Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

by J. K. Rowling

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In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, what does Rowling suggest about the meaning of heroism?

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Harry Potter proves that anyone, indeed, can be a hero; for example, he is a hero though he lost his parents when only a baby and despite his brutal upbringing at the hands of his aunt and uncle. But he is hardly the only hero in the books. Among others, Hermione Granger, a muggle-born, is another, and so is Dobby, a house-elf.

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In creating the magical world of Harry Potter, J. K. Rowling has followed a long line in literature of heroes forged from the furnace of the Everyman, and naturally in children’s literature, Joseph Campbell’s prototypical hero (who would go on a heroic quest) would be a child. A character like Harry, a humble child who comes from nowhere and nothing, is one of particular popularity. In an essay about Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows in the New York Review of Books, the writer Alison Lurie explains:

In international folklore, one of the best-known tales is of a poor, hungry child who wishes that the family’s pot of porridge were always full. The wish is granted—and often more than granted. No matter how much is scooped from the pot, porridge continues to boil up, slopping over the stove, then onto the floor, filling the cottage, running out the door, and eventually almost drowning the whole village.

Though Harry acknowledges the Dursleys never starved him, he was by all accounts a “poor, hungry child.” But one thing the above passage omits is that often in literature, particularly in English literature (Great Expectations by Charles Dickens is a famous example), the poor hungry child is also an orphan. So too for Harry, as his empty pot of porridge symbolizes not only a lack of food but also his lack of a family. His parents long since murdered by Lord Voldemort, Harry must wait ten years for his pot of porridge to fill up, and only when he arrives at Hogwarts for his first feast will he escape permanent damage from his upbringing with his aunt and uncle.

But Harry is far from the only ordinary hero in the Harry Potter series. Hermione Granger is muggle-born, scorned by a sizable contingent in the wizarding world who believe the teaching of magic should stay confined to purebloods. She overcomes this, however, and is the best witch in her class, muggle-born or not. Heroism is not confined to humans, either. The house elf Dobby, for example, saves Harry and his friends from a terrible fate at the Malfoy’s house in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows—and Dobby is but a humble house-elf. Treated like vermin his whole life—not unlike the way the Dursleys treated Harry—Dobby nonetheless rises above his station and becomes much more than a mere house-elf.

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