Harry Potter and the Perennial Quest
By Helene Vachet
THE HARRY POTTER BOOKS have been translated into some 42 languages from Albanian to Zulu and have sold more than 100 million copies. Warner Bros. Studio is responding to the fascination the Harry Potter cycle holds for readers around the world by spending in excess of $100,000,000 to make the first book into a movie, Harry Potter and The Sorcerer's Stone, to be released on November 16, 2001. What accounts for the popularity of these stories?
The books are about an unwanted, orphaned child (a "cinderlad," as Alison Lurie of Harvard University calls Harry Potter) who finds out that he is a wizard with magical powers. On his eleventh birthday, Harry learns about the secret of his parents' death, the existence of an archenemy named "Lord Voldemort," and his unexpected enrollment at Hogwarts, a boarding school for wizards. Are these books just for children, or do they have a deep and profound meaning? What makes the stories about Harry resonate within our psyches?
The Harry Potter books have rich archetypal meaning and wisdom, interpretable in many ways. According to the Jungian view, archetypes are the building blocks or DNA of the psyche, the subconscious patterns of the universe, perhaps expressions of what H. P. Blavatsky called "Âkâsha . . . the indispensable agent of every . . . magical performance." We are aware of the archetypes primarily from ancient myths. Since those myths were formulated, consciousness has undergone many transformations, but these core patterns remain unchanged. Their expression, however, has metamorphosed with the literature of each century. Being attuned to the archetypes connects us with our origins and acts as a form of empowerment. The archetypes in the Harry Potter books include the shadow, character and calling (daimons and guardian angels), synchronicity, the path, and initiation. They are familiar themes, but they appear in a new form in the tales of Harry Potter.
In the Harry Potter books, our nonmagical world is in a sense the shadow of the magical world, just as our physical life is a shadow to the life of our higher self or soul. Although there are many shadow figures in the Harry Potter books, the most powerful is Lord Voldemort, who is also the most powerful wizard in a hundred years. Lord Voldemort, "he who must not be named" as he is euphemistically called by most people in Harry's world, killed Harry's parents and then tried to kill the infant Harry with a curse. Instead, through the power of the love Harry's mother had for her child, the curse rebounded upon Lord Voldemort, who lost his physical body and most of his powers. Harry was left an orphan with a scar in the shape of a thunderbolt on his forehead from the curse that was to have killed him.
Lord Voldemort and Harry are connected in interesting ways. Voldemort in a sense is Harry's shadow. They were both orphans, they both had one "muggle" (nonwizard) parent, and they even looked somewhat alike when they were children. When Lord Voldemort tried to kill Harry, various of the dark wizard's powers were transferred latently to the young boy. Voldemort was a "parselmouth," who could speak to snakes, and Harry finds that he has this ability also.
The shadow archetype is described by Robert Bly, a Jungian poet and writer, as an invisible "bag of thought forms" that we generate from our suppressed thoughts and desires. The shadow regresses and grows stronger when it is suppressed, so our job is to integrate it with our conscious thoughts. The Sufi poet Rumi says, "If thou hast not seen the devil, look at thine own self" (that is, at the shadow within). Ursula LeGuin's Wizard of Earthsea says, "To light a candle is to cast a shadow." Paul Foster Case's Book of Tokens says, "Yet does every beam of that sun cast a shadow also, for in all creation are light and darkness mixed, and their equilibrium is the mystery of mysteries." So the attraction to the Harry Potter stories may be in the joy of uncovering the mystery about ourselves.
