Harry Potter and the hero’s journey
Last week, I found a post on Tumblr that analyzed a character from the TV show Doctor Who and compared that character’s journey to the pattern of Joseph Campbell’s “monomyth,” or “the hero’s journey” (the original post can be found here). Monomyth, as conveniently explained by Wikipedia, “is a basic pattern that its proponents argue is found in many narratives from around the world.” Essentially, it is the theory that many great literary heroes have all gone through the same seventeen stages of adventure (i.e., their stories all follow the same pattern).
Below is a diagram of the basic “hero’s journey”:
Still a bit confused? Here is how monomyth is explained by the creator of this idea himself:
A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man. – Joseph Campbell
After researching this for a while, I was inspired to make my own comparisons between Harry’s journey in the Harry Potter series to see if it matched up with Joseph Campbell’s pattern. I wrote out the seventeen stages of monomyth (read more here) and added the description of each. Then I tried to relate points in Harry’s story to those stages, and I learned that we should continue in the argument that Harry Potter is classic literature since this fits almost seamlessly with the basic pattern that many great myths and stories follow.
Here’s my analysis:[divider]
1. The Call to Adventure
“The hero begins in a mundane situation of normality from which some information is received that acts as a call to head off into the unknown.”
For Harry, this was the classic “Yer a wizard, Harry” moment that sets the story in motion.
2. Refusal of the Call
“Often when the call is given, the future hero first refuses to heed it. This may be from a sense of duty or obligation, fear, insecurity, a sense of inadequacy, or any of a range of reasons that work to hold the person in his or her current circumstances.”
Harry’s “refusal” was the short-lived “I can’t be a wizard; I’m just Harry.”
3. Supernatural Aid
“Once the hero has committed to the quest, consciously or unconsciously, his guide and magical helper appears, or becomes known. More often than not, this supernatural mentor will present the hero with one or more talismans or artifacts that will aid them later in their quest.”
Hagrid plays the role of Harry’s “supernatural aid,” subsequently providing Harry with an “artifact” that will help him “later in [his] quest” — a wand.
4. The Crossing of the First Threshold
“This is the point where the person actually crosses into the field of adventure, leaving the known limits of his or her world and venturing into an unknown and dangerous realm where the rules and limits are not known.”
This would be Harry’s first steps into Diagon Alley, where he is fully submerged into the wizarding world.
5. Belly of the Whale
“The belly of the whale represents the final separation from the hero’s known world and self. By entering this stage, the person shows willingness to undergo a metamorphosis.”
While it is debatable which moment is the “belly of the whale,” I think the closest thing is when Harry is sorted into Gryffindor House, a place where he can finally belong like no other place in his life.
1. The Road of Trials
“The road of trials is a series of tests, tasks, or ordeals that the person must undergo to begin the transformation. Often the person fails one or more of these tests, which often occur in threes.”
Many “trials” occur in Harry’s time at Hogwarts, and they are typically presented in threes. For example, in Chamber of Secrets there is the Dueling Club, then following the spiders into the Forbidden Forest, and lastly Harry’s encounter with Tom Riddle and the Basilisk. There are also many Quidditch matches that could be considered trials or things like asking a date to the Yule Ball — however you see it, you have to agree that there is a nearly never-ending road of trials in the Harry Potter series.
2. The Meeting with the Goddess
“This is the point when the person experiences a love that has the power and significance of the all-powerful, all encompassing, unconditional love that a fortunate infant may experience with his or her mother. This is a very important step in the process and is often represented by the person finding the other person that he or she loves most completely.”
I would argue that even though it is certainly out of order, Harry’s “meeting with the goddess” was when he was an infant and Lily died to protect him. This act saved Harry’s life many times and even helped defeat Voldemort later on, so it matches up with the criteria of being “a love that has the power and significance of the all-powerful.”
3. Woman as Temptress
“In this step, the hero faces those temptations, often of a physical or pleasurable nature, that may lead him or her to abandon or stray from his or her quest, which does not necessarily have to be represented by a woman. Woman is a metaphor for the physical or material temptations of life since the hero-knight was often tempted by lust from his spiritual journey.”
This one is tough because Harry doesn’t really ever “stray from his quest.” I think that the closest thing to this would be his relationship with Ginny since she was always on Harry’s mind, and him breaking up with her for her own safety at the beginning of Deathly Hallows shows that Harry tried to push away this “temptress.”
