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Harry Potter, Aristotle’s Poetics, & Literary Magic

Harry Potter, Aristotle’s Poetics, & Literary Magic

*Check out my poem, “An Ode to Boys” on Burlesque Press*

“Words are, in my not-so-humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic.” – Professor Albus Dumbledore

My Ukrainian ESL student, Sergiy, is reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, by recommendation of his eleven-year-old daughter. I mentioned this to my boyfriend on Friday, and suddenly his eyes lit up. “Do you want to watch a Harry Potter movie tonight?” he asked.

“Sure,” I said, surprised. Paul doesn’t normally get that excited about watching movies, and he tends to spend his evenings reading, running, and doing math.

But he zipped off to the video rental store (yes, we still have those here in Seattle), and came back with not one but five Harry Potter movies (there are eight in all). And so began a binge weekend of red wine and wizardry.

We finished the last movie – Harry Potter and Deathly Hallows Part Two – on Tuesday night. “Now what are we going to do?” Paul pouted. He was already starting to go through Harry Potter withdrawal and was scrolling through articles on the Harry Potter wiki page to get his fix.

“It’s such a good story,” he kept saying, while humming the theme song.

“We could watch The Hunger Games,” I suggested, but I knew that was lame. The Hunger Games is OK and all, but Harry Potter is… well, it’s epic. And the more I’ve thought about it over the years, the more I’ve decided that the Harry Potter series might just be one of the most incredible achievements in children’s literature…ever. I realize that’s a strong statement, but I feel pretty strongly about H.P.

Harry Potter, portrayed by Daniel Radcliffe.  Photo courtesy of Pixelsior.

Harry Potter, portrayed by Daniel Radcliffe. Photo courtesy of Pixelsior.

So strongly do I feel, in fact, that when I was getting my MFA back in 2007 (the same year the last book was published), I decided to write my big term paper for Literary Criticism on Harry Potter.This was a bold move. Lit Crit was a famously difficult class, taught by a famously tough professor, Bill Lavender. Bill was sort of like a combination between Snape, Dumbledore, and Voldemort: slow-talking and judgmental, brilliant and poetic, bald and frightening. In his class, we read some of the most difficult theoretical texts I have ever attempted to slog through, by authors like the terrifying Michael Foccoult and Jean Baudrillard. (Note, it’s only their terribly hard-to-comprehend writings that are terrifying; I’m sure in person they were quite lovely people.)

One of the few texts I actually felt I had a grasp on was Aristotle’s Poetics, which is why I decided to do my big paper on Poetics…and how it relates to Harry Potter.

“No, absolutely not,” Bill said when I told him my prospective topic. “You absolutely cannot do a graduate-level paper on Harry Potter.”

“Have you ever read the books?” I asked, knowing full well that Bill Lavender would never stoop so low as to read popular children’s literature when there were things like Ezra Pound’s Cantos lying around, waiting to be interpreted.

“Well, no,” Bill admitted. “But I hardly think–”

“I think it’s a good topic,” I interrupted, feeling as brave as Godric Gryffindor himself. “And I’m going to write the paper on it.”

“It’s your grade,” Bill said, his deep voice rumbling with annoyance and frustration.

“You’re gonna like it,” I said. “Just wait and see.”

Photo courtesy of bibicall.

Photo courtesy of bibicall.

And so I wrote a fourteen-page paper entitled The Poetics of Harry Potter: How Rowling Uses Aristotle’s Advice to Create a Modern Epic. And it was good. Even Bill had to admit it. He gave me a B. I got the paper out the other day to read to Paul, who, in addition to his current Harry Potter obsession, has a deep love for the Greek philosophers. Here are some excerpts from what I read to him. Note: Contains plot spoilers!  Note:  If you don’t like reading academic papers with parenthetical citations, just skip this part.

From The Poetics of Harry Potter: How Rowling Uses Aristotle’s Advice to Create a Modern Epic by Eva Langston, Fall 2007:

According to Aristotle, the best plots are complex and involve recognition, a reversal, or both (98).  “A reversal is a change of the actions to their opposite,” and a “recognition is a change from ignorance to knowledge” or from “friendship to enmity.”   In the best plots, the reversal and recognition happen at the same time (Aristotle 99).  In the Harry Potter series, this plot device is most obvious in the seventh and final book.  Harry has set out to destroy his nemesis, Lord Voldemort, to ensure the safety of himself, his friends, and the world.  Voldemort has put seven pieces of his soul into physical objects called Horcruxes, and in order to destroy Voldemort, Harry must destroy all the Horcruxes first.  In the climax of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows, Harry learns that he himself is one of Horcruxes.  This is the recognition.  At the same time, there is a reversal in the action.  Harry has been trying to escape from Voldemort to stay alive, but now he realizes he must let his greatest enemy kill him, because the only way Voldemort can be destroyed is if Harry is destroyed, too.  The choice that Harry must make is an obvious example of suffering, which Aristotle says must be present in an epic (112).  Aristotle would probably find this a good, tragic example of recognition and reversal, especially because when the recognition occurs, the readers infer the probable reversal (Harry’s sacrifice), and Aristotle says that this type of inference makes for the best kind of recognition (104).

