St Andrews Talk: Folktale Structure in Harry Potter

Unlocking Press, the publisher of Ravenclaw Reader, has posted the audio and slides of my presentation on the folktale structure in the Harry Potter series at the international conference on Harry Potter at the University of St Andrews in May 2012. I’m looking forward to participating in the upcoming webinar!


It starts slow as some house elves were helping me get the projector set up in the meeting room.

One point that I underplayed in this presentation was how well the entire series, taken as a single tale, conformed to Propp’s fairy tale structure. It is this fact together with the different responses to the particular books in the series that supports my hypothesis in answer to the question “Why do we love Harry Potter?”

Also, I attached three additional slides at the end that were part of an updated presentation of the research that I gave at the Southwest Popular/American Culture Association meeting in February 2013. The content of these slides is a direct result of the discussions I had at St Andrews with colleagues and attendees of the conference. It’s a great example of how a good conference challenges and sharpens one’s scholarship.

Harry Potter Scholarship

harry-potter-joel-hunter-ravenclaw-readerI’m delighted to announce that a new anthology of Harry Potter scholarship has just been published. Hogwarts Preparatory Academy has details about the book launch.

You’ll note that this anthology has emerged from a remarkable conference at St Andrews University in 2012. It was easily the most enriching, challenging, and rewarding conference experience I’ve ever had. I hope that enthusiasm for the book will encourage other institutions and societies to plan another international Potter conference in the near future. Cultural and literary analysis of the Hogwarts saga has evolved considerably since the earliest criticism, ca 2001.

I think a conference in 2017 organized around the 20th anniversary of the publication of the first book in the series is an excellent idea. I’ve had a lot of success teaching an advanced Honors course on Harry Potter because so many of my Honors students were Potter devotees. I believe that an Honors program, or consortium of Honors programs, would be able to draw scholars from all over the world and are better positioned to garner national attention and general interest than those of specialized professional meetings (e.g., studies in popular culture, American culture, young adult literature, and so on).

My main contribution is chapter 5, “Folktale Structure, Aesthetic Satisfaction, and the Success of Harry Potter.” An earlier version of the essay is available on my site (it’s been my number one download in both papers and conference presentations). This is a literary analysis of each book in the series using the folktale structure model of Vladimir Propp, which I argue is sufficient to explain reader enthusiasm for the series. I also show why readers find some of the books more satisfying than other books within the series. For example, why is Prisoner of Azkaban enjoyed more than Chamber of Secrets? I created an empirical method for measuring aesthetic satisfaction, and point to further applications of this research.

The book has a “dynamic dialogue” structure, so each main contribution is accompanied by a response essay. The response to my “Folktale Structure” essay is “Venturing into the Murky Marshes” by Prof Gabrielle Ceraldi. I haven’t yet read her response, but look forward to doing so and offering comments in due course over at Hogwarts Prep.

My second contribution is a response to Dr Jessica Tiffin‘s essay on pedagogy at Hogwarts. I was delighted to be asked to write this response as I so enjoyed Dr Tiffin’s talk at the conference.

Close Reading and Annotating (III)

Now that you have my System of annotating for close reading, let’s turn to your assignment, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (HPSS), pp 213-4. My tools are a pencil or black pen, and colored pencils corresponding to my annotation system key (I use red, blue and green). I dislike highlighting–I find it very difficult to reread the original text again.

Mirror-ErisedThis excerpt is the end of Chapter 12, “The Mirror of Erised,” in which Dumbledore confronts Harry about using the Mirror, explains what it does, and why he doesn’t want Harry to seek it out any longer. I chose this selection from the text because I’ve actually used it for one of my published articles, “Kierkegaard’s Mirror (of Erised),” which I developed from a talk I gave in October 2011 at a philosophy conference held by Marymount Manhattan College: “Imagining Better: Philosophical Issues in Harry Potter.”