CHARACTER AND CALLING, DAIMONS AND GUARDIAN ANGELS
After his parents' death, Harry was taken to live with the Dursley family, muggle relatives who not only hated magic but distrusted anything related to the imagination. When Harry turns eleven, in spite of all efforts to keep him suppressed and downtrodden (his bedroom is a broom closet he shares with spiders), he discovers that he is a wizard. Hagrid (keeper of the keys and grounds at Hogwarts), finds him and delivers to him his acceptance letter from Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
Hagrid acts to Harry as a sort of daimon, or guardian angel, the carrier of destiny according to James Hillman in The Soul's Code in Search of Character and Calling. Destiny and calling can be equated with the Eastern doctrines of karma and dharma. Hagrid explains to Harry about his parents and his connection with Lord Voldemort. He also takes him to magical London, Diagon Alley, where Harry purchases what he needs for school at Hogwarts.
The most intriguing of all the fantastic places that Hagrid and Harry visit in Diagon Alley is Mr. Ollivander's wand shop. Harry tries out wand after wand, waiting for something magical to happen and not knowing what to expect. Finally, Harry feels a warmth in his fingers and sparks shoot out like fireworks from the end of a particular wand. Mr. Ollivander says:
I remember every wand I've ever sold, Mr. Potter. Every single wand. It so happens that the phoenix whose tail feather is in your wand, gave another feather—just one other. It is very curious indeed that you should be destined for this wand when its brother—why, its brother gave you that scar. . . . Curious indeed how these things happen. The wand chooses the wizard, remember. . . . I think we must expect great things from you, Mr. Potter. . . . After all, He Who Must Not Be Named did great things—terrible yes, but great.
This statement echoes a saying by the Sufi scholar and writer, Idries Shah, "Seeking truth is the first stage towards finding it. After the seeking comes the realization that truth is also seeking the seeker."
The title of the first Potter book, as originally published in Great Britain, was Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. To a student of the Kabbalah, Jungian psychology, or alchemy, the significance is obvious. The philosopher's stone was understood by the uninitiated as merely a device to turn base metals into gold and to make an elixir that gave everlasting life. However, to a student of alchemy, the philosopher's stone is a metaphor for turning our base, physical natures into our more spiritual selves. In other words, it is a tool for self-actualization, union with the Higher Self, the beatific vision.
Harry's association with the philosopher's stone makes him a seeker after truth, on a quest to achieve union with his Higher Self. In the game of wizards, called "quidditch" (a ball game played on broomsticks), Harry is also the "seeker," a team member who tries to find the golden snitch (a small ball whose capture ends the game). Yet, sometimes it seems that the snitch is seeking him! The golden snitch can be seen as a parallel philosopher's stone, giving its seeker courage and insight.
In his first Christmas at Hogwarts, Harry opens a package to find an invisibility cloak with a note saying, "Use it well." The note and gift turn out later to be from Albus Dumbledore, the headmaster of Hogwarts, who often acts as Harry's other daimon or higher self. Harry, in the course of his adventures with this magic cloak, discovers a magic mirror, the Mirror of Erised, which has an inscription written on it: "It shows not your face but what your heart desires." The name of the mirror, "Erised," is "Desire" spelled backwards. Dumbledore helps Harry to discover how the mirror works:
Let me explain. The happiest man on earth would be able to use the Mirror of Erised like a normal mirror, that is, he would look into it and see himself exactly as he is. . . . It shows us nothing more or less than the deepest, most desperate desire of our hearts. . . . this mirror will give us neither knowledge or truth. Men have wasted away before it, entranced by what they have seen, or been driven mad, not knowing if what it shows is real or ever possible.
This knowledge of how the mirror works helps Harry finally to safeguard the philosopher's stone. In the Harry Potter books, a type of synchronicity (a meaningful relationship between two unrelated events) is magnified and forces the reader to examine the relationship between events. Jung said that synchronicity is the key to understanding human destiny. Harry's destiny hinges, synchronistically, on finding out who is really seeking the philosopher's stone when he is being punished in the forbidden forest. The mirror gave Harry the wisdom to protect the stone, and the knowledge of who was seeking it gave him the courage.
