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The Archetypes, Myths And Folklore In Harry Potter

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Table of contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Archetypes
  3. Myths and Folklore
  4. Specific Evidence in JK Rowling’s characters of Archetypes, Mythology and Folklore


“It’s changing out there, just like last time. There’s a storm brewing Harry and we’d best be ready when she does” – Hagrid says this to Harry in film harry potter and The half blood prince screen play by Steve Kloves (15 July 2009). For me that storm was the Harry Potter series and the worldwide phenomena it became. In my dissertation I will present a review of where I consider JK Rowling used classic archetypes, drawn from myths and folklore, to underpin her characters and situations she described in the series of books on Harry Potter. The motivation for the review comes from my love of the stories; which fueled my fascination and love for theatre and I feel was part of the motivation for studying theatre arts at university. For me and a generation of children (and their parents) the Harry Potter books lure them into a world of fantasy, developing and bringing to life a new perspective on the classic archetypes in myths and folklore.

Storylines have incorporated archetypes for thousands of years. Archetypes form the basis of characters and situations in literature that active very specific ideas that are easily identifiable to the reader. I can identify where the heroes and villains of JK Rowling’s books and films are based on the same heroic and villainous archetypes found in ancient Greek mythology and worldwide folklore. Therefore, I aim to explore JK Rowling’s use of ancient myths and folklore to represent classic archetypal structure (Pearson, 1991; as cited in, Evens, 2003) of her characters in the Harry Potter series. In doing this I will review in depth three specific characters from JK Rowling’s writing. I also aim to presents these classic archetypes and outline how I consider she has played with these images and developed alternative archetypal structures for the modern reader. I consider it to be important to appreciate where modern literature has resonated with, as well as developed our understanding of archetypes; as archetypes have the power to touch lives and transform lives (Rohr & Martos, 1996).

In the initial sections of the dissertation I will define the following themes: classic archetypes (based on Pearson, 1991 and Carl Jung, 1919; as cited in Segal, 1999); myths and folklore. Then I will focus in more detail on how these themes are specifically demonstrated in three Harry Potter characters; then I will conclude the dissertation by considering why I think the Harry Potter characters resonated so strongly with children and how I think they stimulated our imagination of what we could be.


The term archetype comes from two Greek words: archos meaning first and typos meaning impression (Online Etymology Dictionary). A simpler definition would be a model used to define and represent reoccurring characters and themes (Evens, 2003). Carl Jung developed a concept of psychological type and archetype in 1919 and often used ancient mythology to better describe them (Segal, 1999). Jung considered the human psyche to fall into four broad archetypes; the persona a mask we wear that represents our self-image we wish to portray to the world. The mask enables us to live and thrive within society. The shadow a person’s unconscious thoughts and desires we often hide from society. The anima and animus, our male and female unconscious sides, which represents our true self, but maybe hidden from society. The self our representation of good and bad and as Jung suggests is a representation of a connection between God and the unconscious mind (Segal, 1999). In his book ‘The origins and history of consciousness’ Erich Neumann (2014, Princeton classics addition), a student of Carl Jung, uses world mythology to describe the archetypal stages in the development of human consciousness. Neumann depicts these stages of development through archetypal factors or primordial images. As these ‘fantasy-images’ have been depicted in world mythology they therefore, have a ‘collective’ element within the human psyche and are inherited (Neumann, 1949).

Jung’s ideas on archetypes are further developed by Pearson and Marr (Evens, 2003) as a measure or indicator of how salient each of the twelve archetypes are to an individual. As described by Pearson (1991) these archetypal identities are listed as: the innocent, the orphan, the warrior, the care-giver, the seeker, the lover, the destroyer, the creator, the ruler, the magician, the sage, and the fool (see Table below for more detail).

Take for example i) the innocent: this is identified as the goal to remain in safety, the fear of abandonment, the innocent’s response to the dragon (Pearson uses the dragon as a metaphor for being confronted with a problem, ether internal or external) is to deny it or rescue it, and their gift is trust and optimism (Pearson, 1991; as cited in Evens, 2003). This archetype is typified in children along with the orphan as most children are driven from a fear of abandonment due to being so reliant on their care-givers. And ii) the seeker is identified as the goal for a better life, the fear of comfortability, response to the dragon is to flee from it, and the gift is autonomy and ambition. This archetype is typified in 15-25 year-olds along with the lover as at this age people are driven to improvement in all aspects of their life, to attract a mate and be independent from their care-givers.

