Friday, July 29, 2011

Harry's Ultimate Ordeal

Let me give you a hint regarding Harry's final ordeal…it's not defeating Voldemort.

Like everything else she did, JK Rowling wrote the ending steps of Harry's hero's journey with a definite twist. As Harry approaches his ultimate confrontation with the Dark Lord, the stakes could not have been higher. Not only does Harry's life hang in the balance, but the fate of the whole wizarding world.

So, it seems fairly straight-cut and obvious -- what happens at the end of Deathly Hallows is a simple hero's journey of the hero defeating evil and restoring order, right?

Not quite.

In looking at how JKR twisted the Hero's Journey in her final chapter of Deathly Hallows, we must first step back and get a quick overview. I'm not covering the whole hero's journey in this post, just the last half, the part that usually takes up the final action-packed minutes of a feature film. For Deathly Hallows Part 2, that was elongated by splitting up the book into 2 movies. But for the book itself, it starts with chapter 34, "The Forest Again," and spans the last three chapters of this 36 chapter book.

Also, I'd like to note that while JKR plotted each book of the 7-book series with its own complete hero's journey, as I diagrammed out in a table in A Writer's Guide to Harry Potter, she also had an overarching hero's quest that spanned the course of Harry's journey from Godric's Hollow to the Battle of Hogwarts. What I am presenting here serves as the final steps to both Deathly Hallows and the series as a whole.

Drawn from Christopher Vogler's The Writer's Journey, the steps I am covering include:

7) Approach to the Inmost Cave: where the hero approaches the goal of the quest that he's been preparing for all along. Usually presented with underground, underworld, belly of the beast imagery.

8) The Supreme Ordeal: where the hero faces the ultimate antagonist guarding the object of his quest and his greatest fear, usually includes a symbolic death

9) Seizing the Reward: defeating this antagonist and his fear, and having faced death and survived, the hero is able to claim the prize

10) The Road Back: the hero must return the object of his quest to his ordinary world, where his path along the way is often fraught with new complications from remaining antagonists or the main one who was not completely vanquished

11) The Resurrection: The hero is tested once more. May replay the ordeal of facing death from step 8. Triumphing again, the emphasis here is that the hero is purified and reborn into a newer, stronger person.

12) Return with the Elixir: Returning home, the hero shares the result of his quest with his people as something that benefits the group as a whole. Ultimately, the hero brings new life to his tribe to ensure its continuity.

Approach to the Inmost Cave:
Harry approaches his last, and deepest inmost cave as he walks from the castle to the Dark Forest, heading deliberately to his own death, to sacrifice himself for all those he loves who have willingly put themselves on the line to not only protect him, but to keep evil at bay.

He approaches the Dark Forest of Death with those he has loved who have gone before by his side.

The Supreme Ordeal:
To better analyze JKR's twist in this last and overarching supreme ordeal, let's see how she has treated the Supreme Ordeal in prior books:

  1. In PS/SS, Harry's ordeal was in facing Quirrel/Voldemort in a room far under Hogwarts, and holding them off from the Philosopher's Stone.
  2. In CoS, Harry's ordeal was again under Hogwarts in the Chamber of Secrets, where he faced and slew the basilisk, stopped the Riddle memory/Horcrux, and saved Ginny's life.
  3. In PoA, Harry's ordeal came by the side of the dark lake, where he forced off his Dementors and saved Sirius' life.
  4. In GoF, his ordeal was in the graveyard, where he once again faced Voldemort in full form and dueled without cowardice or loss. Although he did not save Cedric, he rescued his body to bring home to Cedric's family.
  5. In OotP, the ordeal came in the bowels of the Ministry of Magic, when Harry battled Death Eaters to save his friends. When Voldy invaded his body, Harry forced him out through the power of his love for Sirius.
  6. And in HBP, the ordeal was in the Inferi Cave, where Harry faced Death in the form of the Inferi and saved his mentor's life.

Notice how in each of these supreme ordeals, Harry enters an underground, underworld place, faces some form or force of Voldemort, triumphs over this antagonist, and saves someone's life. In each of these ordeals Harry stops or defeats a dark antagonist. That is the normal way it is with the Ordeal.

However, in her last greatest plot twist, JKR gives the Supreme Ordeal of her overarching Hero's Journey a very unique twist. Harry's final ordeal is not when he defeats his arch-rival, but rather when he allows that villain to defeat him. The dark antagonist Harry defeats here…is Harry.

Harry's final ordeal is not the scene in the Great Hall where he duels with Voldemort and wins, but rather the scene in the Forbidden Forest where he walks in willingly, without weapon in hand, and lays down his own life as a sacrifice for many. He faces Death with the comfort of those he has loved and gone before him by his side. Harry's final battle, as Dumbledore so wisely hints at, was not in killing Voldemort, but in vanquishing his own fear of death.