In addition to advice on plot, Aristotle offers many descriptions of good characterization, but perhaps his most famous idea is what we now refer to as the “fatal flaw” or “tragic flaw.”   He says that a plot should not show “decent men undergoing a change from good fortune to misfortune,” nor “wicked men [passing] from misfortune to good fortune.”  Instead, this best plot has a main character who lies between these two extremes.  This character is of high moral caliber, however, he falls from good fortune to misfortune “not because of wickedness but because of a great error” (100).  Harry Potter, then, could be considered a classic, epic hero with a fatal flaw.  He is brave and smart; a tough fighter and a loving person, who has to go on a long and arduous journey.  He continues to meet with tragedy and troubles because of his “great error,” which is his impulsive behavior and his wish to save people. Of course, the difference between many of the epics Aristotle discusses and the Harry Potter saga, is that although Harry’s flaw gets him into trouble and brings him grief, it is not his ultimate downfall.  Though the stories contain tragedy, the series ends happily.

Aristotle also recognizes that writers use traditional stories in their work, and he asks them to “use the inherited [stories] well” (101).  Perhaps the most famous story Rowling uses in her series is a religious one.  Despite the harsh criticism she has gotten from Christian groups for promoting witchcraft (Garcia para 14), there are both direct and indirect Christian references in the books.  In Deathly Hollows, Harry sees two biblical references on his parents’ tombstones: “The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death,” and “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”  The first refers to 1 Corinthians 15:26 and the second is a direct quote from Jesus in Matthew 6:19 (Garcia para 6-7).  The true allegory, however, comes during the climax of the series itself.  Harry learns that in order to save the world and let good prevail over evil, he must sacrifice himself to Lord Voldemort.  Harry dies and goes to a strange, other-worldly place where he talks to Professor Dumbledore, who has always been a father-figure to Harry.  Harry learns that because he gave himself up to death willingly, the part of Voldemort that lived inside him was destroyed (Deathly Hollows 708).  However, Harry himself cannot be killed by Voldemort because Voldemort used Harry’s blood in his resurrection (Deathly Hollows 710).  To make a long story short, Harry comes back from the dead and saves the world from evil.  Naturally, this is an allusion to Jesus giving himself up to die in order to rid the world of sin, and then being resurrected with the help of his heavenly Father.

And so the “clichés” that some critics complain about are present for a reason.  Not because Rowling is unimaginative, but because she wanted to create a classic saga, complete with complex plots, a tragically flawed hero, and the use of inherited stories.  Without realizing it, perhaps, she employed methods of the ancient Greeks, as described by Aristotle, to help tell her tale.  By tapping into our cultural history, and maybe even our collective unconscious, she has created an epic and universally-appealing story that has affected millions of children and adults alike.

So there you have it.  And in re-watching the movies, I was overcome once again by the grand and epic story of Harry Potter. As usual, I wondered, how did J.K.Rowling do it?

I am always amazed by her plotting of the Harry Potter story, but during this most recent go-round, I realized another amazing thing:  the steady growth of the novels themselves. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is a fairly short, simple, not-too-scary book; it’s about an eleven-year-old and written at a level appropriate for eleven-year-olds. But as Harry grows up, the books get longer, darker, and more complex. Was Rowling growing as an author, as some people claim? Or had she planned it this way all along – that Harry would mature with his readers so that they would both be ready for the reversal at the end of the series?

Rowling always says that the idea for the Harry Potter books “fell into her head” while she was riding the train from Manchester to London (Riccio). She knew how the series would end when she began it. It almost seems like magic the way it all worked out.

And I think it probably was. Writing is, in large part, hard work, but there is a mysterious element to it as well, and I think all writers, if they are brave and searching, can, on occasion, be visited by a muse who will drop of the golden nugget of a story into their open minds. It’s like Albus Dumbledore says, “Words are, in my not-so-humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic.”


Aristotle.  “Poetics.”  The Norton Anthology of Literary Criticism.  Ed. Vincent B. Leitch.  New York:  W.W. Norton & Co.: 2001.  pp. 90-120.

Garcia, Elena.  “Harry Potter Author Reveals Christian Allegory, Her Struggling Faith.” The Christian Post.  (18 Oct. 2007).  15 Nov 2007.’_Christian_Allegory,_Her_Struggling_Faith.htm>.

Riccio, Heather.  Interview with J.K. Rowling, Author of Harry Potter.

Rowling, J.K.  Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows.  New York:  Scholastic, Inc., 2007.



About evalangston

Eva Langston is a writer, among other things.

2 responses »

  1. Pingback: Part 4 of "Deathly Twilight": Who’s Been Reading a Bad Harry Potter Fanfiction Story? | FanFiction Fridays

  2. Pingback: Harry Potter: from Aristotle's Poetics to Christian Virtue - IGNITUM TODAY : IGNITUM TODAY

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