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Harry Potter - a New Myth

Małgorzata Zdybiewska, from Radom NKJO, puts the Harry Potter phenomena into the wider perspective of our timeless need, both within children and adults, for myth.

Do you remember these magic words: "Once upon a time....?" In my childhood they opened the doors to the world inhabited by powerful kings, their servants and armies, cruel jealous step-mothers, beautiful but defenceless princesses, fire breathing dragons, fairies, elves, goblins and village idiots with hearts of gold. Young readers and listeners were invited to wander through dark forests along winding paths leading to cottages built of ginger bread. The fairytales of my childhood were full of monsters and cruel animals like wolves or giant bears. They described a world of hunger and violence. The conflicts were resolved by means of magic but also kindness and virtues. The good guys were given their prize and the bad guys were punished.

Have things changed since then? Yes and no. On the one hand, there is no doubt that many children still enjoy old favourites, e.g. Grimm's Fairy Tales and Christian Andersen's "Snow Queen". These are stories that look back into the murky past. On the other hand, it seems that the children living at the end of the millennium naturally enjoy looking into the distant future as well. The mundane, boring reality of modern, small villages and towns may already contain miraculous seeds of unimaginable future events and developments.

J.K. Rowling's best-seller "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone", the first book in the series begins like this:

"Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you'd expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn't hold with such nonsense".

(Rowling, J.K. 1997.Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone.Bloomsbury 2000.ISBN 0 7475 4955 9)

This paragraph written in simple English (it is a book for young children!) introduces the most bizarre world of magic. The world that is inhabited by wizards and witches whose tools of the trade are magic wands, cauldrons, broomsticks, robes and other magical paraphernalia. The geography of a typical everyday location you might expect in any 20th century small town or village in Britain is closely interwoven with the wizard world where one can find Hogwarts, i.e. The School of Witchcraft and Wizardry which is housed in a castle surrounded by the Forbidden Forest and Hogsmeade, an all-wizard village near the school.

Although each generation of young readers might have its own favourite tale, many ethnographers and sociologists believe that it is actually the same timeless archetypal story of growing pains, i.e. the struggle to become a mature adult member of a community. The myths of the world, as far back as Homer, despite their infinite variety of plots, different cultural settings and costumes, share the same symbols and elements, thus repeating the same tale over and over again. Legends, folktales, fairytales and myths permeate our reality and illuminate both children and adults alike. In their vivid narrative form they have power to evoke a strong response in any sensitive reader or listener. In childhood many of us become eager mythonauts navigating in a miraculous mythosphere. Myths, whether in the form of tales, legends or traditional folktales, have the power not only to entertain and excite but also to enrich one's imagination. They offer an explanation of the past and modern worlds.

Joseph Campbell in his book examining ancient hero myths writes:

" Throughout the inhabited world, in all times and under every circumstance, the myths of man have flourished; and they have been the living inspiration of whatever else may have appeared out of the activities of the human body and mind. It would not be too much to say that myth is the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into human cultural manifestation. Religions, philosophies, arts, the social forms of primitive and historic man, prime discoveries in science and technology, the very dreams that blister sleep, boil up from the basic, magic ring myth".

(Campbell, Joseph.1949.The Hero with a Thousand Faces.Fontana Press.1993.)

Is the Harry Potter series a new myth? The answer is yes. The myth that will help the new generation of young readers understand ancient riddles of life. It will also enable them to escape unpleasant, scary everyday reality. In the Harry Potter book it is the world where Lord Voldemort, He-Who-Must-Not-Be Named, the evil wizard who killed Harry's parents, menaces him. Harry is an orphan and he has to live with his relatives who make his childhood miserable. Yet Harry Potter is not an ordinary boy because the power of his imagination will enable him to believe in himself and win the battle for a better life. The moral of the tale is that the most important magic comes from inside of each of us.

You may ask why the series has become both a child and adult best-seller. The answer is simple. The Harry Potter children's books have awakened the imagination of their readers. Imagination is a power that all of us possess. Unfortunately, in adulthood it is undernourished and not used often enough. Harry Potter's fictional world and its magic is a feast for the reader’s imagination. Rowling’s secret is her ability to nourish the human hunger for enchantment. She knows that we are all children inside longing to listen to good, exciting stories.

J.K. Rowling was a struggling single mother living on the dole in a small Edinburgh flat with her infant daughter when she wrote the beginning of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, on scraps of paper in one of her local cafes. Luckily for her and millions of readers of the Harry Potter series she received an unexpected award from the Scottish Arts’ Council which enabled her to finish the book. Isn't that magic?


References:

  • Campbell, Joseph.1949.The Hero with a Thousand Faces.Fontana Press.(reprint 1993)
  • Rowling, J.K. 1997.Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone.Bloomsbury 2000.ISBN 0 7475 4955 9

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