Re-Visioning the Mother and Father with the Help of Harry Potter

James and Lily Potter represent for their orphaned son, Harry, the ideal Father and Mother. They died in a surprise attack protecting Harry from Lord Voldemort when he was only one year old. Throughout J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, Harry learns about his parents, facts that threaten to abolish his ideal, while having to learn to identify the Mother and Father as archetypes in his life. In her book, The Wisdom of the Psyche, Ginette Paris recounts a need to reconnect with the Mother and Father archetypes. Separation from these archetypes manifest on a social level as problems that threaten order, such as a generation of eternal youth tormented by housing, fuel, and food crises that threaten a way of life and basic survival needs. Like Harry, a reconnection with the traditional images that embody these archetypes is in order, due in part to a mythic paradigm shift that has challenged and upturned traditional beliefs and behaviors. Instead, what is needed is a re-visioning or re-imagining of the Mother and Father archetypes. The model provided in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series suggests not only that the new images can be found in unlikely people or places, but also that the archetype can have many faces.

To best understand how this can be accomplished, an understanding of an archetypal approach is necessary to lay the foundations of an archetypal reading of Harry Potter. In his treatise on soul making through archetypal psychology, James Hillman in Re-Visioning Psychology offers methods of seeing and applying archetypes to one’s life. He suggests that archetypes are "the deepest patterns of psychic functioning, the roots of the soul governing the perspectives we have of ourselves and the world" (xix, emphasis original). By this model, archetypes are held to be any universal pattern, regardless of the degree of sacred quality it possesses. They are symbolic metaphors that point beyond the normal framework of the ego-consciousness, and they affect the individual on a deeply personal, emotional level. Hillman goes so far as to compare an archetype with a god in a generic, sacred sense (xix). While Harry Potter does not resemble a god of any tradition, the series is nevertheless full of archetypal characters who influence the reader to behave in comparable fashions, from the hero, Harry, to the Wise Old Man, Albus Dumbledore, and can lead the reader on his or her own fruitful, rewarding journey. Hillman presents four categories of archetypal re-visioning: personifying, pathologizing, de-humanizing, and psychologizing. Some of these categories are more relevant to the reader than to the series’ characters, but an understanding of them makes the reading experience richer.

Personifying “implies a human being who creates Gods in human likeness much as an author creates characters out of his own personality” and is the process of naming the archetype (Hillman 12). Hillman relates this to the naming of experiences and feelings, to giving them a capitalized name. In the world of Harry Potter, archetypal evil is characterized by Voldemort, a power-hungry, dark wizard who utilizes all avenues needed to accomplish his goals. Harry is one of the few in the Wizarding World who is not afraid to speak Voldemort’s name, but he is surrounded by people who cringe at its utterance. Albus Dumbledore, the school’s headmaster, teaches Harry and the reader that the fear of using the name incites fear of the thing. In fearing to use the name, to personify the archetype, the individual is essentially avoiding the archetype itself creating a barrier of fear around it. This is applicable to all archetypes, both positive and negative. Giving the archetype a name and an image brings it to a level with which the individual can identify with by making it represent the observable universe.

Pathologizing is the psyche’s reaction to an experience or behavior that manifests as an “illness, morbidity, disorder, abnormality, and suffering” (Hillman 57). It follows a religions and/or medical model of cause and effect: because of "a," then "b”: “We suffer, it has been customary to say, because we are either sick or sinful, and the cure of our suffering calls for either science or faith” to explain what is ailing the individual, to give it a simple, straightforward explanation with a simple, straightforward cure (Hillman 57). Both of these models “imply that pathologizing is wrong” (ibid.). The discovery of this correlation between archetypal unrest and physical malady is the socio-psychological bridge between the onset of the problem and the path to a new enlightenment and archetypal connection.

The physicality of pathologizing is less relevant to Harry Potter than the tradition that shuns it. Hillman argues that pathologizing is the model for why monotheism is dangerous to the psyche, because, like science, it does not attend to the complex needs of the psyche through its simple, straightforward explanation. Monotheism places a very thick, limited frame around archetypes and their ability to influence the psyche. In his world, Harry, as the archetypal hero, challenges the assumptions held by the Ministry of Magic regarding Voldemort and the nature of evil. The Ministry, tied to the steadfast monotheistic point of view that Voldemort was defeated the night Harry’s parents died, ignore all of the signs of his return. This piece of plot demonstrates the potential damage that can come from a closed mind, or a limited point of view. Like Hillman, Harry challenges the monotheistic mentality embedded in the Western tradition. The Harry Potter Alliance, a social activism organization inspired by the themes of Harry Potter, calls this the “muggle mindset,” using Rowling’s term for non-magical people. To combat the “muggle mindset” means to see the people of the world as equal with equal rights, regardless of religious creed, race, gender or culture. In other words, to break out of the monotheism that limits perspectives towards global and psychological affairs.

