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 (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.

Folktale Structure as the Key to the Success of the Harry Potter Series

This is an html-friendly version of my research project on the Proppian folktale structure of the Harry Potter series. The pdf may be downloaded here. This was first presented at “A Brand of Fictional Magic” conference at St Andrews University, Scotland, in May 2012 (pdf of the program here), and updated for the Southwest Popular/American Culture Association meeting in February 2013. A final version will appear in print ca. Fall 2015.

The Question

“Why has the Harry Potter series of books been so popular?”


The popularity of the Harry Potter series is due to the books’ narrative structure, in particular, its concordance with a linear sequence of elements typical of folktales1 as outlined by Vladimir Propp. The aesthetic satisfaction with any particular book in the series positively correlates to that book’s fairy tale structure as enumerated in Propp’s
system of 31 functions of a folktale’s dramatis personae.2 In other words, readers will report less aesthetic satisfaction the less concordance obtains between the tale’s actual morphology and Propp’s scheme; readers will report more aesthetic satisfaction the more concordance obtains between the tale’s actual morphology and Propp’s scheme.


I. Propp and Potter

Vladimir Propp was one of the leading figures of the Russian formalist school of literary theory. His seminal work, the Morphology, was published in 1928, but not translated into English until 1958. By that time the winds of theory had shifted in other directions in both Russia and the West. Nevertheless, since the 1960s, this work inspired a number of studies in multiple disciplines among English-speaking scholars. Its applicability to the folktales of other cultures, to other kinds of folk narrative and performance, to non-
folklore literature and other cultural materials, and to the learning and transmission of fairy tale structure in children has been examined.3 One such study brought to my attention by a colleague examined the narrative schema in accounts of human evolution.4

The possibility of applying Propp’s schema to the Harry Potter series has been noted before. The first instance found in the literature is Joan Acocella’s review of the series up to the then-released Goblet of Fire.5 Acocello claims that Rowling was successful because of
her “utter traditionalism,” and Acocello proceeds to tick off a string of literary genres that many other readers have identified. She then connects this literary borrowing to Propp, whose schema of functions she deems a list of “just about every convention ever used in fairy tales.” She then lists six of the functions and fills them in with plausible story elements from Philosopher’s Stone. However, Acocello plays fast and loose with Propp’s work and especially the four morphological laws (see below), treating the functions precisely as conventions and without respect to the formal organization that is central to Propp’s scheme. A couple of sentences later Acocello equates Propp’s functions to archetypes, which is an unhelpful confusion of literary approaches.

In “Of Magicals and Muggles: Reversals and Revulsions at Hogwarts,”6 Jann Lacoss applies Propp’s schema to The Philosopher’s Stone and The Goblet of Fire. After a brief paragraph of introduction to Propp, Lacoss claims that “[t]he Harry Potter series seems to employ these same functions, although not always in the proper order (in the Harry Potter series, they are actually quite often in the same order as in magic tales).”7 She is quite correct here, as our own analyses confirmed (albeit with significant variation from Lacoss’ tables, which we will discuss below in “Evaluation”). She also correctly claims that “each book follows the sequence, and the overall plot of the series also appears to do so.” This is quite prescient given that Lacoss was working only with the series through Goblet of Fire. Furthermore, she speculates as we do that the language of tales “may be learned and
sublimated from childhood. Thus when the books were written, Rowling had an instinctive ‘road map,’ so to speak, for creating an engaging tale to which children (and adults) could easily relate.”8 Like Lacoss, we are not arguing that Rowling followed this structure intentionally. It is more likely that, like the Potter readers enthralled for reasons they know not, Rowling followed unconsciously the “cultural script” of folktales in writing the Hogwarts saga.

II. Morphology of the Folktale

Vladimir Propp finds that the magical folktales of his native Russia conform to a schema of thirty-one functions. He derived this schema from a systematic analysis done on a set of 100 stories in the collection of fairy tales compiled by Alexander Afanasyev. Propp produced symbolized representations for about 50 of those to demonstrate in abstract description the repetitive and uniform structure of these tales. These morphologies enable the folklorist to do comparative analysis within individual tales and among multiple tales.

