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The Nature of the Hero, Rowling-Style

James Schellenberg
Posted January 1, 2009

hp-small.jpgA few months ago, I decided to take the plunge: I would burn through the Harry Potter series, now complete, all in one go. It’s been… interesting. I’ve discovered all kinds of things I had not realized before, including the fact that Harry is – to put it diplomatically – not a particularly effective hero.

I decided to plow through the series, I had what turned out to be a
fair number of misconceptions. In each book, he fights
Voldemort at the end, and there’s a bunch of “British boarding school”
material that fills in the rest of it. Not so! The boarding school
stuff is omnipresent, but it all supports two themes:

  • The nature of the hero, specifically Harry
  • Growing up

of this is groundbreaking stuff, per se, but Rowling handles it
extraordinarily well. In terms of growing up, books 5 and 6 have a lot more material about
romance, and how relationships are not a particularly easy thing when you’re a teenager. Some of this feels about as painful as reality (fortunately not
at the Freaks and Geeks level of gritty painfulness – I’ve been catching up on my
iconic-yet-cancelled TV shows). In general, Harry is learning more about the adult world (in this case, the wizarding world) each year, and he gets more and more entangled in adult things like racism and dishonesty, and the rather grim realization that mistakes you made in your life years ago can cause problems much further down the road.

As for the nature of Harry the hero, I made a claim that he’s ineffective, but this is not necessarily a bad thing. For one thing, he gets a lot of hype around him, but his lack of perfection humanizes him in a way that a more heroic version might not. As Rowling has portrayed him, Harry is a convincing mix of hot-headed and naive; in the later books, he gets quite angry. If he was always calm and perfectly in control and all-powerful, he would be another Dumbledore! (Considerations of Dumbledore’s character would be an entirely different column).

would draw a parallel between Harry and Buffy, another “heroic” character, another
“Chosen One” (both series use this exact phrase, making my comparison a
little too easy), and while both would much rather have a normal life,
they don’t lay down their burdens. I would say that Harry is a much
angrier character than Buffy, who had her roots in her “Valley Girl
goes into a dark alley and comes out triumphant” high-concept. Harry
comes out of a Roald Dahl tradition, whose influences I would argue are
particularly strong on the first book. As he grows up, he becomes much
more susceptible to rage – against the Dahl-esque Dursleys, against all the circumstances arrayed against him. He knows that he should control his anger,
but how can he? It’s a horrible burden.

Harry gets by with generous help from other people. An idealized loner hero? Not here. The series is essentially the process by which Harry accumulates the friends and surrogate family to help him defeat evil (which makes another parallel to Buffy’s story). Harry on his own is not an effective hero, but because of his friendly nature, he has drawn people to him.

Some of this is explained rather explicitly in books
five and six once Dumbledore tells Harry a bit about the nature of the
prophecy that pits Voldemort against Harry specifically. Not to give too much away, but it boils down to this: Harry’s not so much a hero as an outward
manifestation of Voldemort’s innate characters flaws that will
eventually bring the Dark Lord down. Voldemort wanted to strike, and in striking,
created his worst enemy. Harry’s actions function in the opposite way: he draws people to him, turning them to the good side for their own reasons, not fear.

I mentioned another major misconception on my part. I’ve learned that Harry hardly
ever fights Voldemort! I don’t want to give away every ending in the series, so I’ll just say that Rowling provides a number of other interesting twists and turns.

At this point, I should add that I don’t know the ultimate ending. I’m about two-thirds of the way through Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, which is the seventh and final book. Maybe my points about Harry will be completely undermined? Let’s just amend the title of this piece to read “The Nature etc, So Far” and call these my observations on the Rowling’s accomplishments prior to the seventh book. One last observation: so far, my favourite book has been number six, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. It’s a compelling mix of the humourous moments from the start of the series with the more grown-up material from later on. I haven’t been a fan of book seven so far; that might change once I know what the actual ending is!


