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On heroism and Harry Potter

On heroism and Harry Potter

What defines a hero? What do heroes mean to us? And why are antiheroes just as alluring? Only Lucy Hounsom has the answer...

Posted on 31st January 2014 by Lucy Hounsom

"Out of doubt, out of dark, to the day's rising he rode singing in the sun, sword unsheathing" J. R. R. Tolkien

Modern fiction is constantly moving the parameters of what we call heroism. Our heroes range from the very dark to the light, though increasingly our knights’ shining armour is tarnished. At one extreme is Mark Lawrence’s Jorg from The Broken Empire trilogy, whose behaviour is typically more characteristic of a villain than a hero. At the other extreme are the protagonists from the traditional fantasy epics of David Eddings and Terry Brooks, as well as many young adult series. But there are a large number of heroes in between, whose dubious morals are the result of myriad factors – sometimes mere youth, ignorance, or psychological, physical or emotional hurt.

As a genre, fantasy naturally expresses heroism in its truest, simplest form. In my last post, I mentioned Aragorn and Frodo from The Lord of the Rings. They both demonstrate the innate traits and personal development characteristic of the hero. When I was writing my MA dissertation on heroism in fantasy, I inevitably encountered Joseph Campbell’s seminal text, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Building on the work of Carl Jung, he discovered that all heroes share common characteristics. As a quick exercise, I thought I’d show how some of these apply to a hero we’re all familiar with – Harry Potter.

J. K. Rowling’s series is a traditional bildungsroman, or coming-of-age, so it’s easy to spot Campbell’s heroic characteristics in Harry as his story unfolds. The first is unusual circumstances of birth/born into royalty or danger. As a baby, Harry survives his parents’ deaths and temporarily ‘defeats’ Voldemort. The second: leaves family or land to live with others. This trait prevails prominently across mythology, whose heroes are regularly sent to be fostered by relatives. In Harry’s case, he is raised by the Dursleys. Thirdly, an event, possibly traumatic, leads to an adventure. There’s no doubt that Harry Potter has an adventurous life, but the event that sparks it all is the Dursleys’ flight to the island and Hagrid’s revelation that Harry is a wizard.

Subsequent heroic characteristics include the unhealable wound, the weapon only the hero can wield, supernatural help, the requirement to prove themselves during quests, atonement with the father and spiritual reward after death. If you take a moment to picture your favourite hero, you might be surprised to find just how much they conform to these traits. (The protagonist of my own novel, Starborn, is no exception.)

Interestingly, none of the above requires the hero to possess a strong moral compass. Rather, these characteristics are the landmarks of heroism, shared by heroes and what we now call "anti-heroes" alike. They are ageless, archetypal motifs, which a writer ignores at their peril. In fact, they’re almost impossible to ignore. Writing is a highly introspective, intuitive process. It is an expression of self, and the place of self in the world. I often find that I’ve expressed the essence of an archetype without consciously meaning to do so. They are an integral part of the way we comprehend existence.


So back to heroes. I, like many others, feel drawn to ethically complex heroism. I’m talking, of course, about antiheroes, those principal characters who tell us their stories through a glass, darkly. The world they see is a reflection of their own shadowy natures, which inevitably affects their perception of others, and thereby their response.

I don’t believe in innate evil. It’s unrealistic. But although a person can’t be deemed evil, their actions can. A degree of damage must have occurred to precipitate such actions. It is that damage which attracts our empathy, and sometimes leads us to become fascinated with a character.

One of the posts on Tor UK’s blog, which discussed villains, made a particularly important point: that some degree of redemption has to be possible. I think this applies just as much to antiheroes. In order to capture and retain our empathy, the character in question has to possess something of humanity. It may not stop them from committing atrocious acts, and that’s fine, as long as they remain recognisably human. I suppose it comes down to creating a fully realised character, whose motives are powered by personal experience rather than authorial will, or a simplistic idea of good and evil.


I’ve recently been preoccupied with two characters that could be described as antiheroes due to their chosen ways of life. One is an old friend from the Dragonlance Chronicles. If you follow me on Twitter, you might have spotted my paean to the tormented mage, Raistlin Majere. He holds as much power over me today as he did when I first met him ten years ago. Raistlin is a Hero of the Lance, but only because his own ambitions coincided with the fight for "good". The moment that ceases to be the case, he has no qualms about betraying his companions and turning his back on the world. Raistlin has a rich history, full of darkness and anguish, and it’s no surprise he behaves as he does. But is it evil to exclusively pursue one’s own ambition? Phrased like that, it hardly seems so. Rather, it is Raistlin’s actions – casual cruelty and killing – that render him evil. And conversely, it’s his kindness towards weaklings and underdogs – that hint of redemption – which makes him such a successful character.

The other character I recently found myself cheering on is Hester Shaw from Philip ReevesMortal Engines. I’d like to take this opportunity to praise the series for its insightful, intuitive handling of character without sacrificing pace. Hester is superbly realised, the disfigured victim of a violent past. She tends to let this past define her, claiming it’s the reason she kills without remorse. Her relationship with her daughter is fraught by the tension that results from two vastly different people trying to understand how the other lives.

I hope I’ve taken some of these elements into my writing. I want my characters to be diverse, multifaceted; not only in personality, but in the ethical code that governs their actions. One of Starborn’s major themes is the divisive nature of heroism, its consequences, the responsibilities it bequeaths…and how one person’s heroism is another person’s tyranny.