Harry Potter and the Hero With a Thousand Faces

By John Algeo

Originally printed in the Winter 2009 issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation: Algeo, John. "Harry Potter and the Hero With a Thousand Faces." Quest  97. 1 (Fall 2009): 25-29.

John AlgeoWith the publication of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows in 2007, the Harry Potter cycle is now complete, so we can look at the whole story of the Boy-Who-Lived. This cycle of seven stories is undoubtedly the major fantasy work of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows sold 8.3 million copies in the United States during the first twenty-four hours after its publication. Of the first six books, 325 million copies have been sold around the globe. The books have been translated into sixty-five languages, including Hindi, Icelandic, Latin, Vietnamese, and Welsh. In one month in 2007, all seven Harry Potter books were on the list of ten best-sellers.

The remarkable popularity of the Harry Potter stories cannot be explained as the result of merchandising. There has been merchandising aplenty, but it has followed the success of the books, not caused that success. Harry Potter's success has many causes: plot, characters, setting, and theme among them.

Plot is one cause of the books' popularity. J. K. Rowling is an excellent spinner of tales, who weaves an engrossing story. Her plots are suspenseful and surprising, as full of twists and puzzles as the hedge maze in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Readers find it hard to put down a Harry Potter book until they have reached its end. The stories are also highly detailed: we know what the characters look like and what they wear; when the students at Hogwarts School settle into a banquet in the Great Hall, we get a menu of what they eat. Such detail lends both reality and interest to the plot. In addition, the books are full of foreshadowings. Apparently minor or insignificant details that are introduced in one book become central cruxes in a later volume. For example, in book 1, Mr. Ollivander, the wandmaker, makes a seemingly casual remark when he is looking for the right wand for Harry: "The wand chooses the wizard." In book 7, the significance of that statement becomes the climactic moment in Harry's victory over Voldemort, when the Elder Wand leaves Voldemort's hand and chooses Harry as its rightful owner.

The characters of the stories are well-rounded and memorable. If readers of the Harry Potter books should ever encounter Molly Weasley on the street, they would recognize her immediately. And so they would also if they encountered Lucius Malfoy, though they might cross the street to avoid him. The characters are, on the whole, dynamic and evolving, not static. That is particularly true of the three principal students: Harry, Ron, and Hermione. They are eleven years old when the story starts and seventeen when it ends, and the reader has accompanied them through their developing teen years. Harry is a sweet little Cinderlad in the first book, and a self-confident, assertive leader in the last. Most of the characters are realistic, convincing, and multidimensional. Only Voldemort is mainly a two-dimensional figure of evil. But even with Voldemort, the reader learns what caused the distortion of his character, and in book 7, Harry's vision of the Evil Lord's naked, suffering fetus on the other side of death evokes a feeling of sympathetic regret for him. We can identify with or at least sympathize with many of the characters in the stories.

The setting of the books is inspired. Most fantasy has to be set in a world somehow removed from ours. Ursula LeGuin's Earthsea novels are set on another planet somewhere else in the universe. J. R. R. Tolkien's Middle Earth saga is set on our planet, but at a time of immense antiquity, when elves and orcs and hobbits roamed the globe and the Age of Man was still in the far future. C. S. Lewis's Narnia books are set on this planet and in our time, but in a different dimension that one can access only by going through a closet. Rowling's genius was to place her stories in our world and our time, here and now. She peopled our world with both ordinary muggles like most of us and also with another order of humanity: wizards. Muggles and wizards live side by side, although most muggles are not aware of the fact. Moreover, psychic mutations can produce a wizard child from muggle parents or, alas, a magicless squib from wizard parents. Harry Potter's world thus has an immediacy and reality that few fantasy novels can match. One never knows: that woman with the odd hat sitting on a park bench may be a witch, or the man with the peculiarly colored cloak passing on the other side of the street may be a wizard. The wizard world and the muggle world are the same place: here and now.

Beyond the appeal of plot, character, and setting, the chief and abiding attraction of the Harry Potter books is that they are archetypal. The books resonate with something deep inside us. They evoke a response from the collective unconscious. Harry Potter is a contemporary version of the Hero with a Thousand Faces. Harry Potter is us.

Joseph Campbell, in his seminal 1949 work The Hero with a Thousand Faces, talks about the "monomyth" of the hero. Campbell borrowed that term from James Joyce's novel Finnegans Wake, which is itself extraordinarily archetypal and even more extraordinarily difficult to read, but which has influenced our vocabulary. The word "quark" was taken from Joyce's book by the physicist Murray Gell-Mann as a term for subatomic particles. So mythologists, physicists, and fantasists are all indebted to James Joyce. Campbell characterizes Joyce's monomyth as follows:

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.