Vladimir Propp finds that the magical folktales of his native Russia conform to a schema of thirty-one functions. He derived this schema from a systematic analysis done on a set of 100 stories in the collection of fairy tales compiled by Alexander Afanasyev. Propp produced symbolized representations for about 50 of those to demonstrate in abstract description the repetitive and uniform structure of these tales. These morphologies enable the folklorist to do comparative analysis within individual tales and among multiple tales. and their “amazing multiformity, picturesqueness, and color”12 (thanks to the settings, characters, objects, and other variables of infinite variety).

Propp argues that two further structural laws follow from his morphological study of tales: (3) that the sequence of functions is always identical and (4) that all fairy tales are of one type in regard to their structure.13 Since the sequential progression of functions is always the same, there develops a single narrative axis in all fairy tales. The position for a given function is always the same in every tale, though a particular function need not be present at all. These two morphological laws are central to our study and assessment of the Harry Potter series of books.

III. The Big Idea

[Commentary on (a) sequential structural analysis vs. Levi-Strauss’ paradigmatic structural analysis which organizes stories according to a matrix of paradigmatic thematic units, typically expressed in a set of oppositions; (b) Propp’s approach is isolated from the tale’s social and cultural contexts; (c) the approach is a way to begin to answer the question of HP’s popularity; (d) this approach is helpful because its methods are empirical and inductive, and the results here are reproducible by a similarly trained analyst; (e) archetypal analysis, Marxist criticism, feminist criticism, reader-response criticism, and other semantic-focused theories leap too quickly into genre analysis, authorial intent, and the social construction of the text without giving due consideration to the historical and sociological facts of the common cultural patterns that obtain in the narrative structure of folklore materials of all kinds in both Indo-European and non-Indo-European societies. Children all over the world hear many fairy tales; most like to hear them repeatedly. By the time they become readers the narrative sequence of familiar stories has been mapped onto their minds. Tales “go” a certain way. Specific actions should be present for it to “work” for the listener or reader. Irrespective of whether we determine the Harry Potter series of books as a fairy tale according to non-structuralist criteria and methods of analysis, we should not be surprised that they are structured like other popular stories in bestseller
fiction, comics, graphic novels, movies, and so on. If the Harry Potter series of books does not harmonize with Propp’s schema, then we would have to look for others reasons that readers are so easily and effectively drawn into the story (…)]


I. Aesthetic Satisfaction of Harry Potter Readers

An online survey was prepared and administered.14 We distributed the survey to students who had completed our Harry Potter course and to colleagues hosting Harry Potter-related academic and fan sites. Respondents first answered whether or not they had read all of the books in the series. Those responding “No” were discarded from the data set.
Next, respondents were asked the number of times they had read through the entire series. This indicates the probable familiarity the reader has with the story details of the series. These levels of familiarity are denoted as follows:

  • A Novice has read the series only once.
  • An Amateur has read the series more than once but fewer than five times.
  • An Aficionado has read the series more than five times but fewer than ten.
  • A Savant has read the series more than ten times.

Respondents then selected the rank order of the books in the series from least aesthetically satisfying (1) to most aesthetically satisfying (7).

II. Morphological Analysis of the Harry Potter Books and Series

According to Propp, “a tale may be termed any development proceeding from Villainy [A] or lack [a], through intermediary functions to marriage [W], or to other functions employed as a dénouement.”15 The analyst tabulates all of the functions in the tale and then summarizes the results in a symbolic string using Propp’s notation for the individual functions.

The 31 functions of the dramatis personae are organized in family units. Propp suggests his taxonomy of group-to-function can be likened to the biological relation of genus-to-species. Extending the biological metaphor, most functions have varieties which Propp denotes with numeric superscripts. The function with the largest number of varieties is Villainy [A] with 19. For the purposes of this study varieties of functions were not identified. The six genera of the functions are shown below with the corresponding species of functions that belong to each genus:


There is an Initial Situation [α] that is not counted as a function; it enumerates the family members or introduces the hero by name or status. The lower case ‘a’ in the Complication group denotes a “Lack,” which is an alternative form of Villainy [A] wherein a family member either lacks something or desires something important. The movement of the tale depends on the presence and type(s) of [A] or [a] function, but this pair is exclusive; a single narrative axis cannot have both an [A] and [a]. It is possible to have both an [A] and [a] if a tale has multiple moves. A move is created by a new Villainy (or Lack). These may be woven into the primary narrative axis either consecutively or concurrently.


