My regular readers may recall that I have the tendency to rag on Harry Potter sometimes, but not today. We’re celebrating because Harry Potter is something special. And it’s special because of its place in our generation’s cultural tradition—which is why I want to talk a bit about the relationship between Harry Potter and mythology.
First, a question: do you think Rowling created the magical world in which Harry Potter is set?
I don’t deny that it’s Rowling’s genius that developed ideas like the Knight Bus or the Deathly Hallows, but think broader. Where these details make the Potterverse Rowling’s own, their concepts have a greater base of ownership. Witches waved wands long before 1998. Everyone knows about werewolves and the full moon thing. And centaurs? Do we really want to start on the Greco-Roman mythology?
Yes, yes we do. Because Harry Potter has the symbol of Zeus on his forehead. Because Firenze calls to mind Chiron, another patient teacher of heroes. Because Minerva McGonagall bears resemblance to the goddess of wisdom and tactical skill. Because the third floor corridor houses “Fluffy,” a three-headed dog suspiciously similar to, I don’t know, Cerberus. We meet Dedalus Diggle and Alecto Carrow and Merope Gaunt and Remus and Cadmus and Andromeda and Hermione and Augustus and Charity and Olympe and I could go on. Greco-Roman mythology. Yeah.
And it matters because these are names we passed down for centuries. They’re old and meaningful but they find new homes in new characters with new stories. I don’t think it’s a mistake that Alecto Carrow is named after a fury, or that the myth of Merope the Pleiad involves her fall from immortality. The way Rowling repurposes these ancient names of the Western world creates something new, bringing mythology down into the world we live in today and, in a way, writing itself into that same mythology.
Rick Riordan has this quote in Demigods and Monsters, an anthology of essays discussing his Percy Jackson series. It goes, “When I speak to school groups, I often ask children what Greek god they would like for a parent. My favorite answer was from a schoolgirl in Texas who said, ‘Batman!’ Actually, the girl’s suggestion of Batman as a Greek god is not too far off, because it’s the same idea at work: creating a superhuman version of humanity so that we can explore our problems, strengths, and weaknesses writ large. If the novel puts life under the microscope, mythology blows it up to billboard size.”
Harry Potter is a series of novels. And I’d hazard that the microscope thing holds true here—Rowling makes many myths and folktales specific. Now we know that phoenix feathers, dragon heartstrings, and unicorn hairs are what make wands work. Now we know about the stigma that comes from being a werewolf. And now we know what it looks like inside a Gryffindor’s heart.
At the same time, Harry Potter is so much greater than just a series of novels. The fandom sees to that. You can spend hours and hours poring through the headcanons, fan fiction, and fanart people take such care to make. Revisions, criticisms, and interpretations that are not part of the world that Rowling made, but are becoming part of how we remember it: as representative of our values.
House morality is simplistic and unfair in the books—so our Slytherins adjust the narrative to build a house they are proud to be a part of, values they’re glad to uphold in daily life.
Many female characters don’t get the development they deserve in the books—so Tonks has a life outside of her HBP lifelessness, Luna gets a future with Neville, Lily is given a voice against Snape. And they keep giving voices to women.
And the books fail to offer complex portrayals of diversity—however the books are “meant to be read” in Rowling’s expanded universe, it lacks the explicit characterization of LGBT+ characters, disabled characters, and culturally diverse/POC characters. Again, the fandom has their ideas about how the magical world would help and support people belonging to those groups. And they’ll want to see the same things happen in the real world.
We had a series. And the series was great, but flawed. This collective of people who saw themselves in that series decided to put even more of themselves into it and then share that with others. They developed a magical world where a superhuman humanity allowed them to take more pride and confidence in what the series stood for. And it’s impacted a generation of readers, and we will influence the generations that follow.
We are young readers. We own this.
And it has its upsides and downsides, yeah. Despite all the greatness I’ve mentioned, the fandom may err in its judgment or come up with controversial headcanons (Hogwarts and wifi? You’ve got to be kidding me). But, hey. That’s what fandom is about anyway.
Harry Potter carries the old forward with its use of mythology. And we, the fandom, write Harry Potter—and many other books besides, I’m sure!—into that universal meeting place where the concerns of our past and the possibilities of our future must remember what we decided this series means to us.
Who knows where that will take us? I sure don’t. But I still think it’s pretty awesome.