic hero.
In every Potter book Harry is charged with a quest or challenge; either set by himself or another character. In Chamber of Secrets he sets himself to the task of discovering the mystery of the Chamber and the identity of the Heir of Slytherin; in Goblet of Fire he is bound to compete in the Triwizard Tournament, despite the immense risks; and in Deathly Hallows, he must fulfill the momentous and seemingly impossible task set by Dumbledore of finding and destroying the remaining Horcruxes. These challenges are intensely difficult and, especially in the earlier books, set the standard for what is yet to come. Harry’s “quest” to find the Horcruxes is highly comparable to Frodo’s struggle to dispose of the ring, as it is a burden that chiefly he carries and is typical of the trials a hero in epic literature must endure. As well as facing these challenges, Harry is “tested and proved worthy”, surviving every terrible challenge without exception – not necessarily unharmed, but alive. This magnificent courage and perseverance are highly impressive and prove that he is worthy of heroic status.
Where would the Harry Potter series be without the vast amount of mythical creatures that enrich the books? These too are characteristic of Epic Literature, further implying that the series should be considered so. In Goblet of Fire Harry must battle Dragons, Mermaids, Blast-Ended Skrewts, and a Sphinx, all of which obscure his path to victory. The classical allusions seen here in reference to Dragons and the Sphinx were typical in Epic Literature, for example in Paradise Lost and Beowulf. There are mythical creatures in abundance throughout the series: some of which help Harry to complete his “quests” (for example the Thestrals which take him and his friends to the Ministry), and some which hinder him (like Fluffy). They play an integral role in the series which also helps it to delve further into epic and classical traditions.
Epic Literature often includes a journey into some form of a supernatural world, and although the world of magic is in itself a “supernatural world”, there are areas within it that have their own mysteries which Harry must encounter. The Chamber of Secrets – the name itself pointing out the mystery of it – is the place where Harry begins to realize his deeper connection with Voldemort: opening up a multitude of questions about his past. When he discovers that, “Voldemort put a bit of himself in me” (COS, p.245, UK edition) he is only just on the brink of the terrible discovery that is to come, which will prove that Voldemort has gone “further than anybody along the path that leads to immortality” (GOF p. 566, UK edition), into the realms of the supernatural. In Order of the Phoenix, the Department of Mysteries is a perfect example of a “supernatural world”, and the fact that Rowling explains very little of it heightens the aura of mystery and otherness that surrounds it. The element of the supernatural seems to permeate the series, creating much mystery and a variety of complex questions and themes.
There are many instances when Harry questions his ability to persevere with his various quests, and it is the great strength within him that urges him on that really proves him worthy of being a hero. In Order of the Phoenix, he believes he is being possessed by Lord Voldemort, at which point he convinces himself that his friends avoid him out of fear. This conviction threatens to overwhelm Harry: showing how highly he values their friendship, trust, and esteem. Indeed, when Voldemort does try to possess him later on in the novel, he is unable to because of the strength of Harry’s love which has been freshly brought to the surface after Sirius’s death. This ability to love even after his terribly traumatic life shows the strength Harry has within him to keep going. In Deathly Hallows after Voldemort has “killed” him, he has the choice to “go on” (DH, p. 578 UK edition) or to return to the pain and sorrow of life. His decision to return and finish the Dark Lord once and for all proves his bravery and willingness to sacrifice himself for wizardkind: qualities that highlight him as an epic hero.
“Resurrection” suggests that the hero will return, undefeated. As Satan in Paradise Lost rises after his fall from Heaven, many an epic hero in Potter returns from almost certain death. In Goblet of Fire Harry returns from Voldemort’s own resurrection, injured, but alive against all odds. Of course, he also returns to life in Deathly Hallows after he makes his decision; but there are also other minor characters who are resurrected. Fawkes the Phoenix is repeatedly reborn; the ghosts undergo a form of resurrection when they return to a human-like form; and, in some ways, when Harry and Hermione time travel in Prisoner of Azkaban, Buckbeak is resurrected. All this emphasis on life conquering death is a strong theme in the Harry Potter series, however, Rowling does explain how the two come together – how, “death is but the next great adventure” (PS, p. 215 UK edition), and that as long as one can love they have nothing to fear in death.
The idea that heroes must suffer degradation but still rise and be restored to their rightful place is a theme much explored in this series. Harry is often misunderstood and faces prejudice and judgment from his peers throughout the series. In Chamber of Secrets people believe he is the Heir of Slytherin, but when he saves Ginny and destroys the Basilisk they realize their mistake and he is forgiven. The situation is similar in Order of the Phoenix where he is forced to carve “I must not tell lies” into his hand by the awful Umbridge simply because the government is unwilling to admit their failures. These trials of overcoming prejudice simply prove another aspect of bravery in Harry’s character. In addition, in Deathly Hallows when Harry is labeled “Undesirable No. 1” and is being hunted all over the country, he is forced into hiding for months. His eventual defeat of Lord Voldemort at the epic Battle of Hogwarts restores him to not only his “rightful place” but also the rightful order of society: he saved the wizarding world from the tyranny of Lord Voldemort and was universally accepted as a true hero – worthy of epic literature.
The Harry Potter series contains a multitude of evidence that supports each aspect of epic literature, and therefore it is easy to see how it should be viewed as such. Harry’s unswerving bravery makes him a true hero, and the repeated themes of life – love and death – echo those of epic literature. The scale of the books and the richness of the text only heighten this impression. Harry Potter has impacted hundreds of millions of lives worldwide, and this epic impact reflects the undeniable fact that it is, truly, epic literature.