Rowling’s creative use of magic to highlight Harry’s transformation, a well-designed hybrid magic system, and character-driven world building all contribute to the sustained popularity of the series. Rowling signposts Harry’s progression through each phase of the classic hero’s journey character arc with a magical plot device showcased in the climax of each novel.
Rowling uses Western European folklore, Christian symbolism, and alchemy to create her magical plot devices which showcase Harry’s transition from child to adult.
Beginning with the mythical alchemical substance – the philosopher’s stone – in the first novel of the same name, Rowling employs a thematic framework based on alchemy, an ancient branch of natural philosophy. In an attempt to perfect both the human body and soul, alchemists attempted to discover the method to turn base metals into gold and create the elixir of immortality. One of the methods attempted by alchemists to turn lead into gold, was purification through intense and prolonged exposure to heat.
Similarly, Rowling seeks to transform Harry from unloved child to worthy hero by subjecting him to trials designed to push him beyond his magical, physical, and emotional limits.
Book 1: The Mirror of Erised
In ‘Philosopher’s Stone‘, Harry’s deepest wish – the desire that drives his character arc throughout the novel – is his longing for lost family, particularly his dead parents. This is the core emotion that marks the beginning of his series long character arc.
Rowling projects this emotion into a magical object that Harry can interact with – the Mirror of Erised. With a name that is ‘desire’ spelled backwards, this magical mirror reflects the viewer’s deepest most heartfelt wish. Rowling has said that Harry’s unfulfillable longing for family has roots in her own grief over her mother’s death before the first novel was completed.
After Harry finds the Mirror of Erised, he loses interest in everything else happening at Hogwarts once he discovers that he can see his parents and lost family in its reflection. In the film adaptation, when Dumbledore discovers Harry on his third visit he cautions him that “This mirror gives us neither knowledge or truth. Men have wasted away in front of it. Even gone mad. It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live.”
Dumbledore’s warning articulates the change Harry must make within himself in order to complete his character arc in the first novel. Harry must learn to let go of his unfulfillable longing to see his parents and move forward with his life.
Harry is put to the test by the mirror which enters the plot at the climax as Dumbledore’s final protection of the philosopher’s stone. Rowling has carefully constructed the magic of the mirror so that Harry can only retrieve the stone if he overcomes his childhood desire to see his parents (what he wants). Instead, Harry must replace his longing with determination to stop Quirrell/Voldemort from obtaining the philosopher’s stone (what he needs). We know Harry succeeds in his intensely emotional challenge when he finds the philosopher’s stone in his pocket.
Book 2: The Sword of Gryffindor
In ‘Chamber of Secrets‘, what drives Harry’s character arc is doubt about his identity. Rowling projects Harry’s doubt and who he is and where he belongs onto the Sorting Hat, a magical object which speaks and can interact with Harry. Rowling foreshadows this plot device in ‘Philosopher’s Stone’ when the Sorting Hat tells Harry he would be successful in Slytherin House, thus planting a seed of doubt in Harry’s mind.
After discovering he can speak parseltongue, the characteristic trait of Lord Voldemort, in ‘Chamber of Secrets’, Harry’s doubt resurfaces. Encountering the Sorting Hat in Dumbledore’s office, he asks it if he truly belongs in Gryffindor. Instead of the neatly packaged answer that Dumbledore hands to Harry about the dangers of the Mirror of Erised, the Sorting Hat increases Harry’s doubt. The Sorting Hat admits Harry was ‘particularly difficult to place’ and that he would have ‘done well in Slytherin’.
Symbol of Right Action
The sword is a classic literary symbol of right action, keen discernment, and is the common marker of the chosen one. This Christian metaphor has roots in the legends of King Arthur and his magical sword Excalibur, and has been used by generations of authors. The Sword of Gryffindor is descended from this western European religious legacy, as is the sword Anduril, the sword of Aragorn, the rightful heir of the throne of Gondor in J.R.R. Tolkien’s ‘Lord of the Rings‘.
