Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Harry's Inception

Have you ever noticed how each Harry Potter book starts with Harry in a dormant or sleeping position? It's true! Take a look at this:

  1. PS/SS -- In this first book, the reader is presented with not one, but two dormant Harrys! First, we have the baby Harry swaddled in blankets in Hagrid's arms, sound asleep. Then, when we are introduced to the almost 11-yr-old boy, he is asleep in his cupboard under the stairs...but not for long. Aunt Petunia approaches.

  2. CoS -- The book starts out with Harry and the Dursley family at breakfast, and Uncle Vernon upset because he was awoken by Hedwig. However, after the reader is caught up on what happened in the first book, the first thing Harry says is "I'll be in my bedroom, making no noise and pretending I'm not there." (p. 7) Can't be much more dormant than hiding in your bedroom pretending not to exist.

  3. PoA -- "It was nearly midnight, and [Harry] was lying on his stomach in bed, the blankets drawn right over his head like a tent.." (p. 1) Harry is reading A History of Magic and trying not to get caught.

  4. GoF -- "Harry lay flat on his back, breathing hard as though he had been running." (p. 16) He's awoken from his dream of The Riddle House.

  5. OotP -- "The only person left outdoors was a teenage boy who was lying flat on his back in a flower bed outside number four." (p. 1) Rather an odd position to be in to listen to the news, don't you think?

  6. HBP -- "Harry Potter was snoring loudly. He had been sitting in a chair beside his bedroom window for the best part of four hours, staring out at the darkening street, and had finally fallen asleep with one side of his face pressed against the cold window-pane, his glasses askew and his mouth wide open." (p. 42) Harry has been waiting for the promised approach of Dumbledore, while not truly believing he would arrive.

  7. DH -- This is the book that breaks the pattern. Although Harry starts off in his bedroom, this time he is active, taking charge. He's been cleaning out his trunk all morning, preparing for his departure, and has cut himself on that broken mirror of Sirius', bleeding.
So, why all this dreaming, sleeping, lying down, or pretending not to exist? When something like this happens once or twice in a series, it could be merely a coincidence. However, when a pattern is present in every single book, the author is obviously making a point. But, what could it be?

The Hero's Journey, that classic plotting frame drawn from centuries of ancient storytelling, starts with the hero in his Ordinary World. From there, he is called to a quest and must make a conscious decision to go, to make a change. I think one possibility for JKR beginning each story with Harry dormant is to highlight an important transformation in Harry and his World. Not only must Harry as a character change from inactive to active, but the comparison she makes between Harry's Ordinary World (the world of us Muggles) and Harry's Special World (the Magical World) is frequently described as inactive and unobservant to something special and magical. Quite simply, Harry's quest is to wake up, to live life fully awakened, and to make conscious decisions for himself. But I think there is also another, deeper, meaning. As many of us have recently seen Inception and its surprise, twist ending, I reflect back on Dumbledore's words in King's Cross in Deathly Hallows:
  "Tell me one last thing," said Harry. "Is this real? Or has this been happening inside my head?"

    Dumbledore beamed at him, and his voice sounded loud and strong in Harry's ears even though the bright mist was descending again, obscuring his figure.

  "Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?"
At the end of Inception, viewers were left wondering--was any of it real? Or was it nothing but a dream. As they put down the final volume on the Potter saga, many readers could also ask themselves Harry's question. But Dumbledore, JKR's favorite wizened spokesperson, who once said to the well ordered mind, death was the next great adventure, gives voice to a theme which JKR has revisited throughout every novel in her series. What happens inside an active mind, imagination, is the world's truest source of magic. Listen to JKR's own words, outside her stories, from her commencement speech at Harvard:
One of the many things I learned at the end of that Classics corridor down which I ventured at the age of 18, in search of something I could not then define, was this, written by the Greek author Plutarch: What we achieve inwardly will change outer reality.

We do not need magic to change the world, we carry all the power we need inside ourselves already: we have the power to imagine better.

For 2 hours in theaters, viewers of Inception shared the same dream, the same ideas, the same catharsis, as if for 2 hours they had lived inside the same head. And for 10 years, fans of the Harry Potter series, shared a similar mind, dipping into JKR's imagination. While they experienced Harry Potter's awakening, many also experienced their own. Many young fans awoke to the needs of the real-live magical world around them and determined to do their part against real-life Death Eaters.

That is the power of dreams, of myths, of awakening the collective unconscious. That is the power of story, of imagination shared.

What dream do you share with your reader in your story?


  1. Wonderful cogent post! Yes, there is power in story, in imagination. And one does not need any special tools to harness that power. We carry it inside us. We just need to imagine.

  2. Thanks Marisa for visiting and commenting. You're right. Imagination is a power accessible to us all. :-)

  3. Hmmm. Since the pattern is broken in the last book, I am guessing it has something to do with his fall from innocence and gaining of knowledge... in the other books, he is still asleep, so to speak.