Epic Hero Spotlight: Harry Potter and the Hero of a Thousand Faces

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In 1949, mythologist (apparently this is an actual title) Joseph Campbell published The Hero with a Thousand Faces. In it, he outlines his theory of the “monomyth,” the concept of a certain structure which is found in a variety of epic narratives depicting heroic journeys all over the world. In working all this out, Campbell worked with heroes from ancient mythology (Prometheus, Hercules), literature (Beowulf), and religion (Moses, Christ, Buddha). However, Campbell’s monomyth persisted well past the writing of Thousand Faces and into a deeply satisfying amount of pop culture. Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and The Hunger Games (arguably) all contain examples of the Epic Hero mold. My very favorite? So favorite I wrote essays about him? Three times? For three different classes?

Harry Potter.

PLEASE NOTE that if you have, in fact, spent the last decade or so under a rock, there are spoilers ahead!

Now, the monomyth as Campbell drew it up has several pieces of specific criteria – the various steps a Hero is required to go through in his journey to be considered genuinely Epic. A certain amount of leeway is given; basically if you hit more than half of these pieces of criteria, you’re in the clear. There are a few different lists that adapt Campbell’s original, but the Big Bad List, Campbell’s very own, outlines seventeen separate pieces of criteria. Seventeen is kind of a lot, yeah, but hey, Harry’s got seven books, right? So let’s see how many we can tick off.

 In order to be really, truly, and properly Epic, a Hero must:

1: Be Called to Adventure. Well, duh. “You’re a wizard, Harry.” That line alone is probably one of the most famous calls to adventure in history. It is in this moment that Harry has his identity revealed to him and begins his journey into the Wizarding World. In only four words, too. That’s pretty impressive, you have to admit. Frodo needed all kinds of convincing before he finally got to it and did his thing.

2: Refuse the Call. Harry doesn’t do this EXACTLY, but he spends a good portion of the first book in disbelief and subtle denial. He goes to sleep after that first visit from Hagrid convinced that he’s going to wake up having dreamt the whole thing. He doesn’t refuse it, exactly, but it does take a little time for him to accept it. (Incidentally, the Refusal as a criteria refers specifically to the Hero’s return to his mundane familiar life between receiving the Call and actually beginning the journey. Although he doesn’t quite perform the refusal, Harry does the return to familiarity in the books. After his trip to Diagon Alley, he returns to Privet Drive for another month before beginning his “journey” in earnest.)

3: Acquire Supernatural Aid. This refers to a guide or mentor with supernatural power (think Merlin), or it can refer to a magical talisman that provides the Hero with consistent aid. Harry gets both these things, and in goddamn ABUNDANCE. For one thing, he attends a school staffed entirely by magical mentors. For another, in the very beginning he acquires his wand, the single most important tool for the remainder of his journey from there on out. If we’re being strict on the order of operations here, the wand is obviously the aid Campbell had in mind. However, the magical mentors (in the form of Hogwarts professors) bit is perfectly valid.

4: Cross the First Threshold. This is the point at which the hero leaves his known world behind. It doesn’t necessarily mean a physical threshold, like the Narnian wardrobe, but in Harry’s case, he actually has two possibilities once again. The magical gateway between the Leaky Cauldron and Diagon Alley – or even the Leaky Cauldron itself – serves as a literal barrier between the Muggle and Wizarding worlds. Harry must cross that barrier in order to enter the world he’ll ultimately become a part of. A better one though, at least in my opinion, is Platform 9 ¾. For one thing, it’s truly iconic moment, and the epitomous gateway in the minds of most fans. For another, it occurs neatly AFTER steps 1, 2, and 3, and therefore truly begins Harry’s journey.

