But honestly, I have to say that the sort of minute analysis I suffered through in English class was a drop in the cauldron compared to the frenzy I whole-heartedly engaged with once Harry Potter hit the scene. Talk about your theories and comparisons to every fable, myth, and work of literature ever created! Surely, JK Rowling couldn't have meant but a small fraction of them.
To better analyze how these subtextual references work for a writer, let me do what all writers do. Let me tell you a story...
This one concerns a young man often called the orphan because his father was murdered by an evil lord, who then tried to kill the young orphan as well. Fortunately, the orphan's magical mother was able to save his life, and so he grew to adulthood with the desire to right the great wrongs the evil lord had committed, avenge his father's murder, and reclaim his father's inheritance, which the evil lord had stolen from him. Numerous times the orphan faced the evil lord, but neither was able to finish off the other. For years, they battled bitterly and often violently to prove themselves in escalating challenges, which caused great trouble in their divided lands. Finally, the orphan triumphed, and with his success, reunited the people. The evil lord was banished for eternity.
But wait, you say. You know this story. It's Harry Potter!
And yet, the story I was conveying is an Egyptian myth several thousand years old.
Osiris was the wise deity ruler over Egypt with his wife Isis by his side. Together they brought prosperity, peace, and order to Egypt. However, Seth -- Osiris and Isis' brother -- seeing what they had, decided to steal the throne for himself. He plotted to kill Osiris and then Isis' son, Horus, as well. Powerfully magical, Isis was able to protect her son from Seth's evil attack.
Many of the details in the myths of Horus, Isis, Seth, and Osiris sound weird and out of place when compared to Harry Potter. (For example, at one point, after Isis shows mercy to Seth, Horus lops off his mother's head). However, when you step back from the myths and look at their overall meaning, there are many points of comparison -- so many as to make it highly probable that JKR is deliberately weaving the Egyptian myth in as a motif.
- Osiris and Isis were the benevolent and wise deity rulers of Egypt. -- James and Lily were Head Boy and Girl at Hogwarts.
- Osiris was murdered by Seth in his attempt to claim the throne of Egypt. -- James was murdered by Voldemort in his attempt to gain power over the wizarding world and immortality for himself.
- Seth then tried to murder Horus (Osiris and Isis’ son) by transforming himself into a snake and biting the young child.-- Voldemort tried to murder Harry (James and Lily’s son), and we're very familiar with Voldemort's passion for snakes.
- Isis saved Horus from Seth. -- Lily saved Harry from Voldemort.
- Horus was hidden away on an island to protect him from Seth until he came of age. -- Harry was hidden in the home of his aunt to protect him from Voldemort until he came of age, and lastly, when the letters started arriving, even onto an island. (In fact, in JKR's 1st draft of Philosopher's Stone, James and Lily lived with Harry on an island, and this is where they were killed!)
- Seth stripped Horus’ inheritance from him by taking the throne in his defeat of Osiris. -- Voldemort essentially stripped Harry’s inheritance from him by forcing the young Harry into a Muggle existence, completely unaware of the wizarding world, for 10 long years.
- Horus grew up to avenge his father's murder. -- Harry grew up to avenge not only his father's, but many other murders as well.
- Horus was represented frequently by a falcon or a hawk and considered a god of the sky. -- Harry can fly brilliantly.
- Because of his victory over Seth, the lord of Upper Egypt, Horus, the lord of Lower Egypt, was considered the uniter of Egypt. -- By series' end, Harry reunited the wizarding world, both those who have always been open to "Mudbloods," and those who oppose and fear them. This reunification is most clearly represented by the Malfoy's role in the final battle and their presence in the Great Hall after it was all over.
- Osiris represented the deceased king, while Horus was the embodiment of the living pharaoh. -- James is dead, but Harry is the Boy-who-Lived.
- Seth was strongly connected to the serpent Apep, and in later myths the two were considered one. -- Voldemort is strongly linked with the basilisk and Nagini. Plus, he speaks Parseltongue.
- Seth was believed to have white skin and red hair and eyes. -- Voldemort has white skin and red eyes.
These are but a few of the comparisons that can be made between these two stories separated by centuries, cultures, and continents. As writers, we can learn how to weave references into our work by studying how JKR wove hers so intricately. She made various points of comparison, but although she does point the reader in the direction of Egypt through Bill Weasley, she never directly refers to the Horus myth.
Please note that the Osiris-Isis-Horus myth is not singular but plural. As the story of their holy trinity was one of the most beloved of ancient Egyptians, and developed and changed over thousands of years, this myth exists in multiple versions.
Indeed this myth struck such a profound chord of meaning among the peoples and storytellers who came later, that it has been retold repeatedly throughout history, merely with costume, scenery, and prop changes to fit the new times. What is Hamlet if not a story of a young man battling to avenge his father's murder and the usurper of his throne? And in the animal kingdom, we have Disney's Lion King, where Simba must defeat his uncle Scar, who murdered Simba's father, in order to reclaim his rightful role as king.
These repeated myths are comforting to us. We know the stories; we know how they must end. Good must triumph over evil; rightful order must be restored. But because the world around us does not often show the results we seek, we must gain reassurance through our entertainment over and over, time and time again.
Harry Potter fans go crazy seeking out all the mythic references within JKR’s world. They can find connections to almost any myth or story ever recorded. Did JKR intend all the myth connections that fans find and thrive on? Of course not! Did she intend some--many--of them? Without a doubt.
The brilliance of using myth is that by using one, you instantly gain links to all the other storytellers who have come before you and referenced that myth as well. In other words, if with Harry Potter JKR referenced the Horus myth, then she, perhaps inadvertently, also referenced Hamlet and The Lion King and many other stories based on this common mythos, as well. As a writer, the wealth of the eternal flow of mythic literary connections can pour forth from your pen for the price of one dip.
So, go ahead. Dip your bucket into your well. Connect through your own portal to that ever-flowing river of human subconscious. Study the myths, their hero’s journeys, their archetypes, their themes and conflicts. Find your connection, your voice, within their stories. Then play with them. Using JKR as an example, see how you can creatively weave myth into your contemporary story.
You, and your reader, will more deeply connect with the results.
Question: What myths have you woven creatively into your own story?
About the pictures: In July 2007, I was fortunate enough to speak at a Harry Potter fan conference in London during the release of Deathly Hallows. The pictures of the Egyptian artifacts were shot at the British Museum while the fans dressed as Harry Potter characters I took at the ginormous release party at Waterstone's in Piccadilly. The line of thousands of fans waiting to purchase the last book wound around several blocks, with gawkers (like me!) and news crews everywhere. It was a blast!