While death is usually experienced in the Supreme Ordeal, it is not often the object of the hero going in, but rather a consequence. For JKR, death was not an unfortunate outcome of a successful fight nor a result of her hero's inability to battle the Dark Lord and win. Death was both Harry's goal and his ultimate antagonist. Voldemort was just a tool to deliver it to him.

Seizing the Reward:
Harry's reward for having accepted his own death and willingly laid down his life for others comes in three forms. First, as a reward not only for Harry, but for the reader as well, Dumbledore finally explains ALL. He talks with Harry as an equal, in fact, as someone he looks up to in reverence.

Harry's second reward is the gift of ultimate choice -- whether to live or to "go on." And it truly is a choice he has to make. The lure of eternal peace and unity with those he has loved and lost beckons Harry onto that final train. However, the responsibility of knowing that others depend on him to see the final battle through makes him stand and return. He takes with him understanding and knowledge that Voldemort has not.

The final reward becomes the elixir as well -- Harry's sacrifice has given the blood protection to all those fighting against the Death Eaters at Hogwarts. Just as Lily's sacrifice offered Harry protection against Voldemort all those years ago, now none of Voldemort's spells stick against those Harry has died to save.

The Road Back:
Harry's road back is both in leaving the peace of King's Cross and his unity with Dumbledore to return to the pain that awaits him in the battle, but also the rocky and branchy path from the Forbidden Forest to the castle, cradled in Hagrid's trembling arms. In this perilous journey, Harry must weigh carefully when to reveal his revived self to be best able to finish off Voldemort before Harry can be truly killed himself.


It is at this step where Harry, because he no longer fears death, is able in his moment of resurrection, to defeat he who has always fled from death. Because of his choices, Harry has faced something Voldemort never could and gained the power and knowledge he needed in order to defeat the man who has always fled death.

Harry's resurrection takes place in the Great Hall, under that wonderfully bewitched ceiling, which shows the dawning of the "red-gold glow" of a new day. Not only does this red-gold sun in the great hall hint at Harry's attaining of his own personal Philosopher's Stone, as outlined in The Great Hall as the Great Work, but it also hints at Harry's role in this last story as the sun god Re/Ra in his ultimate defeat of the serpent of death, Apep, as will be detailed in an upcoming post. And, of course, there is the Christian imagery of Christ's resurrection from the tomb, which was discussed in St. George's Holey Ear.

Return with the Elixir:
Like the first book, Philosopher's/Sorcerer's Stone, the elixir is granted in the Great Hall. However, unlike the first book, instead of Gryffindor winning the house cup, all the houses, indeed the whole wizarding world, share in this cup of new life. For Harry's actions have not only brought about the end of Voldemort's reign of terror, but also united all four houses.

   McGonagall had replaced the house tables, but nobody was sitting according to house any more: all were jumbled together, teachers and pupils, ghosts and parents, centaurs and house-elves…
   Along the aisle between the tables he walked, and he spotted the three Malfoys, huddled together as though unsure whether or not they were supposed to be there, but nobody was paying them any attention. Everywhere he looked he saw families reunited…"

That the reuniting of the Malfoy family is included in a place where before they would have shunned and been shunned, shows the power of this elixir Harry has wrought. Families have been reunited, unity (even if temporary) in Hogwarts has been attained. And families who have love for each other, even if under prior taint of misguided beliefs, have found a place of sanctuary as well.

Harry did, indeed, fulfill his role as a hero and deserves the round of applause that awaits him when having his final talk with his greatest mentor in the Headmaster's Office.

As always, we analyze these steps in JK Rowling's writing to help us understand how to complete them in our own. The hero quest is a wonderful mode of plotting because it is so innate. We've heard these stories from childhood as they've been preserved since antiquity. The frame is malleable enough to be wrapped around most any genre. JK Rowling has give us seven great examples of how she plotted her hero's journey that help us look at our own ideas and see which are the strongest and in which order they should flow.

If you haven't yet studied the Hero's Journey, a quick trip to the oracle of Google will give you a general understanding of either Christopher Vogler's or Joseph Campell's basic steps. With these in hand, you can plot out your work in process to see what steps you have used and in what order. Then you can analyze, have you saved your most meaningful confrontation for your hero for his Supreme Ordeal? Have you given him a reward worthy of the sacrifices he has made to achieve that victory? And has he returned to his people with an elixir that will enable them to live anew?

Share with me one of your favorite ordeals from either your work or another's!