The use of archetypes has a long history in literature. In JK Rowling’s stories her characters fit common archetypes that have been used in many stories before. Take her portrayal of the main character Harry Potter, I consider him to represent several archetypes. The seeker for example, he is seen as wanting to escape the Dersley house, relating to the seekers goal of a search for a better life. The care-giver, I relate this to helping others, compassion and generosity and a fear for selfishness all seen in how Harry always puts others first, wanting to keep people safe. The warrior, similar in many ways to the hero, Harry’s underlined characteristic is to prove himself worthy through his courage and allegiance to Dumbledore and the wizarding world. In this way I see Hermione as the ruler as her goal is always to have order, and her fear is chaos. Her qualities are typified as responsibility and control; Harry could always count on Hermione. “Now if you two don’t mind I’m going to bed before either of you come up with a clever idea to get us killed, or worse, expelled” says Hermione in the Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone (Rowling, 1997). But there are also situation archetypes in literature; this type of archetype describes how certain stories will unfold. Take for example JK Rowling’s Harry Potter story lines where she makes her situation archetype the quest for good over evil and the heroes and villains are highly salient to that archetype.

Myths and Folklore

A myth is a type of discourse, but not just any type of written and spoken communication, but language requires special conditions to become a myth. It is a message, a mode of signification, a form in and of itself. A myth is not defined by its detail or by its facts, but rather by the overarching message and how this is communicated (Barthes, 1991 edition). Take for example the myth of Icarus; in this myth Icarus’ father made him a set of wings to enable him to fly. When he gives him the wings he warned Icarus not to fly near the sun. We know from the myth, that in fact Icarus does fly too close to the sun and as a consequence his wings burn and he falls into the sea and drowns. The myth communicates different ideas; one such idea is referred to as the ‘Icarus complex’ a cluster of interrelated variables of personality which was first described by psychologist Henry A Murry (Sperber, 1969) which broadly speaking is associated with over estimating one’s own abilities. A myth creates the idea that life is more than what meets the eye, a colourful semantic discourse to portray meaning. Myths give us the feeling of something bigger, more established than ourselves; perhaps they provide understanding towards the meaning of life. I think of myths as pre literature tools, aids for teaching morals and social conditioning.

In his paper titled ‘Theorising about myth’ Segal (1999) quotes Jung in the use of the term archetype for myth, folklore, and literature “…primordial experience is the source of his [a poet] creativeness. But it is so dark and amorphous that it requires the related mythological imagery to give it form. In its self it is wordless and imageless. It is nothing but a tremendous intuition striving for expression.” (pg 71-72). Similar to how mythology has been used in literature and art, science also uses and explores these concepts. Freud wrote “It may perhaps seem to you as though our theories are a kind of mythology. Does not every science come in the end to a kind of mythology?” to Albert Einstein, in 1932. Freud writes on mythology that “The theory of the instincts is so to say our mythology. Instincts are mythical entities magnificent in their indefiniteness” (cited in, Sels, 2003, paper, Myth, mind and metaphor). From these ideas I would suggest that myths and folklore consist of strong imagery that we intuitively already understand; as such JK Rowling is initiating an intuitively meaningful dialogue with the reader.

Folklore is a term originated in 1848 by William John Thoms (Emrich, 1946) to describe the traditional beliefs, customs, and stories of a community. Typically folklore was passed on through the generations by word of mouth and generally refers to stories that are shaped by what the community finds good and appropriate. An example taken from the Dictionary of English Folklore (Simpson & Roud, 2000) is the folklores surrounding babies and their birth. For example, days and times of the week were supposed to indicate the baby’s future character or success.

Monday’s child is fair of face

Tuesday’s child is full of grace

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Wednesday’s child is full of woe

Thursday’s child has far to go,

Friday’s child is loving and giving,

Saturday’s child works hard for a living,

And the child that is born on the Sabbath day

Is bonny and blithe, and good and gay.

(A. E. Bray’s ,1838, pp. 287–288)

This popular rhyme is from English folklore and was first recorded in Bray’s Traditions of Devonshire (Volume II, pp. 287–288). The folklore of wetting a baby’s head came from Cumberland, where they would wash the baby’s head in rum for luck (Simpson & Roud, 2000). There are also folklores around how a baby is born. For example if a baby is born breech then the folklore suggests, awkward born, awkward all their lives. Harry was born on the 31st of July 1980, which is a Thursday and in terms of the folklore poem means this child has far to go. I consider JK Rowling would have definitely reflected on the day of his birth and used this symbolism and fits in with his archetype the warrior.