4. Atonement with the Father
“In this step the person must confront and be initiated by whatever holds the ultimate power in his or her life. In many myths and stories this is the father, or a father figure who has life and death power. This is the center point of the journey. All the previous steps have been moving into this place, all that follow will move out from it. Although this step is most frequently symbolized by an encounter with a male entity, it does not have to be a male – just someone or thing with incredible power.”
Even though there are many moments when Harry has had “atonement” with James, at this point in the story Dumbledore is the “father” and mentor of this stage and is the one who “holds the ultimate power.” This act being the “center point” of the journey, we can conclude that this moment is best represented by:
- Being “initiated” by helping Dumbledore search for the locket Horcrux
- Dumbledore’s death at the Astronomy Tower, a turning point for Harry
“When someone dies a physical death, or dies to the self to live in spirit, he or she moves beyond the pairs of opposites to a state of divine knowledge, love, compassion and bliss. A more mundane way of looking at this step is that it is a period of rest, peace and fulfillment before the hero begins the return.”
Harry’s apotheosis is when he sacrifices himself to Voldemort in Deathly Hallows, physically dying and meeting Dumbledore in the purgatory/King’s Cross dream state. It is certainly a “period of rest” and allows Harry to think through his plan and have a moment of “fulfillment” with Dumbledore, who finally answers the questions that Harry had been desperately wanting answers to.
6. The Ultimate Boon
“The ultimate boon is the achievement of the goal of the quest. It is what the person went on the journey to get. All the previous steps serve to prepare and purify the person for this step since in many myths the boon is something transcendent like the elixir of life itself or a plant that supplies immortality or the holy grail.”
Plain and simple: when Voldemort’s spell backfired and killed him, leaving Harry victorious.
1. Refusal of the Return
“Having found bliss and enlightenment in the other world, the hero may not want to return to the ordinary world to bestow the boon onto his fellow man.”
There is not a direct example of this in Harry Potter since we know little about what happened directly after the Battle of Hogwarts.
2. The Magic Flight
“Sometimes the hero must escape with the boon, if it is something that the gods have been jealously guarding. It can be just as adventurous and dangerous returning from the journey as it was to go on it.”
Once more, there is not a direct example of this in Harry’s journey because of the limited information we are given after the “Ultimate Boon” stage.
3. Rescue from Without
“Just as the hero may need guides and assistants to set out on the quest, oftentimes he or she must have powerful guides and rescuers to bring them back to everyday life, especially if the person has been wounded or weakened by the experience.”
We can assume that Ginny was a one of the “guides” for Harry after the battle, leading him back to everyday life since in the epilogue they are living happy and peaceful lives.
4. The Crossing of the Return Threshold
“The trick in returning is to retain the wisdom gained on the quest, to integrate that wisdom into a human life, and then maybe figure out how to share the wisdom with the rest of the world.”
Harry shared some of his “wisdom” with Albus Severus on Platform 9 3/4 when he reassured Albus that it did not matter what house he was sorted into, because “the bravest man” he ever knew was a Slytherin. This reflects directly back to the first novel when Harry himself was concerned about being sorted into Slytherin, and this moment in the epilogue at the train station is a little tidbit of Harry sharing knowledge from his journey “with the rest of the world.”
5. Master of Two Worlds
“This step is usually represented by a transcendental hero like Jesus or Gautama Buddha. For a human hero, it may mean achieving a balance between the material and spiritual. The person has become comfortable and competent in both the inner and outer worlds.”
Again, in the epilogue, Harry is shown content with everyday life while still being connected to the wizarding world.
6. Freedom to Live
“Mastery leads to freedom from the fear of death, which in turn is the freedom to live. This is sometimes referred to as living in the moment, neither anticipating the future nor regretting the past.”
We do not see any regret from Harry, but regarding the future we are told that “the scar had not pained Harry for nineteen years” and that finally, “all was well.”[divider]
I encourage you to research monomyth deeper — it was so interesting to learn about. There are many different variations out there, and I’ve read other comparisons of the hero’s journey to well-known stories (including Star Wars and even Lilo & Stitch). Feel free to let me know in the comments if you agreed or disagreed with any of these comparisons or if you know any more about monomyth!