Why We Need Harry: Harry Potter and the Process of Individuation

When J.K. Rowling gave Harry Potter to the world, she had little to no idea how far the fan phenomenon would go. With the release of each book, the fandom grew experientially, and still continues to grow. For example, a couple years ago, Wizard Rock, a genre of grassroots music written, performed, and inspired by the books, was defined only by Harry and the Potters, Draco and the Malfoys, and the Remus Lupins. Now there are more bands than I can begin to name, including Melissa and the Anellis, named after the host of the popular fan podcast, PotterCast. That people are interacting so strongly with Harry Potter demonstrates its mythic powers, but are not always using these powers to inspire new, non-Harry Potter-themed creations. Of course, there are exceptions.

Within the Harry Potter dialogue, there is much discussion toward understanding the why’s and what’s of both the books and the fan phenomenon, but little discussion on the how’s. For this reason, I recommend plugging Harry Potter through the translator of mythology and depth psychology. These disciplines provide a language and some tools for understanding Harry Potter in an endearing fashion, not simply as a passing phenomenon. The languages of myth and psychology help a reader (or viewer) internalize the myth, to experience it on a deeply personal level, rather than letting the words or images stay on the page or screen and beyond consciousness. One example of this is the application of Jung’s theory of the process of individuation. Through an understanding of this process, one can experience Harry Potter not just as a literary hero, but also as a metaphorical self through whom we can all undergo a part of our own individuation process.

The process of individuation is the process by which one becomes an "’in-dividual,’ that is, a separate indivisible unity or ‘whole’” (Storr 212). There are two levels of understanding this. Linguistically, we acknowledge the individual to be one with traits unique from the rest of the group. The traits are often unconscious personality traits, but they manifest within the person’s life from personal expression of opinion to the manner in which one dresses. The other level is one in which a person achieves a degree of wholeness such that he or she is no longer psychically divisible, meaning he or she operates within and acknowledges the realm of psyche and is not constantly shifting gears for the sake of the collective outer world. As demonstrated in the phraseology, this is a process, one that may never be fully achieved, and only then, in old age. Myth offers the possibility of the process and provides the metaphorical tools to help guide one to this state of wholeness.

A central misunderstanding of the process stems from the parallels with Joseph Campbell’s model of the hero’s journey called the monomyth. This process of separation, ordeal, and return is essential to individuation because it is through the constant repetition of these steps that one can truly become whole, limited only by the willingness of a person to see it thusly, because the goal of the quest is for the boon of the Self. The hero’s journey as story structure gives a sense of finitude that the journey ends at the end of the story, rather than acknowledge the ongoing process through which the hero, ourselves, must journey. Jung never intended the process to be complete within the framework of the Western psyche, and probably marveled at the Eastern quest for enlightenment. I believe that he would have scoffed at the number of young people taking an interest in the process as a possible goal of life, not just as a theory to study. Indeed, the popularity of Harry Potter has brought renewed interest in the hero’s journey. Exploring the books through individuation offers a different perspective by which to understand the books, and, hopefully, keep them relevant as fans move into new stages of psychic development.

The “scientific”, “concrete” evidence of this process comes from Carl Jung’s rediscovery of alchemy. While the subject is often disregarded in the modern scientific community as a non-science, Jung recognized within it a “mine of symbolism” that removed the alchemical process from a literal transformation into gold into a metaphorical parallel to “the way a human being, with a correct use of will and imagination … can enter a process whose goal is the creation of an internal structure he called the self[,]” symbolized by the Philosopher’s Stone (Schwartz-Salant 2). From this reading, the alchemist’s latent goal was to unlock or uncover missing or well-covered psychic energies while manifestly experimenting with substances and chemicals, which, incidentally, helped induce the hallucinations that guided the alchemist closer to his latent goal. Many of the alchemical writings that survived the wrath of the Church are written cryptically, as though written by the psyche itself. The fear of the Church against this discipline suggests a fear at the loss of power over the subjects due to their own psychic awakening and, thus, the pulling away from God and the Church. For this reason, many alchemical texts were destroyed. Clearly, the central body for worshiping the Christian deity was suffering from its own God-complex.

