The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Harry Potter: from hero to global commonplace

August 14, 2007

For those who might be interested, my lecture notes from my address at Prophecy 2007 follow.

Keep in mind that I departed a great deal from the text, particularly when talking about nationalism and not all of my notes add up to coherent sentences.

Also, the notes I’ve reproduced below constituted prompts rather than text to be read verbatim. I may clean it up one day, but I don’t really have the energy to do so right now.

The clever subtitle of Prophecy 2007, “From Hero to Legend,” raises an interesting question: has Harry Potter passed, in one way or another, into the realm of legend? Or, to put it in broader terms, what are the various relationships between the category of “legend” and Harry Potter, both within the confines of the series and in terms of the Harry Potter phenomenon writ large?

It seems appropriate to begin with some “textbook” definitions of three categories relevant to my discussion: myth, legend, and folklore. These definitions have their own problems, and experts in these fields will rightfully question my use of them, yet they provide good benchmarks for the claims I will make later on.

1. Myth, in the first definition offered by the Oxford English Dictionary, embodies

A traditional story, typically involving supernatural beings or forces or creatures , which embodies and provides an explanation, aetiology, or justification for something such as the early history of a society, a religious belief or ritual, or a natural phenomenon.

Myths often refer to events “out of time”: the origins of gods, the primordial mist from which a society springs, and so forth.

In popular and some scholarly usages, myth refers to stories that are uncommonly believed to be false. “That’s just a myth.”

2. Legends, in contrast, operate in “human time.” They take place in “our world” and describe people and events that, while at least one element may be of ambiguous veracity, have some plausibility to them. We can argue about whether or not legends really happened in the precise manner described, but they, unlike myths, are in principle verifiable. While Arthur may not have established a “round table” or may not be lying in Avalon to await a new threat to Britain, there may have been a historical figure to which the legends of King Arthur refer—if only in some distant and distorted way.

3. Finally, contemporary understandings of folklore originate in nineteenth-century Romantic Nationalism. For those concerned with the apparently pernicious effects of what we would now term “modernization,” recording and interrogating the “folktales” of rural society became a way of capturing the essence of national character. Folklorists, of course, did not merely record “national culture,” they produced it by enshrining local variations in European peasant culture as exemplars of national difference. Hence the joke that all European “national folk dances” are basically variations on the same theme with a few different moves and shifts in styles of dress.

Regardless, when we speak of folklore we refer to common cultural currency—much of it mythological or legendary in character—that informs and enables communication between members of a community. In doing so, it defines social and cultural communities through shared referents, themes, and narratives.

I am no expert in literature or the analysis of genre, but even to a luddite such as myself it seems that the fantasy genre has a complicated relationship with myth, legend, and folklore. J.R.R. Tolkein, whose work for many defines modern fantasy, built a fully realized world out of an analysis of myth, legend, folklore, and linguistics. His world was more than simply borrowed from these elements, but presented a theory of them.

Consider, also, the late Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles. Alexander bases his world in the myths, legends, and folklore of premodern Britain—specifically its Celtic inheritance. But while he lifts elements, he radically reinterprets many of them. Thus the Castle of Llyr bears only some resemblance to the lore surrounding the Children of Llyr from which he borrows the name. The Black Cauldrun is the Cauldrun of Mabinogi, but its narrative role in the Prydain Chronicles is quite different from that of the Second Portion of the Mabinogi. Here legend, transformed into folklore, provides the “source material” for a different story.

The last paragraph of the Prydain Chronciles—of the High King—holds special interest for us. After his costly victory over Arawan, Taran forsakes voyage to the Summer Lands—and hence immortality—in order to set about the hard task of bringing to fruition the many small and large works of those who have perished in the conflict. His love-interest, Eilonwy, forsakes immortality as well:

And they lived many happy years, and the promised tasks were accomplished. Yet long afterward, when all had passed away into distant memory, there were many who wondered whether King Taran, Queen Eilonwy, and their companions had indeed walked the earth, or whether they had been no more than dreams in a tale set down to beguile children. And, in time, only the bards knew the truth of it.

What Alexander describes here, of course, is the passage of “real events” into the realm of legend and even, ultimately, myth. This serves a double purpose. First, as with the Harry Potter series—and so many of the best works of children’s fantasy, such as LeGuin’s Earthsea Trilogy—the acceptance of death reflects an acceptance of one’s humanity, and thus of one’s interconnectedness with other human beings. But death claims more than self—it ultimately effaces memory of deeds. Second, it locates the Prydain Chronicles in the realm of myth and legend. We might, if we so choose, view them as accounts of “real events” that have been transformed into traces of folktales.

In contrast, Evangeline Walton’s classic Mabinogian Tetrology is a straightforward adaptation of what would once have been legend, but now we think of as folklore. She adapts the narrative elements and introduces mid-20th century interpretations of the transition from pre-Indo European to Indo-European societies, but her work stands as a modern retelling of folkloric source material.

Now these are all examples of so-called “high fantasy,” and some have suggested that Harry Potter is best thought of as “low fantasy.” I think this is wrong, but I’ll return to this later.

