The concept of the hero’s journey has been a driving concept throughout Western literature for centuries. It is plainly evident in some of our earliest and most cherished stories, such as the legend of King Arthur in his earlier years, and can even be traced through Beowulf, the earliest piece of English literature to survive to the present day. The word “hero” is defined in several ways. In mythology, a hero is often defined as a man with divine ancestry who demonstrates great strength, physically and morally, and great courage. He is typically celebrated for accomplishing impossible deeds, sometimes for the betterment of mankind, and is always favored by the gods, or at least a majority of them (“Hero,” 2000). A hero is also a person who gains notoriety as a result of showing great courage or nobility of purpose in the accomplishment of a deed or a lifetime (“Aristotle,” 1998). However, when one speaks of the hero’s journey, an entire process is suggested through which an ordinary person transforms themselves into the hero. Many of our cherished stories are based upon the concept of the hero journey, including the wildly popular Harry Potter books. To illustrate this, the concept of the hero journey will be clearly identified and then applied to the first book of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.
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The hero’s journey has been called by a number of different names, perhaps the most accurate of which was employed by psychologist and theorist Carl Jung. Terming the process ‘individuation,’ Jung separates the concept of the journey from the concept of the hero. Individuation is the three-stage process by which Jung indicated we matured into full adults. Although Harry Potter does not reach adulthood by the end of this novel, he does reach a higher level of maturity and self-possession. The first of these stages is when we become aware that some kind of action is required. “Some kind of shock occurs that makes one aware of the self” (Garbis, 2002). This shock initiates the maturation process typically around the early teen years and is an essential element of the hero journey. As will be discussed, this stage begins for Harry during his tenth year, just as he’s entering his teen years. The second stage is termed the initiation stage, and it usually takes place during the teen years as individuals begin separating from their parents. It is during this phase of the individuation process in which the primary action of the hero myth occurs. “Jung says that unless we pass through this second stage, the individual can’t really become an adult. The function of the hero myth is to develop a person’s awareness of his strengths and weaknesses in order to face life’s problems” (Garbis, 2002). This process, as will be discussed, occurs throughout Harry’s stay at Hogwart’s. Within this myth, the death or near-death of the hero functions as a key to the concept that the individual has gained maturity and has been reborn into the image of the father or mentor. This third stage of the individuation process is known as transcendence and is that stage in the maturation process in which the unconscious and the conscious minds merge to enable the person to experience their full potential. For Harry, this will occur near the end of the novel.
Within Rowling’s novel, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the main character Harry takes up the Hero archetype as a literal student under the tutelage of Dumbledore as the wise man. The first phase of the individuation process is started as Harry begins receiving mysterious letters that both reveal to him that there is something larger and better in the world than anything he has known in his life to this point, as well as the ridiculous nature of his relatives, something he had always suspected but now has proof. The discovery that there is a reason behind the strange things that have happened to him and the arrival of Hagrid comprise the initial shock that jolts Harry into the hero process. While it is difficult to deny the mysterious and strange arrival of letters strangely intent upon finding their intended receiver, Hagrid’s arrival is undeniable and capable of explaining, at least to some extent, the increasing mystery surrounding Harry. Harry’s moment of initiation can be seen as he sits in front of the fire at the cabin on the rock, and Hagrid had just asked the question that would illuminate Harry’s mind. Although Harry seriously doubted Hagrid’s assertions that Harry was a wizard, when Hagrid asks Harry if he’d never made anything happen when he was scared or angry, he forces Harry to stop and review. “Now he came to think about it … every odd thing that had ever made his aunt and uncle furious with him had happened when he, Harry, had been upset or angry … dreading going to school with that ridiculous haircut, he’d managed to make it grow back” (Rowling 1997: 58). At this moment, Harry accepts that he might be a wizard and becomes anxious to explore the world this new side of him has opened up.