How did your close reading and annotations go? Let’s compare work. I’ll show you my annotated pages in their entirety, then I’ll zoom in on bits to explain how I applied my annotation System. I’ll describe my annotations, synthesizing the text with my paraphrased annotations in more unified, developed thoughts, and pose some non-obvious questions that follow from that. In other words, my commentary after each excerpt is the sort of thing I would write up in my journal or notebook, a step I’ve already demonstrated for two other sections of HPSS in the first post of this encore series).

First, here are the annotated pages 213-4 in their entirety:




Let’s work our way down the page and dig in to those details:


Some contextual remarks are in order. First, the chapter opens up on Christmas Day with Ron and Harry opening their presents. Dumbledore’s reference to Harry’s invisibility is because Harry is wearing a new gift he received anonymously, his father’s Invisibility Cloak. Harry had been wearing the cloak to sneak around Hogwarts Castle when he found the Mirror of Erised. This is Harry’s third visit to the Mirror. Side note: Rowling has put a lot of references to seeing, reflections, and appearances into this chapter; for example, the Mirror of Erised isn’t the first mirror that Harry uses in this chapter. Dumbledore’s cryptic remark that I note in red is to remind me not to take ‘nearsighted’ in its physical sense (because that would make Dumbledore’s statement nonsensical), but figure out in what other sense he means Harry is acting “nearsighted.”

I next noted that Dumbledore gives Harry a hint about the cause of Harry’s nearsightedness: the “the delights of the Mirror of Erised.” Its delights blind him to other things he should see. But what are the delights of the Mirror? I draw arrows to them: for Harry, it is seeing his family; for Ron, it is seeing himself as head boy (the top student position at Hogwarts, one that, after graduation, opens doors in magical society). So two very different images are found delightful by Harry and Ron. You see yourself in the Mirror, but the way the Mirror shows you is different for different viewers.



Dumbledore asks Harry to figure out what the Mirror shows any person who looks in it. I paraphrase this in blue: “What it does in general.” Now this isn’t a particularly useful paraphrase, but there are multiple ways to look at how and why Dumbledore asks Harry for the answer to this, so I simply note it with a blue comment.

Harry can’t figure it out, so Dumbledore gives the explanation. I put a bracket around this because it is critical information. I probably should have put a big star by it for that reason. I also scribble a note in green, which is my most important color for thinking about textual material that seems important to explore further, either in class discussion, in an essay, or both. So green comments are going to make it into my journal. The note says: “An implicit definition of happiness can be extracted here.” According to Dumbledore, the happiest man could use the Mirror of Erised like a normal mirror. So Harry and Ron cannot be the happiest people on earth because they don’t see themselves exactly as they are. Suppose Harry and Ron are, nevertheless, happy, (it is Christmas after all, and Harry received some nice gifts, certainly more than he expected) but only relatively happy in comparison to the happiest man. So one’s degree of happiness affects how one sees oneself in the Mirror. What, then, is different about the degree of happiness between Harry and the happiest man? Is it something that the happiest man possesses that Harry lacks, or is it something he lacks but that Harry has? What accounts for the difference? If I can identify this, then I can formulate an important claim: “According to the Mirror of Erised’s principle of operation, happiness is ____________________________.” In addition to the analysis I’ve done in this paragraph, I’ll compose an initial answer to this claim and record it in my journal.


In this excerpt, we get the answer from Dumbledore to the question “What does the Mirror show us all?” I circled some of the key words: ‘deepest’ and ‘most desperate’ are superlatives, which modify the noun ‘desire’. This desire is said to reside in “our hearts.” Dumbledore then connects this definition to what Harry and Ron saw when they gazed in the Mirror. For Harry, as I note in blue, he most desperately desires something he experiences as a profound loss: the presence of his family with him. For Ron, as I note on the other margin in blue, he most desperately desires status and recognition because his experience has been absent of these (as he sees it)–second youngest child in a large family, not particularly gifted academically or otherwise, and seemingly destined to be second fiddle to the winners, the powerful, the heroes, including his friend Harry Potter. There seems to be an intrinsic relationship between “the deepest, most desperate desire of our hearts” and our wounds. That is a curious and important relationship.