J.K. Rowling has said or has been credited with saying in numerous interviews that she drew inspiration for Harry Potter from alchemy and classic British literature, namely Jane Austen and Grail romances. The story is of Harry Potter, an orphan, who learns he is a wizard after living with his non-magical relatives after the death of his parents. Not only is he a wizard, but he is also famous for vanquishing the Lord Voldemort, a dark wizard committed to a reign of terror that extends beyond the boundaries of the Wizarding community. Harry learns that Voldemort was not fully killed but only defeated, and that he is still pursuing Harry while slowing regaining the power he once had. It is Harry’s mission, with a little help from his friends, to avenge the death of his parents and rid the world of this evil forever. With each book, chronicling one year of Harry’s life, he comes closer to achieving his goal as he learns more about magic, his opponent, and himself.

The stories are told solely through Harry’s perspective, with a few necessary sidetracks at the start of the novels to set the stage for the confrontation between Harry and Voldemort or one of his helpers that occurs at the end of each book. This narrative perspective places the reader in Harry’s position, even if he is not the character to whom he or she is mostly drawn. It is through Harry that the reader experiences Hogwarts, Harry’s school, Hogsmeade, the wizarding village near the school, and Harry’s relationship to the various members of the Wizarding world. Because the series is told through Harry’s perspective, as he learns more about himself and the Wizarding world, so does the reader. As Harry develops into a stronger wizard, so does the reader, though unconsciously. As Harry finds the hero’s strength, so does the reader. But how does this happen? As I have previously suggested, the key is the alchemical process, as psychic parallel for the process of individuation. Through literature, this manifests as literary alchemy, the process by which an individual, or prima materia, is transformed through engaging with literature, which serves as the metaphorical catalyst that launches or guides the prima materia through its transformation. Because of the limited nature of this assessment, I will focus on some key plot points and symbols rather than try to confront all of the symbols that are critical for an alchemical understanding Harry Potter and individuation.

The first book lays the groundwork nicely: Harry, once he learns that he is a wizard, gets thrown rail station trolley first into the Wizarding World during the first part of the book. His first adventure involves trying to protect the Philosopher’s Stone that is hiding in the Hogwarts castle from theft. Although he is convinced one of the professors is going to steal it, it is actually the target of Voldemort. That both hero and arch-nemesis are seeking the same boon is significant to how the series ends. Voldemort seeks the Philosopher’s Stone for its power of eternal life. Though he and we are unaware until the last part of the seventh book, the power of Voldemort’s life lies in Harry because he was inadvertently made into a horcrux the night his parents were killed. A horcrux is a vessel of some kind into which one places a piece of his or her soul. It is very dark magic and often involves a murder as a part of the spell. Harry is Voldemort’s Philosopher’s Stone, which, Jung notes, is sometimes called the orphan (Schwartz-Salant 45). For Harry, the Philosopher’s Stone means something different, but he is not concerned with what that meaning is. He is more focused on ensuring that Voldemort does not get the Stone. Consider how Harry gets the Stone at the end of the first book: With Professor Quirrell and the spirit of Lord Voldemort standing behind him, Harry looks into the Mirror of Erised, a mirror that shows one’s deepest desire, which Dumbledore charmed to give the Stone to someone seeking it with no intent to use it. As Harry gazes at himself in the mirror, he feels a sudden weight in his pocket and realizes the Stone has just been magically given to him. The image here is that Harry must look within himself in order to reach the Stone, implying that the most rewarding boon is the one found within the psyche that will lead an individual into wholeness. This lays the groundwork for the rest of the series. Through self-reflection, Harry, acting the part for the reader otherwise incapable of going on a literal journey, can grow into the hero he is expected to be, and he takes the readers along in this journey.