The metaphysical concept of involution and evolution implies a Path. H. P. Blavatsky wrote a short statement beginning, "There is a road, steep and thorny, beset with perils of every kind, but yet a road, and it leads to the very heart of the universe." The Christian view of the path is exemplified by Dante's Beatific Vision of Beatrice in The Divine Comedy.
The paths at Hogwarts, however, are related to its founders, who more than a thousand years before were the four greatest witches and wizards of the age. The school's four residential houses are named after them: Gryffindor, for the brave at heart; Hufflepuff, for the loyal and true; Ravenclaw, for those who love learning; and Slytherin, for those who will use any means to achieve their aims. Each house represents a different path in life. When new students arrive at Hogsworts, a "sorting hat" is placed on their heads, through which the daimon or higher self speaks and chooses the house they belong to—the path they will follow. In Harry's case, the voice in the hat entered into a dialogue with him:
"Hmm," said a small voice in his ear. "Difficult. Very difficult. Plenty of courage, I see. Not a bad mind either. There's talent, oh my goodness, yes—and a nice thirst to prove yourself, now that's interesting. . . . So where shall I put you?"
Harry gripped the edges of the stool and thought, Not Slytherin, not Slytherin.
"Not Slytherin, eh?" said the small voice. "Are you sure? You could be great, you know, it's all here in your head, and Slytherin will help you on the way to greatness, no doubt about that—no? Well, if you're sure—better be GRYFFINDOR!"
This small voice bothered Harry all the way into the second book, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, because Harry felt that perhaps he was in the wrong house (or path), but Dumbledore in his characteristic way set him straight by saying, "It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities." So the wisdom of Harry Potter is also to look at the choices we make on the Path and in life.
Each of the four published Harry Potter books (out of a projected seven) has one great culminating adventure—a rite of passage or initiation to be passed before going on to the next level. In the first book, the initiation has seven parts.
First, Harry and his companions, Ron and Hermione, must pass through a trapdoor leading to an underground corridor and guarded by a three-headed dog (reminiscent of Cerberus, the guardian of the Greek underworld or the subconscious). "Courage" is the quality needed to get past this monster. The second hurdle is the Devil's Snare, a plant that tightens its hold on its prey with each move of the victim. The quality needed to pass it is "calmness" to save the person from being strangled. The third snare involves illusive winged keys, and "insight" provides the clue to finding the right key. The fourth task is to pass living chessmen, and the "sacrifice" of one of the three seekers is the way to gain a checkmate.
The fifth labor is to pass a troll, but it is already dead. (Since the companions disabled a troll earlier in the book, it was not necessary to repeat this task). The sixth mystery is to figure out which potions to ingest to get out of the room in which they are trapped. "Logic" is needed to understand the riddle and solve the problem. The seventh and final test is to obtain the philosopher's stone from the Mirror of Erised, and the quality needed is "purity," for without it the seeker will only see an illusion of living forever or being wealthy, but not the stone.
Courage, calmness, insight, self-sacrifice, logic, and purity are the steps to Harry Potter's and his friends' initiation or self-realization. The meaning and magic of Harry Potter is that he is us. We are seekers on the path of truth or the perennial quest. It is our destiny to integrate our shadows with our conscious self, to listen to our daimon or higher self, to look for the synchronicity between events, and to develop the qualities needed for initiation. This story has been told again and again throughout the ages.
Harry Potter Books
Rowling, J. K.
Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. London: Bloomsbury, 1997.
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. London: Bloomsbury, 1998.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. London: Bloomsbury, 1999.
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. London: Bloomsbury, 2000.
Helene Vachet, MA in Counseling and Guidance, has recently retired from the Los Angeles School District as an Assistant Principal and a teacher of "Myths and Magic." She is a third generation Theosophist and past president of Besant Lodge in Hollywood who is particularly interested in mythology, fantasy literature, and Jungian psychology.
Originally published online at: http://www.theosophical.org/theosophy/questmagazine/novdec2001/vachet/index.html and in print in Quest Magazine, November-December 2001