Essay: Hail the Conquering Liminal Being
In previous blog posts (start with TheWise Old Man Archetype), I’ve written about six major archetypes in the Harry Potter series that can be called either male or female, regardless of the gender of the character embodying the archetype. Each archetype also aligns with youth, middle age or old age, the stages of a complete life. The Maiden, Mother, Crone, Youth, Father, and Wise Old Man recur in tales from around the world. Other minor archetypes can also illuminate the Harry Potter books, but these six and the seventh are the most prominent because one rules each of the books in the series.
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – ruled by the Wise Old Man
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets – ruled by the Maiden
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban – ruled by the Mother
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire – ruled by the Father
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix – ruled by the Crone
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince – ruled by the Youth
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – ?
The seventh major archetype could be called the Hero, but that label doesn’t adequately address the most crucial aspect of most Heroes in myth and folklore: liminality. This is why I call the seventh archetype the Liminal Being, who is often a Hero but can also be an Anti-Hero, a doppelganger for a Hero or an Anti-Hero, the Hero’s mentor, or the Hero’s love interest.
A character who’s a Liminal Being is usually also another archetype (Maiden, Crone, Wise Old Man, etc.). A Liminal Being may be male, female, neither or both, any age or no age. In the essays examining archetypal Mothers (The Mother Archetype Part I & The Mother Archetype Part II), Fathers (A Chip off the Old Block) and Crones (There was an Old Woman), I’ve already written about how a character may be any archetype regardless of the character’s gender or age if the things that the character does align with the attributes of that archetype. This is why Hagrid is an archetypal Mother (Episode 4:Mother, May I?), McGonagall is an archetypal Father (Episode 5: Our Father), and Snape is an archetypal Crone (Episode 6: A Murder of Crones). The Liminal Being having no intrinsic gender or age is part of the point. Liminality isn’t about being constrained by limits on age or gender, or by cultural norms. It’s about transcendence.
While Liminal Beings aren’t always Heroes, a Hero (of any gender) is nearly always Liminal. A Hero isn’t an archetype but a story role, just as the villain is a role and the mentor is a role. Because of this, the villain or mentor can be a Maiden, Mother, Crone, Youth, Father or Wise Old Man. Archetypes and story roles aren’t precisely the same thing, though there’s often a correspondence between archetypes and various story roles, such as the habit of mentors to be Wise Old Men, or the way that Crones often watch over a Hero during childhood. An Anti-Hero or Villain is also very often a Liminal Being, which makes the Villain and the Hero equals, even if they don’t seem equal. (Voldemort, for instance, would recoil from the idea that anyone was truly his equal.)
A Hero’s “other” archetype (besides Liminal Being) can determine that Hero’s “type”, but there may be no link. Types of Hero include Action Hero, Folk Hero, Accidental Hero, Unlikely Hero, Tragic Hero, and Unwilling Hero, to name a just few. (TVTropes.com has a very long list of Hero tropes.) However, catalogues of Heroes and Anti-Heroes are largely lacking a description of the most prominent Liminal Being in the Harry Potter books: the Metaphorical Queer.
The Metaphorical Queer has not traditionally been listed with Hero tropes, but the Liminal Hero sometimes is. Since most Heroes are by their nature Liminal, this is a bit redundant and will overlap with nearly all Heroes. A prominent attribute of many mythical Heroes is being neither one thing nor another. Liminal Beings have an “ambiguous” status. They defy classification. Demigods are a popular type of Liminal Being, and they’re at the center of the Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan, as well as featuring in a number of myths and folktales. This is for a good reason; as the child of both a mortal and a god, a demigod is of two worlds: the mundane, everyday, ordinary world, and a fabulous world peopled by powerful entities unlike the Liminal Being’s ordinary parent.
In science fiction this often means having a human and alien background, such as Spock, in Star Trek. Half-human and half-Vulcan, Spock is not completely at home with Vulcans or humans; Rowling’s half-blood wizards also bridge the ordinary and the extraordinary.
