Harry must descend into the Underworld, the realm of the dead, traditionally situated below the world of the living.
Harry descends into deathly danger, overcomes his personal hell and returns renewed. Every ‘Harry Potter’ book contains a variation on this symbolic journey.
Often the descent is literal: through the trapdoor to save the Philosopher’s Stone or, for ‘Order of the Phoenix’, into the underground Department of Mysteries within the subterranean Ministry of Magic.
In ‘Chamber of Secrets’, Harry begins his downward journey in the ghost Moaning Myrtle’s bathroom, rescues maiden-in-distress Ginevra Weasley, is saved by his faith in the bearded and god-like Dumbledore, and ascends victorious. This is myth rewritten.
DRAG ME TO HELL
‘Prisoner of Azkaban’ serves up a false finale, or dissenting descent, to toy with our expectations. The Whomping Willow conceals a staircase down to the Shrieking Shack, where the murderous convict awaits. Alas, Sirius Black is not the villain of Book Three. Soul-sucking, depression-dealing Dementors are Harry’s prime antagonists. So the boy wizard must descend again, from the Hospital Wing to a lakeside confrontation with the Dementors and, ultimately, “Expecto Patronum!”
Harry does not do great in high places. He is immobilised up the Astronomy Tower, frustrated in the Divination classroom, bamboozled and hijacked in Ravenclaw Tower. In ‘Philosopher’s Stone’ he forgets the Cloak of Invisibility after the rooftop rendezvous with Charlie’s chums. In ‘Goblet of Fire’ his wand is stolen by Winky the House-elf in the nosebleed seats of the Quidditch stadium. Harry frequently appears confused, not the sharpest wand in the cabinet, even in Gryffindor Tower, his term-time home. To find answers he must go down and/or out. Lucked-up Harry in ‘Half-Blood Prince’ knows the way instinctively: “Right… I’m going down to Hagrid’s.”
In the one book where he does not literally descend, Harry is cast as pawn not player, and gains only token benefit. In ‘Goblet of Fire’, Harry penetrates a maze, yet finds no wisdom, just death and Voldemort. On the train ride home he gives away his ill-begotten prize; for much of the following year he is a pariah. Equally unusual is ‘Half-Blood Prince’, in which Harry is a yo-yo. He goes down to Aragog’s funeral and recovers the vital memory from Professor Slughorn. With Dumbledore he makes an ever-so-slight descent for the Pyrrhic victory in the cave. But the real climax takes place after they ascend the Astronomy Tower. Dumbledore dies and Harry gains no true enlightenment. What he witnesses is deceit, sleight of hand. Finally, Harry rushes out of the Tower in descending pursuit of Severus Snape and another revelation, the identity of the Half-Blood Prince. His reward in the sixth book is ordinary, non-magical romance: Miss Ginevra Weasley, down by the lake. Like the 1000 galleons he won in the Triwizard Tournament, Harry gives her up before the final page.
GADDING WITH GHOULS
The Horcrux hunt in ‘Deathly Hallows’ offers a smorgasbord of underground challenges. To recover the Locket the Trio roam below-ground at the Ministry of Magic. To destroy the Slytherin heirloom, Harry dives into an icy pond to claim the Sword of Gryffindor. For the Hufflepuff Cup, the Trio delve deep into Gringott’s Bank. Harry and Hermione twice Apparate while falling (once with Ron): to elude Death Eaters at the Lovegoods and to escape Voldemort in Godric’s Hollow. While each of these moments is the climax to an episode, and they strengthen our connection to the formula, none are the true finale. All the same, forward momentum is consistently downward.
The quest-proper in Book Seven begins up Ravenclaw Tower, as Harry searches for the diadem. Mythology once more shows its hand. Harry must speak to someone dead. He must descend into the Underworld, the realm of the dead, traditionally situated below the world of the living.
First, two Hogwarts ghosts: Nearly Headless Nick and Helena Ravenclaw. Harry continues his descent and on the threshold of the Forbidden Forest he speaks to dear departed mum, dad, Sirius and Remus: I open at the close. Then he penetrates Voldemort’s Forest sanctuary and meets his own death; Death wears Voldemort’s face. Which gifts Harry the final conversation with the spirit formally known as Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore. The dead do not lie.
To earn reward and rebirth, the final descent into the Underworld or the abyss must be alone, and by choice. Yes, Harry has help to reach the finish line, but only he can touch the ribbon:
In ‘Philosopher’s Stone’, Harry faces Quirrellmort alone, nearly dies and is reborn as “… a what?” “A wizard o’ course.”
In ‘Chamber of Secrets’, Harry alone slays the Basilisk, nearly dies and is reborn as a sword-wielding knight (of Gryffindor).
In ‘Prisoner of Azkaban’, the boy wizard alone repels the Dementors, having nearly died, and is reborn as a man. He takes the place of his father.
STAR KID POTTER
The final acts in each Harry Potter story possess the well-sprung precision of an Indiana Jones set-piece, but they are bound to the essential pillars of myth. Individuation: the becoming of the true individual, the arrival of the Self.
Jo Rowling mines mythology for her saga: the wise old wizard, the three-headed dog, the dragon, the resurrection. Hagrid’s arrival in Chapter Three of ‘Philosopher’s Stone’ is Harry’s Call to Adventure, the beginning of a dangerous journey to an unknown land full of promise and terror. In the Hero Myth, the archetypal hero is a human being like everyone else, but sees himself as an outsider. He discovers something extraordinary in his very being and makes a conscious descent into Hell/Hades/the Underworld to vanquish the forces of darkness. This mortifying descent into the abyss sees the hero reborn, identity reforged.
Death and rebirth are fundamental to mythology everywhere in the world: the old order dies – literally and metaphorically – and a more productive, more mature way of life seizes the day. Harry lets go of his grief and says goodbye to his parents and godfather. He becomes a godfather. He becomes a parent. He becomes a legend. The dude abides.
You are reading an article from The Rowling Library Magazine Issue 54 (June 2021).
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