Reading Harry Potter: Critical Essays

Reading Harry Potter: Critical Essays

Reading Harry Potter: Critical Essays

Reading Harry Potter: Critical Essays


J. K. Rowling achieved astounding commercial success with her series of novels about Harry Potter, the boy-wizard who finds out about his magical powers on the morning of his eleventh birthday. The books' incredible popularity, and the subsequent likelihood that they are among this generation's most formative narratives, call for critical exploration and study to interpret the works' inherent tropes and themes. The essays in this collection assume that Rowling's works should not be relegated to the categories of pulp fiction or children's trends, which would deny their certain influence on the intellectual, emotional, and psychosocial development of today's children. The variety of contributions allows for a range of approaches and interpretive methods in exploring the novels, and reveals the deeper meanings and attitudes towards justice, education, race, foreign cultures, socioeconomic class, and gender.

Following an introductory discussion of the Harry Potter phenomenon are essays considering the psychological and social-developmental experiences of children as mirrored in Rowling's novels. Next, the works' literary and historical contexts are examined, including the European fairy tale tradition, the British abolitionist movement, and the public-school story genre. A third section focuses on the social values underlying the Potter series and on issues such as morality, the rule of law, and constructions of bravery.


J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series offers a highly entertaining set of variations on three stock formulae for children's fiction: the initiation of a wizard, the boys' school story, and the story of an orphan recovering from loss to find a place in the world. Especially in the first and fourth volumes (to date, the most recent of the series to be published), these realist and fantasy elements deepen into the mythic. The Forbidden Forest holds creatures from both Greek and medieval Western myth, including centaur and unicorn, in the style of C.S. Lewis's Narnia books. The three-headed dog, Fluffy, of the first book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (published in the United States under the title Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone) is a comical version of the three-headed dog Cerberus that guards the path to the underworld of Greek myth. The Hogwarts crisis of book I concerns the mythic theme of a search for eternal life. Rowling endows unicorn's blood with the power to give life to its drinker, much like the soul-saving blood of Christ, which unicorn's blood represents in medieval bestiary lore, and also like Harry's blood in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. This parallel among unicorn, Christ, and Harry is accentuated when the villain, Lord Voldemort, tortures the young wizard with the forbidden Cruciatus Curse in book IV. Furthering the Christian allusions, Hogwarts's headmaster, Albus Dumbledore, has a phoenix in his study, which has the power to heal any wound with its tears. As in ancient myth, this bird voluntarily dies in flames in order to revive in youthful vitality. Like its miraculous healing virtues, its resurrection from the dead connects it with the figure of Christ. All of these mythic figures, apart from the centaurs, are linked to the human longing to transcend time and death, whether by descending to the underworld and returning unscathed, or by magically gaining eternal life through the use of a talisman, or by being resurrected from death.

Among the human characters who triumph over death, Harry is the most innocent. His first victory occurs before the action of book I begins, when as a one-year-old child he not only survives Voldemort's attack but somehow strips the villain of most of his magical powers. The least innocent of the books' seekers after eternal life is Voldemort, a psychic and physical vampire in book I; in book IV he demands that others give their bone, blood, and flesh so that he can reconstitute his body, Medea-style, in a cauldron. Harry Potter and Voldemort are destined to function as each other's antagonists from the moment when the older wizard's powers mysteriously fail against the infant Harry.

First as a baby and then year by year at Hogwarts School, Harry confronts the much older figure of evil, a man as old as Harry's father would have been if he had not been murdered. The father's murderer, Voldemort, can be understood in terms of the Jungian personal unconscious as the dark double of Harry's father, in light of both their old rivalry and their current significance for Harry (indeed, for all the good wizards). Jung argues that the contents of the personal unconscious have a compensatory function to balance consciousness. What Harry learns about his dead father constitutes James Potter as an ego-ideal for his son, someone to be looked up to as a model; Voldemort functions as a compensatory, monstrous father-figure, repeatedly erupting from the unconscious in terror and malignancy. The struggles between Harry and Voldemort can thus be interpreted as an Oedipal power struggle between the son, ignorant of the whole truth about his past, and the monstrous father-figure, out to destroy his son before his son kills him.

Voldemort has an uncanny resemblance to Harry himself, as both are uncomfortably aware. As an aspect of Harry's shadow, his relationship to the boy becomes ever more complex. In book IV, Voldemort assimilates part of Harry's body when he uses Harry's blood to rebuild an adult human shape for himself. At this point he becomes magically blood-related to Harry, a son to Harry as father, by way of the all-male ritual of his rebirth. As usual, Rowling stresses Harry's innocence, his ignorance of what has been planned, and his complete lack of accountability for Voldemort's acts. Harry is compelled to give blood and bears no responsibility for the monstrous “child” that emerges from the cauldron's womb.

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