Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Potterhead July: Harry Potter and Our Mythology

Guess what? Read at Midnight’s Aentee is hosting Potterhead July, a month-long celebration of Harry Potter! You can read a Harry Potter themed post every day of the month, leading up to Harry’s birthday, the release of Cursed Child, and a Twitter chat all on July 31st. So, basically, major coolness.


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.

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That’s right—Harry Potter is working its way to sit alongside the Greek pantheon. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

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.

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The fandom is actually writing Harry Potter into their own mythology. It’s the big picture that they want it to be.

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.

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Correct what I said before—the books couldn’t write themselves into mythology. These volumes couldn’t force themselves to belong on Mount Olympus now and forever. No, it’s we, the fandom, who drag the books up there. We still care about the same old stuff—we like to eat food and love people and win battles and party hard, so Demeter and Aphrodite and Ares and Dionysus won’t step down. But we also want friendship, good and evil, diverse representation, community pride, portrayals of virtues we value and vices we don’t, and we want them up there on our terms.

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.

Have you ever noticed Harry Potter’s mythological names? Do you have a favorite Harry Potter headcanon? 

10 comments :

  1. I love the fact that you pointed out the flaws in the series. I think each thing you listed is so important to talk about, but it so rarely is. I really love the push within the fandom recently to portray the characters (especially Hermione and Harry) as POC, and of course, there have always been people willing to explore characters being LGBT. I'd really like to see movements towards other types of diversity in fan works too, whether it's with new characters or new interpretations of old characters.

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    1. I agree, the fandom's desire for diversity is heartening to me. I especially like black!Hermione just because the fanart that I've seen of it has been superb. Seeing fan interpretations that make the characters more like them is always a great thing to see. I do enjoy that. :)

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  2. I love Harry Potter, books and movies, but I've never really thought about them in the bigger picture, or how much is drawn from mythology.

    I get why people get upset at the lack of diversity in Harry Potter, but I think we have to remember they were written at a time when no one really thought about it? :)

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    1. It's amazing how much there is when you start looking!

      Well, I mean, it was the 1990's. I think it was less that people didn't think about it but it wasn't as accepted in children's literature. I still think it's maybe worth complaining about a little, because as long as people keep considering Harry Potter to be the best of the best, we aren't talking about what it's missing and what we should be looking for in the other kidlit that we read as it is published now.

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  3. Oh my gosh, I love this post. It's so true, the books were just books with some flaws as well. What makes them last the test of time, engaging more and more new readers is the current fandom. What an eloquently written post - loved reading it, Heather!
    Geraldine @ Corralling Books

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    1. Yep, I still hold that it's the fans that make the book series. :) Although, I'm certain that Rowling had something to do with it, too. Thanks for stopping by!

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  4. I never thought about the similarities between the character's name and the mythology its based upon. And yeah, I do agree. As much as I love HP, I do acknowledge that this series has its flaws. But HP was written a long time ago, and it was finished before anyone thought about diversity and feminism. I don't mean to be insulting, but I think that's why the series has lack of diversity :)

    Tasya // The Literary Huntress

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    1. There is a TON of mythology in there, for sure. It's kind of fun. :) I mean, I realize that it was almost twenty years ago (eighteen, now) when Harry Potter first got started, but like I told Opal, this wasn't the 1950's. It just wasn't as acceptable in kidlit back then. And while I can honor that, the fact that Harry Potter remains at the top of most everyone's kidlit reading list can distract from the fact that kidlit now is in need of diversity and we need to grow away from the Harry Potter model as it was presented in that department. So, maybe Harry Potter gets a pass, but its readers don't. Thanks for stopping by, Tasya! :)

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  5. I definitely noticed the greek mythology references at least in part with the three-headed dog, though not every thing you mentioned I picked up on. I was commenting about the lack of diversity and POC in HP somewhere. And I really wonder if that would have been the case with the books had they been written today when people are a little more aware of the importance of diverse characters. Which in part, is kind of the fun thing about fanfiction because people are writing their own stories to fill in those gaps from the books. But it's great that you pointed it out for sure.

    Liselle @ Lunch-Time Librarian

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    1. *nods* Some of them were obscure on purpose, I'm sure. But yeah, perhaps Harry Potter today would have ended up as something a lot different in terms of diversity. Still, I'm glad that people do have fan fiction so that they do have that place to see themselves in Harry Potter if they need to. :)

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