A Comparative Analysis of the Hero’s Quest: Harry Potter Vs King Arthur Essay
A Comparative Analysis of the Hero’s Quest: Harry Potter Vs King Arthur
From the pages of literature many ideas are born. Often these ideas are borrowed, passed down and transferred from work to work; author to author. This has led many to conclude that a generic mold has been established for certain ways of telling-or in some cases retelling-a story, and that authors often write to fit this mold, whether purposefully or not. The main mold discussed by celebrated novelists such as Joseph Campbell, and used frequently by renown authors like J.K. Rowling and T.H. White, is that of the classic hero. Rowling has made her young protagonist, Harry Potter, very similar to the King of Camelot, as presented by the many Arthurian authors, including T.H. White and Sir Thomas Mallory. There are a great deal of parallels between Potter and Arthur and I have analyzed the plot and other aspects of both stories-along with the works of critics and researchers like Campbell-to demonstrate the shocking similarities between the two heroes.
The amazing similarities from both stories spawn from the constant recycling of the hero and his quest. Harry Potter as a person, is a very dynamic character with complete mood changes and varying personalities, yet when it comes to his adventures he is not at all unique. King Arthur, as a hero, is a very dynamic character but as a person he is flat and boring. To compare both I read the complete Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling ( Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Harry Potter and the prisoner of Azkaban, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.), I’ve read the authoritative Arthurian legends (The Sword in the Stone, by T.H White, and Le Mort d’Arthur by Sir Thomas Mallory.)
The author’s own life stories were also analyzed in hopes that I could perhaps come to a conclusion of why their Heroes are so alike.
HARRY POTTER VS KING ARTHUR
The King Arthur novels have been a part of literature for years, influencing authors, movies and even song writers. This generation’s “King Arthur” is known by another name. He was conceived on a napkin by a struggling single mom and goes by the name of Harry Potter. Many parts of Rowling’s Harry Potter Series are infused with elements of the Arthurian legend. From reading and researching both stories I have found many parallels between both tales. Arthur and Harry are both the protagonists of their worlds, both were deprived of their parents at an early age, both were on quests to achieve their destiny, both had old wizard mentors, and neither knew of his own importance till a late age. This extended essay explores the themes and characters linking the two tales and also analyzes the author’s life and language and how they affected the story.
Joseph Campbell is a world renown author who wrote the book “The Hero With a Thousand Faces.” Mentally digesting this book has helped me to understand the bonds that tie all heroes together and was what led to the thought that Harry and Arthur are very similar. Both Arthur and Harry fit into the category that Joseph Campbell refers to as the ‘classic hero.’ Both character’s lives follow the pattern of up and downs that rules the life of any literary being. Using excerpts and themes from this and other novels written by Campbell I will bring to light the chilling parallels between both dramas.
Both Harry Potter and King Arthur lived lives that were chosen by them. This may seem obvious as their lives were written out by their author’s imagination, but in the novels themselves their fates were pre-destined. Harry Potter was the only person ever to survive Lord Voldemort’s Avada Kedavra curse, also known as the killing curse. Any time that someone does something for the first time–something that was thought impossible–they are immediately raised on a pedestal of awe and leadership.
Having survived the curse, Harry thwarted Voldemort’s plan of world domination, therefore saving the wizarding world. Besides being the first to survive the curse, Harry was also the wizarding community’s savior, and he was only one year old. So at a very early age Harry already had a reputation to live up to. What put the final seal on the situation was Sybill Trelawney’s prophecy which stated that “neither can live while the other survives,” meaning that when Voldemort returned to conquer the world Harry would be the only one capable of saving everyone…again. No pressure Harry. His destiny was chosen for him, but then again isn’t every protagonist’s destiny chosen for them in a sense?
The magician Merlin, who is living life backwards was already aware of who Arthur was going to be when he urged Uther Pendragon to give him his first born child in exchange for his help to lay with the Duke of Cornwall’s wife, Lady Igraine. Merlin knew Arthur would grow up to be King and save Britain from the Saxons when he saw the Wart stumbling across the forest floor in T.H. White’s “The Sword in the Stone.” So the fact that he knew Arthur would become King when he asked Uther for his child means that Merlin is the person who chose Arthur’s fate.