Furthermore, Hillman calls for a return to a polytheistic mindset, idealized by the Greeks and their pantheon of gods that describe various behaviors, emotions, experiences, and anything else that could not be explained by immediate observation. The monotheistic mindset has birthed the modern approaches to science that strive to identify the explanation behind everything, reducing the need to accomplish the same explanation through imaginal practices. Science overshadows the imagination, evidenced in the works of Joseph Campbell, Carl Jung and their students declaring myth, mythic thinking and mythic imagination to be either missing or dead. In reading Hillman’s work, it seems to me more like a call to return to the Greek pantheon altogether. I am critical of that approach because the Greek pantheon fulfilled the needs of a specific group of people at a specific time. Studying the myths assists in identifying their psychic power, but the modern mind needs an entirely new approach, one not reliant upon an alterable history. The archetypes Hillman is identifying are idealized within Greek mythology, but also manifest in various places throughout popular culture. In Harry Potter the parallels to the Greek pantheon are non-existent; however, the archetypes manifest in other ways relevant to the modern mind. Time will tell what future generations think about the books and whether they still hold the archetypal significance they hold now.

Because Harry holds his parents in such high regard, especially since they died protecting him, de-humanizing their ideal is crucial for him to accomplish his task. As he gets older, he learns more about them, especially about his father, who was not the pristine hero Harry thought he was. Eventually, he realizes he loves his parents despite all their faults. The lesson for the reader is that the idea of the parents is the archetype projected onto the actual people, and it is important to learn to separate the parents from the projection. As soon as Harry learns this, he is able to use his own voice and act beyond the expectations his parents’ memory forces on him, and, thus, he is able to individuate and say goodbye.

Psychologizing is particularly helpful for the readers of Harry Potter who get caught in the throes of mythopoetic arrest, the "a-ha" feeling in the books. Some readers need to create in response to this feeling, and this has given birth to the "fandom." Fans are linked not only by their love for the books, but also by fan fiction, podcasts, Wizard Rock (or "Wrock"), arts and crafts, group meetings, and many other things. What is missing, in my opinion, is the use of creative energy to create new myths, to live out one’s personal myth as inspired by the archetypes in Harry Potter rather than through those archetypes. Hillman describes psychologizng as mythologizing or as "seeing through," “a process of deliteralizng and a search for the imaginal in the heart of things by means of ideas” (Hillman 136). There is plenty of discussion in the fandom of the "whats" of Harry Potter, but the dialogue falters at the "hows" and "whys". By "hows" and "whys", I am referring to the reasons behind the significance of the series and its popularity. Whether it is through the methods of archetypal psychology, comparative mythology, or any other approach, the "seeing through" of the myth is the most crucial to is continuation, which is essential for a story to be labeled as a myth and not just a really popular story. It is very simple for a myth to be discarded before it passes into subsequent generations. The modern Western mentality of a disposable culture constantly bounces from myth to myth, object to object, person to person. There is little room for mythic blooming in an age of too much information. A recent example is the fever and failure of the Star Wars phenomenon. The original trilogy touched an archetypal need that was otherwise lacking in the culture at the time. Twenty years later, George Lucas re-released the original trilogy, edited and updated, not in response to cultural needs, but because of technological advances. He then proceeded to release a "prequel" trilogy that, to some extent, alienated the original fans that found the new movies void of the mythic qualities they loved in the first trilogy. Because George Lucas has continued to revisit the myth for his own reasons, they have lost their mythic qualities.

Because Harry is constantly forced to revisit the archetypes versus the actual people, Harry Potter acts as a model for the process of reconnecting to and re-identifying the Mother and Father archetypes. The lack of these particular archetypes, or, rather, their weak presence in this country, has created several problems unique to the modern era, ranging from a breakdown of community and communication, an overload of information and net-based globalization, to various "crises" that upset the flow of society, such as the rapid increase in fuel costs to the mortgage fall-out and the resulting banking crisis. The severity of these crises depends wholly on one’s vantage point. Younger people, such as myself, with their lives still ahead have different perspectives of these events than those in the end of their lives, seeing them more as a threat to their overall well-being. Each generation gets progressively "younger," holding onto the myth of eternal youth and dependency, “caught betwixt and between the Child and the Adult, and the consequences of their failure is tragic for them as for the rest of society” (Paris 114). All they are craving is for the love and care of Mother and Father, whom are missing.

Without a stable parental structure, onto whom does one have to project these archetypes? Part of this comes from the need to redefine the general appearance of what Mother and Father. No longer do they resemble "Ozzy and Harriet," the Cleavers, or other iconic couples from early television. Father is not necessarily the male of the house who goes out to earn money to take care of the family. Mother is not necessarily a female who is home all day, baking cookies and waiting for her children to return from school. In some cases, no one is at home at all, dinner is take out, and the only quality time the family spends together is watching TV or driving to school. This is shifting, but not quickly enough to make a smooth, clear transition. It is up to the individual to find someone onto which they can project. Harry has two Father figures: his headmaster, Albus Dumbledore, and his godfather, Sirius Black, both representing an authoritative, loving role model. His friends’ mother, Molly Wesley, most closely resembles a mother for Harry, but he does not identify her with Mother. Instead, Mother is represented by Hogwarts, the magic school he attends. This Mother nurtures and loves him. His ongoing battle with Lord Voldemort is driven mostly to protect the school and the people he loves whom she houses.

Because Harry is forced to separate his parents with their corresponding archetype, he helps readers see archetypal possibilities beyond traditional stereotypes. Perhaps Harry Potter is not meant to survive as a myth beyond the present era. But his story functions at this time as a transition from a traditional mythology to a new, developing mythos.

Works cited

  • Hillman, James. Re-Visioning Psychology. New York: HarperPerennial, 1992.
  • Paris, Ginette. Wisdom of the Psyche: Depth Psychology after Neuroscience. London: Routledge, 2007.
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