The Mirror, Sword, & Patronus
In the first 3 novels of Harry Potter series, Rowling introduces the Mirror of Erised, the Sword of Gryffindor, and the patronus as magical plot devices that highlight the emotional challenges Harry faces. From ages 11 to 13, Harry’s trials are internally focused. He must confront in his longing for lost family and doubts about his identity as he struggles to mature emotionally.
Transition to Young Adult
In ‘Goblet of Fire‘ 14 year-old Harry is a teenager and finally strong enough to face Voldemort head-on. Although Harry experiences a hero’s journey character arc in miniature within each novel, Rowling transitions his central character arc from the middle grade coming-of-age theme to the young adult hero’s journey.
Rowling keeps Voldemort, the series’s primary antagonist, largely in the background for the first 3 books since Harry is too young to face him directly. Harry confronts only a spectral version of Voldemort at the end of ‘Philosopher’s Stone‘, a horcrux version of Tom Riddle in ‘Chamber of Secrets‘, and Voldemort doesn’t appear at all in ‘Prisoner of Azkaban‘. Rowling shrewdly buys herself this time and keeps her plot moving forward in the first 3 books by occupying Voldemort with re-creating his physical body while Harry is building his magical acumen.
Raising the Stakes
Now that Harry is a young wizard in terms of magical ability and a young adult in terms of age and emotional maturity, Rowling switches from indirect to direct conflict with Voldemort in the second half of the series. The conflict in the 5th, 6th and 7th novels is more external and plot-driven as the series begins to hone in on its main theme: Harry’s psychological acceptance of death.
Rowling’s series-long themes of love and the emotional trauma of death continue, but shift onto a larger stage. As she expands the wizarding world by introducing Harry to students from Beauxbatons and Durmstrang in ‘Goblet of Fire’, Rowling also raises the stakes. After Death Eaters attack Muggles at the World Cup, Voldemort’s return to power is imminent and the muggles and the entire wizarding world – not just Harry – are now at risk.
With the series maturing from middle grade to young adult, Rowling begins weaving the more thematically subtle subplots of horcruxes and hallows into the 5th and 6th novels in preparation for her series climax and the culmination of Harry’s character arc.
Book 4: Priori Incantatem
A quickly maturing teenager and Triwizard champion in ‘Goblet of Fire’, Harry has firmly entered the adult world and must increasingly fend for himself – emotionally and magically – to survive. Beginning with the Death Eater attacks on Muggles at the World Cup and the life and death stakes of the Triwizard Tournament, ‘Goblet of Fire’ also marks a shift in tone. The warm, comforting, middle-grade mystery books that comprise the first half of the series give way to the darker, more troubled tone of young-adult character studies in the second half.
The End of Childhood
At the end of ‘Goblet of Fire’, Rowling restores Voldemort to his body and Harry is forced to witness the murder of Cedric Diggory. At the same time Rowling strips Harry of his mother’s lingering protection in his skin and blood. Harry must now cope with life’s difficulties as an adult and can only rely on his own resources. He is truly on his own against a Voldemort returned to full power.
Rowling’s foreshadowing in ‘Philosopher’s Stone’ that Harry and Voldemort’s wands share a common core – a feather from Dumbledore’s phoenix – finally pays off 3 novels later with the priori incantatem spell. Since they share the same core, Harry and Voldemort’s wands produce the reverse spell effect rather than dueling effectively against each other. This is another clever way Rowling buys herself time to believably keep a young Harry alive against the wrath of a restored Voldemort until the end of the series.
Rowling uses the dual core wands and the reverse spell effect to show readers how similar Harry and Voldemort are. This similarity highlights the theme Rowling established in ‘Chamber of Secrets’ with Harry and Voldemort both being parselmouths. It also foreshadows the crux of Harry’s hero’s arc and a major theme of the series: choice.
