The Hero’s Journey in Harry Potter: From Ancient Greece to Now
Inside the pages of the first book Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, we find an 11-year old boy represent what we, across various cultures, call a “hero”. While this term was not coined for the plot to Harry Potter, it has, in fact, been used since the beginning of story-telling. The concept of a “hero” and the “hero’s journey” that arises along with the character, is a concept that has remained stagnant from Ancient Greek myths to contemporary novels, such as Harry Potter. The novel of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone leaves no differences between JK Rowling’s version of a hero and Joseph Campbell’s interpretation. In comparison to this novel, the myth of Psyche follows the same outline of the hero’s journey in a similar fashion. Although these stories may comprise of different symbols as well as representations, the main themes remain (Moreillon). In this essay, I will delve into the concept of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, and how it pertains to two vastly different works from two vastly different eras— Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and the Greek myth of Psyche and Cupid— to find similitudes as well as differences.
The notion that all heroes are the same isn’t too far off. You see, every hero must take a journey, whether it be physical or emotional, in order to achieve a goal (Vogler, 1). Most protagonists inadvertently fit the Hero archetype to a T, so is the case with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. In novels, we are first introduced to the hero as the first step of the Hero’s Journey, where we get a view into their “Ordinary World”, as the step implies (Vogler, 2). Harry Potter is introduced as a scrawny kid who often finds himself unable to fit in. The Dursleys, the family who had chosen to take care of him after the untimely death of both of his parents, are presented as one of the main issues in young Harry’s life. Although unknown to Harry, he is the son of two very well-known wizards, Lily and James Potter. Harry is never quite respected in his household, always being put to work—cooking and cleaning for the Dursleys—and sent to live in a small space under the staircase (Rowling, 13-15). Having lived in a cupboard under the stairs practically his entire life, Harry would have never guessed what fate awaited him. On the other hand, Psyche’s upbringing greatly differed from Harry’s, given that she was the daughter of a king and a queen. However, they do compare greatly in the manner to which they were treated leading up to their call of adventure (the second step of the Hero’s Journey). Harry Potter was accustomed to living in a cupboard under his staircase while Psyche had been sent to live in a mountain, where a monstrous husband would await her (Bulfinch, 84-85). Both Harry and Psyche are left lonely and secluded in their lives prior to departing for their adventure. Another similarity that both our modern and our ancient hero share is that fate would play a bigger role in their lives than both individuals would anticipate.
As the reader finally begins to gain a better understanding of the hero in our stories, the Hero’s journey truly begins with their “Call to Adventure”. The second step mainly looks to disrupt the “Ordinary World” of the hero and really get the ball rolling on the commencement of the journey that lies ahead (Vogler, 3). For Harry, it was on the night of his 11th birthday, when fate knocks on his door in the shape of a burly man named Hagrid. Harry, ridden with disbelief at Hagrid’s confession that Harry is a wizard, refuses to believe that another life awaited him (Rowling, 39). The short-lived denial soon turns in an anticipated adventure, however, as Harry begins alongside his mentor. In a similar fashion, Psyche’s “call to adventure” begins with the introduction of a certain someone — Cupid. In both stories, the “call to adventure” overlaps with the “meeting the mentor” stage, where both Harry as well as Psyche are called to adventure by their mentors (Vogler, 3). Rather than fulfilling the mission that was thrusted upon him by Venus, Cupid accidently shoots himself with one of his arrows when he sees Psyche’s incomparable beauty himself (Bulfinch, 83-84). Cupid, with the complete intention of obeying his mother, does not actually fulfill the request of Venus, instead falling in love with his victim, launching the adventure that Psyche would soon embark on. As opposed to Harry, who had first denied his call to adventure, Psyche accepts her fate that no man would ever long to marry her and that she would live her life on a mountaintop.
The commitment to the journey that the hero possesses makes itself real when the hero must finally “cross the threshold” that separates their Ordinary World, to the adventure that awaits them (Vogler, 3). Harry Potter crosses the threshold from his ordinary world into the magical wizarding world the minute he steps foot into Diagon Alley (Rowling, 55). Little to Harry’s knowledge, the sudden appearance of Hagrid and his stepping foot into an unknown world would never allow him to be the same. In the case of Psyche, acknowledging the fact that the rest of her life would-be lived in isolation on a mountaintop was the “crossing of the threshold”, where Psyche must confront the fate that awaits her.