So, between such disparate re-workings of legend-cum-folklore we can identify some basic functions of contemporary fantastical fiction. A great deal of fantasy literature might be understood in terms of the disenchantment of the modern world. Reading fantasy provides many with an opportunity to “suspend disbelief” and enter into a re-enchanted world; many examples of fantastical fiction thus mimic the structures of legends. Without confidence in the legendary—that is to say, somewhat true—character of folklore, we produce and read explicitly fictional legends.

In “high fantasy”, much of it derivative of Tolkein, authors invent entire worlds with their own myths, legends, and even folklore. But even in other examples of the fantasy genre, a problem emerges: how to give the constructed world sufficient resonance for it to seem “plausible” or “grounded”? The answer, for many (and here again we see Tolkein’s influence), is to fill the world with real or pseudo-tropes from existing folkloric traditions. This lowers, if you will, the barriers to entry for readers and provides short-cuts for writers.

But regardless of the particular genre of fantasy, any fictional narrative that re-enchants the world creates interesting possibilities: folklore may be, and often proves to be, real. Plots often hinge on how the deeds of great heroes, wizards, or what-have-you—sometimes viewed by characters as suspect—turn out to be, at least to some degree, factual. Separating the “real” from the legendary and folkloric drives plot development. Heroes themselves often are inserted into an ongoing flow of legend and must, if good is to triumph, take up their appointed roles. Perhaps one of the most straightforward—and interesting—examples of this kind of narrative can be found in Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Finnovar Tapestry.

So a great deal of fantastical fiction is structured as myth or legend—with various borrowings from our own folklore—with internal myths, legends and folklore in an often unstable conceptual relationship.

How, then, might we cut into the question of “Prophecy… from Hero to Legend” in Harry Potter? Here let me make four arguments: First, as is often the case in fantasy, the shifting relationship between myth—and particularly legend and folklore—is often important to the plot of Harry Potter. Second, Harry’s journey is not from hero to legend, but from legend to hero to legend. Third, Harry Potter is structured as “legend” in a way that helps to explain its tremendous appeal. And, fourth, and I think most important, the Harry Potter phenomenon involves not the translation of hero into legend, but the emergence of a “global commonplace” akin to the conceptual category of folklore.

Myth, Legend, and Folkore in HP

Folkloric elements; legend and myth. Status of certain things as myth/legend/folklore crucial. Characters discuss or dismiss the Chamber of Secrets, for example, as a “legend.” The Deathly Hallows may or may not be a “fairy tale.” But it is particularly interesting that characters in the Harry Potter universe—unlike in many other examples of fantasy—discuss these issues with a “modern” vocabulary. As the Lovegoods’ various obsessions make clear, the Wizarding world is full of fairytales and mythical animals that do not refer to anything real. Within the universe of Harry Potter.

Myth, Legend, and Folklore: HP himself

It encapsulates Harry Potter’s own story. When Harry arrives at Hogwarts he is, after all, something of a legend in the Wizarding World; “the boy who lived”: the only person ever to survive Voldemort’s Avada Kedavra curse. For most of the Wizarding World, and for Harry himself, his survival is the stuff of legend. How he survived, and why he survived, remain—for most of the novels—cloaked in mystery. For Harry to find his place in the world, and to triumph over Voldemort, he must travel a specific kind of hero’s journey in which he transforms himself from a legend into a hero. But having defeated Voldemort, Harry’s heroism will inevitably transition back into the realm of Wizarding legend.

Harry Potter has, from our perspective, the architecture of “legend.”

Harry Potter demands very little “ontological displacement.” Harry exists in our world, in our time, and at least partly in our geography. The fantastic elements of the Wizarding World are almost entirely drawn from European folklore—from the magical creatures, to the language of spells which is either Latin or Latin-esque, to the practice of witchcraft and wizardry which mirrors medieval and early modern accounts. In many ways, the Wizarding world is quite mundane. Magic functions as an alternative technology, bureaucrats bumble, reporters twist the facts, the Ministry regulates international trade, and we even have a World Cup.

Harry Potter does not, therefore, take place “a long time ago in a galaxy far far away” or on a parallel world with its own geography, history, myth, legend, and folklore. Harry is not LeGuin’s Ged, Nix’s Sabriel, or one of the countless heroes and heroines of fantasy who step through a magic portal and find themselves in a cosmological struggle between good and evil. He is a boy who discovers, on his birthday, that he is part of a “secret society” with its own—mostly familiar—rules, practices, and struggles—ones that bleed seamlessly into 20th and 21st century Britain. Harry Potter is, as some people say, “low fantasy.” But unlike many examples of “low fantasy,” the Wizarding World looks more like that of “high fantasy” with its clear-cut distinctions between “good” and “evil” (even if individual characters face moral struggles) and its menagerie of elves, goblins, phoenixes, centaurs, and so forth.

But this has certain implications. First, all bets are off about which of our own legends and folklore are “true” and which are merely myth or fairy tales. We know that some stories in the Wizard World are in fact nothing more than folklore, and that some magical creatures do not exist. We must, as I suggested above, reorient the lines to draw when we “suspend disbelief.” Second, it gives Potter the architecture of a successful Muggle legend.