Another issue in this excerpt is what is meant by the heart. This must be something different than the mind or the emotions, for there are plenty of desires, even strong ones, that I am consciously aware of or whose pull or effects I feel. The heart seems to be that part of myself that is not easily accessed, much less controlled, by conscious reasoning or even self-will. There’s an interesting spatial description–“deepest”–rather than one connoting power like “weak” or “strong.” Indeed, Harry doesn’t seem consciously driven by his deepest desire; it operates in a more subtle way, though no less powerful than conscious, felt desires. The heart seems to be a name for my truest self, the core of who I really am, and it seems to be something very difficult, if not impossible, to see for myself under my own power. And the effects of the Mirror seem to indicate that even when I am confronted with the desire that most decisively shapes me, it does not register with my conscious self.


In this excerpt we get a very important change of direction signaled by Dumbledore’s “However….” He moves from a straightforward description of the Mirror to its moral implications. First, he says that the Mirror “will give us neither knowledge or truth.” I circled the key words ‘knowledge’ and ‘truth’. Dumbledore’s claim seems obviously false. Doesn’t the Mirror show us at least one truthful thing, namely, the “deepest, most desperate desire of [one’s] heart?” Moreover, having seen an image of this desire in the Mirror, wouldn’t one then know what that desire is? Dumbledore’s further explanation helps resolve this apparent problem.

If you’re not the happiest man on earth, then you become “entranced” or even “driven mad” by what you see in the Mirror. So the Mirror does tell the truth because it accurately shows you the deepest desire of your heart, but in seeing that deepest desire on display, you become “entranced” or “driven mad,” both irrational states of mind. Seeing your true self impedes a rational, disinterested point of view on yourself. You can’t handle the truth about yourself. You become absorbed by the image rather than understand the implications of that image of yourself. You compensate this loss of self-lucidity with a self-deception or self-absorption; therefore, the truth that it shows you about yourself is not a truth you can appropriate on your own. The happiest man on earth is the polar opposite of a narcissist.

The danger of the Mirror, then, is its combined effects of delighting and entrancing the viewer. Until Dumbledore intervenes, Harry’s deepest desire and the pleasure he experiences indulging in its contemplation, overrules his good sense, his awareness of his surroundings, his empathy for Ron and others, and so on. This gives us enough information to infer a definition of happiness, albeit a negative one: “Happiness in not obtained by seeking to fulfill one’s desires.” Insofar as one derives happiness from pleasure or desire-satisfaction, one will “waste away” in front of the Mirror. This seems as good a time as any to ask a couple of questions beyond the world of the text: (1) Does this definition of happiness run with or against the grain of dominant views about happiness? [I need to further specify when and where these dominant views exist.] (2) Are there comparable objects to the Mirror of Erised in our world?


The chapter ends on p. 214. I note that Dumbledore instructs Harry in the moral lesson that the Mirror of Erised teaches. He equates spending time gazing into the Mirror to “dreaming.” He warns Harry that living in a dream state is not living at all, that indulging in the delights of the Mirror cause one to “forget to live.” I note two questions at the end of the chapter that summarize some of the issues that stood out to me in this reading selection:

  • How is enjoying the delights of the Mirror of Erised = “dwelling on dreams?”
  • What does Dumbledore think/assume that “really living” is? It must be more than mere survival or life extension, because one cannot forget to “do” that.

Final Note

I hope that this example shows you how close reading and annotations go hand-in-hand. I use the empty spaces on the printed page to record my reactions, thoughts, and questions. I imagine myself in a dialogue with the author. If she were reading this to me, I’d want to discuss some of the topics with her that I’ve noted. My annotations include analysis, assessment, hypotheses, and non-obvious questions related to the complete meaning of the selected text, and perhaps the whole book. My commentary in this post includes the sort of additional thoughts, ideas, and critical questions that I would record and develop further in my journal or notebook.