I. Aesthetic Satisfaction of Harry Potter Readers

Table 1 shows the response by mean score (on a scale of 1, representing least aesthetic satisfaction, to 7, representing greatest aesthetic satisfaction):


Table 1: Summary of survey results showing the mean scores for aesthetic satisfaction


Table 2 shows the response by mode, which shows the score most frequently assigned by respondents to the given text. That is, a mode of ‘1’ indicates that ‘1’ was the most frequently assigned value out of all possible values ‘1’ through ‘7’.


Table 2: Summary of survey results showing the mode for aesthetic satisfaction

The findings in Table 2 bear some further comment. We are interested in the extremities of the data. At the upper end of the range, the value indicating highest aesthetic satisfaction, both Prisoner of Azkaban and Deathly Hallows were chosen more frequently and consistently by readers as the most aesthetically satisfying tales in the series. At the low end of the range, the value indicating least aesthetic satisfaction, both Chamber of Secrets and Order of the Phoenix were chosen more frequently—though not consistently—as the least aesthetically satisfying tales in the series. For Novice readers, none of the books in the series achieved a mode of ‘1’; ‘2’ was the lowest mode and it was assigned to Chamber of Secrets. Aesthetic judgment hardens in the Amateur and Aficionado readers; two books indicate a mode of ‘1’ and two books indicate a mode of ‘7’. Two modes do not appear in their rankings (‘3’ and ‘4’ for the Amateur; ‘2’ and ‘4’ for the Aficionado). For the Savant, aesthetic judgment softens for Philosopher’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets. Only Order of the Phoenix retains a mode of ‘1’ for the Savant whilst Prisoner of Azkaban and Deathly Hallows retain their modes of ‘7’. Lastly, it should be pointed out that all readers consistently ranked Half- Blood Prince as ‘6’ more frequently than other scores.

II. Morphological Analysis of the Harry Potter Books and Series

We analyzed each book in the Harry Potter series to determine its concordance with Propp’s folktale structure. The narratives in each book were decomposed into their basic elements and these functions of the dramatis personae were identified and tabulated. After these tables were completed, the entire Harry Potter series was treated as one story to determine its folktale structure. All of the moves internal to the series were reduced so that the essential narrative axis could be determined and evaluated. The complete tabulated results of these analyses with narrative descriptions for each function are given in the Appendix. The symbolized representation of each book in the series and the series as a whole are given below. The basic components are arranged sequentially from left to right in their respective symbolized schemes. An asterisk denotes an out-of-sequence function or group of functions. The dénouement for all but Half-Blood Prince and Deathly Hallows ends with Harry’s return to 4 Privet Drive. We designate this with the italicized W.

1. Philosopher’s Stone (double-move tale)


The Reconnaissance–Complicity sequence in the upper move is Dumbledore as victim-hero and an independent axis is maintained throughout the tale. The Dumbledore axis terminates at a Solution [N]. The lower axis is Harry as seeker-hero. The original villainy done to Harry and his parents is out-of-sequence in this narrative and so is omitted in this scheme. Because the liquidation of this villainy is the primary movement driving not only Stone but the entire Harry Potter series, and because it is not resolved until Deathly Hallows, it will be the main villainy of the series of books taken as a single tale.

2. Chamber of Secrets (double-move tale)


The multiple Reconnaissance-Delivery moves include the ordinary type by the villain (top sequence) followed by two reverse types (Professor Binns is the middle sequence; Polyjuice Potion to get information from Draco is the bottom sequence).

3. Prisoner of Azkaban (no moves, but two heroes whose axes converge briefly)


The top narrative axis has Sirius as the victim- and seeker-hero. The bracketed Preparation and Complication groups for Sirius are disclosed near the end of Harry’s narrative. The bracketed Transference group < D E F G > denotes Sirius-Padfoot’s collusion with Crookshanks out of Harry’s sight. Harry’s Preparation group is demoted below the main axis because Sirius is the hero in Prisoner as borne out by the Q—W dénouement. The Victory [ I ] occurs in the Shrieking Shack after Sirius is vindicated and Harry shows mercy to Peter Pettigrew. The I—Rs sequence represents Sirius and Harry as temporary joint heroes. The Difficult Task [M] of rescuing both Sirius and Buckbeak (and as it turns out, Harry himself) is given to Harry and Hermione by Dumbledore. The Solution [N] includes an endless feedback loop to the earlier [Rs] because of the use of the time-turner.

