- Amy MacKinnon
Harry Potter and Fairy Tales
Updated: Oct 24, 2019
Welcome to the last post in the blog series, “Harry Potter and….”
I think that the Harry Potter series is part of the fairy tale genre, so in this last post I’ll show you why.
Here are 3 of the reasons I think this:
The location where a large part of the story takes place
Who Harry really is
How Harry fits into the Dursley family
Where Does the Story Take Place?
In fairy tales, sometimes the story takes place within the world of Faerie and the characters encounter unusual creatures and magical beings.
Sometimes in those stories, it’s not a character from our world who enters Faerie, but instead something from the world of Faerie enters our world. Magical objects, magical creatures, people who have unusual abilities that are impossible for human beings; all of these are things that sometimes enter our world from the world of Faerie in fairy stories.
We see this with wizards like Gandalf in Tolkien’s Middle Earth, who have knowledge and magical abilities that others don’t have. Tolkien also has trees that talk, like Treebeard (although he’s technically a “tree herder,” he’s still a tree). He also borrows characters originally from Norse mythology, like the Valkyrie who protect the bodies of warriors who die in battle from being desecrated on the battlefield before bringing them up to Valhalla. This is the role that Eowyn plays when her uncle, the king, dies on the battlefield (“shield maiden” may also be related to the Valkyrie in Norse mythology).
In the Chronicles of Narnia, the talking animals are the first thing that people think about, but there are other creatures. Lewis uses many characters from the stories of Greco-Roman mythology like fawns, minotaurs, giants, dryads, nyads, etc.
In some of the fairy tales, characters enter into the world of fairy (faerie), but other times, that world enter our world. It may be a person or a magical object. Tolkien does this in his story, Smith of Wooten Major, but this is also the fairy godmother in Cinderella.
Rowling definitely uses characters from mythology, folklore, and fairy tales in her stories. She has the centaurs from Greek mythology, the giant talking spiders from Middle Earth, the elves from the Shoemaker and the Elves.
She also has magical plants and objects that have a certain level of sentience.
The Whomping Willow in Harry Potter can be compared to the trees in Tolkien’s Smith of Wooten Major, but also consider the kingsfoil plant in his Lord of the Rings. Kingsfoil responds differently to Aragorn than it does to anyone else, which requires a type of magical ability.
The paintings in the Harry Potter stories have magical properties, as does the portrait in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray.
None of these are things that could happen in real life, but the world of Faerie isn’t “real life.” It’s a different world altogether. It exists sort of beside our world, so sometimes there are people or objects that move between the worlds.
This is what happens in Harry Potter.
Who is Harry Potter?
Harry is from the world of Faerie, just as his parents were.
He’s a magical being, just as the elves and wizards are in Middle Earth, and Aslan is in Narnia. Yes, C.S. Lewis definitely describes Aslan in association with magic! The world of Narnia is a magical world, and Aslan tells Lucy and Susan about the “deeper magic” when he explains how he came back to life after the White Witch killed him.
In Harry Potter, his mom was “muggle born,” but because she was a magical person it means that she’s from the world of Faerie.
At least some members of her family were originally from that magical world as well, and intermarried with “non-magic folks” (muggles), but their history may have been forgotten by the Evans family (Lily’s family name).
Something similar to this happens in Rowling’s magical world as well, which we see when Sirius Black shows Harry how different relatives in the Black family tree had been deleted.
But both Harry and Lily, his mother, were magical beings raised in non-magic families. They didn’t belong in our world, so they were brought (back) into the magical world when they came of age and went to school at Hogwarts.
So what does that say about the kind of characters that Lily and Harry are in the story?
Harry and the Dursleys
Harry is definitely a changeling, or a cuckoo in the nest.
There are lots of stories about changelings, and they are especially associated with fairy tales. The University of Pittsburgh has a collection of them online here (https://www.pitt.edu/~dash/britchange.html) if you want to read some examples.
Changelings are always characters that cause trouble. They’re different from the society where the story takes place, and there is always antagonism towards them by people around them.
When a changeling is substituted for a baby, that changeling baby is always a source of aggravation and trouble.
This is part of the reason for Petunia’s antagonism towards her sister and nephew. She grew up with a changeling for a sister, and now that sister’s son, her nephew Harry, is the changeling in her family once again.
Harry didn't replace Dudley in the story the way changeling babies often do, but he's definitely the outcast member of the family.
This is why Harry’s always in trouble with the Dursleys.
It’s also why in the books, Petunia is the one who is the most antagonistic towards Harry. Her attitude bleeds over into her son, Dudley, which allows (and even encourages) him to bully Harry. It’s not that Vernon likes Harry all that much, but even in the beginning of the first book, Vernon knows that even mentioning her sister will set Petunia off.
Not that Vernon's all that much better (obviously!), but his anger is usually about the trouble that's the cause of disruption. Petunia's anger is directed at Harry's existence.
The magical abilities of changelings in stories eventually make it obvious that they’re different, and not entirely human. They cause trouble and draw attention to themselves even when they’re not intending to. Harry accidentally jumps on the roof of a building while running from bullies at school, and regrows his hair overnight after a bad haircut.
How Did Harry and Lily Become Magical?
They had to be born that way, according to Rowling’s story. You are either magical or you’re not. The ability to do magic isn’t acquired, it’s innate.
Rowling makes it clear that there has been a lot of intermarriage between magical and non-magical worlds for centuries, but that it wasn’t always revealed to the non-magical family members. Seamus, one of the characters in Harry Potter, mentions in the first book that his mother is a witch, but his dad is a muggle who didn’t know about his wife’s magical abilities until after they were married.
The main point to take from this is that Harry belongs to the world of magic, and that the world of magic is not our world; it’s the world of Faerie.
We’ve gone through a lot of the issues that people—especially Christians—raise when they criticize the series. If there are other concerns that you think need to be addressed, I really would like to know what they are. Let me know here
Delve deeper into the comparison of the magic in the stories by Tolkien, Lewis, and Rowling in this online course!
Click here, or on the image!
List of Posts in the Series
Harry Potter and the Exorcists
Harry Potter and Fairy Tales (this post)