I’ve been listening to the audiobook versions, as read by Stephen Fry. Totally brilliant! Book 5, which clocked in at 26+ hours, was a bit of a drag, but Fry’s reading was solid throughout. Has anybody else out there tackled a big book or series via audiobook?

* Update: A few words about book 7 are here *


6 Responses to “The Nature of the Hero, Rowling-Style”

  1. Emily
    January 1st, 2009 @ 11:06 am

    Hey James,
    I just recently watched Freaks and Geeks myself and thought it was pretty good/creatively inspiring. However, My So-Called Life is better. Have you ever watched that?
    There’s actually an ep of MSCL that’s SOOO much like an episode of Buffy. Both lead characters get possessed by ghosts from the 1950s.
    Anyhow, are you and Fiona around these days? Looks like I might be in Ottawa for the day on Sat, but I don’t have your email anymore… Maybe we could grab a tea?

  2. John Crye
    January 1st, 2009 @ 2:09 pm

    I have always found Harry a bit ineffective as a hero. It seemed to me that Harry simply wandered around until his friends explained things to him, then he’d wander around some more until an adult would save him or give him just the right magical device for the given situation. Your explication of Harry’s “heroic” qualities as the externalization of Voldemort’s own flaws has made me reevaluate. But if this was truly Rowling’s intent, shouldn’t Voldemort be a more central and better defined character? As for audiobooks, I love ’em. Stephen King’s “Dark Tower” is rendered brilliantly as an audio series, with readings by Frank Muller and George Guidall. I recommend them often, even for / especially for folks who don’t care much for King.

  3. Jaby
    January 2nd, 2009 @ 10:02 am

    Hey James…long time since grebel.
    Anyway, Jim Dale, who does the US audio books (as opposed to Fry, who does the UK versions) is absolutely spectacular. I’ve not heard Fry, but Dale is marvelous.
    All my “reading” of late, is almost exclusively by audiobook. It’s been that way for about 3 or 4 years. So much so, now when i go to the library, I often search by narrator. George Guidall (mentioned above) is a good reader. My favorites are Tom Sellwood (Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon series), John Lee (Rohinton Mistry, A Fine balance + many more), and Gerard Doyle.

  4. James Schellenberg
    January 2nd, 2009 @ 10:51 am

    Emily: Nope, haven’t seen My So-Called Life but it’s on my list (which is always a big stack – just how I like it). And yes, we’re definitely in town on Saturday – it’s
    John: Thanks for your comments. I’m actually finding book 7 to be much more like your impression of the series, which is unfortunate. Might be redeemed by the ultimate ending, but it’s heavy going.
    Book 6 was where Dumbledore sat Harry down and explained everything he had discovered about Voldemort’s past – it’s good material, but a little heavy on “Here’s what this means.” I liked this part though, since a lot of earlier stuff is knitted into the developing story in an interesting way.
    And it sounds like I might have to give the Dark Tower audiobook a try! Thanks for the recommendation.

  5. James Schellenberg
    January 2nd, 2009 @ 6:31 pm

    Jaby – yup, a long time :) Thanks for the recommendations! I’d be very curious to try A Fine Balance. I’ll definitely write down those other names too…
    Do you have a long commute? I listen while I’m walking to work, so that’s just about an hour and a half a day total.

  6. Dale
    September 8th, 2009 @ 4:20 pm

    Another aspect that Harry and Buffy have in common as “ineffective heroes” is that the adults who are supposed to be helping them never give them enough information to do the work. Both characters are continually kept in the dark by the Hogwarts faculty and the Watcher’s Council, respectively. It seems that these advisory boards could do a much better job of preparing their heroes for battle. Instead of continually criticizing Buffy’s work, couldn’t the Council keep her supplied with the tools she needs (Holy Water grenades, perhaps)?
    But then, the suspense would disappear, I suppose.

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