5: Enter the “Belly of the Whale”. Okay…here’s where it starts to get complicated. Steps 1-4 are pretty basic, recognizable things. You can apply them to almost any piece of genre fiction. From here on in, the steps are in a suggested and basically sensible but non-concrete order. They can (and do) get switched around some. The “belly of the whale” is the last in the five steps of departure, the transition of the Hero from his familiar life to his ultimate journey, and it’s easily the most…well, weird. It’s symbolic of rebirth, and it doesn’t represent a physical occurrence so much as a spiritual one. The Hero is transformed in some, generally intangible, way, and he begins to identify not as his former (or Muggle) self but as his new (Wizarding) self. He is totally and irrevocably immersed in his new world. I consider this point to be Harry’s ordeal with the Sorting Hat. It’s a tradition specific to the Wizarding World; it’s totally unfamiliar to someone still reliant on a Muggle consciousness. It combines multiple levels of unfamiliarity in magic, unknown knowledge, and unfamiliar ritual. Furthermore, it sees Harry sorted into Gryffindor House, giving him a place to call home and a new identity. He has now, in many ways, cut every possible tie available to an 11-year-old with the world he came from.

6: Begin the Road of Trials. I’m not going to go into this much in depth, because it’s such a basic concept that anyone reading could probably fill in the blanks for me. (Which defeats the purpose of writing anything, one could say, but that’s beside the point.) The main reason I won’t go into it much is because the concept is pretty non-specific. The classics have Hercules and his labors, or Odysseus and his steady stream of screw-ups that keep him from getting home. Harry Potter, being both modern novels and a 7 book series, don’t really work that way. He has a steady and growing set of trials from book to book, leading up to a great big heaping trial that occupies most of book 6 and all of book 7. However, he does pay a nice homage to the classic list-of-bad-things type of trials in the first book. In order to acquire the Philosopher’s/Sorcerer’s stone, he has to put a three-headed dog to sleep; defeat a man-crushing plant; catch a flying key; play a potentially lethal game of chess; avoid drinking poison using a riddle; and get a rock out of a mirror without touching anything. The ancient Greeks and Romans would have been all over this. Likewise each of the tasks in the Triwizard Tournament, a more extended and literal Road of Trials. (One could argue that Harry only does about half of all these on his own, but the monomyth theory assumes that the hero is a) male and b) at the very least, post-pubescent. At these points, Harry is only one of these things.)

7: Meet with the Goddess. The Goddess in the journey of the Hero is a complicated figure. She can be representative of one of two things: a figure of motherhood and protection, or a figure of true and/or pure love. Here, again, we have two possibilities, one a little bit stronger than the other. Hermione, it could be said, is representative of the Goddess figure. The Goddess is often tasked with granting the Hero some kind of particular aid or protection, and J.K. Rowling has admitted herself that Hermione makes an excellent human deus ex machina. She, perhaps more than any other character, is responsible for giving Harry knowledge he would not otherwise know how to find and for watching over him to make sure he doesn’t do anything stupid. Perhaps even more compelling, however, is the idea that Professor Dumbledore fulfills the Goddess role in Harry’s journey. The Goddess is implied to be a figure of immense power, much greater than the Hero’s, and of extreme compassion. Dumbledore fits both of these characteristics. He also serves as both a protector of Harry, a father figure, and a guide leading him step-by-step through his destined purpose. He is in many ways the grand overseer of Harry’s life, though Harry dosn’t learn just how involved he has been until the very end. This interpretation of the Goddess meeting is relatively modern and more abstracted than Campbell envisioned it. His interpretation was intended to be referred to the presence of romantic and courtly love in the life of a the Hero, and considered to be one of the greatest goals of the Epic journey. However, as we’ve mentioned, Harry spends most of his time in the series as a child or young adolescent. Love – at least of the romantic kind – is not a central issue. The love of friends and family is extremely important, but romance? It makes the odd appearance, but it’s really not that important to the development of his journey. Which brings us to the next point…

