So, how did JK Rowling do it? Well, if the answer isn’t witchcraft, it just might be the sheer number of cultural, historical, and literary allusions packed into her wizarding universe. In many ways, the world of Harry Potter is a meeting point for centuries of myth.
Here’s a look at some of the many hidden myths and legends packed into the wizarding world.
Some of the legends behind Harry Potter are fairly well known. For example, the philosopher’s stone is based on a story about Nicolas Flamel, a 14th century scribe who claimed to have discovered a stone giving him eternal life. Since Nicolas died in 1418, it seems likely that the stone’s powers were slightly exaggerated.
Two of the biggest influences behind Harry Potter are even more important to the series but are likely less commonly known: the Arthurian legends and the myths of ancient Greece.
One of the oldest and most familiar legends in British culture influenced Rowling – the story of King Arthur. Arthurian legends can be traced back to the Mabinogion, a 12th Century Welsh compilation of oral tales. Since then, the story of Arthur has been weaved by centuries of scholars, including Geoffrey of Monmouth, Chrétien de Troyes, and Monty Python.
In particular, Rowling was influenced by a twentieth century retelling, a fantasy series called The Once and Future King by T.H. White.In TOFK, White tells the story of King Arthur’s childhood and education.
Throughout her series, Rowling draws heavily from White. Even the basic plot is similar: a spindly orphan boy becomes the unexpected ‘chosen one’ and is mentored by an old, bearded wizard. In White, this is Merlin. In Harry Potter, this is Gandalf. Rowling even makes periodic references to Merlin as a historical wizard in the Harry Potter world.
In addition, Rowling re-uses some of White’s character names, such as Arthur’s wife, Jenny, or Guinevere, which is changed to Ginny, or Ginevra.
Drawing Arthurian legend from a classic fantasy text means that, like the Wizarding World itself, Rowling’s Arthurian influence is a hybrid of both the medieval and modern.
Other Arthurian texts, like Gawain and the Green Knight, a 14th Century Romance, also influenced Rowling.
Again, this is evident in the basic plot. In Gawain, the hero goes through a series of magical trials which test his character. He is faced with certain death at the hands of the Green Knight, and is purposely tempted with an object which he believes will give him immortality. In the end, the final trial is that the knight must rely upon his own courage rather than magic. Gawain decides to accept his fate and face the Green Knight unassisted.
Gawain’s journey mirrors Harry’s own series of trials and his inevitable stand off with Voldemort, where he discards the philosopher’s stone and faces him with bravery.
In addition to classic British myth, Rowling was greatly influenced by Greek mythology. Here are some clear examples.
First, aspects of Homer’s Odyssey appear regularly, from the Sirens to the distinctive scar on the hero’s face.
Secondly, the return of Cedric’s body in The Goblet of Fire stems from a passage in Homer’s Iliad, where Achilles returns his enemy’s body to his father and weeps for him.
Third, Rowling’s animals and beasts, such as the Chimera and Centaur, often originate in Greek mythology. For example, Fawkes, the Phoenix, derives from the tales of Herodetus. And Fluffy, Hagrid’s multiheaded guard dog, is based upon Cerberus, the multiheaded dog who guards the underworld.
One of the most direct references to Greek mythology is the preface to The Deathly Hallows. This preface quotes a passage from The Libation Bearers, by Aeschylus.
According to Rowling, this quote is key to the entire series. We don’t have time to unpack it entirely. However, we will say that The Libation Bearers is part of a trilogy of tragedies, featuring a boy who fulfils his prophecy by avenging his father’s death (and also happens to have a scar on his head).
In The Libation Bearers, outcast youth struggle to restore proper rule to an unjust realm. The series also has major thematic connections. For example, one of the themes in Aeschylus’ work is that violence is cyclical. Like Rowling, Aeschylus suggests that peace will only come through self sacrifice.
Both the Arthurian and Greek legends above have a shared commitment to love, self-sacrifice, and courage. They deal with prophecy, duty, fate, and acceptance.
In the end, the myths and legends behind Harry Potter go much further than simple names and references. They aren’t Easter eggs or gimmicks. Instead, they give the tale its structure, its heart, and its thematic soul.
Harry Potter is an unmistakably British tale. So, it should be no surprise that it pulls heavily from the British canon, referring to and borrowing from the likes of Shakespeare, Milton, Chaucer, and Austen. Rowling also pulls from Greeks like Plato and Romans like Ovid. Throughout, Rowling engages with, and embeds her tale in, the dominant works of the Western canon.
Like other British fantasy authors before her, such as Tolkien and White, Rowling combines timeless sources with attention to a new generation, creating a new myth for the modern era and capturing the hearts and minds of millions.