“Liminality” refers to a moment during a rite of passage when the one being initiated is neither in their original state nor in the post-ritual, transformed state. During the moment of initiation, they’re on the threshold. In 2012, Bernadette Lynn Bosky wrote in the New York Review of Science Fiction about “Liminal Places and Liminal States” in Little, Big by John Crowley, but what she says can be applied to a lot of stories with Liminal characters. She wrote, in part:
…one of the goals of ritual is to turn boundaries into thresholds, as when a shaman crosses the barrier between our world and the other world and then personally forms a bridge between them… Roads and paths can be liminal also; they lead from one place to another, joining them, but also help define, for instance, what is safe versus what is not, as in the story “Little Red Riding Hood.” Finally, liminality is also connected to the idea of hybrids—that is, places, people, events, and things that take part in two categories that are thought of as being not only separate, but dichotomous, such as the ghost or vampire.
[New York Review of Science Fiction, November 2012].
Some Liminal Beings don’t have a dual background; they’re all-god, all-alien (like Superman’s Clark Kent and the Klingon Worf, from Star Trek), or all-wizard (like Harry Potter, who’s only labeled a “half-blood” by Voldemort because he disregards Lily’s Muggle background). Such a character bridges worlds if they grow up distanced from their extraordinary origins. The Liminal Being’s dual background is often the excuse for the separation from the extraordinary, but without a dual background, a crisis like the Potters’ murders, Clark Kent’s home planet blowing up, or Worf’s parents being killed by Romulans, may force a character who doesn’t start off as Liminal out of their original home and into a situation where they’re raised by characters we would recognize as ordinary humans.
Crones have the vision to see across barriers, but Liminal Beings have a visa to cross them, a passport to lands ordinary humans cannot access; they intercede with the powers that be and return to the world with boons or the secret to removing a curse. Liminal Beings are neither and both, they assimilate the major archetypes and, through bridging worlds, become greater than the sum of their parts.
I first wrote about metaphorical queerness in Harry Potter for The Witching Hour, held in Salem, MA in 2005, the second symposium organized by HPEF, inc., the 501(c)(3) educational organization I served as a board member for about ten years.
After my Salem presentation, I was interviewed by Linda Rodriguez of Bay Windows, a Boston-area LGBTQ news outlet. Two years later she interviewed me for another Boston publication, the South End News, after JK Rowling “outed” Dumbledore. In my original paper, I said that I’d be very surprised if Rowling ever identified any of her characters as literally rather than metaphorically queer, and while I was glad to be wrong, it still didn’t occur in the books themselves, so there are a lot of people who are still unaware that Dumbledore is gay, while other fans would have been happier if she’d outed other characters popularly considered to be queer.
The Metaphorical Queer can be considered a Fish out of Water, a recognized trope in literature. (Gulliver of Gulliver’s Travels is one example, and Bilbo Baggins is a more recent one.) But Metaphorical Queers are usually in more dire situations than a Fish out of Water; they’re often fish whose families are trying to fricassee them because of their differences, for which they’re hated and punished. They’re ordered to be “normal”, which is patently impossible. In response, the character often joins a chosen family of kindred spirits. We can see a parallel to this in the real world when sexual minorities choose new families if their birth families reject them.
At least two other British authors writing for young people have used this archetype in fantasy works before JK Rowling. Roald Dahl’s 1988 novel Matilda is about a prodigious little girl, Matilda Wormwood, as different from her television-watching, status-conscious family as Harry is from the Dursleys (who bear an uncanny resemblance to the Wormwoods). Like Uncle Vernon, Mr. Wormwood does not appreciate Matilda’s extraordinary abilities and would rather she behave “normally”, like her brother. By the end of the book, Matilda has found a way to escape her family, with their blessing, and has formed a new family with her teacher, Miss Honey, a kindred spirit who appreciates Matilda.
In Diana Wynne Jones’s Witch Week (1982), magic is something to keep secret about, in case government Inquisitors find the witch in question and burn the offending person at the stake. When a young person fears that they may be a witch, the first reaction is an abject fear of discovery, which reads as very close to a queer youth’s fear of anyone discovering that queerness.
…he could not stop thinking about it… Could he do anything about it? Was it enough just not to do any magic? Could you go somewhere and be de-magicked, like clothes were dry-cleaned? If not, and he was found out, was it any use running away?
[Witch Week, Chapter Four]
It’s pretty clear that, like orientation and gender identity, magic in Witch Week is an attribute you have from birth. Here’s another brief quote from later in the same chapter saying just that:
“...they couldn’t help being born the way they were, and they didn’t want to be killed for something they couldn’t help.”