This process is one way to obtain interesting, important material for seminar discussions and text-based argumentative essays. I hope you find it helpful. As always, I look forward to any questions or comments you have.

Close Reading and Annotating (II)

I decided to break up my annotation post into two so that I could provide my annotation system for you in its own post. In the following post I’ll show you how my annotation system looks and works for a close reading of our excerpt from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.annotation-system-II


Close Reading and Annotating (I)

I have a brief series of posts planned as an encore to my Honors Seminar tutorial. The first is on the subject of close reading and annotating. I covered the definition and explanation of this topic in tutorial entries 5, 6, and 12. I chose this topic for the encore because it is central to cat-readingeverything else you do in the Human Event or text-based Honors seminar.

The primary text I will use as an example is Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (or Philosopher’s Stone, the UK (and more sensible) title). Given the cultural currency that this book has, I’ll need to discipline myself to avoid relying on other brilliant commentaryNB: I have given myself a major advantage in selecting HPSS as my example. The autograph was written in modern English. It was published very recently on the timeline of human history: 1997. We know a lot about the author. It sold in the millions worldwide within just a few years of its publication. These facts may seem obvious, but they are important contextual realities. You often cannot so easily interject a text into contemporary problems and sensibilities as I have done with HPSS. Most of your texts will be much older, have an oral history preceding the written one, originated in a different language, possibly even a “dead” language, have been transmitted through a series of translations and editorial redactions, and any number of other historical, cultural and social differences that cannot be ignored if we approach the texts by suspending our presumptions about the world of the text and the privilege we afford to our own theoretical lens. It will take a lot of work on the reader’s part to enter into the world of the text (especially its system of values), analyze that world according to its own rational framework, and evaluate it by careful triangulation with different frameworks and value systems, including our own.

Nevertheless, let us suppose that I am assigned this text to read and prepare to discuss in one class session, which is typically 75 min long. The book is 309 pages long, so I budget five days to read it through to get the big picture of the story and then reread it closely (analytically). The edition assigned is ISBN 0-590-35340-3, Arthur A. Levine Books (Scholastic), 1997. The author’s name is Rowling, which rhymes with ‘rolling’ and ‘bowling’. Parenthetically, though it shows a profound lack of preparation to pronounce an author’s name or words in the title incorrectly, this is minimal due diligence; you should look up and research all words or phrases that you don’t know or understand as part of your ordinary daily class preparation.

In my first read-through, I’ll want to reconstruct the basic storyline, and as I do so, flag chapters, sections, or paragraphs that I find especially interesting or important to explore and scrutinize more thoroughly on my second read-through. A colleague of mine once described these as “things that make you go ‘Wow!’ or ‘Hmm’. Other important things to note are sections that confuse me or aren’t clear.

Now when I read Sorcerer’s Stone, I am struck by the magical elements in the story: a hand-held device that turns off and on streetlights; letters that arrive without a mail carrier, a giant man who starts a fire with his pink umbrella; Diagon Alley, Platform 93/4 and the Hogwarts Express; moving photographs and portraits that speak; food at a feast that appears out of nowhere; candles that float; ghosts; a talking Hat that reads the character and psychology of its wearer; moving staircases; Quidditch; dragons, unicorns, centaurs, and other magical beasts; and so on. I also note the basic narrative arc: the impetus of the story is an event that happened years before the first scenes in the book–the death of Harry Potter’s parents. Harry miraculously survived the attack on his family, and grows up to find himself famous in a hidden society that is all around him. This community turns out to be magical folk, and they carefully segregate themselves from us ordinary folk, whom they call “Muggles.” Harry has been chosen to attend the boarding school for magical children, much to the dismay of his Muggle aunt and uncle. He is introduced to the magical world behind the ordinary world by his guide Hagrid. He travels to Hogwarts on a train with other students, and meets other children who become his best friends. While at Hogwarts they learn of a plot to commit a theft of a valuable and potentially dangerous object, and the remainder of the story involves solving this mystery–who, what, why, and when–and thwarting the would-be thieves.