A strategy an author of fantasy literature often uses to enhance the connection the reader has with a fantasy world is through folklore. Consider Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series for example; here the writer both creates folklore but also draws heavily on established Nordic, Welsh, and Finnish folklore to enhance the characters and situations portrayed in the books (Sullivan; Western Folklore, Vol. 60, No. 4, 2001). Often fantastic fiction follows the familiar Märchen structure (Märchen, folktale characterized by elements of magic or the supernatural, such as the endowment of a mortal character with magical powers or special knowledge: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2020), where the ordinary and very often orphaned main character comes from a mundane world into an adventure. This adventure often takes him through the ‘magic forest’ (in Harry Potter there is an enchanted forest) with staunch companions (in Harry Potter he has Ron and Hermione) to defeat a great evil (in Harry Potter this evil is Voldemort) and he generally returns older, and wiser after this adventure (Sullivan, 2001).

Animal symbolism is often used as archetypal figures in myths and folklore. In an essay by John Berger (1977) titled “Why Look at Animals?” he suggest that animal symbolism represents different aspects of a human’s life span on earth. He concludes that animal symbolism is used “… for charting the [human] experience of the world.” Berger suggested that when humans’ lived a more integrated life with the animals and shared their experiences, this knowledge led to the use of animal symbols in human cultures (Bergers, 1977).

Specific Evidence in JK Rowling’s characters of Archetypes, Mythology and Folklore

Specific evidence of archetypes, myths and folklore is abundant in JK Rowling’s writing. Fluffy for example, one of the first mythological animals we meet in the Harry Potter series is a three-headed dog that guards the Philosophers Stone. She based the main aspects of Fluffy’s appearance on the mythological creature Cerberus, who himself was a three-headed dog, sometimes known as the Hound of Hades. Cerberus had a serpent’s tail, a mane of snakes and lions claws. When Harry and his friends first meet Fluffy, JK Rowling describes that …they were looking straight into the eyes of a monstrous dog, a dog which filled the whole space between ceiling and floor. It had three heads. Three pairs of rolling eyes, mad eyes; three noises, twitching and quivering in their direction; three drooling mouths, saliva hanging in slippery ropes from yellowish fangs’ (Rowling, 1997; Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Chapter 9, pg 119).

The three heads of Cerberus in mythology represents the past, the present and the future, in other texts the suggestion was that the three heads symbolised birth, youth and old-age. The name Cerberus comes from the Greek word Kerberos meaning spotted. Interestingly as a gesture to Greek mythology Hagrid tells the children that he bought Fluffy from a ‘Greek chappie he met in the pub’ (pg 141, Rowling 1997). [Interestingly, the link to Greek mythology was clearly lost, when the Greek chappie was altered to the Irish chappie in the film Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone]. But JK Rowling also plays with classic archetypes and mythology by naming him Fluffy, juxtaposition from the terrifying image of the dog she has painted This also adds to the comedic effect and lessens the terror for children reading.

The concept of the underworld is found in many myths and is often guarded by some terrifying creature. In Greek mythology Cerberus guarded the entrance to the underworld – to stop the dead getting out of hell, with razor sharp teeth and a poisonous bite. Very few tried to leave hell with him on guard. JK Rowling describes Fluffy similarly, painting the image of a monstrous dog, with mad eyes, and drooling mouths. Similar to Cerberus, when Harry and his friends first meet Fluffy he is chained to the gates of the underworld, which JK Rowling represents as a trap-door leading to the Philosophers Stone. Although terrifying, Cerberus, is a faithful servant to Hades, the god of the underworld. Similarly, Fluffy is the faithful servant to Hagrid, the giant gamekeeper that takes care of the school and its pupils. I believe that in terms of archetypes, Fluffy, as the faithful servant to Hagrid, represents the innocent and the ruler. As the innocent Fluffy’s main goal is to remain in safety with their greatest fear being abandonment. However, Fluffy’s task is to guard the Philosophers Stone and to enable Fluffy to do this requires the attributes of a ruler; responsibility and control (Pearsons, 1991 as cited in Segal, 2003).

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