In Witch Week, one boy who realizes that he’s magical is deathly afraid that he might do something to give himself away. In Chapter Five, Jones writes:
What terrified Charles was that he would seem to keep using witchcraft by accident, where it showed. If only he could stop himself doing that, then he still might have a chance... But how did you stop yourself working magic?
In the story, a teacher who finds out about Charles tries to protect him by trying to convince him, in Chapter Eight, to closet himself:
“You’re to forget about witchcraft, understand? Forget about magic. Try to be normal, if you know what that means.”
We can see that the parallel between literally queer youth feeling pressure to remain closeted, to not “slip” and do anything that will reveal their true nature and the analogous pressure on Metaphorically Queer characters to remain closeted is clear in both Matilda and Witch Week, just as it is in Harry Potter.
Harry, a Metaphorically Queer Liminal Being, is resented by his family for attributes that are basic to his identity but not to them. The closest entry on the TV Tropes website to Metaphorically Queer characters is Have You Tried Not Being a Monster? This often applies to vampires, werewolves and half-demons, dangerous “hybrids” with abilities that may emerge without the express wishes of the so-called “monster”, potentially endangering others.
Calling Metaphorically Queer Liminal Beings “monsters” doesn’t take into account that the difference setting them apart from their birth families or foster families might not take the form of something even metaphorically monstrous (though Vernon Dursley and the Inquisitors of Witch Week might beg to differ). The trope is clearly a Metaphorically Queer archetype, and on TVTropes.org it’s described as what writers might do, “when they’re too cowardly to introduce actual gay characters or when they feel that allegory or metaphor will be less likely to be censored.”
The second reason seems to be the explanation for JK Rowling’s use of the Metaphorical Queer, which is highly effective and recurs frequently in the Harry Potter books. Roald Dahl and Diana Wynne Jones make good but less frequent use of it. Rowling is the chief modern re-interpreter of fairy tale and myth, retelling fairy tales, tropes and motifs for a modern audience more successfully (in terms of sheer numbers) than any author in history, and she’s now the chief modern author to extensively use the Metaphorical Queer archetype.
The Great Hermaphrodite is related to the Metaphorical Queer. It’s a concept from alchemy, the “great work” of making a Philosopher’s Stone. The Great Hermaphrodite is not truly about a binary or neutral gender identity but is a symbolic union of opposites, like the Yin Yang. The Great Hermaphrodite, like the Metaphorical Queer (and other Liminal Beings), is an axis mundi, a link between worlds, heaven and earth, male and female, fire and water, earth and air, life and death. It’s even a way to refer to the Philosopher’s Stone itself.
Fittingly, the material used to make the Philosopher’s Stone, in alchemical lore, can also be considered a combination of opposites. This aspect of the “prime substance”, as it’s called, does not change during the transformation that produces the Philosopher’s Stone. A description of this “prime substance” sounds precisely like the sort of things that Voldemort disregards:
The prime substance is often described as something that is very common and of unrecognized value—the stone rejected by the builder and trodden underfoot, yet more valuable than gold. In modern myth, the prime material is like the comic book hero Superman disguised as the mild-mannered Clark Kent.
[The Tarot: History, Symbolism and Divination, Robert M. Place, Chapter 2]
Or, the prime material could be an eleven-year-old boy with messy black hair, vivid green eyes, and a lightning-bolt scar. Harry is positioned not only as the prime substance used to create a Philosopher’s Stone, but as the Stone itself, which, when Harry “catches” it from the Mirror of Erised, is yet another symbolic Snitch. Harry was entangled with the Snitch and positioned as a metaphorical Snitch when he caught it his mouth during his first Quidditch match and then symbolically gave birth to it by spitting it out. His Liminality is therefore a very basic, deeply-ingrained part of his character, as well as Dumbledore’s.
Only a Liminal Being such as Dumbledore, both metaphorically and literally queer, could cross the barriers needed to create the Philosopher’s Stone. And only Harry, his surrogate when Dumbledore is gone, as a metaphorical Snitch and Philosopher’s Stone himself, can ultimately succeed in protecting it from one who disregards things that are “common and of unrecognized value”—like children, toys, games and fairy tales, bringing us back again to the unifying thread that runs throughout JK Rowling’s seven-book series. (See A Unified Theory of the Potterverse.)