Because Potter’s world intermixes seamlessly with our own—our world of Playstations and early modern witchcrazes and prime ministers—it has the infrastructure of plausibility associated with “legend.”

Now, much fantastical fiction apes the structure of legend. After all, they provide us with an escape into a re-enchanted world of swords, sorcery, and magical creatures that once seemed quite real to every human being. A protagonist enters into an unfolding legend; he or she fulfills the prophecy and therefore both acts out and produces the legendary arc of the fantasy world. But the Harry Potter novels go further, by presenting us with—at least in its structure—a “plausible” legend of our own world.

This helps explain, I think, the wild success of the novels. Because they present themselves as a legend rooted in our—and the stress should be on “our” as in those of us in this room—time and space, they bring with them a familiarity—the lack of a demand for strong ontological displacement—which makes the books accessible to people who might otherwise never read works of fantasy, let alone children’s fantasy

Of course, and this brings me to my final “riff,” only a very young child or a crank would read this literary architecture as imply that Potter’s story is—or could in fact be—true. Thus, I think that “legend” is the wrong way to think about the nature of the Potter phenomenon.

Harry Potter isn’t actually becoming the “stuff of legend,” but rather the stuff of folklore.

What do I mean by this? As many people much better informed on these matters than I have noted, the “commercialization” of folklore is a major staple of the last century or so. In its most basic sense, we have Disney and other appropriations of folklore as mass media. But in a more profound sense, the narratives, myths, legends, themes, and figures that used to provide common currency and structure community through oral tradition—as public property—now disseminate through mass, commercial media. Our “folklore,” in fact, is found in television dramas, movies, and novels.

This is actually a very significant development, one with precedents that date back at least until the 19th century. The famous scholar of nationalism, Benedict Anderson, argues that “the nation” is an “imagined community.” In a “real” community, people know one another and interact directly with one another. But, in his account, nineteenth century newspapers and state propaganda played a key role in creating the social fact of “nations”: the sense that members of a national community are, in fact, connected to one another through common experiences and orientations. The experience of temporal “simultaneity” plays an essential role in our ability to “imagine” communities. (And here we should think about the simultaneous worldwide release of the English-language editions of Deathly Hallows, and the experience we had of reading the book knowing that millions of others were doing the same thing. The academic blogsphere, to take one example, basicall stopped in its tracks in the hours after the book was released.) Now, newspapers are now less important than this sense of an “imagined community” than television, film, and even the experience of, say, going to any mall in the US and seeing the same stores.

So Harry Potter is not merely a reinterpretation of folklore, it is a, functionally speaking, contemporary folklore. And more than that, it is folklore on a global scale. Or, as I’ve argued in various settings, Harry Potter is cultural globalization: it is part of the creation of transnational common currency of narratives, personages, themes, and other circulating commonplaces.

Let me illustrate this through the history of the volume I edited. Put together a panel—which was packed (albeit in a small room) and sparked lots of conversation. I met scholars from France, Germany, Russia, Japan, and India who got easily and enthusiastically discuss Harry Potter.

But we’re talking about a peculiar stratum here. There’s significant evidence that Harry Potter has become transnational cultural currency. Over 350 million books sold worldwide; over 3.8b in international revenue, 66+ translations. But what we want to see even more than that is evidence of Potter showing up “outside” of the text, in, for example, political settings.

And we have some evidence for this. As I recently argued, Harry Potter, in fact, functions something like a Rorschach Blot: In countries around the world, it captures various national anxieties about contemporary culture and international affairs. French intellectuals, for example, debate whether or not Harry Potter indoctrinates youngsters into the orthodoxy of unfettered market capitalism. Some Swedish commentators decry what they perceive as Harry Potter’s Anglo-American vision of bourgeoisie conformity and its affirmation of class and gender inequality. In Turkey, we find a significant discussion of Harry Potter that pivots around issues of Turkish civilizational identity: whether Turkey is part of the West, the East, or a bridge between the two.

A few Turkish writers have even asserted that controversies over Harry Potter in the United States demonstrate how Turks are more “Western” than Americans. And in Russia, a country whose concern over international status and prestige becomes more apparent each day, the newspaper Novaya Gazeta created a minor firestorm when it claimed that the film visage of Dobby the House-Elf was a deliberate insult to President Vladimir Putin.

We also have other indicators of Potter’s status of global folklore. Folklore, of course, involves common themes that are adapted and translated into local contexts, that evolve over time in particular settings. The Cinderella story, for example, has variants across Eurasia. We see this in fanfiction, but also in the official and unofficial—read, unauthorized—“translations” of Potter. India. China.

I don’t know how long this will last. What, HP’s “half life” will be. A generation? More? But Harry Potter is one of the most recent, and most profound, examples of commercial folklore achieving transnational status. Of creating a commonplace for people speaking different languages, living in different countries, and with otherwise distinctive cultural settings. And I think that’s pretty interesting, and pretty exciting.

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.