The monomyth is important because it is an archetype of the interior experience all human beings have when they set out to investigate who they are, what is inside them, and the way to bring that knowledge into consciousness and practical application. The Harry Potter books are clearly one expression of the monomyth, as we can see from an annotation of Campbell's definition:

A hero [Harry Potter] ventures forth from the world of common day [the muggle world] into a region of supernatural wonder [the wizarding world]: fabulous forces [magic spells] are there encountered and a decisive victory is won [Harry defeats Voldemort]: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man [Harry is the "Chosen One," a living legend, and a leader].

The characters in the books are archetypes: Harry is the Orphan hero of all fairy tales; Albus Dumbledore is the Wise Old Man; Molly Weasley is the World Mother. The plot elements are also archetypal: in several of the books, Harry descends into the underworld of the basement caverns beneath Hogwarts School. The themes are archetypes as well: in both the first and last books, alchemy's search for everlasting life is a central element, typified by the Philosophers' Stone of book 1 (misnamed "Sorcerer's Stone" in American editions) and by the three Deathly Hallows of book 7, which make their possessor the "master of Death."

The whole cycle of seven books is highly structured in several ways. In each of the books, Harry has a quest: something he must find or do or achieve. In the last book the quest theme is made explicit:

[Hermione:] "If the Deathly Hallows really existed, and Dumbledore knew about them, knew that the person who possessed all three of them would be master of Death—Harry, why wouldn't he have told you? Why?" . . . [Harry:] "You've got to find out about them for yourself! It's a Quest!"

There is also a single, ultimate quest in the whole cycle. That quest is for Harry to find himself, to discover who and what he is. That is the ultimate quest in life for all of us. That is what Arjuna learns in the Bhagavad Gita in his dialog with Sri Krishna. It is the theme of every spiritual guidebook.

In the Chandogya Upanishad, a father sends his son, Svetaketu, off to be educated; the boy returns all puffed up with his learning, as only a young man can be. The father asks, "Tell me, Svetaketu, did your teachers teach you that, knowing which, it is not necessary to know anything else?" And the boy, puzzled at the question says, "No, father, I never heard of that. What is it?" The father tells the boy to go to a nearby tree, pluck one of its fruits and bring it back. When the boy does so, his father instructs him to cut the fruit open and asks what he sees inside it. The boy does and answers that he sees only a great many very small seeds. The father tells him to take one of the little seeds, cut it open, and say what he sees inside it. The boy does and replies that he sees nothing inside the seed. Then his father says, "Svetaketu, that ‘nothing' which you cannot see caused that great tree to grow. It is everywhere; it is the essence of all things. Svetaketu, you are that!" The Sanskrit is a well-known mantra: Tat tvam asi, "That thou art." The point of the story is that the only thing necessary to know in life is our own inmost identity.

The quest for Self-discovery is Harry Potter's quest. It is the power decisively won in the region of supernatural wonder by the hero of the monomyth. At the end of book 7, Harry has achieved the quest of that volume and possesses all three of the Deathly Hallows—the Elder Wand, the Resurrection Stone, and the Cloak of Invisibility—and thus has become the "master of Death." But a true master of death is one who knows the reality and the value of his own mortality. So Harry gives up the Resurrection Stone, which brings the dead back into this world, and the Elder Wand, which gives power and control over living people, and keeps only the Cloak of Invisibility. The cloak protects its owner from death until that owner recognizes that the time has come to die and voluntarily meets death, not as a victim, but as a free agent.

Each of the volume-specific quests in the Harry Potter cycle is one aspect of the great quest for mastery over the lower self and discovery of the higher Self. The whole cycle of quests has a remarkable mirroring structure, as indicated in the accompanying diagram. This structure gives an appeal to the series of which readers may not be consciously aware. Yet it serves to connect the separate books, not merely chronologically (1 through 7) but thematically in sets: 1 and 7, 2 and 6, 3 and 5, with 4 as the pivotal book. This is a structure that will be familiar to Theosophists as the pattern of globes in a chain of involution-evolution. It is also the pattern of the Seven Rays, which echo one another in the same way.

 

THE STRUCTURE OF THE HARRY POTTER CYCLE

1. Philosopher's Stone
Quest = Find the  Philosopher's
Stone, which gives immortality
and unlimited wealth, to prevent
its falling into Voldemort's hands.

.

LIFE & DEATH

 

7. Deathly Hallows
Quest = Find the three Deathly
Hallows, which "make the
possessor master of Death," so
as to end Voldemort's evil.

         

2. Chamber of Secrets
Quest = Identify the Heir of
Slytherin, slay the Basilisk he
set loose upon Hogwarts, and save Ginny from death.

 

 

IDENTITY

 

6. Half-Blood Prince
Quest = Identify the Half-Blood
Prince and seek the locket Horcrux
with a fragment of Voldemorr's
soul, for which Dumbledore dies.

         

3. Prisoner of Azkaban
Quest = Save Sirius from
Dementors with a Time-turn
and learn the Patronus Charm
connecting Harry to his father.

