silvestria (silvestria) wrote,

Essay: Harry Potter and the Book VII Epic, Part Two


The first part of the essay can be found here.

Dread Goddesses

Classical epic is interesting in that it is populated by very strong women who surround the hero. In fact, after the hero it is probably the women who are remembered over men as secondary characters. Who remembers Turnus over Dido? Telemachus over Penelope? Women play a particularly important role in the “domestic” epic of the Odyssey. There’s Penelope the dutiful wife, waiting at home for Odysseus’ return and using her wits to fend off the suitors. Then there are the various human and divine women and female-like monsters who ensnare and hinder Odysseus: Circe, Calypso, Nausicaa, the Sirens. And let us not forget Odysseus’ patron goddess, Athena. In the Aeneid, Aeneas’ tragic love affair with Dido queen of Carthage is famous. Then there is his mother, Venus, always looking out for him. Even in the most male of the epics, the Iliad, Helen, Andromache and Thetis all play a significant role in the drama.

This is important for Harry Potter, because so many of the characters in the story are women and strong, important women at that. If JKR is following epic in Deathly Hallows then it might be expected that the women might conform to some extent to their roles in epic, and I believe that is the case.

Hermione: the helpful goddess

One feature all three classical epics share is that each of the heroes Achilles, Odysseus and Aeneas are all watched over by a female divinity with whom they have a special relationship. In the cases of Achilles and Aeneas the divinity is their mother: Thetis the sea nymph for the former and Venus goddess of love for the latter. Both have familial reasons for their interest in the hero and it could be argued that Lily’s blood protection of Harry is the equivalent in Harry Potter. However, it seems to me that the role of the helpful, protecting, supportive, patron goddess is more easily taken by Hermione, following the role of Athena in the Odyssey.

One of the most charming relationships in the whole poem is that between Odysseus and Athena. Athena has no blood link with Odysseus. She is motivated to help him solely because she likes him and because he is like her:

'That was Odysseus’ story. The bright-eyed goddess smiled at him and caressed him with her hands.
“Anyone who met you, even a god, would have to be a consummate trickster to surpass you in subterfuge. […] We both know how to get our own way: in the world of men you have no rival in judgement and argument, while I am pre-eminent among the gods for ingenuity and ability to get what I want. And yet you did not recognize Pallas Athene, daughter of Zeus, who always stands at your side and guards you through all your adventures. It was I who made all the Phaeacians take to you so kindly. And here I am once more, to contrive a cunning scheme with you…”'
(The Odyssey, book 13)

From the very first few lines of the Odyssey, Athena is concerned with her favourite’s fate, begging her father Zeus, king of the gods, to put an end to his wandering. She helps his son Telemachus on his quest and when Odysseus is almost home she brings guidance to him and when finally he has reached home, she is with him almost all the time, plotting and planning the destruction of the suitors who have taken over Odysseus’ house. She disguises him (and herself), lies to others for him, hides him, changes his appearance. Finally, at the very end of the poem, it is her who tells Odysseus when to stop his bloodbath of the suitors and brings peace:

'The much-enduring good Odysseus raised a terrifying war-cry, gathered himself together and pounced on them like a swooping eagle. But at this moment Zeus flung a flaming thunderbolt which fell in front of the bright-eyed Daughter of that formidable Sire. Athene called out to Odysseus: “Odysseus, favourite of Zeus, resourceful son of Laertes, hold your hand! Stop fighting your countrymen, in case you incur the wrath of Zeus the Thunderer.”
Odysseus obeyed her, and his heart rejoiced. Then Pallas Athene, daughter of aegis-bearing Zeus, still using Mentor’s form and voice for her disguise, established peace between the two sides.'
(The Odyssey, book 24- the end)

I am not saying that Harry and Hermione are similar in their trickery and skill for lying nor that Hermione is a goddess and can bring peace to fighters. However there are distinct similarities. Athene is the goddess of wit, wisdom and war and Hermione is very clever. Like Athene, she is also something of a schemer. She is not above subterfuge and disguise to help Harry along or for the cause of good: her entrapment of Rita Skeeter and her subsequent blackmail of her and her leading Umbridge into the Forbidden Forest are just two examples. Moreover, she is always at hand, researching the best ways to help Harry. From when she deciphers Snape’s riddle at the end of Philosopher’s Stone she has been the brains behind Harry’s physical heroism and has stood by his side even when others have deserted him, for example not believing that he entered himself into the Triwizard Tournament. There are also times when she and Harry seem to work together in a more efficient way than anyone else around.

If Ron’s role in the trio is to keep Harry sane and human in the midst of all the fighting and tragedy, then Hermione’s is surely to work with Harry to support and help him as Athene does Odysseus.

In fairy tale or epic, it is well nigh impossible for there to be the concept of a modern “heroine” who fights along side the hero and who is his equal. Penelope comes pretty near (see later) to being Odysseus’ equal in wits, but she is not allowed to accompany him on any of his adventures. Women are to be rescued or left behind, either old as guides (such as the Sybil in the Aeneid) or as young love interests. Only Athene approaches what might be called a modern heroic role and it allows Hermione to be the most important female figure in the book without her being left behind or portrayed negatively as a love interest.