Finally, having crossed the threshold, our heroes’ will begin to face tests, encounter allies, and confront enemies (Vogler, 4). It was at the King’s Cross station where Ron is first introduced to Harry, already helping him integrate into the magical world. They meet on Platform 9 ¾ where Ron aids him in crossing into the barrier separating the two worlds (Rowling, 72-73). Hermione is first introduced on the train on the way to Hogwarts, where her first appearance already foreshadows that she would be the ‘brains’ within the small group of wizards (Rowling, 84). Ron and Hermione would prove to be the best assistance that Harry will need to overcome each and every challenge that lies ahead of him. As opposed to Harry’s assistance, which is ultimately all positive and reinforces his role as a hero, Psyche’s assistance, while helpful, is not all positive. Psyche receives assistance from her sisters, who make her question who it is she is truly married to, causing her to doubt everything around her (Bulfinch, 85-86). Her sisters plant the seed of doubt that ultimately causes Psyche to go against the wishes of her supposed ‘monster’ husband (Bulfinch, 85). Her assistance mainly derives, however, from Cupid, especially when fulfilling her trials. While not always being physically present throughout the story, Cupid plays a leading role in making sure that Psyche would succeed in completing the trials and remain unharmed (Bulfinch, 88-89). In other words, Harry has his friends and their physical presence to help him through every trials and obstacle thrown at him, while Psyche must solely rely on herself and the hope that someone would come to her aid which they always did.
Along with every typical hero, Harry and Psyche too had a road of trials lying ahead of them. Harry’s first year at Hogwarts, would prove to be a difficult trial within itself. The first challenge he faces occurs in King’s Cross station attempting to cross Platform 9 and ¾ (Rowling, 72-72). Of course, this is only achieved with the assistance from the Weasleys, Ron’s family. Ultimately, each challenge faced by Harry are meant to test his weaknesses, and at this point his main weakness is his serious lack of knowledge and experience with magic. He attended Hogwarts to learn magic after all, a task not perfected by many, but very quickly got the hang of it. Stepping into Hogwarts, Harry must pass a trial that in the moment seems insignificant but would later prove to have determined where his fate lies. The sorting hat in chapter seven would ultimately choose whether Harry will join the Gryffindor house, a house in which his friends and parents belong to, or the Slytherin House, a house that Harry perceives to house only malicious wizards (Rowling, 96-97). The trials that followed would each prove to be more difficult than the ones prior (Bronzite). But, our hero never falters. Harry successfully fulfills the Quidditch trials (Rowling, 148-149), as well as the tedious trip through the Dark Forest, a place not ventured by many (Rowling, 198-199). The troll in the Hogwarts bathroom isn’t an easy trial either but proves to be no match for our young hero (Rowling, 139-141). His first year at Hogwarts concludes following his final and most strenuous trial of all: passing the tests to finally reach the Sorcerer’s Stone. These tests included getting past Fluffy, the three-headed dog guarding the sorcerer’s Stone (Rowling, 220-221), surviving devil’s snare (Rowling, 222-223), getting through a room full of keys (Rowling, 224), and winning a dangerous game of wizard’s chess (Rowling, 225-226).
Just like in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Psyche too has a series of trials that she must complete to proceed through her hero’s journey. Venus enlists Psyche to complete three trials, taking full advantage of her vulnerability and love for Cupid. The first task asked of Psyche consists of separating mountains of wheat, barley, millet, vetches, beans, and lentils (Bulfinch, 88). What seemed like an impossible trial for Psyche was soon accomplished with the aiding of Cupid, who sent ants to her rescue ensuring that the task be fulfilled, and the grains be separated in time (Bulfinch, 88). Following this trial, Venus orders Psyche to gather golden fleece from hostile and dangerous sheep. With the help of a river god, Psyche successfully obtains the golden fleece to return to Venus. The final trial to prove whether Psyche is worthy of Cupid in the first place is the most dangerous task of all three. Her mission is to visit Proserpine in the underworld, carrying a box filled with her beauty to deliver it to Venus (Bulfinch, 89-90). The problem is that the only way to get to the Underworld is to first die. However, thanks to the voice in her head, she finds a way to successfully go to and from the Underworld intact (Bulfinch, 89). However, as opposed to Harry who does not seek the majority of the trials he undergoes, Psyche’ trials are brought about due to her initial inability to trust her husband Cupid. The reason that Psyche had to pass through all the trials to win back her husband, was because she lost his trust in the first place.
After successfully getting through the many trials that Harry, Ron, and Hermione had to face, the final trial was solely catered to Harry. After winning the brutal game of wizard’s chess (Stage: Approach to the Inmost Cave), due to Ron’s sacrifice, Harry finally came face to face with his nemesis, Voldemort, who hid his presence within a professor at Hogwarts (Rowling, 236-237). Essentially, his goal is to keep the Sorcerer’s Stone out of the hands of evil. A task which he successfully completes. While Harry’s approach to the innermost cave deals with saving the world from the disastrous that is Voldemort, Psyche’s approach isn’t as crucial to the rest of the world. Psyche’s approach essentially deals with the most dangerous task that she is entrusted with by Venus. Her task is to visit the Underworld, namely Proserpine, and retrieve a box filled with Proserpine’s beauty to deliver back to Venus (Bulfinch, 89-90). Although the task may seem simple, it basically means that in order to travel to the Underworld, Psyche must perform a tragic and irreversible action.
