Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces describes the hero’s journey, which Campbell calls the monomyth. This story has been told in just about every culture throughout history and remains a popular and familiar story today. Modern films such as Star Wars and The Matrix follow the hero’s journey; their creators have admitted Campbell’s influence in writing the films’ stories. Campbell separates the hero’s journey into three main steps: the Departure, the Initiation, and the Return. Campbell also describes several archetypical characters that appear in these stories. This post concerns the beginning of Harry’s journey and describes his own departure for his grand adventure.
The first step of the hero’s journey is the Call to Adventure. The hero is typically asked to join a quest and travel to a new realm. Harry discovers a wizarding world he knew nothing about, and he is invited to join it when Hagrid bursts through the door to the hut on the rock in the sea where the Dursleys, who believe the old superstition that witches cannot cross water, think to keep Harry separate from the wizarding world. As Campbell said, this other realm varies, but is often described as “a distant land, a forest, a kingdom underground, beneath the waves, or above the sky, a secret island, lofty mountaintop, or profound dream state.”
Often the next step is the hero’s Refusal of the Call. “Surely not me?” he thinks. “I am not smart/strong/brave/etc. enough to accomplish this task; someone else would be better.” Harry is at first disbelieving of Hagrid’s story, and when he wakes up the next morning, he is almost afraid he dreamed that a giant man came and told him he was a wizard. Because Harry has had such a difficult life and nothing to tie him to the Muggle world he can leave behind if he accepts the Call to Adventure, Harry accepts the Call with little of what Campbell might describe as Refusal.
Once the hero accepts the Call to Adventure, he often finds supernatural aid in the form of a guide or mentor who reveals himself to the hero and gives the hero gifts, amulets, or talismans that will help the hero on his quest. Hagrid takes Harry to Diagon Alley to purchase all the equipment he will need to successfully transition into life at Hogwarts. Certainly Hagrid does not present these items to Harry as gifts, but he does present Harry with a gift of knowledge: that Harry has a pile of wizarding gold in Gringotts that he can use to purchase all of the items he needs, including a wand, arguably the most important artifact a wizard possesses. Hagrid does, however, buy Harry his owl, Hedwig, which will allow him to communicate with other wizards and functions also as a pet.
The first task the hero accomplishes on his journey is known as Crossing the Threshold. Harry crosses the threshold when he passes over from the Muggle world into the wizarding world at Platform 9¾. In fact, the platform is more than just a figurative threshold: it is quite a literal one, as Muggles cannot find the barrier or cross over into the platform to the Hogwarts Express, which will take Harry to school. Figuring out how to get on the platform is Harry’s first major task, and Mrs. Weasley can be seen as a guardian of sorts who recognizes Harry as a fellow wizard who needs instruction on how to pass.
One could argue that being Sorted is yet another threshold Harry must cross, as his Hogwarts House will set him on his path and shape his destiny in the years to come (even beyond school, as we see with adult characters). The Sorting Hat can be seen as a guardian who decides not whether one will pass, but how. He offers Harry a choice between Gryffindor and Slytherin, and Harry’s choice frames the course of the rest of his journey.
The final step of the Initiation is described as the Belly of the Whale. Sometimes this is a moment of darkest danger when the hero could be lost, but Campbell also describes it as a kind of temple. Hogwarts can be seen as a temple guarded from intruders by charms and enchantments. Once Harry enters, he is, in effect, hidden from the Muggle world he has left behind. Muggles will only see a Danger sign if they approach Hogwarts (assuming they can even find it). It’s unplottable and cannot be reached by Apparition. Once inside the Belly of the Whale, the hero undergoes a change, just as Harry does as he begins to learn to use magic and becomes accepted by the wizarding world as one of their own. At this point, he is completely separated from the Muggle world he has left behind. In some ways, Hogwarts can represent a kind of womb where Harry is reborn into the person he was meant to be.
Look for Harry’s Initiation and Return in the next posts.