Ginny: Tempting seductress or dutiful wife?

Ginny as she is presented in Half Blood Prince as Harry’s love interest seems to fall neatly into the roll played by the majority of women in epic, that of the beautiful goddess or mortal who threatens the fulfilment of the hero’s destiny by tempting him to stay with her. The most famous and tragic of these women is Dido in the Aeneid. Dido is Queen of Carthage, a very strong and competent female ruler, and she falls in love with Aeneas and he with her when he is shipwrecked on her coast. Like Ginny, Aeneas’ fame has come before him.

'“But who can there be who has never heard of Aeneas and his kindred, of Troy’s city and the valour of her men, or of that war’s dreadful blaze? We Phoenecians are not so dull of mind…”' (The Aeneid, book 1)

Compare this with Ginny’s first appearance.

'“You know that black-haired boy who was near us in the station? Know who he is?”
“Harry Potter!”
Harry heard the little girl’s voice.
“Oh, Mum, can I go on the train and see him, Mum, oh please…”'
(Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, chapter 6)

Unlike Hermione, who also expressed curiosity when she first saw Harry, Ginny does not quickly get over her thrall at meeting him being shy around him through three books.

Both Dido and Aeneas and Harry and Ginny get together in a quick and passionate way.

'Dido and Troy’s chieftain found their way to the same cavern. Primaeval Earth and Juno, Mistress of the Marriage, gave their sign. The sky connived at their union; the lightening flared; on their mountain-peak nymphs cried their joy.' (The Aeneid, book IV)

'Harry looked around; there was Ginny running towards him; she had a hard, blazing look in her face as she threw her arms around him. And without thinking, without planning it, without worrying about the fact that fifty people were watching, Harry kissed her.' (Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, chapter 24)

Neither relationships work out because both the heroes have a destiny to fulfil and must leave Dido/Ginny behind.

'“I had no thought of hiding my present departure under any deceit. Do not imagine that. Nor have I ever made any marriage-rite my pretext, for I never had such a compact with you. If my destiny had allowed me to guide my life as I myself would have chosen, and solve my problems according to my own preference, I should have made the city of Troy, with its loved remembrances of my own folk, my first care; […] Cease, therefore, to upset yourself, and me also, with these protests. It is not by my own choice that I voyage onward to Italy.”' (The Aeneid, book IV)

Harry himself describes his time with Ginny as a dream and explains why they can’t be together in similar terms:

'“It’s been like… like something out of someone else’s life, these last few weeks with you,” said Harry. “But I can’t… we can’t … I’ve got things to do alone now.”' (Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, chapter 30)

The difference between Aeneas/Dido’s story and Harry/Ginny’s is that the former is a tragedy and the latter is not. Dido takes Aeneas’ departure very badly and commits suicide, whereas Ginny is understanding of Harry’s motivations. This removes her from Virgilian epic and places her more in the roll of the beautiful women who distract Odysseus from his return journey, Circe and Calypso, on whom Dido is loosely based. Odysseus spends a happy year with Circe of his own free will and she is happy to let her go when he asks her to.

'“Circe,” I said, “keep that promise which you once made me, to send me home. I am eager now to be gone, and so are all my men. Whenever you are not present they stand around and exhaust me with their complaints.”
“Heaven-born son of Laertes, resourceful Odysseus,” the goddess answered me, “do not stay on unwillingly.”
' (The Odyssey, book X)

Calypso is much more demanding and keeps Odysseus with her for nine years before being forced to let him go by the intervention of the gods. Odysseus is miserable the whole time he is with her. She offers him immortality if he will forget his return and his home, but even when she is forced to let him go she is gracious and accepts the necessity of it.

'“So you are determined, son of Laertes, favourite of Zeus, ingenious Odysseus, to leave at once for home and your beloved Ithaca? Even so I wish you happiness. Yet had you any inkling of the full measure of misery you are bound to endure before you reach your native land, you would stay and share this home with me, and take on immortality, however much you long to see that wife of yours, who is never out of your thoughts.”' (The Odyssey, book V)

Just as she has some of Dido in her, Ginny also has bits of Circe and Calypso in her. Her relationship with Harry is a positive relief and distraction from Harry’s horrible teenage years- a real series of “sunlit days” but it cannot continue and like Circe she is forced to wave him good bye. Unlike Circe and more like Calypso, the beginning of their relationship did not start by her trying to turn Harry into a pig like his companions. There is a very negative aspect to Circe’s sorceress’ powers which Ginny does not share (unless you believe she used a love potion, which I do not.) Calypso, however, attracted Odysseus by sex appeal:

'A large fire was blazing on the hearth and the scent from burning logs of juniper and cedar was wafted far across the island. Inside, Calypso was singing with her beautiful voice as she went to and fro at her loom, weaving with a golden shuttle.' (The Odyssey, book V)

Maybe not what would considered sexy in a modern context, but singing was a very seductive and- literally- charming activity for a goddess to be doing and weaving was a sign of being feminine. Moreover she is described as living in a very beautiful, fragrant landscape and being beautiful herself.

