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What's a Christian to Do with Harry Potter?

Casey Neal - English - November 24, 2001 

Beowulf Project Essay  

Harry Potter: Beowulf on an Broomstick?

[Copyright Restricted]

Just as Beowulf became a standard of the classic hero, Harry Potter has filled the bill of classic hero for our generation. The classic hero is typically recognized by the following: extraordinary abilities, exceptional physical powers, emotional strength, compassion, and a composite of society’s highest achievable goals and aspirations. The classic hero is a rescuer, or Savior of a society, not simply of one individual. He must undergo a terrible test or trial to prove his worthiness. The heroic mission must be performed away from home. Part of the necessary journey typical of classic heroes is a trip to the underworld or to an environment that he cannot control. The hero must take a life-threatening risk, and a gift or benefit is passed to someone as a result. A classic hero inspires each individual in the society to behave heroically. At the end of a classical hero tale the hero departs by either dying, taking a trip, or being stripped of his status and joining the society. Harry Potter follows this classic heroic pattern.

            Harry Potter has extraordinary abilities. He discovers that he is a wizard and therefore has magical powers. Even before he knew he was a wizard he could make strange things happen. For instance, once he made the glass to a snake enclosure disappear when his cousin Dudley was being a jerk; then Dudley fell into the snake enclosure. Another time Harry was being chased by bullies and found himself miraculously transported to the school roof. Once Harry begins training at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry he is able to develop his natural magical abilities. He learns to use his magic wand, fly on a broomstick, and become invisible.

            Classic heroes usually have exceptional physical powers. While Harry is not incredibly strong, he has speed and agility which help him complete many of his tasks. For example, Harry is chosen to be the seeker for the school Quidditch team because of his natural agility on a broomstick. In the muggle (non-magical) world being small is a detriment to Harry. His grossly large cousin, Dudley, repeatedly beat him up and he was  chosen last for sports. In the wizarding world, being small and agile becomes a plus, while battling a large, stupid Mountain Troll or zipping around dodging bludgers in a Quidditch game. Harry also shows natural ability to catch the tiny golden snitch, and win the game.

            Harry’s emotional strength is seen in his bravery. This is first displayed when he stands up to his classmate, Draco Malfoy, a bully who uses his influence and money to antagonize other students. Later his bravery is proven when he battles the evil wizard Voldemort. One can also see Harry’s emotional strength in how he endures the abuse of his foster family and moves on after the death of his parents.

            Another emotional strength in classic heroes is compassion, of which Harry shows plenty. One example is when he buys out the candy cart to share with Ron Weasley who doesn’t have any money for candy. He understands how it feels to be deprived of luxuries because his Aunt and Uncle never gave him money for candy or anything else. Therefore, he shares some of his inherited fortune in generosity to his friend. Having been bullied himself, Harry wanted to protect Neville -- a weaker kid -- from Draco, who was going to throw away the boy’s prized possession. When Harry flew after Draco, to retrieve Neville’s remembrall, he risked getting in trouble to do so. This shows his compassion and bravery. We also see that Harry even showed compassion to animals. When he saw a snake bred in captivity he said he knew how that felt, and helped to free the snake.

            The classic hero is a composite of society’s highest achievable goals and aspirations. Some of these goals and aspirations in our society are that one would be wealthy, famous, brave, hard-working, a good friend, kind, and humble. On Harry Potter’s eleventh birthday he discovered that he was famous in the wizarding world for having survived Voldemort’s curse of death when he was only a baby. When he arrives at Diagon Alley he discovers that his parents had left him a large inheritance in wizard currency. Harry shows his bravery many ways but particularly in that he is the only one -- besides professor Albus Dumbledore - who is not afraid to say Voldemort’s name. Harry shows natural talent for Quidditch, but he also works hard in practice to develop his skills. He also has to work hard in school. Hermione, commends Harry by saying, “Me -- only cleverness and books. There are more important things, like bravery and friendship.” She is obviously referring to qualities she admires in Harry. Even though Harry is famous and wealthy, he remains kind to those others look down on, and remains humble.

            The classic hero is a rescuer, or Savior of a society, not simply of one individual. The threat to the wizarding society comes through Voldemort and his followers. In each book Harry must face Voldemort and keep him from gaining absolute power over the wizarding world. When Harry was a year old, Voldemort tried to kill him but the curse didn’t work. Instead the curse rebounded on the evil wizard and broke his power. The entire wizarding world celebrated the end of Voldemort’s evil reign. Repeatedly, Voldemort attempts to return to full power, but Harry is able to stop him, and thus protect the good wizarding society.

            The hero must undergo a terrible test or trial to prove his worthiness. Harry survives the curse of death, which no one else had ever done. Once he is at Hogwarts, he proves his bravery by bringing down a 12-foot mountain troll that was attacking his friend, Hermione. At the end of the first book, Harry and his friends go through a series of tests -- mental, physical, and magical -- to gain access to the room that contains the Sorcerer’s Stone. Only Harry proceeds all the way. In book two, Harry has to fight and defeat the Basilisk, King of Snakes. Later, in book four, Harry is entered in the Tri-Wizard Tournament wherein he must pass many tests including: fighting a dragon, getting through a maze with a sphinx, and rescuing his friend from an underwater world. Repeatedly, Harry proves his worthiness.

            The heroic mission must be performed away from home. Technically, Harry’s home is with the Dursley’s in the muggle world at 4 Privet Drive. Nearly all of his adventures take place once he has ridden the Hogwart’s Express to Hogwarts or otherwise entered the magical world. When Harry is at home, the Dursley’s don’t see him as anything more than a nuisance. Harry’s heroic missions and trials all take place away from his muggle home.

