My previous piece in this series ended with Dumbledore’s wisdom, as recalled by Harry: “It was important, Dumbledore said, to fight, and fight again, and keep fighting, for only then could evil be kept at bay, though never quite eradicated…” What I find especially striking is its notion of pursuit as the goal itself. With the ideals we hold dear, it can be difficult to remember that honor lies in pursuit, even when the ideal itself remains out of reach.
Dumbledore’s wisdom turns out to be a fitting segue into a discussion of the Homeric hero, whose reason for being was pursuit, specifically of excellence, even more specifically of a reputation for excellence—on the battlefield, in athletic competitions, and in public speaking. Homer’s heroes are skilled and brave warriors. They participate in athletic competitions, and take the results quite seriously indeed. They deliver monologues capable of rousing men to action and/or emotion.
The parallels to Harry are fairly evident. He bests Voldemort in battle in books one, two, four, and seven. Harry is also the first person to survive the killing curse, in his case cast by Voldemort. Sirius’ survival in book three also is down to Harry, with significant help from Hermione. In books five and six, though over his head, he demonstrates bravery and willingness to put himself in harm’s way without concern for his own safety. From his first year at Hogwarts, Harry distinguishes himself as an excellent Quidditch player. When necessary, he can deliver a stirring monologue. Two narratively significant examples are his speeches to Dumbledore’s Army recruits in book five and to Voldemort before their final face-off in book seven.
Besides the pursuit of excellence, the Homeric heroic code identifies heroes as aristocrats—wealth, especially accumulated via war booty, equals status—who achieve glory (kleos in ancient Greek) through their great deeds. This kleos is passed on from father to son. The son’s job is both to carry on his father’s name and to build on it by achieving greatness himself. Thus in The Odyssey, Odysseus needles his son, Telemachus, to “be sure not to disgrace your ancestors, who were eminent for their strength and courage all the world over,” and Laertes, Odysseus’ father, delights that his “son and grandson are vying with one another in the matter of valor” (Samuel Butler’s translation, Book 24).
Harry’s father doesn’t needle him, but his phantom does express, in book seven, his pride in Harry for his bravery. Other intersections include that Harry follows in his father’s footsteps—if unwittingly at first—by becoming a skilled and successful Quidditch player and by defying Voldemort repeatedly. Note that it was Harry’s father who was pureblood, the wizarding world’s equivalent of aristocracy and who left behind a substantial fortune. Harry’s mother was Muggle-born.
Homeric heroes have their own epithets that describe them. Odysseus is “man of many devices,” “much-enduring,” and “clever.” Even here we can find parallels in J. K. Rowling, via stock phrases that characterize Harry. Granted, their purpose is not (as in Homer) necessarily to facilitate the audience’s memory or to fulfill metric needs. Nevertheless, they do exist in the text. Harry is, at various points, “the youngest house Quidditch player in a hundred years,” “the Chosen One,” and “public enemy #1.”
A Homeric hero’s exploits are spread through poetic retellings. In the Phaeacian court, Odysseus weeps as he listens to Demodocus sing about the events at Troy, including events that featured Odysseus in a starring role. Harry’s survival of Voldemort’s killing curse also resulted in him being celebrated through retellings. Not in poetic song, accompanied by a lyre. But still. In book one, when Dumbledore prepares to leave Harry with the Dursleys, Professor McGonagall notes that Harry will “be famous—a legend” in the magical world. She continues, “I wouldn’t be surprised if today was known as Harry Potter Day in the future—there will be books written about Harry—every child in our world will know his name!” Celebrated through poetic retellings? Close enough.
Harry’s experiences and exploits fit the Homeric heroic code’s characteristic traits, but how deeply do the similarities run when it comes to the hero’s behavior? Stay tuned for part two!
Also in this series: