Potter: Modern Fairy-Tale Hero

August 1, 2003

 

Beneath the veneer of sorcery, scary effects, and fancifully named characters, the Harry Potter series is appealing because the stories are tales about morality and choosing between “good” and “evil,” says Thomas Robisheaux, an associate professor of history who teaches a course on magic and witchcraft.

The latest installment of the best-selling series by J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, follows the pattern of the previous volumes, featuring earnest male characters who learn about themselves by facing evil and trying to do the right thing, says Robisheaux. In this way, Rowling employs the structure of the classic fairy tale, and that explains, at least in part, their crossover success in appealing to both young and old readers.

Tales from “Little Red Riding Hood” to “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” have their origins in a story form popularized in Europe and the United States in the mid-1800s, he says. These stories, told by adults to children, take place in imaginary places and are meant to teach important moral concepts. In the process, ancient ideas and beliefs that were once feared, such as witchcraft, are transferred and tamed.

“ These stories, like fairy tales, take readers out of their normal, everyday world,” says Robisheaux. “They take them to an often pleasing world and, once there, really important things are worked through for the hero.”

Harry’s orphan status also fits right into the fairy-tale tradition, he says. In classic fairy tales, the parents are absent, and this serves the important psychological role of allowing the children to grow up and learn about themselves through deeds and action. “It’s ultimately a voyage of self-discovery,” says Robisheaux. “Harry’s learning who he is.”

Rowling also borrows heavily from historical elements to comment about relationships between the past and present. Her books, while set in the present, dip into medieval history, he says. While the details may be lost on an American audience, Rowling discusses alchemy and the whole range of occult arts—including natural or “good” magic and divination—so well known in the Renaissance.

“ She’s tapping into some historical fragments and reworking them on an original framework,” he says. “She takes the notion of ancient worlds, which are so appealing, and makes them acceptable. It’s an incredibly well told tale, a classic story of a boy who is special but misunderstood. And it’s the hero’s tale. Everybody can identify with that.”.