Had it not been for his request to receive Arthur, Uther would never have given him over and perhaps Arthur would never have become King. Furthermore, Merlin was the one who placed the sword in the stone and prophesied that whoever pulls it out would become King. Merlin already knew that Arthur was of noble blood, but had he not placed the sword in that stone nobody would have known that Arthur was the heir to the throne. So not only did Merlin arrange for King Arthur to actually be born, but he also arranged for the circumstances that made his nobility come to life, therefore Merlin steered Arthur’s destiny.
Arthur and Harry were also raised in complete ignorance of their true lineage. Merlin knew that Arthur would not be safe with the Duke of Cornwall on the prowl for Uther’s heir, so he hid him away with a knight named Sir Ector. Knowing that Arthur would be safe Merlin went to live in the woods nearby, and left him alone until his services were needed again. Therefore Arthur grew up thinking he was Sir Ector’s nephew and had no idea of his noble heritage. He lived comfortably enough and managed to gain the proper morals and code of honor that would one day benefit him as King.
Harry was not so lucky. From what we surmise from JK’s novels, Harry Potter would have lived quite a comfortable and quiet life had he not been thrown into tragedy when Voldemort attacked. On the night of the attack Harry was barely a year old, and his parents and he were quietly enjoying their evening at Godric’s Hollow. Voldemort burst in and massacred James and Lilly Potter, Harry’s parents, but when he attempted to kill Harry, the love that Harry’s mother had shown in trying to protect her child formed a sort of protective barrier which caused the curse to bounce back and strike Voldemort. Dumbledore hid the orphaned Harry with his Aunt and Uncle Dursley, who wished to have nothing to do with him due to his being of “that lot,” meaning a wizard. For eleven years Harry grew up hated and ridiculed with his aunt and uncle, not having a clue of his magical world connections.
At this point we notice that while Arthur grew up comfortably with his loving foster family, Harry grew up hated and down trod with his unbearable aunt and uncle. Also, while Arthur’s foster brother Kay greatly helped him on quests and adored him as his own brother, Harry was bullied and annoyed by his cousin Dursley.
Another striking similarity between Arthur and Harry is that they both exist to protect and save the people they lead. When Harry unwittingly vanquished Lord Voldemort as a young baby he saved the wizarding community from the greatest threat it had ever faced, at least until Voldemort returned in The Goblet of Fire. So from a surprisingly early age Harry was the savior of his people. When he attended Hogwarts and became a prominent figure in the lives of many people he was not only their “leader,” but their savior. After Lord Voldemort had returned to power Dumbledore started to guess that he and Harry would be pitted against one another until one was vanquished.
This was made certain by was Sybill Trelawney’s prophecy: “‘The one with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord approaches… born to those who have thrice defied him, born as the seventh month dies… and the Dark Lord will mark him as his equal, but he will have power the Dark Lord knows not… and either must die at the hand of the other for neither can live while the other survives… the one with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord will be born as the seventh month dies…” So once again Harry was made the only one capable of saving the world from the evils of Marvolo Riddle, or Lord Voldemort. The power which he had that Voldemort knew nothing about was his deceased mother’s love, which made it possible for baby Harry and teenage Harry to thwart Voldemort on every attempt he made to conquer the wizarding world. In the final part of J.K Rowling’s thrilling series Harry vanquishes Lord Voldemort once and for all, therefore fulfilling his prophecy and saving “his people.”
Arthur also was presented as a hero and savior for his subjects. According to Geoffrey of Monmouth, historian and author of History of the Kings of Britain, around 1100 Britain was overrun by Saxons, Picts, and Scots. Arthur came about due to the subdued and downtrodden imaginations of the British people. Whenever a people are subject to tyranny they create heroes and saviors. Arthur was the product of poverty, hunger and injustice, so in the Arthurian legends he is the ultimate hero, the total savior and the peace bringer of Camelot. Another similarity between both heroes is that Arthur is helped on his way to victory by the legendary Sword Excalibur, and Harry defeated Lord Voldemort with the aid of The Elder Wand.
