Can you spot the source?

Wendy Doniger

  • Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling
    Bloomsbury, 317 pp, £10.99, July 1999, ISBN 0 7475 4215 5

Young Harry Potter’s parents are dead. So far, so good: many of the heroes and heroines of the classics of children’s literature are orphans, while others have invisible, unmentionable or irrelevant parents. The sorrow of grieving, not to mention the terror of helplessness, is quickly glossed over in favour of the joy of a fantasised freedom. (A particularly sharp 13-year-old patiently explained to me that if Harry’s parents weren’t dead, there would be no point in writing the book: it wouldn’t be interesting, no matter how many creative details there were.) The problem, for Harry Potter as for most orphans in children’s books, is not the absence of parents but the presence of step-parents. From infancy Harry has been raised by his horrid Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia Dursley, who hate him and dote on their own cruel and stupid son, Dudley Dursley; they starve Harry and, when he’s forced to spend summer holidays with them, they intercept his letters from his school friends, his only link with the world of people who care for him.

Harry’s dead parents, Lily and James, were not ordinary humans but a powerful witch and wizard. The Dursleys seldom speak about them, and when they do it’s always with contempt, but as Harry grows up he begins to learn about them and to learn that he, too, is a wizard, though he is not (generally) allowed to use his powers in the world of the Muggles, as the witches and wizards call unmagical humans. This aspect of the story is familiar from mythological literature. Alison Lurie, praising the Harry Potter books in the New York Review of Books, saw in them ‘the common childhood fantasy that the dreary adults and siblings you live with are not your real family, that you are somehow special and gifted’. Freud called this the Family Romance and argued for its utility in defining your apparent parents as people whom (unlike your real parents) you are allowed to desire or hate. This is the Oedipal configuration, best known from the eponymous case that Freud wrote about, but also from the myth of the birth of the hero explored by Freud’s disciple, Otto Rank. The child’s joyful expectation of coming someday into the greatness of his parents sustains him in the present situation of humiliation and impotence. The sign of Harry’s greatness is a scar on his forehead, where a lightning bolt hurled by the evil wizard Voldemort hit him when he was still a baby, and would have killed him but for his mother’s self-sacrificial intervention; the scar functions, like the mark of Cain, to set Harry apart. (The evil upper-form boy Malfoy calls him ‘Scarhead’.)

The Family Romance haunts the story of the ugly duckling, raised among scornful ducks until he discovers that he’s really a swan. It haunts real-life adoption, too, fuelling the obsessive search for biological parents, and part of it (the rags-to-riches, Cinderella part) shapes the real-life story of J.K. Rowling, who rose out of obscurity and deprivation to claim her literary sovereignty. Rowling has been praised for what Lurie and others regard as a particularly British talent for writing for children, but the story she tells is widespread in other cultures, too: the birth of Cyrus in Herodotus, of Krishna and Karna in the Hindu tradition, not to mention Superman in American comics.

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[*] Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (Bloomsbury, 223 pp., £4.99, 26 June 1997, 07475 3274 5).

[†] Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (Bloomsbury, 251 pp., £4.99, 2 July 1998, 0 7475 3848 4).