Harry Potter & Imagination
Reviewed by David Oberhelman
[This review originally appeared in Mythlore 111/112.]
Travis Prinzi’s Harry Potter & Imagination will be of interest to Mythlore readers for his insightful discussion of how J.K. Rowling fits into the mythopoeic tradition of George MacDonald, G.K. Chesterton, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and Madeleine L’Engle and for his analysis of myth and Faerie in the Harry Potter series as vehicles for understanding and transforming our own primary world. As his subtitle, “The Way Between Two Words,” suggests, Prinzi is concerned with how the Harry Potter books as fairy stories (in Tolkien’s sense from “On Fairy-stories”) belong to that “Pot of Soup” or “Cauldron of Story” of mythic narratives, and thereby allow Rowling to reflect upon truth, faith, and heroism and to comment upon racial, gender, and political injustice in the Western World of the early twenty-first century. Prinzi synthesizes much of the Harry Potter criticism published to date, focusing particularly on how the publication of books 5-7 of the series have recast many of the issues explored in earlier studies published before The Order of the Phoenix. Although the book at times resembles the somewhat informal musings Prinzi writes on his blog “The Hog’s Head” more than an academic treatise, it nonetheless will help frame some of the debate surrounding Rowling’s place in the canon of mythopoeic literature, and will hopefully pave the way for future serious studies on the bestselling series.
The book is comprised of a series of mediations on Harry Potter that are loosely structured into three sections: Harry Potter and Faerie, Harry Potter as the self-sacrificing hero (and other archetypes), and Harry Potter as a “political fairy tale.” The first part details how the Harry Potter books stand in relation to the works of Tolkien, Lewis, and other fantasists who regard the fairy tale as the embodiment of a truth deeper than that of science or the Enlightenment. Prinzi carefully reflects upon Rowling’s comments on her readings of Lewis and Tolkien, seeking to understand what legacy she has inherited from both authors and how, despite her professed struggles with religious faith, the Harry Potter series does have much in common with the Christian fantasy of the Narnia books or even The Lord of the Rings. Here Prinzi looks at Harry Potter in terms of Tolkien’s formula for fairy-stories (seeing eucatastrophe in Harry’s return to life in The Deathly Hallows) and demonstrates how it fits in where the world of Faerie bumps up against the everyday “muggle” world of Britain. It is in this luminal space between two worlds—a space perfectly embodied by King’s Cross railway station with all its significance in the Harry Potter series—that Prinzi discerns the Christ-like self-sacrifice in Harry’s actions. Citing Michael Ward’s recent landmark study of the medieval planetary imagery underlying the Narnia series, Prinzi offers a fascinating perspective on the Christmas and Good Friday/Easter timeframe in the Harry Potter books, suggesting that they are not merely locked into the cycles of the academic calendar as many have suggested. In this section Prinizi also makes some unlikely pairings of Rowling with other fantasists—for example, the parallels between the horror elements in Harry Potter and the Mythos of H.P. Lovecraft.
Prinzi next turns his attention to the central characters of the Harry Potter series, placing them into the context of Carl Jung’s (and Joseph Campbell’s) archetypes of the hero, the shadow, the anima/aminus, the mentor, the shapeshifter, and others. This section offers some cogent analysis of the character types in Rowling’s fiction and seeks to call into question some of the more simplistic categories into which Harry and the others have been lumped. For instance, Prinzi shows how Harry evolves from the innocent hero of Books 1-4 into the angry young man of the latter books, but still rises like a phoenix (another key image in the series) to become the hero in the end. The analysis of Voldemort as Harry’s shadow, Dumbledore’s flaws, and Snape’s complex motivations will benefit future critics as they trace the evolution of those figures throughout the series.
The final section provides a broad assessment of the social commentary embedded in the Harry Potter books, and suggests that the moral and mythic superstructure of the series enables Rowling to reflect upon social improvement, the proper role of the government, and cultural “metanarratives” of prejudice and intolerance. He uses Rowling’s quotation of Plutarch from her 2008 Harvard commencement address to sum up how the fairy tale can be an agent of social change: “What we achieve inwardly will change outer reality.” Prinzi suggests that Rowling’s apparently contradictory views on social change embrace both an activist moral vision that advocates gradual social melioration (associated with the Fabian Society) and a more libertarian view that people should freely choose to change the world and not rely on the government to rectify wrongs. Prinzi further discusses the Wizarding World’s maltreatment of women, and especially their virtual enslavement of other magical creatures, including a lengthy meditation upon what Mythopoeic Press author Kathryn McDaniel terms the “Elfin Mystique” of the house elves (“The Elfin Mystique: Fantasy and Feminism in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter Series” in Past Watchful Dragons: Fantasy and Faith in the Works of C.S. Lewis). He concludes by placing Harry, Ron, and Hermione into the company of Frodo, Sam, Aslan, and the Pevensies as heroes who self-sacrificing love can fight evil both in our world and on the cosmological plane.
Harry Potter & Imagination does leave the reader wanting some further explorations of the mythopoeic dimensions of Rowling’s series, but it marks an important step in the development of serious critical attention to the popular books. Prinzi’s bibliographic citations to interviews and web-based articles about Rowling are useful for researchers seeking statements in those ephemeral sources, but will quickly become dated. Still, this work is a valuable checklist of Harry Potter criticism up to 2009.