As Harry proceeds through the trials and ordeals of both Voldemort and adolescence, the events of the Tri-Wizard tournament both foreshadow the rest of the series and provide several metaphors for the alchemical process of individuation. When the tournament is announced, it is open only to seventh years and one champion will be selected from each participating school, Hogwarts, Beauxbatons, and Durmstrang. The impartial judge choosing the contestants is the Goblet of Fire, a symbol parallel to the Grail. Three champions are selected, plus Harry, whose name was mysteriously entered into the Goblet. Jung often references the alchemical significance of the trinity becoming a quarternity, symbolizing perfection by union with the divine feminine (Storr 236). Furthermore, this movement into a quarternity represents a union of the four elements crucial to Western alchemy: Harry represents fire and Cedric of Hogwarts represents earth, as those are the elements associated with their houses. Not much is known about the other two participating schools within canon, but one can surmise the other two elements based on the school’s preferred mode of transport. Viktor of Durmstrang represents water because the students arrive to Hogwarts by ship, while Fleur of Beauxbatons is associated with air because those students arrive by flying carriage. The quintessence of the four elements is their mutual goal of winning the Tri-Wizard cup. Harry’s role in the quarternity is to attempt to bridge the three schools. His actions during the tournament win him the respect and loyalty among the other competitors that become crucial in the last book of the series.

The three events of the tournament take the reader through the alchemical process and also a condensed hero’s cycle. The first task is to rescue a golden egg, the cosmic egg, from a nesting mother dragon. Each champion is to come up with a way to get past her in the least amount of time with the least amount of damage. This is the nigredo because the prima materia, the champion, while risking fire to rescue the egg, is exposed to the full onslaught of the tournament. Before this event, the champions thought that this was just fun and games. By going through this blackening phase, they enter a limbo between being students and being tournament champions. More pressure rests on Fleur and Viktor because Hogwarts as double the chance of winning.

The rescued egg holds the clue to the second task, which can only be heard by opening the egg under water. The only way for the reader to fully understand the power of the cosmic egg, the image suggests, is to plunge into the unconscious and listen to it in its own element, pictured as water. The voice within the egg is a mermaid, a catalyst figure that lures the alchemical hero into the abyss, which is the test behind the second task. The champions are to rescue a special friend from the Mermaid Kingdom in the lake by the school. Harry, the first to arrive on the scene, stays to make sure everyone is rescued properly, and eventually saves his friend, Ron, and also Fleur’s sister, Gabrielle. This albedo task is both a cleansing process after the nigredo but also represents and foreshadows the sacred union to come later in the series. Harry’s swim into the Mermaid Kingdom represents his willingness to embrace the feminine. He has to fight against the Mer-King to allow him to take Gabrielle to the surface, raising a piece of his inner feminine into consciousness.

The last event, the maze, ends with Harry and Cedric unexpectedly transporting to a distant graveyard when they grasp the Tri-Wizard Cup unexpectedly transporting Harry and Cedric to a distant graveyard. The events that transpire in the graveyard are Harry’s rubedo because the events that happen bring Harry into a transformed state closer, though not entirely, to one of purification: he witnesses Cedric’s death, a symbolic death of things to come, Voldemort’s rise as a homunculus from the cauldron, a brief reunion with his parents caused by the power of the phoenix feather embedded in the cores of both Harry’s and Voldemort’s wands. Through Harry, the reader experiences a death of innocence, but also a transformation into wisdom. The graveyard sequence is not only a period of being in the unconscious, but also of being in the shadow.

Like the Philosopher’s Stone book-ending the entire series, the Goblet of Fire and the Tri-Wizard Cup bookend the events of the fourth book. These cups are intentional parallels to the Holy Grail, which is symbolic of the quest of individuation and parallel to the Philosopher’s Stone. In the Grail romances, the Grail is symbolic of the hero’s boon that is sought but rarely found. This is the boon of the Self, of psychic wholeness. With each adventure, the Grail knight, like Harry, grows stronger. A representation of the Philosopher’s Stone can be won at the end of an adventure, but it will only be the genuine stone after a campaign of adventures.

Another psychologically relevant symbol, but not necessarily alchemical, of Harry’s individuation is the "King’s Cross" chapter of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Having just been struck with the killing curse from Voldemort, Harry awakens in a sort of netherworld between the realm of life and death imagined as London’s King’s Cross station, the location of Harry’s threshold crossing into the Wizarding World, to the screaming of a mutilated, naked child. Dumbledore is there and Harry is given the opportunity to ask him several questions previously unasked. To Harry, Dumbledore represents both the Wise Old Man/Mentor archetype and also a manifestation of his wiser, shadow-self containing the good aspects of his shadow. This final conversation with his mentor allows him to embrace, if not integrate to a degree, these aspects of himself. The screaming thing is the piece of Voldemort’s soul that Harry has unknowingly carried around for sixteen years. This is the negative aspect of his shadow. As though to emphasize that these negative aspects are inherent in the psyche and individuation, Dumbledore urges Harry to forget the child, because there is nothing he can do for him now. This is not in opposition to Robert Johnson’s urging to acknowledge the shadow. Harry on several occasions acknowledges Voldemort’s role as his arch-nemesis, and understands that a link exists between the two of them. This scene enables him to understand to what extent that link exists. By defeating Voldemort, Harry is conquering his shadow. I doubt such a feat is possible within the "real" world, but the image is an admirable guide for the readers. Harry is given the choice to live or die at this point. Should he die, he becomes a martyr to Voldemort’s cause. Should he live, he will be able to complete his task of defeating Voldemort. Either way, his partial death is self-less and thus affords all of his friends protection against further harm from Voldemort. To bring to a close this phase of Harry’s individuation, he asks Dumbledore once he has decided to live whether or not this is all in his head. Dumbledore responds, “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean it is not real?” (Rowling, Deathly 723)

A comment is necessary about the horcruxes and the Deathly Hallows, because not only do they carry the plot of the last two books, but they also function in the prolonging of life in a negative, superficial manner without the transformative significance of the Philosopher’s Stone. These tools are ego’s tools to escape the individuation process used to prolong the end rather than focus on the inner work, the alchemical process that will make present life more memorable. There are seven Horcruxes: Riddle’s diary, the Gaunt ring, Slytherin’s locket, Hufflepuff’s cup, Ravenclaw’s diadem, Voldemort’s snake Nagini, and Harry. As mentioned above, they are vessels to contain pieces of a person’s soul. Voldemort, fearing death, created them in the hopes of indefinitely prolonging his life. Considering that Jung’s message is to bring about the wholeness of psyche, splitting the soul is counter to the process of individuation, and explains Voldemort’s downfall. The more he split his soul, the more focused on ego he became. We can assume that each piece of soul hidden in a horcrux is a good piece of Voldemort, those aspects he chose to repress rather than address. Thus he became the shadow.

There are three Deathly Hallows: the Elder Wand, the Resurrection Stone, and the Invisibility Cloak. These three are tools to cheat death, as they are described in Rowling’s fairytale, “The Tale of the Three Brothers.” In the tale, the brother who is most happy is the one with the invisibility cloak. With this, he was able to live his life to the fullest possible extent while remaining shielded from death, which allowed him the time and opportunity to pursue individuation and achieve it before dying.

The Harry Potter series is not only an entertaining series of books about which people are fanatics. It has a strong hold on those fanatics and lends itself to discussion. Fan conferences are not just opportunities for fans to dress up and meet other fans. They are also academic conferences for scholarly dialogue. Scholars from all disciplines are likewise fascinated by the Harry Potter series and base their interpretations on the assumption that the Harry Potter series is vital to understanding the various trials and tribulations of both adolescence and the modern socio-political atmosphere. It is my contention that Harry Potter is a myth for modern times, with enough timelessness to be a respected myth for future generations. In order to understand the power of this myth, it is helpful to look at it through the lens of depth psychology. As modern myth drifts further from sacred narrative, it becomes progressively more psychological. Interpretations of modern myths follow the hero into the unconscious as he or she quests for the boon of the Self, the goal of the individuation process symbolically understood in the alchemical process as the Philosopher’s Stone. The confines of this paper prevent a full psychoanalysis of Harry Potter; however, the few examples I have given demonstrate that such a mythic reading is possible, and that doing so can unlock an understanding of the fever behind the fandom.

Works cited

  • Fabricius, Johannes. Alchemy: The Medieval Alchemists and their Royal Art. London: Diamond Books, 1994.
  • Johnson, Robert A. Owning Your Own Shadow: Understanding the Dark Side of the Psyche. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991.
  • Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. New York: Scholastic, 2007.
  • —–. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. New York, Scholastic, 2000.
  • —–. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. New York: Scholastic, 1997.
  • Schwartz-Salant, Nathan, ed. Jung on Alchemy. Princeton: Princeton U P, 1995.
  • Storr, Anthony, ed. The Essential Jung. Princeton: Princeton U P, 1983.
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