To give Harry more space to function as a fully fledged hero, Rowling begins to sideline his protectors. While Voldemort is getting stronger and glibly killing innocents such as Cedric Diggory and Bertha Jorkins, Harry’s most powerful protector, Dumbledore, is weakening. Dumbledore doesn’t withdraw Harry from the dangerous Triwizard Tournament even though he is underage, and fails to detect the false Mad Eye Moody for over a year.
Book 5: The Prophecy
In ‘Order of the Phoenix‘ Rowling firmly shifts the series into the darker brooding tone of teenage angst as Harry grapples with his – and indirectly, Voldemort’s – anger.
Umbridge & Dumbledore’s Army
Rowling also introduces Dolores Umbridge, her best and most powerful antagonist after Voldemort and the Death Eaters. Umbridge is new type of antagonist, the sort of which Harry hasn’t encountered before. Rather than the outright violence of the Death Eaters, Umbridge abuses legitimate authority as a member of the ministry and then as headmistress of Hogwarts.
For the first time, the most powerful form of authority within Hogwarts – the headmaster or mistress – is a threat to Harry. Umbridge’s unique brand of abuse and awfulness effectively motivate Harry to rebel and take on a new leadership role in the clandestine Dumbledore’s Army.
Rowling removes Dumbledore from Hogwarts by having him sacrifice himself to save Harry from expulsion. This leaves the house-bound and equally temperamental Sirius as Harry’s primary means of parental support. Rowling adds more pressure on Harry in the form of visions Voldemort implants in his dreams through their mind connection – legilimency.
The magical plot device in ‘Order of the Phoenix’ is the prophecy which Dumbledore recites from memory for Harry after the climax at the ministry. While the prophecy is not as unique or especially magical compared to innovative and deeply symbolic Mirror of Erised, The Sword of Gryffindor, or the patronus, Rowling neatly flips the concept on its head.
Like King Arthur or Luke Skywalker, chosen ones are often linked to and identified by a prophecy and a promise to restore peace or balance. But instead of a marker of Harry’s inevitable destiny, Rowling re-purposes the prophecy to create a vital piece of Harry’s hero arc – choice.
In the context of the clear bright lines Rowling has drawn between good and evil, she places choice as the difference between self-sacrificing heroes – such as Harry’s parents, Dumbledore, Tonks, Lupin, and finally Snape – and self-serving victims such as Wormtail.
Choice & Agency
Harry’s reaction to the prophecy – ‘Neither can live while the other survives’ – marks a critical shift in his character arc. Arriving at Hogwarts already famous and with the title ‘The Boy Who Lived’, Harry is largely reacting to the magical situations thrown at him for the first 3 novels. While this is understandable due to his young age, Rowling needs him to start proactively taking control of the conflict, a key point in the hero’s character arc.
To achieve this, Rowling needs to create the circumstances to make Harry’s choice to stop running from Voldemort believable. However convenient, she does not take the easy way out by motivating Harry to pursue Voldemort with a desire for revenge for his parents’ death. Instead, Rowling walks a fine line to get a 15 year old to credibly promise to trade his life to save the wizarding world out of his own free will. However difficult, she must achieve this to keep Harry’s positive change character arc on track. Harry must have sufficient motivation so he finishes the exhausting horcrux quest in ‘Half-Blood Prince’ and ‘Deathly Hallows’. He must also have sufficient agency in order for his act of ultimate self-sacrifice at the end of the last novel to resonate with readers and create an emotionally satisfying conclusion to the series.
Although the prophecy is the primary magical plot device of ‘Order of the Phoenix’, a close runner up is one of Rowling’s most unique and memorable creations of the series – the thestral.
Although they do not directly impact the plot of the climax like the prophecy, thestrals clearly represent Harry’s continuing journey along his character arc. Only visible to Harry after watching Cedric Diggory die in ‘Goblet of Fire’, Rowling uses the thestrals to continue Harry’s education about how to accept death – his final challenge at the end of ‘Deathly Hallows’.
Representing common misconceptions about death in Western culture, thestrals are an example of Rowling’s excellent character-driven and thematic world building. They contribute to the climax as a means of transport to the ministry and serve as elegant foreshadowing of Sirius’s death.