The Sword of Gryffindor is a symbol of Harry’s belonging in Gryffindor house and his right action in risking his life to save Ginny Weasley’s. The inexplicable appearance of the sword out of the Sorting Hat is a symbol of Harry drawing his chosen identity as a Gryffindor out of the self-doubt that has plagued him for the entire novel. The fact that Harry wields the sword of the founder of his Hogwarts House also symbolizes his new-found agency to take morally-justified offensive action against the basilisk and Voldemort.
The symbolism Rowling infuses into the Sword of Gryffindor echoes how the young King Arthur proves his identity and worthiness as rightful king by drawing the sword from the stone. It also parallels how Aragorn reforges the broken sword of his ancestor before ascending the throne of Gondor. Harry, King Arthur, and Aragorn all use swords to prove their identity as heroes, chosen ones, and true and rightful heroes.
As he did in the first book, Dumbledore neatly sums up Harry’s character arc at the end of ‘Chamber of Secrets’. Harry starts with self-doubt about who he is and worrying that his ability to speak parseltongue and other similarities to Voldemort means he is destined to become a dark wizard. But after drawing the Sword of Gryffindor from the Sorting Hat, Dumbledore assures him that “It is our choices that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”
Book 3: The Patronus
In ‘Prisoner of Azkaban‘, the dementors trigger depression and anxiety in all of Rowling’s characters. But Harry’s particular vulnerability to dementors represents the debilitating childhood trauma of witnessing his parents being murdered by Voldemort as a small child.
The patronus is a charm to neutralize the dementor’s depression. It is advanced-level, emotion-based magic powered by focusing one’s thoughts on happy relationships in life. Harry’s patronus changes shape – first a whisp, then a shield, and finally a stag – as he struggles to master the spell. The changing form of the patronus is linked to Harry’s character arc, and its final corporeal form as a stag is closely associated with Harry’s father.
The variable strength and changing form of the patronus combine to represent Harry’s struggle towards emotional maturity. In particular, his need to cope with the trauma of hearing his mother plead with Voldemort for his life shortly before her death.
Both the dementors and the patronus enter the plot of ‘Azkaban’ at the climax when a stag patronus appears to rescue Harry and Sirius from dementors. During the time-turner sequence, time-turner Harry hides and watches the dementor attack, waiting for his father to arrive and save his other self and Sirius. When his father and the stag don’t appear, time turner-Harry understands that his other self and Sirius are going to have their souls sucked out of them by the dementor’s kiss. In an elegant and cleverly structured moment of truth, Harry realizes his father isn’t riding to the rescue and he must save himself. Harry then flings himself out of hiding to cast his own stag patronus, successfully saving his other self and Sirius.
Harry casting a corporeal patronus in the form of a stag to save himself from the dementors is a symbol for his achieving emotional maturity. Harry has learned how to father himself – he can cope with trauma and protect himself from debilitating childhood trauma and depression. He has matured from child to young adult.
The White Stag
Rowling carefully selected the form of Harry’s corporeal patronus. The white stag appears in the folklore of many Western European cultures and is deeply infused with meaning. Due to their unusual color and rare and elusive nature, white deer are considered messengers from the otherworld in Celtic mythology.
According to Arthurian folklore, the white stag is impossible to capture and that pursuit of the animal represents mankind’s spiritual quest, similar to the Holy Grail.
Associated with King Richard II of England and Saint Eustace, the white stag represents the joy of the chase and the promise of fresh adventure. Rowling selects it as Harry’s patronus – the most powerful patronus in the series – due to its association with the desire to capture happiness.
Rowling selects a peaceful doe as Snape’s patronus, foreshadowing his loyalty to Dumbledore and his gentle unrequited love for Harry’s mother. Its form as a white deer signals the patronus’s benevolent nature to Harry when she appears to lead him to the Sword of Gryffindor.
Read part 2 in this series to discover how dual core wands, prophecies, thestrals, hallows, and horcruxes form the magical plot devices in the second half of the series.