 

TIME

 

5. Order of the Phoenix
Quest = Try to save Sirius from
Voldemort and learn about the time
prpphecy that connects Harry
and Voldemort in their fates.

         
   

TRANSFORMATION

   
         
   

4. Goblet of Fire
Quest = Win the contests of
Air & Fire, Water, and Earth
and defeat the newly reembodied
Voldemort in combat by wands.

   


Thematically, the Harry Potter cycle is different from most other fantasies in two significant ways: its treatment of good and evil and its ending. Most fantasies provide a stark contrast between good and evil. In Tolkien, Gandalf is good, and Saruman is evil. In Lewis's Narnia, Aslan is good, and the White Witch is evil. But the Harry Potter characters, other than Voldemort, are generally mixed—basically good or bad, but with streaks of both selfishness and unselfishness, as well as stupidity and wisdom, in their behavior. They are real people. Dumbledore is a good man, but he made a bad mistake in his younger days, and he made another in not telling Harry the full truth about Voldemort. Harry's father was a good man, but he was proud, arrogant, and cruel to Snape. Snape is cruel to Harry, who reminds him of Harry's father, but Snape was devoted to Harry's mother and is completely loyal to Dumbledore.

The central example of the mixture of good and bad is Harry himself. He is essentially well-intentioned and acts for the good of others, like a bodhisattva, but he is headstrong and shows bad judgment. Harry is also a horcrux, with a fragment of Voldemort's soul inside him. That is archetypal. All of us have a fragment of Voldemort within ourselves. Even the best of humans have human weaknesses. If we did not, we would not be in this world. Instead, like the Buddha, we would have passed beyond to the other shore. To live the life of a human being is to live imperfectly. The soul fragment of Voldemort inside Harry symbolizes the reality that each of us is a mixture, with an impulse to selfish action and exploitation of others. Only as we are aware of that fragment can we deal with it and work for its elimination, as Harry did.

The ending of the Harry Potter cycle is also unusual. Heroic fantasy generally has an apocalyptic ending. For example, Lord of the Rings ends with a cataclysmic upheaval in which evil is destroyed and goodness reestablished in the world. Although its hero, Frodo, does not for long get to enjoy the goodness he has brought back to the world, he goes on a bittersweet journey with the elves to the deathless lands of the West. Similarly, the Mahabharata culminates in the apocalyptic battle of Kurukshetra, which brings about the end of an age and initiates the Kali Yuga, the age of darkness. After the battle the five Pandava heroes rule happily for a while, but then go on to the heaven of Indra, where they are united and reconciled to the cousins against whom they had fought.

At the end of the last Harry Potter book, there is also a great battle between good and evil, and good wins because evil defeats itself. But in the epilogue, "Nineteen Years Later," life has seemingly returned to normal. People are just people, leading ordinary lives. There is no journey to the deathless West or to the heaven of Indra. There is only life going on as it usually does. That, the book says, is the way it should be: the final words of the book and of the whole cycle are "All was well." Harry Potter's world ends with neither a bang nor a whimper, but with an affirmation of the goodness of normal life.

A final return to normalcy is not a traditional fantasy or epic conclusion. But it is appropriate to the Harry Potter cycle. It is, indeed, a Zen ending. There is a story about the aspirant who said, "Before I studied Zen, mountains were just mountains and rivers were just rivers. As I studied Zen, mountains became far more than mountains and rivers became far more than rivers. When I had completed my study of Zen, mountains were just mountains and rivers were just rivers." That is, before Zen study, the aspirant saw only the surface of things. While he was striving for enlightenment, everything acquired a transcendent value, and the aspirant saw a symbolic connection between things. But once enlightenment came, the aspirant saw into the essential nature of things and understood everything for what it is, in and of itself. That is what Zen is about: satori, or seeing everything as it is. Or, as the mantra of the Gita says, Om tat sat, which has been translated as, "Well, that's the way it is!"

So the normalcy at the end of Harry Potter's quest is not the same normalcy as that before he began the quest. The end is a normalcy in which everything is in its proper place and life goes on as life should. Harry's young son is named Albus Severus, a combination of the names of Harry's beloved mentor, Albus Dumbledore, and his feared bête noire, Severus Snape. Both of those teachers were mixtures of the good and the bad. And both were essential guides for Harry on his quest, as he came to realize. Harry's final normalcy is a recognition of the way things are. And it is a realization that all is well.


John Algeo was born in St. Louis, Missouri, and has lived in Texas, California, Florida, Illinois, and Georgia. John joined the Theosophical Society at the age of sixteen and became president of the Florida Lodge (Miami) while still in his teens. He is a past president of the American Dialect Society, the American Name Society, and the Dictionary Society of North America. John retired in 1994 to accept the presidency of the Theosophical Society in America. He currently serves as international vice-president of the society, is revising his textbook, Origins and Development of the English Language for its sixth edition, and continues to lecture at academic and Theosophical meetings throughout the world.