Books 6: Horcruxes
The introduction of the horcrux quest is the magical plot device of ‘Half-Blood Prince‘. In order to push Harry along his character arc, Rowling dispatches his greatest and most powerful protector, Dumbledore. The headmaster’s death forces Harry to assume full control and responsibility for his choices, including whether or not to pursue the impossible seeming horcrux quest.
Without his mother’s protection or his all-knowing mentor, Rowling gives Harry the maximum amount of agency going into the series’ finale. She also removes the comfort and protection offered by Hogwarts castle, the predictable pattern of the school year, and the assistance of trusted professors such as McGonagall.
Harry’s challenge in ‘Half Blood Prince’ is committing to the horcrux quest and learning how to work with those he views as untrustworthy. Foreshadowing of Snape’s redemption, Rowling assigns the new potions master, Horace Slughorn, to Slytherin House to demonstrate to Harry that not all Slytherins are treacherous.
Book 7: The Deathly Hallows
The magical plot device of the last novel are the Deathly Hallows, which represent the three most common ways Western European culture has attempted to cope with mortality.
The Elder Wand represents the desire to overpower the paralyzing fear of death with force. The Resurrection Stone is an echo of the Mirror of Erised – both objects represent the psychological failure to accept the death of loved ones and continue living. Like the philosopher’s stone which grants immortality, the Invisibility Cloak represents the desire to evade death of the physical body.
Hallows or Horcruxes
Choice is the fulcrum on which the hallows v. horcrux dilemma that Harry encounters in ‘Deathly Hallows’ is balanced. Rowling presents Harry with the choice between self-sacrifice for the good of others and self-preservation at the expense of others. His decision to pursue either the hallows or the horcruxes after speaking with Ollivander and Griphook is the thematic crux of his character arc.
In order to prevent Harry from appearing to be a puppet controlled by his author, Rowling doubles down on her strategy of strengthening Harry’s agency to make his choice between horcruxes (self-sacrifice) and hallows (self-preservation) a true dilemma.
She does this by further weakening Dumbledore by injuring his hand with a dark curse ‘Half-Blood Prince’. She then increases Harry’s doubts about Dumbledore’s advice to find and destroy horcruxes by revealing more of the headmaster’s faults – namely his history with Grindlewald – in ‘Deathly Hallows’. Rowling accomplishes a remarkable feat by continuing to evolve and re-shape Harry’s perception of Dumbledore even after the headmaster has died.
While Rowling reveals more of Dumbledore’s questionable history, she withholds Snape’s true allegiance to make Harry’s choice even harder. She delays the revelation of Harry being a horcrux himself until the last possible moment in ‘Deathly Hallows’. She also times it with Snape’s death so Harry can’t get any more information from the secretly loyal potions master. In doing so, Rowling maintains suspense, forces Harry to shoulder the entire burden of his destiny as the chosen one, and seems to uphold the dire prophecy that ‘neither can live while the other survives’. Rowling creates such a long road of trials and suffering for Harry, ending with his self-sacrifice, so he earns emotional and thematic impact of becoming a true hero.
Sacrifice & Rebirth
The most effective plot twist of the series is Rowling’s clever reveal of Harry himself being a horcrux. Created in order to drive Harry towards the final test of his hero’s journey, Rowling has carefully designed Harry’s decision once he has this crucial and devastating information. Harry’s self-sacrifice is the climax of his character arc, the choice that proves his worthiness as a hero and demonstrates Rowling’s thematic argument that those we truly love never truly leave us. Once Harry chooses to willingly give himself up in order to stop Voldemort’s killing spree inside Hogwarts, he passes the final trial.
Rowling resurrects Harry with a piece of very fuzzy magic and reunites him with Dumbledore in a beautiful scene at King’s Cross, a sequence deeply infused with Christian symbolism. Resurrection is the hero’s reward for self-sacrifice and the final step in the hero’s journey arc. Rowling ends her series with the rebirth of a horcrux-free Harry and a wizarding world finally free from Voldemort.