Diana Wynne Jones, Roald Dahl and others have created characters that, like JK Rowling’s, can be described as the Metaphorically Queer subset of the Liminal Being archetype. George RR Martin has created The Seven, a religion in his Song of Ice and Fire, better known as Game of Thrones, that revolves around a seven-faced god aligning neatly with the seven archetypes ruling each of the seven Harry Potter books, even using the exact same names for four of the aspects of the god. Three of the faces of Martin’s seven-faced god are female and called the Maiden, Mother and Crone, and three are male: the Warrior, the Father and the Smith. Like the Liminal Being, the seventh aspect of the god, The Stranger, is neither male nor female.
Martin seems to have been inspired by Greek and Roman mythology in his use of the Maiden, Mother and Crone; these aspects of the god are called upon for the same things that Maiden, Mother and Crone goddesses were in ancient Greece and Rome. Martin’s Father aspect of the god also bears the same name as the Father archetype that rules the fourth Harry Potter book, Goblet of Fire. Of the male aspects of the god, the Warrior and Smith have different names than the archetypes I’ve been writing about, but they have clear analogues.
The Smith is a Creator god. While actual Smiths create a lot of things, one of the primary things Smiths are shown creating in Martin’s epic are weapons. The Smith as an aspect of the seven-faced god doesn’t seem to have a stage of life explicitly linked to its worship, but it’s easy to see the parallel archetype in myth and folklore as the Wise Old Man.
In the Harry Potter series, some of the most prominent characters embodying this archetype also create things that can be used as weapons. The Wise Old Man Ollivander is a wandmaker, and wands are surely the most prominent weapon in Harry Potter. Fred and George Weasley are young Wise Old Men, and many of the products they sell at their Diagon Alley shop are also used as weapons—in fact, some of them are used as weapons by Death Eaters in the climactic battle of Half-Blood Prince. And surely the Hogwarts education that Dumbledore, the ultimate Wise Old Man, makes available to all magical children is a potent weapon. Mr. Lovegood’s printing press is even a weapon of sorts in the fifth and seventh books.
As I wrote in The Wise Old Man Archetype (see also Quantum Harry, the Podcast, Episode 2: This Old Man) some characters in the Harry Potter books embody the Godfather subset of this archetype. Some of the same characters embody the Smith subset of the Wise Old Man. In that previous essay I included a quote from Joseph Campbell that even describes one of the jobs of the Wise Old Man as giving a sword to the hero to save the day, a sword that can only be created by a Smith.
If we view The Warrior aspect of the seven-faced god as an archetype, it would most likely be as a subset of the Youth archetype, since almost any warrior is unlikely to not be a Youth, and many if not most of Rowling’s Youths are also warriors. George RR Martin’s Warrior aspect of the god is chiefly invoked to ask for courage in battle by characters who are literal warriors. There’s no implication that this Warrior aspect is paired with the Maiden aspect of the god, as we can assume the aspects of the Mother and Father are a pair. In Harry Potter, it’s usually possible to identify a character as an archetypal Youth specifically because he’s paired with a Maiden. In Rowling’s books, as opposed to Martin’s, love trumps war, though love is often presented by Rowling as another type of war: a war for someone’s heart. This is why her archetypal Youths can be seen as Lovers who are metaphorical Warriors.
Finally, we have the seventh aspect of Martin’s seven-faced god: the Stranger. Martin says that this aspect is invoked to deal with death and the unknown, and that the Stranger has no gender. The Liminal Being could be seen as analogous to the Stranger, since Liminal characters are able to cross thresholds, including the threshold between life and death, and a Liminal Being does not have a particular age or gender. The Stranger’s name also implies a nomadic nature, which is often a quality of the Metaphorically Queer Liminal Being both because those who do not adhere to literal gender norms often end up homeless or searching for a home, and because they cross barriers; they’re not limiting themselves to traditional definitions of gender, gender-identity or sexual orientation, literal or figurative.
To be continued in next week’s blog post…
Adapted from the script for QuantumHarry, the Podcast, Episode 8: Have You Tried Not Being Liminal? 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.