The true test that Harry Potter must face, or the “Ordeal” as Joseph Campbell puts it, is defeating Voldemort who is allied with Professor Quirrell, and worse — he must complete the feat alone, with no assistance from his friends or trusted advisors (Vogler, 4). Throughout the book, Harry has lived in fear of so-called “He Who Must Not Be Named,” the man that killed his parents, the man that changed his life forever—Voldemort. In order to do this, Harry has to face his fears and defeat Voldemort once and for all, something that he does not take lightly. Harry takes the Stone, the item that Voldemort had been after, from the Mirror of Erised, and destroys Voldemort (Rowling, 237-238). On the other hand, the ordeal that Psyche must encounter is her final task, travelling to the Underworld without resorting to killing herself to achieve it. She travels to the Underworld successfully but has yet to get past the ferryman, Charon, and the watchdog, Cerberus, a creature very similar to Fluffy. Furthermore, once those unimaginable tasks are achieved, Venus’ demand is yet to be fulfilled. Psyche must deliver back a box holding Proserpine’s beauty within it. Both of our hero’s Harry and Psyche must face the potential threat of death in order to reach the end game.
Harry proves successful in his ultimate quest, finally defeating Voldemort for the time being and returning with the treasure or “reward”, the Sorcerer’s Stone (Vogler, 5). There are multiple things that can be considered the “reward” in this book. The most obvious treasure is obtaining the Sorcerer’s Stone, but along with this, Harry and his friends also win the House Cup (Rowling, 246-247). While the reward in Harry’s case is more material and tangible, Psyche’s treasure is successfully getting the box of Proserpine’s beauty to Venus as well as getting Cupid, her husband, back (Bulfinch, 98-90).
Harry wakes up, or is resurrected, in the Hogwarts hospital after defeating his nemesis, Voldemort, completing Campbell’s stage of “Resurrection” (Vogler, 5). He wakes up a hero to all, gaining more confidence within himself as a wizard as well as the House Cup for Gryffindor given to him due to his bravery, as well as his friends’. While in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the crisis is already contained for the time being, in Psyche’s journey trouble still awaits. This trouble is mainly due to Psyche’s insatiable curiosity as to what exactly is in the box and whether it can be shared with her (Bulfinch, 89). However, Psyche’s resurrection is quite similar to Harry’s in that they both wake up in a dazed and confused state but ultimately wake up in a better situation, absolved of trouble (Bulfinch, 89). Both heroes, Harry and Psyche, are rescued by those who assisted them along their journey.
The resolution in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone story lies when Dumbledore destroys the Sorcerer’s Stone, putting an end to the potential threat that Voldemort being brought back to in his true form could have brought. While in Harry’s case all his obstacles ultimately led to absolving the world of Voldemort’s evil, the resolution in Psyche’s story led to her becoming a goddess living on Mt. Olympus by the side of her loving husband, Cupid (Bulfinch, 90).
As Harry’s first year at Hogwarts draws to a close, he returns to his status quo, the final stage of the Hero’s Journey (Bronzite). He once again joins the Dursleys in the muggle world, but Harry returns a new and improved person as well as a more experienced and confident wizard (Bronzite). He returns as someone who has learned a great deal about himself and what he is capable of. In a similar fashion, Psyche doesn’t really return to her ordinary world. In both cases, Harry’s or Psyche’s life will never be the same. Harry will go on to become a more skilled wizard, while Psyche will go on to live an immortal life on Mt. Olympus alongside her husband.
Overall, the majority of stories intersect with one commonality — the same universal structure that make up the Hero’s Journey. The similarities among both works speak for themselves where both heroes, while vastly different in terms of character, geographic location and time period, share the same theme (Moreillon). It can be seen that the concept of a “hero” and the “hero’s journey” is spread across cultures, as we realize the universal concept of a hero is all the same.
- Bronzite, Dan. “The Hero’s Journey – Mythic Structure of Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth.” Movie Outline – Screenwriting Software, www.movieoutline.com/articles/the-hero-journey- mythic-structure-of-joseph-campbell-monomyth.html.
- “Cupid and Psyche.” The Age of Fable, or, Stories of Gods and Heroes, by Thomas Bulfinch. The Heritage Press, 1995.
- Moreillon, Judi. “The Hero’s Journey in Global Literature: Where the Mountain Meets the Moon • Worlds of Words.” Worlds of Words, 5 Feb. 2019, wowlit.org/blog/2012/03/05/the- heros-journey-in-global-literature-where-the-mountain-meets-the-moon/.
- Rowling, JK. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Turtleback Books, 2013.
- Vogler, Christopher. The Stages of the Hero’s Journey. www.tlu.ee/~rajaleid/montaazh/Hero%27s%20Journey%20Arch.pdf.