8: Meet with the Temptress. Like the Goddess figure, the Temptress is an abstract concept which Campbell posited is generally represented by a female figure. Again, Campbell refers to her with similar specificity as the Goddess, but instead of being representative of pure and courtly love, the Temptress is representative of lust and temptation. Also like the Goddess, this concept has been modernized into something more abstract. In the abstract interpretation, the Temptress is less of a physical, lustful being and more of a representation of the Hero’s flaws – the material or spiritual things in his life which might deter him from his greater purpose. If we’re to look at it in this sense, than the Temptress figure in Harry’s life (again represented by a male) is his godfather, Sirius Black. Although loving, well-meaning, and a pivotal father figure, Sirius serves as a significant and sometimes dangerous distraction. His offer in Prisoner of Azkaban for Harry to leave his relatives and live with him should he be exonerated from his crimes (note: he is not) is certainly tempting. We only find out much later in the books that this would have been disastrous, since his living with his Muggle relatives was a protection against Voldemort. It also distracts Harry from the matters at hand, and he quickly loses control of the situation. It’s also a vision of Sirius being tortured in Order of the Phoenix that brings Harry to the Department of Mysteries, only to discover that he was fooled. This leads to a chain of events resulting in Sirius’ death, which distracts Harry further in Half-Blood Prince, this time with grief. Meetings with or issues connecting to Sirius Black consistently lead to troubles which make Harry’s journey more difficult. Although Sirius cares very much for Harry and has no malicious intent regarding him, he serves to play an unintentionally sinister role in his godson’s life.

9: Atone with the Father. The Father figure is another classic archetype, in this case referring to a power in the Hero’s life which he both defers to and is somehow at odds with. Atonement requires that the Hero confront the Father figure and somehow begin to understand it and come to terms with its place in his life. It’s one of the most important moments in the journey of any Epic Hero – the confrontation with a symbolic past, trauma, or regret. Probably because Harry’s story is somewhat non-linear – it contains multiple “journeys” leading up to a great final one – he performs this step multiple times. He confronts the mystery of his past, his survival in the face of death, and the loss of his parents in the first book. In the third, he discovers that the godfather he didn’t know he had is a convicted murderer, and later in the book discovers further that in fact, he was innocent, and a decent, loving man. In the seventh book, he is given cause to doubt the sincerity and virtue of Dumbledore, only to have it reaffirmed to him later on. Finally, Voldemort, who in some ways is the most literal of the “fathers” in Harry’s life, is found to have attached a piece of his own soul to Harry’s, forcing Harry to both accept that his greatest enemy is a part of him and to reject it with a direct confrontation with him. In a way, in defeating the most powerful, most influential, and most destructive force in his life, Harry must call upon the strength of the myriad of lost Fathers and influencing forces to do so. He uses the figure of one (or many) Father/s in order to confront and atone with another.

10: Experience an Apotheosis. This is one step that Harry completes pretty literally. Apotheosis, by definition, is the elevation of a person to a god-like status. In monomythic terms, it refers more basically to a Hero’s death (literal or figurative) and resurrection, or restoration, to a more complete and enlightened self. Harry, in a nutshell, does just that. He dies. He really, truly dies, although he is held in a kind of stasis which allows him to make the choice to proceed into the afterlife or to return to his physical self. When he makes the choice to return, the piece of Voldemort’s soul that was inside of him is destroyed. He returns to his own world a more whole being in the sense that he no longer has this parasitic darkness latched onto him.

11: Acquire the Ultimate Boon. Like the Atonement with the Father, this is another step that Harry performs several seperate times, simply because he has several seperate adventures or quests. In a way, each book contains its own boon in the way that almost every book contains its own confrontation and atonement. It’s just part of the structure of the stories. The greatest, most ultimate boon in the overarching context of the story is, of course, the quest for the Horcruxes. However, each book contains its own quest within the larger context. The Philosopher’s/Sorcerer’s stone, the Chamber of Secrets, the Triwizard Trophy, the prophecy in the Department of Mysteries, and each of the Horcruxes in the last two books are all legitimate boons or talismans. It is the object acquired at the end of the quest. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is unique in that there is no single tangible object which is the purpose of their quest. In this case, the sought-after boon is information and clarity.