In Ginny, JKR has created a new version of the temptress who distracts the hero from his destiny, based on Dido, Circe and Calypso, for several happy months during his sixth year. This is what Half Blood Prince would lead us to believe. However, there are ways in which Ginny differs significantly and it may be that JKR is playing with two different roles for Ginny.

When Harry and Ginny break up it is not clear whether they will get together again. Unlike Aeneas and Dido there is no resentment and suicide and unlike Odysseus’ relationships with Circe and Calypso, Harry is not trying to return to home and to his faithful wife Penelope. There is no way Odysseus could return to the goddesses, but there is no reason why Harry, having defeated Voldemort, might not return to Ginny at the end of the seventh book. In fact, considering the structure of JKR’s books and that this is the last one, it would make perfect sense for Harry to return to Hogwarts, to his friends and possibly to Ginny should he survive. In fact, Ginny can play Penelope as well as Circe.

In the Odyssey, Penelope is portrayed as almost Odysseus’ equal. She is as wily as he is in her own way. She puts off choosing a new husband for herself (like Ginny, she is very much in demand!) by trickery and in the end she tricks Odysseus himself, playing him at his own. This fits Ginny’s description by JKR as Harry’s “perfect woman” and her shown ability in Order of the Phoenix and Half Blood Prince to be able to hold her own. If JKR does decide to characterise Ginny as a Penelope in Deathly Hallows then it is likely that she will not accompany Harry, Ron and Hermione but will carry on the fight at Hogwarts (leading Dumbledore’s Army?) and be reunited with Harry at the end of the book.

Of course, JKR might not go down this route. Ginny might die like Dido, or be left behind forever like Circe and Calypso. A new relationship for Harry might emerge, though it is rather late for this to happen. However, Ginny could easily manage to slip into a Penelope role.

Luna: Priestess of the Underworld

As I mentioned above, Luna’s connection to death is strong. When Harry first encounters the Thestrals, Luna is the only other person there who can see them. In fact, her very existence in the books seems to be connected with the presence of death and its link to Harry.

'“You’re not going mad or anything. I can see them, too.”
“Can you?” said Harry desperately, turning to Luna. He could see the bat-winged horses reflected in her wide silvery eyes.
“Oh, yes,” said Luna, “I’ve been able to see them ever since my first day here. They’ve always pulled the carriages. Don’t worry. You’re just as sane as I am.”'
(Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, chapter 10)

Later on, confronted by the veil, it is Luna again who is aware of the presence of (what I believe to be) the dead.

In both Odysseus’ and Aeneas’ (very different) journeys to the Underworld they are guided in some way by a woman. For Odysseus, this comes in the form of Circe’s instructions to him on how to reach the Underworld and what to do when he has got there. It is not clear how she knows these things. In the Aeneid, Aeneas is actually accompanied into the Underworld itself by the Sybil of Cumae, an ancient and mad prophetess who gives him quite literally a guided tour of the dead.

'There is a cleft in the flank of the Euboean Rock forming a vast cavern. A hundred mouthways and a hundred broad tunnels lead into it, and through them the Sibyl’s answer comes forth in a hundred rushing streams of sound. They had reached the threshold when the maid cried: “The time to ask your fate has come. Look, the God! The God is here!” As she spoke the words, there, before the double doors, suddenly her countenance and her colour changed and her hair fell in disarray.' (The Aeneid, book VI)

Obviously Sybil Trelawney is based more directly on the Sibyl of Cumae in appearance and manner. However, it is very difficult to imagine a successful scene in which Harry goes to the Underworld with Professor Trelawney as his companion and guide. Hardly very attractive. Luna, however, with her eccentric ways, beliefs in the extraordinary and apparent connection to the dead makes a much more plausible guide to the wonders of the Underworld. Thus I believe that if Harry goes through the veil in the seventh book, Luna will be at least his helper in this adventure, if she does not accompany him all the way.

'“Stand clear!” cried the Priestess, “all you who are unhallowed: stand clear! Be gone from all the Grove. But, you, Aeneas, whip blade from scabbard and step forth on your way. It is now that you need courage and a stout heart.” Saying no more she plunged frantically down into the opened cavern, and strode onwards. With dauntless pace Aeneas followed where she led.' (The Aeneid, book VI)


What, you might say, of Ron? What about the confrontation with Voldemort? Is Snape good or evil?
These are not questions I am interested in here. There is no confrontation between good and evil in classical epic, only between opposing forces. These come from a different genre. The answers to these questions lie at examining different sources. However, I hope I have put forward some interesting ideas for a potential direction that JKR could take in the seventh book.


- The Harry Potter books, by J. K. Rowling, published in Great Britain by Bloomsbury
- The Odyssey by Homer, translated by D. C. H. Rieu, published by Penguin Classics
- The Aeneid by Publius Vergilius Maro, translated by W. F. Jackson Knight, published by Penguin Classics

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