As both novels developed the presences of many characters guide the protagonists in the right direction, but none more so than their mentor and protector. For Harry it is Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore, and for Arthur it is the enigmatic Merlin. Harry was hidden for his own safety by Dumbledore and throughout the whole series he was nudged in the right direction by him. In the Philosopher’s Stone, Dumbledore tells Harry how the Mirror of Erised works, in the Chamber of Secrets he sends Fawkes to rescue him from Slytherin’s Heir and the basilisk, in The Prisoner of Azkaban he gives Hermione the Time Turner…there are a cornucopia of examples on how Dumbledore is always helping Harry along the way. Although J.K. Rowling claims that Dumbledore had flaws and was ‘gay,’ he was still one of my favorite characters due to his complete devotion to the novel’s cause: defeating Lord Voldemort. In this sense Dumbledore is Harry’s main parental figure, aside from his Godfather, Sirius, and he sees him through all the hard times.
Merlin is that reason that Arthur exists. So if anything, you could sort of call Merlin Arthur’s father. Not only did he arrange for the birth of Britain’s greatest king, but he made him king by putting the sword in the stone. He guided Arthur through his quests and adventures and made him Lord of the Knights of the Round Table. Whenever anyone thinks about Arthurian legend they think of Merlin. Merlin, who found Wart wondering in the woods. Merlin, who taught him valuable life lessons by turning him into different animals. Merlin, who gave him the marvelous sword Excalibur.
In both books the mentors are described as having long, white, flowing beards, pointed hats with stars and astrological robes of purple, half rimmed spectacles and twinkling blue eyes. Is it coincidence that J.K. had all these parallels between Arthur and Harry AND Dumbledore and Merlin?
Both Harry and Arthur lead very distinguished, eventful and public lives. The life of the hero isn’t an easy one, but it is quite rewarding. As Campbell puts it “A hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself” (Campbell). Both of these heroes have accepted their fate and played the role perfectly.
A common thread found in most hero stories is the chance at immortality. Campbell writes in his novel, “The Hero With A Thousand Faces,” that “To this very day, the possibility of physical immortality charms the heart of man” (Campbell, 188). All hero figures, from Gilgamesh, to Buddha, to Jesus, even Arthur and Harry are all presented with immortality. This longing for eternal life can be understood when we see what a hero is and how man (and woman in JK’s case), fears death. As we know, a hero is spawned during times of upheaval and social distress. Arthur was thought up during the Saxon’s occupation of England and Harry was born when J.K. needed to be saved from poverty and discontent. Whenever a peoples is oppressed they think of becoming rich, overcoming their difficulties and living forever.
In Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Harry is presented with the opportunity to keep the Sorcerer’s Stone, from which he can create the Elixir of Life, enabling him to live forever. In the Deathly Hallows he was searching for the three Deathly Hallows, one of which was the resurrection stone. The Resurrection Stone made it so that Harry could bring back anyone from the dead. Yet because he didn’t want the Sorcerer’s stone or the Resurrection stone for his own use, he made himself immortal in a different way. He made himself immortal in his follower’s memories and in his many fans’ minds. Arthur, also, had the chance at immortality.
On his quest for the Holy Grail he was presented many times with challenges and dilemmas for which the reward was immortality. When Arthur is killed by his son Mordred, he is then taken to the Isle of Avalon to be treated. A popular legend, current among the British people, claimed that King Arthur had never actually died and that he would one day return to his people when their need was great. In this sense King Arthur was thought to be the perfect man, pure of sin. Harry is similarly clean of sin – as Dumbledore tells him in Half-Blood Prince, “In spite of all the temptation you have endured, all the suffering, you remain pure of heart, just as pure as you were at the age of eleven.”
Finally, the greatest parallel between both heroes is the quest. The myths and legends surrounding King Arthur center on the quest for the Holy Grail. According to legend, King Arthur saw the Grail in a vision, and subsequently he and his knights attempted to find the Grail. The Holy Grail and the vessel used by Christ at the Last Supper that was then used by St. Joseph to catch the blood of Christ were then thought to be the same cup. While the location of the Grail was forgotten over time, there was a prophecy at the Court of King Arthur that the Grail would one day be rediscovered by a descendant of St. Joseph. According to the prophecy, the person who would find the Grail would be the person designated to sit in the Siege Perilous, the perfect seat at the round table. This would be Sir Galahad. In comparison Harry Potter is also on a quest. In fact seven quests, one for each book written. Each one of the Harry Potter books written involves quests.
In Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Voldemort is on a quest to find the Philosopher’s Stone to achieve immortality. Voldemort’s quest becomes Harry’s quest, as Harry believes himself to be the only one capable of stopping Voldemort from obtaining the Stone once he learns that Dumbledore has left Hogwarts. The quest takes Harry through a series of obstacles, and while he is accompanied at first by Ron and Hermione, it is he alone – like Galahad – who must complete the quest and save the Stone from Voldemort. Philosopher’s Stone actually tells us about two quests – the quest for the Stone, as well as Voldemort’s quest to kill the boy who has been prophesized to be the only one who can be his undoing. As Galahad’s seat is marked with his name, signifying that he is the only one who can find the Grail, Voldemort’s attack on Harry as a baby leaves him marked with the scar that signifies Harry as Voldemort’s equal and as the only one who can vanquish Voldemort.
Also, Harry is the only one who can achieve the quest for the stone, like Galahad is the only one who can find the Holy Grail. As in Arthurian legend, Harry is not the only one who embarks on quests through the Harry Potter series. In Philosopher’s Stone, Voldemort uses Quirrell to try to find the Stone. The entire Hogwarts teaching staff (with the one notable exception of Professor Lockhart) is looking for the Chamber of Secrets in Book Two. The Dementors are searching for Sirius Black in Prisoner of Azkaban.
The other contestants in the Triwizard Tournament, like Knights of the Round Table, are also on quests as they complete each Tournament task in Goblet of Fire. At the Yule Ball, the contestants and the judges even sit at a large round table. In Order of the Phoenix, Voldemort is on a quest to obtain the prophecy and regain his power. This signifies that many try, or feel compelled to achieve the status of hero, but the true hero doesn’t choose his destiny. The true hero becomes what he is because he has no choice, because it is in his blood. Like Harry and Arthur, who did not choose their future, and never wanted fame and glory, the true hero does things alone.
There exists many parallels between both heroes and in finality we can conclude that this is no mere coincidence. Rowling must have intended to at least base her protagonist off of Britain’s greatest hero: King Arthur.
The reason that J. K. Rowling is able to put so much life and actuality in her writings is that she herself has experienced much of what she writes. She was born on July 31st, 1965 in Gloucestershire, England. Divorced and living off of welfare Rowling wrote Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone on a napkin between her daughter’s naps. When Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was published her life changed. Much like Harry’s life, Rowling’s has the characteristics of a fairy tale. Barely making a living she managed to get by and lived in a small apartment flat in Edinburgh, where she says she was rescued by Harry Potter. She was given money to finish her books and has since become richer than even the Queen. She has written the harshness and nightmares of her pre-Potter life into her books, which is why they appear so real.
Whenever a people live an oppressed lifestyle they create saviors to rescue them, which is what J.K did. T.H White, on the other hand lived a pretty well off life, yet displeased with the world he too re-made a hero for himself, Arthur. There isn’t much in common between both authors other than their British descent and the fact that they write. Their language is also very similar and the way they write is strikingly alike. Perhaps it’s the fact that they both attended Exeter college? In the quest for literary glory, both authors overcame tremendous upheaval and problems of a bad economic start. Yet they both wrote novels that changed mankind, and that continued the Hero’s journey through literature. It is certain true then, that “There is only one hero, and he has a thousand faces” (HWTF, Campbell).
White, T.H. “The Sword in the Stone.” Random House, Inc. October 1963
Rowling, J.K. “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.” Cornell Books, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Rowling, J.K. “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.” Cornell Books, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Rowling, J.K. “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.” Cornell Books Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Rowling, J.K. “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.” Cornell Books, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Rowling, J.K. “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.” Cornell Books, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Rowling, J.K. “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.” Cornell Books, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Rowling, J.K. “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.” Cornell Books, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Campbell, Joseph. “The Hero With A Thousand Faces.” New World Library Books, 1949, First Ed.