            Part of the necessary journey typical of classic heroes is a trip to the underworld or to an environment that he cannot control. In the first book, in order to keep the Sorcerer’s Stone from falling into the wrong hands, Harry has to venture under the school through a trap door. This door is guarded by a giant three-headed dog. In classic literature and mythology, the underworld is guarded by a three-headed dog named Ceberus. However, the dog Harry has to get past has a more endearing name -- Fluffy. To complete the parallel to the underworld, Fluffy is guarding a trap door that opens to a realm far beneath the Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry.

            There are many other situations where Harry must go into an environment he cannot control. When he receives detention, Harry must go into the dark forbidden forest. There he is nearly attacked by a creature he observed drinking unicorn blood (later disclosed to be Quirrell and Voldemort). At the end of book two, Harry dared to enter the Chamber of Secrets to rescue Ginny Weasley. This chamber housed a basilisk -- a giant snake -- that could kill a person just by looking him or her in the eye. In the chamber, things were totally out of his control. In the Tri-Wizard Tournament, Harry was required to venture beneath the surface of the lake at Hogwarts. There he saved his friend and others who had been confined there, but he was not sure if they were under a spell or really dying when he rescued them. In book four, Harry was transported -- against his will -- into a graveyard where Voldemort and his followers were waiting. At one point, Harry was tied to a tombstone, at the mercy of Voldemort -- who shows no mercy! In all these ways Harry was in situations totally out of his control.

            In contrast, some of the out-of-control situations Harry faces are much less perilous. For example, at times Harry had to travel by way of floo powder, which Harry finds hard to control. To use floo powder, one must throw it into a fireplace while stepping into the flames and clearly stating the desired destination. Then the traveler careens through a series of chimneys and fireplaces. One time Harry choked on the powder, sputtered the name of the destination, and ended up in the wrong place.

            The hero must take a life-threatening risk, and a gift or benefit is passed to someone as a result. In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry risks his life to keep the Sorcerer’s Stone safe. The Sorcerer’s Stone turns any metal into gold and can be used to make the elixir of life, making the drinker immortal. Harry knew that someone evil was trying to get the stone so they could use it for their sinister design. In order to get to the stone, Harry had to go through the trap door, guarded by Fluffy. He had to escape from the Devil’s Snare, a plant that strangles its victims after providing a soft landing. The three friends, including Harry, had to take part in a life-sized game of wizard’s chess that was particularly violent. In one chamber Harry and Hermione had to choose the correct bottle of potion to drink to move forward or backward; however one of the bottles contained deadly poison. Harry also had to confront whoever was trying to get to the stone for evil purposes. This turned out to be Voldemort, who was working through Professor Quirrell. Voldemort ordered Quirrell to kill Harry, but Harry escaped. As a result of Harry’s courage and selflessness, he retrieved the Sorcerer’s Stone, which he passed on to Professor Dumbledore, the wise and benevolent Headmaster of Hogwarts. Professor Dumbledore destroyed the stone to keep Voldemort from getting it and using it to become immortal with unlimited wealth.

            The classic hero attempts to inspire each individual in the society to behave heroically. While Harry Potter does not tell people that they should be brave or heroic, he leads by example. Harry is an inspiration to many of the students at Hogwarts, particularly Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger, his best friends. At one point, Harry commends Neville Longbottom, a timid boy who is often picked on. This inspires Neville to stand up for himself against two bullies, Crabbe and Goyle. Harry is even admired by Dobby the house-elf -- a former slave to a cruel family -- whom Harry frees in book two. As a result of Harry goodness, Dobby decides to continue to live in freedom and dignity throughout book three.

             At the end of a classical hero tale the hero departs by either dying, taking a trip, or being stripped of his status and joining the society. In Harry Potter, we don’t know the final ending yet because it is a seven-book series, with only four book published so far. However, I don’t think that Harry is going to die in the end, because there is a different pattern developing. Each book in the series covers one school year at Hogwarts. At the end of each book, Harry has to board the Hogwarts Express and travel back to the muggle world, to live with the Dursleys. When he is in the muggle world Harry is stripped of his status as a wizard because he is not allowed to do magic outside of Hogwarts. Despite all of his successes and brave deeds in the wizarding world, Harry is seen as nothing when he lives with the Dursleys. For example, Ron and Hermione want to know if Harry’s aunt and uncle will be proud of him for defeating Voldemort. Harry replies, that they will be sorry he wasn’t killed. So it seems to me that Harry may continue to take a trip at the end of each school year, but perhaps will leave the muggle world when he graduates from Hogwarts to stay in the wizarding society to fulfill his -- as yet undisclosed -- destiny.

            Even though I did not particularly enjoy Beowulf, from the study of that piece of literature, I learned to identify the marks of a classic hero. Beowulf has all of these; most notably, having extraordinary physical abilities, being a composite of society’s highest aspirations, being the savior of an entire society. When staying underwater for a ridiculously long span of time, or accidentally breaking his swords in battle due to sheer brute strength, Beowulf displays tremendous physical strength. Beowulf is definitely an ideal man for that era: he lives and dies with honor, he is brave, and he is well-loved. Finally, when Beowulf defeats Grendel, he rescues a society that had long been living in fear. The characteristics of a classic hero are all in Beowulf, but I find them vastly more entertaining as I see them in Harry Potter.   

J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series got her degree in Classic Literature. Therefore, it’s not surprising that the hero of her books fits most of the criteria of a classic hero. Harry Potter has had a phenomenal impact on culture worldwide. Perhaps this shows how much our world is in need of a modern classical hero during these trying times.