The difficulty of preparing for a discussion on this book is that I have too much material to work with. We have 75 minutes, and we could spend the whole time simply reconstructing the plot and the characters, with commentary that reaches no deeper than “Cool!” or “This is dumb.” So I cannot get very far if I remain “above” the text, trying to make some general comments about the whole thing. I need some kind of filter to help me pinpoint selections that stand out as important and worth unpacking for their non-superficial meaning and implications. What criterion will help me filter out the chunks on which I should focus?

I start at the beginning by recalling one of the big goals of the course: to develop “the abilities to read, think, and discuss core issues of human experience analytically and disinterestedly.” My Instructor has selected HPSS as one of the primary texts for the course, so this implies that the Instructor is not only brilliant, but thinks that there are core issues of human experience that might be addressed in or gleaned from this text. I also recall that I am expected to encounter “key social and intellectual currents” in the texts of the course. Hmm, yes, okay. Well, I’ll begin to break down Sorcerer’s Stone into some broad topical areas that might align with these goals. So I whip out my journal, open my book to the flagged pages (I like to use colored sticky flags) and start making a list, paraphrasing, and posing questions:

A. Harry is an orphan and constantly mistreated by his aunt and uncle. But within the space of the first five chapters, we learn that he has special powers, he’s a celebrity and fabulously wealthy, and he’s credited with the overthrow of a horrible villain when he was just a baby. He grows up with the experience of being an outcast, a nobody, but then when he turns 11, he learns that he’s actually a very privileged somebody in a parallel, powerful, but hidden society. Questions:

  • The two worlds–magical and Muggle–provide Harry with two social identities. The Muggle, or ordinary human identity, is not the ultimately real one; it’s only partial at best. His magical identity is virtually the polar opposite in terms of ability, social recognition, and class. Does Rowling want us to generalize this picture of Harry and apply it to ourselves? Do I have an apparent or partial identity in society that dominates my sense of self? How would I describe that? Do I have a more complete identity, an ultimately real self, that I may not even know about? What could that be?
  • Who, exactly, is an outcast in the Muggle world of HPSS? In the magical world? What is “normal” for the two societies? If we find something deficient or preferable about one norm or the other, on what grounds can we judge which is better, i.e., persuasively argue that one norm is objectively worse than the other and ought to be rejected?
  • Is there a connection between Vernon and Petunia’s social class and lifestyle and how they treat Harry? What are the values that Rowling is condemning? What are the contrasting values that Rowling is approving?
  • Since the point of view is first person limited omniscient–we read the story almost exclusively as if we were sitting on Harry’s shoulder–it seems that Rowling is inviting us to enter into Harry’s perspective. Is Rowling pandering to us through her characterization of Harry? (Perhaps this question and my first question are related?)

B. The Sorting Hat seems to read one’s personality and character traits, as well as one’s potential to become this or that sort of person in the future, and on the basis of that information “sorts” students into one of the four Houses into which they best fit. Questions:

  • Suppose such a technology were possible. What are the premises behind grouping people like this? Why would adult society think it a good idea to socialize students with a form of moral segregation?
  • How does self-identifying as a member of a House strengthen or weaken one’s autonomy? How is accepting or embracing an identity like “I am a Ravenclaw” or “I am an Honors student” compare to accepting or embracing other ways we might identify: race, class, gender, etc? Should all one’s identities which have a basis in fact be embraced? Or is it sometimes best to qualify, challenge, or even reject one’s identity as this or that? What are the consequences of this embracing or rejecting?
  • Does Rowling suggest that wholehearted enthusiasm for one’s House is wise, or is it better to regard House identity with resignation? Do the answers to these question transpose to how Rowling thinks we should answer the other identity questions?

