Essay: The Game Pieces
Quantum Harry: A Unified Theory of the Potterverse, is divided into three sections of seven chapters each. I have dedicated Part I to examining JK Rowling’s archetypes in the Harry Potter books, her “game pieces”.
For those who aren’t familiar with the concept of the “archetype”, it’s a way of talking about character attributes in stories that transcends the story. For instance, you can say that in certain Native American myths the raven is a Trickster Archetype, and in certain Italian fairy tales the devil, a popular character in many Italian folk tales, is also an archetypal Trickster. This means that their characters fill a similar role, they fill the same need in the story and may behave in similar ways and have similar attributes. But despite one of those Trickster characters being literally The Devil, calling a character an archetypal Trickster isn’t a judgment; archetypal labels don’t have “good” or “evil” baggage attached to them. Within an archetype a character might be a “good” representation of that sort of character, an “evil” representation, or morally ambiguous. Those judgments are linked to who the character is in that story; they don’t come along with the archetype.
A particular archetype rules each of the seven books in the Harry Potter series and there’s a character who best embodies the ruling archetype in each book, though in every case there are multiple characters who embody the ruling archetype. The reason that it’s illuminating to focus on the ruling archetype for each book and the character who best embodies it is that Harry steps into that character’s shoes or otherwise serves as a surrogate for that character sometime during each book, usually during the climax. Everything that went before the climax concerning that character and that archetype informs the way that Harry resolves each book’s conflict.
Part II of Quantum Harry looks at the way that toys, games, sweets and fairy tales shape the narrative of the Harry Potter books, and Part III examines Tarot symbolism in the books (symbolism on cards originally designed to play games, not tell fortunes).
Why begin with archetypes? What does that have to do with toys, fairy tales and games? For some time, some of the most popular games around have been role-playing games (RPGs). Dungeons and Dragons is probably the best-known. Some RPGs are played long-distance; the players communicate online, battling monsters in their imaginations, like chess masters who used to play games by mail. Other RPGs are internet communities where the participants are writing a collective story; these can last for years and, if they were printed out, the text would probably be longer than all seven Harry Potter books. Many video games also require players to choose a character they will be representing before they play, and your choice directly impacts on how you play the game.
The actions of RPG characters are circumscribed by their abilities and limitations. If you’re playing Dungeons & Dragons, you can’t claim that your character is able to do things that aren’t part of the character’s list of abilities. Most writers like to know their characters’ fears, talents, likes and dislikes for the sake of consistency, and if a character strays, “out of character” their regular readers will complain. Something interesting has happened over thousands of years of individual and collective human storytelling: the stories we’ve created often have characters that fall into time-honored archetypes, unless a writer tries consciously to avoid this, and even then the avoidance tactics may not always be completely successful.
In Quantum Harry, I examine six major archetypes first. The order in which these “game pieces”, the archetypes, are discussed is linked to which one “rules” each of the first six Harry Potter books. The seventh archetype is one that any of the others may also be: the Liminal Being. This is often the Hero of a story.
(I’m going to note here that the “Hero”, or the protagonist, is a story-role, not an archetype. The same is true of the “villain”, or the antagonist. Both the protagonist and the antagonist may be any number of archetypes, and they may also both be Liminal Beings or otherwise share an archetype and be doppelgangers. But in my opinion, “hero” and “villain” or protagonist and antagonist are story roles, not archetypes, because those roles are intrinsically tied to that particular story and do not transcend it. They also don’t offer any illuminating information about the characters in question, which archetypes do.)
The justifications for matching up a particular character with their archetype may appear in any book in the series, not just in the book ruled by that archetype. For instance, Fred and George’s attempt to become old enough to cross the age-line, one of the indicators of their archetype, is in Goblet of Fire, but the first book is the one ruled by their archetype: the Wise Old Man.
It’s probably useful to look briefly at the difference between archetypes and stereotypes. Stereotypes are usually oversimplified cardboard cut-outs, like the Manic Pixie Dreamgirl. [I would link to the TVtropes.com entry for Manic Pixie Dreamgirl, but I don’t want to be blamed for anyone going down that rabbit hole and never seeing the light of day again.] Stereotypes are usually wedded to the character’s age, ethnicity, gender and/or orientation, while an archetypal character has attributes that may manifest in a variety of ways, and the character may not even align with the nominal age or gender of the archetype—attributes that are surface qualities and not key to the deeper meanings behind the character that the archetype is communicating.
For instance, multiple characters in the Harry Potter books are archetypal Wise Old Men, regardless of their chronological age, because of what they do in the story and the relationship that they have to Harry, the protagonist. But the characters aren’t identical and interchangeable just because they fall into the same archetype. Their archetypal attributes manifest in enough different ways that they still come across as distinct characters. There are also subgroups within many of the archetypes.
Archetypes have a way of seeping into stories; they figure in RPGs, in classic fairy tales, in mythology and in Harry Potter. TVTropes.com is dedicated to the idea that there are no new stories or characters; almost any so-called “new” tale can be deconstructed, its parts can be tagged as this trope or that classic plot-twist. Writers who are trying to subvert a trope may be praised for originality, but they can also be criticized for this if the execution is poor. Popular wisdom says newer is better, yet JK Rowling created her seven-book epic around classic archetypes that have permeated human stories for thousands of years and she became the best-selling author of all time by doing so.
The archetypes ruling the first six Harry Potter books break down into three male and three female and each one aligns with part of a human lifespan: youth, middle age, and old age. However, it’s not a good idea to assume that JK Rowling is being completely binary about gender just because these archetypes can be seen in the book—sometimes a male character embodies a female archetype and vice versa. Plus, by the end of the series, the dragon Norbert is called Norberta! There’s also the seventh archetype to consider: The Liminal Being, an archetype that is not linked to any gender or age but is one of the major reasons for many readers spotting a very queer-friendly subtext in the books. This is the archetype ruling the seventh and arguably most important book in the series.
If you’ve read any mythology you’re probably familiar with the archetypes of the Maiden, Mother and Crone. On the male side, the Youth is often the Hero in myths and folktales (though many fairy tales have Maidens for Heroes, which is why I feel strongly that Hero is a story role, and not an archetype). The oldest male archetype is the “Wise Old Man”; and in the middle there is still the parental figure: the Father.
It’s hardly earth-shattering to suggest that Harry is an archetypal Youth and it’s clear that Dumbledore is both nominally and archetypally a Wise Old Man, but it may not be as clear which other characters are Wise Old Men—and why.
Adapted from the script for Quantum Harry, the Podcast, Episode 2: This Old Man. Copyright 2017-2018 by Quantum Harry Productions and B.L. Purdom. See other posts on this blog for direct links to all episodes of Quantum Harry.