12: Magic Flight/Be Rescued from Without. I combine these two because they’re very similar. In a nutshell, the Hero must be saved. He has to return. In some spurt of magic, fate, luck, or deus ex machina, the Hero is pulled from his most dire spot at the end of his journey. Harry experiences this most literally in books 2, 3, and 4 – respectively, Fawkes’ flight from the Chamber of Secrets; Buckbeak’s flight through the Hogwarts grounds to save Sirius Black; and the Triwizard Cup portkey. (Please note that although two of these involve literal flight, actually flying is not required. As long as it’s a random occurrence that pulls the Hero out of a sticky spot so you don’t have to watch an entire journey back, it’s a Magic Flight. Imagine if you had to read Sam and Frodo’s entire walk BACK to the Shire? You’d go nuts. They’d die first, actually, but really, nobody wants to read all that. So, storytellers invented the cop-out.)

13: Refuse to Return. Having completed Phase Two, the Initiation, the Hero typically has difficulty returning the way things were. Harry, being a minor and under official guardianship of his relatives outside the Wizarding World, is incapable of actually refusing. He has to go home at the end of each book, whether he likes it or not. However, he is frequently vocal about his regret at having to return to a place where he is not special, not able to be who he is in his new world.

14: Cross the Return Threshold. Essentially the inverse of Crossing the Threshold. The Hero has been, seen and conquered – now he has to proceed back. After the struggle or refusal, eventually, he must return. Part of the Hero’s journey is to cope with leaving the world he’s saved or been a part of and having to pass among the mundane. Harry does this each time he returns to the Muggle world. We don’t see much of him in the Muggle world after book four or so, but from what we do see, we know that it’s a struggle. It’s not clear how much of that is his difficult relatives or simply missing the Wizarding World.

15: Become Master of Two Worlds. Harry Potter inhabits a dual world from the very beginning. This step requires that the Hero become competent and comfortable in both worlds as well as move freely between both, and Harry has little trouble doing that. This may in fact be one of the few pieces of criteria in which Harry’s youth is a benefit rather than a complication. He adapts very easily from one world to another, having spent so much time in both. Interestingly, Mastery of Two Worlds is a specialized trait that not all Heroes necessarily have. The two most significant Epic Heroes that Campbell suggested mastered this trait? Christ and Buddha. Christ, Buddha, and Harry. It starts sounding like a supernatural boy band.

16: Experience the Freedom to Live. This is, I believe, the single most important feature of Harry’s personal heroic journey. The Freedom to Live, as Campbell describes it, is the ability for the hero, having completed the ultimate quest, to proceed through the remainder of his life without fear of death. This is absolutely seminal to Harry’s development. Voldemort, his greatest enemy, is defined by his fear of death, and his horrific attempts to avoid it. Harry only conquers his enemy when he is able to face death, as Rowling says, “Like an old friend”. As Voldemort is defined by his fear of death, Harry becomes defined by his lack thereof. He dies and is resurrected, but he goes into that death fully believing that it will be for good. He conquers Voldemort’s greatest fear before conquering even Voldemort himself. Of every step Harry takes, every piece of this epic journey of his, this is the single most important, the very crux of everything his life was meant to stand for. If this is the defining trait of the Epic Hero, then Harry Potter deserves every bit of his place in the great pantheon alongside Beowulf, Odysseus, and Frodo.

Have any other comments or ideas? Agreements or disagreements? Admonishment for writing a post this long? Post below! 😀

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2 thoughts on “Epic Hero Spotlight: Harry Potter and the Hero of a Thousand Faces

  1. Interesting. Some of my heroes follow some of the steps, though not all 16. Honestly, there is no law in writing a hero. One simply writes what one thinks is right and let the readers be the judge.

    • Absolutely true! There’s no law, but there are patterns that, for one reason or another, tend to emerge, particularly in Western storytelling. Campbell’s theses don’t outline laws, only consistent patterns. It’s interesting that still, from Hercules to Harry, these patterns remain imprinted on us as human beings and inveterate storytellers. The Epic Hero pattern is just one, very (almost unfairly) specific pattern. 🙂

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