These are two examples drawn from specific passages in the text that seem to speak to the issues germane to the Human Event. Any of these would make for a good discussion, with plenty of contestable theses and arguments to develop and evaluate on the basis of textual evidence. As part of my preparation, I should also try to sketch good answers to the questions that I’ve posed in the event that I need to get the discussion going on the topic.

A discussion of these topics and questions goes well beyond a superficial literary analysis that only recapitulates narrative plot points or poses speculative questions that can only be answered, if at all, by pulling in evidence outside the text, by inserting theoretical tools alien to the author’s world and the world of the text, or by sheer guessing. “What if Vernon Dursley was a blue collar worker?” Or, “Dumbledore seems to know everything that goes on at Hogwarts…why would he allow 11-year-old kids to pass through lethal traps set by teachers and confront a unicorn-murdering thief?” Such questions cannot be answered with arguments formulated on the basis of what the text says, and taking that text at face value.

What I’ve shown you in this post is an example of the kind of inquisitiveness you’ll need to prepare meaningful, productive thoughts to share and discuss in class, or to write about in an essay assignment. The fruits of these labors are recorded in a journal. But what in the text prompted these ideas and questions? There’s an important step between close reading and journaled reflections. That important step is good textual annotations. Only by careful scrutiny of specific terms and details in the text could I have generated the paraphrases and questionsMirror-Erised above, ones which could be answered by text-based arguments. So in my next post, I’m going to show you my notes. But it isn’t on the two ideas above. No, there’s another part of the text that I found raised some really big questions about core issues of human experience. It’s in Chapter 12, “The Mirror of Erised.” Below I’ve quoted the passage that I’m going to annotate and share with you, so your assignment is to make your own annotations of the selection, see if you can develop good paraphrases and questions on the basis of your close reading, and then we’ll compare our work.

“So,” said Dumbledore, slipping off the desk to sit on the floor with Harry, “you, like hundreds before you, have discovered the delights of the Mirror of Erised.”
“I didn’t know it was called that, Sir.”
“But I expect you’ve realized by now what it does?”
“It −− well −− it shows me my family −−”
“And it showed your friend Ron himself as head boy.”
“How did you know −−?”
“I don’t need a cloak to become invisible,” said Dumbledore gently.
“Now, can you think what the Mirror of Erised shows us all?”
Harry shook his head.
“Let me explain. The happiest man on earth would be able to use the Mirror of Erised like a normal mirror, that is, he would look into it and see himself exactly as he is. Does that help?”
Harry thought. Then he said slowly, “It shows us what we want…whatever we want…”
“Yes and no,” said Dumbledore quietly. “It shows us nothing more or less than the deepest, most desperate desire of our hearts. You, who have never known your family, see them standing around you. Ronald Weasley, who has always been overshadowed by his brothers, sees himself standing alone, the best of all of them. However, this mirror will give us neither knowledge or truth. Men have wasted away before it, entranced by what they have seen, or been driven mad, not knowing if what it shows is real or even possible.
“The Mirror will be moved to a new home tomorrow, Harry, and I ask you not to go looking for it again. If you ever do run across it, you will now be prepared. It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live, remember that. Now, why don’t you put that admirable cloak back on and get off to bed?”
Harry stood up.
“Sir −− Professor Dumbledore? Can I ask you something?”
“Obviously, you’ve just done so,” Dumbledore smiled. “You may ask me one more thing, however.”
“What do you see when you look in the mirror?”
“I? I see myself holding a pair of thick, woolen socks.”
Harry stared.
“One can never have enough socks,” said Dumbledore. “Another Christmas has come and gone and I didn’t get a single pair. People will insist on giving me books.”
It was only when he was back in bed that it struck Harry that Dumbledore might not have been quite truthful. But then, he thought, as he shoved Scabbers off his pillow, it had been quite a personal question.

HPSS, 213-4.