Harry arrives at Hogwarts as a young boy learning how to perform magic and must face an immediate challenge that forces him to begin defining himself. He takes up the hero role as he slowly begins to define himself within this new world. At every turn, Harry is given the opportunity to choose from among several choices that will help shape and define the man he will become. In each of these ‘tests,’ Harry is asked to decide whether or not he will accept his status as a wizard; how to respond to inordinate, unexplained attention and admiration; how much money (or greed) to display when confronted with a wizard fortune; which wand to choose; what type of animal he wishes to be associated with; what house to belong to; and the list goes on and on. With each choice he makes, the character reveals himself at the same time that he is discovering what is important to him. As the Sorting Hat is placed on his head in the great hall, Harry has already had the opportunity to learn a great deal about the various houses of the school. While he seems to already be predisposed to Gryffindor because of the people he’s met so far, he does not dare to tell the hat that’s where he’d like to be. Instead, he knows exactly where he doesn’t want to be. As the Sorting Hat whispers its assessment of Harry’s character, deliberating on where to place him, Harry does nothing but think over and over again, “Not Slytherin” (Rowling 1997: 121). The hat informs him of what he’s giving up, “Are you sure? You could be great, you know; it’s all here in your head, and Slytherin will help you on the way to greatness, no doubt about that” (Rowling 1997: 121). However, at Harry’s implied continued insistence on not going to Slytherin, the hat places him in Gryffindor, the house known most for its courage, sincerity, and humanitarian nature. As Harry struggles to survive through his first year at Hogwarts, both learning how to be a wizard and attempting to survive the attacks of the weakened Voldemort in disguise, he is helped by his friends and gently guided by the essential figure of the Wise Man in the form of Dumbledore.
The final phase of the hero journey is the transcendent phase, in which the hero undergoes a symbolic death as a means of indicating that he has passed to the next level of being. This phase occurs in Harry’s journey near the end of the book as Harry finds himself faced with a dual challenge. First, he encounters the Mirror of Erised again, a mirror that displays to the viewer an image of his heart’s desire and typically shows Harry an image of himself standing together with his long-dead parents. As Dumbledore has already warned him, the mirror “gives neither knowledge nor truth. Men have wasted away before it, entranced by what they have seen, or been driven mad, not knowing if what it shows is real or even possible” (Rowling 1997: 213). At the same time, Harry encounters Professor Quirrel, the host body for the evil Voldemort, who has been attempting to both kill Harry and gain access to the Sorcerer’s Stone, a legendary stone that can convey everlasting life. In this final test, Harry realizes he must lie in order to do the right thing, and his greatest desire shifts to become one of keeping the Sorcerer’s Stone out of the grasp of the evil wizard. As a result of this shift in his thinking, this is exactly what the mirror shows him, depositing the stone in Harry’s pocket at the same time. However, in order to defeat the evil wizard, Harry must face death as he realizes the poisonous effect his touch has on Quirrel. Despite his losing sense of consciousness, Harry remains strongly griping Quirrel’s arms as the other wizard screams in agony and pain. As Dumbledore later informs him, “the effort involved nearly killed you” (Rowling 1997: 297). This symbolic death opens Harry up for his transcendence, as he learns more from Dumbledore regarding the true nature of the universe as he discovers it was love that protected him from his enemy and his own lack of selfishness that enabled him to succeed.
Throughout Rowling’s first novel, the hero’s journey is presented in almost textbook fashion. Harry must first receive a shock that introduces him to the world of wizardry and prepares him to accept that it is a world in which he might belong. His initiation process occurs as he learns more about wizardry and must begin to solve his own way through this world, shaping and defining himself internally by choosing carefully among options that will help to shape and define him externally. He is gently and subtly guided through this process by a Wise Man, another essential element of the hero journey, in the form of Professor Dumbledore. Finally, Harry faces his final and most difficult test as he faces, alone, his greatest desire and his most deadly enemy and nearly dies in the process, thus completing the final phase of the hero journey. Through this experience, Harry is able to gain a deeper understanding of the nature of the universe as he discovers the power of love, friendship, and lack of greed.
“Aristotle.” Critica Links. The University of Hawaii. (1998).
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“Hero.” The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th Ed.). New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000.
Jung, Carl. The Portable Jung. New York: Penguin, 1976.
Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. New York: Scholastic, 1997.