One of the books that I simply never read as a child was Harry Potter, and I never saw the films either. I wasn’t that far away from it in terms of advertising demographic: it was a big deal in my social circles when I was in 4th grade or so, but I’d already read the Lord of the Rings and Chronicles of Narnia and was moving up to more difficult books.
However, I’ve been studying mysticism and alchemy recently as a way of trying to get an insight into the pre-modern mind, and since Harry Potter is theoretically aligned with that while also being l highly acclaimed and culturally influential in young adult literature, I figured I should jump in and see what all the fuss is about.
So far I’ve read the first three books of the series (which are free on Kindle Unlimited for anyone who uses it: the Sorcerer’s Stone, the Chamber of Secrets, and the Prisoner of Azkaban) (affiliate links), and I’m most of the way through the fourth.
My first reaction to the Sorcerer’s Stone was largely ambivalent. I appreciate Rowling’s writing craft, but it’s the sort of thing that was both over-hyped and not really targeted to me.
With that said, there is something to be said for telling a significant story, and Harry Potter’s role as a counterpoint to evil in the universe is a classic hero trope and plays out really well.
It’s also not a story that just gives unmitigated victories, and while some of this is probably just a marketing ploy (if you’re going to have a sequel, you can’t end with happily ever after), it also makes a meaningful story and I’ll be darned if I don’t feel as much sympathy for the characters as I have felt for the characters in any story, with consideration given to their circumstances (e.g. nobody’s Job, but there are a lot of tragedies in the universe).
I finished the Sorcerer’s Stone with enough interest in the next one to continue, and I’m kind of glad that I did.
There are a few reasons for this: I believe that the quality of the storytelling and the depth of the stories increases as the books go on (at least from the few books I’ve gotten through so far). The prose is solidly written throughout, and is refreshingly rich without being “dumbed down” or too complex for young readers. The plots can be a little convoluted but do not have too much of a logical jump at any point so that they feel cheap.
Chamber of Secrets is definitely darker and more gruesome than the first novel (though the first is not necessarily neurotic in avoiding violence), and this trend continues through the series.
However, there’s an element of heroic depth that you see in the course of the story; Harry is constantly moving between the known and unknown, stopping back into the known to rest, recover, and learn from his mistakes.
My favorite book was definitely the Prisoner of Azkaban, however. It is just deeper and more action packed, and a lot of the connections between characters become deeper and more meaningful.
One of the interesting things about Harry Potter is that he’s almost handled like a recurring character within his own stories. The world moves around him (though not to the extent that it would confuse young readers), and each story puts him in a different role. The Chamber of Secrets, for instance, focuses on a sort of mystery/horror story, while The Sorcerer’s Stone is a story that I would classify as definitely more of a coming of age/self-discovery journey (though it features some mystery and peril).
The universe grows richer and deeper with each book, and I found that while I felt that The Sorcerer’s Stone was a little shallow, there’s a lot of payoff for everything that you see and learn earlier in the series.
So far, I highly recommend the books. I’ve been enjoying them and it’s been a trip. They’re not so phenomenal that I recommend dropping everything and reading them–I don’t have regrets that I didn’t read them earlier–but they are well-written and filled with discovery.
I’m going to start spoiling stuff and going into more detail in the plots here.
Harry Potter is a great heroic figure, in the sense of the archetypal Hero. One of the things that is often not shown in the Hero’s story is the full process of starting from a low point and ending with nobility after improving the world, and Harry Potter does that in every single book.
There are a few elements that I find meaningful within the books that are worthy of reflecting on.
One is the Mirror of Erised, found in The Sorcerer’s Stone. It’s something that shows whatever the observer desires, and that makes it an incredibly interesting element psychologically. As an archetypal element in a coming of age story, however, it’s very interesting and important.
A lot of the heroic struggle in Harry’s life is figuring out what is meaningful while also dealing with the question of how to grow up, and the Mirror of Erised lets us see into the deepest depths of Harry’s spirit and see that his desires are pure: family.
Of course, the family is a powerful archetypal figure: Jung describes them as individual elements that each represent powerful axioms: the father (order and discipline), the mother (chaos and creation), and the child (potential and need for purpose).
Harry’s deepest desire is therefore archetypal: he wants his family, of course, but he also wants to become who he could otherwise be: he wants to find his place in the universe as much as he wants the comfort of his mother and the guidance of his father.
This later is shown in Harry’s patronus, a guardian spirit that he is able to study. It takes the form of an animal spirit who also happens to be his father (who was capable of taking the form of a stag).
Barring the rich symbolism of the stag as a divine father, a key element of this is the notion that Harry is able to access an archetypal version of his own father: he was entirely unaware of his father’s identity with the animal spirit before he summoned the patronus, only learning about its nature afterward.
This is a deep archetypal symbol, the ability to contemplate the abyss of the unknown and return with lessons from the ancestors. If we look at it as a reflection of Jung’s collective unconscious, it makes total sense: what we know is only a portion of what we can know, and our humanity extends beyond our knowledge.
The book series doesn’t go into mysticism at depth, which is kind of a shame because of the fact that the alchemists and mystics of the past viewed their work as a way of connecting physical reality with the spiritual reality of growth. It feels like a missed opportunity that Harry’s growth in practical power is not tied to a learning process as much as it could be (though as a coming-of-age series, it is still tied to high degree to experiences that serve to mature Harry).