4. Goblet of Fire (4-move tale)


Goblet has the purest folktale structure. Its narrative scheme is the simplest representation of the seven books in the series. Harry is both the victim- and seeker-hero and he endures multiple villainies in four moves: three moves represent the three Tri- Wizard tasks and the final move is the direct conflict with Voldemort in Little Hangleton graveyard.

5. Order of the Phoenix (double-move tale with a spliced Transference sequence)


The main axis concerns the villainy done to Harry and Sirius by Voldemort. The move below the main axis concerns the villainy of Umbridge and the Ministry. The out-of- order sequence in the main axis concerns the events from the founding of Dumbledore’s Army through Harry’s peering into Snape’s “worst memory” (Chs 16-28). The double-move is neither consecutive nor concurrent; such an incongruity in the linear sequence of the tale is a notable structural anomaly.

6. Half-Blood Prince (no moves, but two heroes whose axes converge)


The main axis is Dumbledore as the victim-hero; he was mortally wounded by the villainy of the Gaunt-Slytherin ring horcrux prior to the narrative’s beginning. Harry’s secondary hero status in this tale is indicated by his action halting at the second Difficult Task [M] where it joins with the Solution [N] now governed by Dumbledore’s actions. In the context of the entire Harry Potter series, this tale is further complicated by a third victim- and seeker-hero: Severus Snape. However, within the confines of Half-Blood Prince, his status as such is not recognized and is therefore omitted from this scheme. An interesting corollary study to the present one could examine Snape as the main hero in the Harry Potter series.

7. Deathly Hallows (7-move tale)


Although Deathly Hallows is arguably the most complicated tale in the series, none of its functions is out of sequence. Classifying its multiple moves is complicated by the carryover of the discovery of Voldemort’s horcrux creations and Dumbledore’s dispatch of the trio from Half-Blood Prince. Moves considered on the basis of Villainy [A] or Lack [a] internal to the Hallows narrative alone, there are four; considering the sequence of multiple Mediations [B] as moves, there are seven. Since these Mediation-moves lead to additional receipts of magical agents [DEF] for the purpose of completing the liquidation of all the preceding villainies, it is appropriate to consider these as moves in Deathly Hallows.

There are several notable sequences in Hallows. The first Complication includes the efforts to retrieve the real locket horcrux from Umbridge. Dumbledore’s bequest includes the donation of three magical agents to aid each member of the trio of heroes which are put to use at later points in the narrative. The next notable sequence is the combination of three interwoven sequences representing the efforts to acquire the means to destroy the retrieved locket horcrux, the sword of Gryffindor. The remaining horcrux-artifacts are retrieved and destroyed with less complication as exhibited by the consecutive single axes for each. The final sequence in the story, [D – W], occurs in the Forbidden Forest and the Battle of Hogwarts. The Epilogue ends with Albus Severus Potter absenting himself from home and the next chapter in the Hogwarts saga begins.

Scheme for the Series Treated as a Single Tale


The Preparation group is the backstory developed and revealed in Prisoner of Azkaban, Half-Blood Prince, and Deathly Hallows. The Mediation [B], the misfortune made known to Harry, is gradually unfolded in the first six books of the series, and Dumbledore gradually dispatches Harry to defeat Voldemort. The Counteraction [C] occurs in Deathly Hallows: it is initiated at the beginning of the school year and it is confirmed conclusively by Harry at Dobby’s grave. Harry’s final test is in the Forbidden Forest with the Snitch, the magical agent donated to him by Dumbledore. Harry is revealed to have survived the killing curse in a reverse Exposure (Exrev). The return to the main axis is to complete the struggle with Voldemort and defeat him.


We now desire to assess the results of our analyses and come to some conclusions regarding our leading question.

Comparison to the Lacoss Schemes (2004)

First, we return to the tables for Philosopher’s Stone and Goblet of Fire prepared by Jann Lacoss.16 If we translate her table for Philosopher’s Stone into its symbolic notation, we get:
lacoss-philosophers-stoneA couple of critical notes are in order. First, Lacoss has the D and ↑ functions out of order in her table. Second, she identifies both a Villainy [A] and a Lack [a], but these are alternative types of one function and cannot appear in the same narrative axis. Third, an initial
Villainy [A] or Lack [a] is always liquidated [K], but Lacoss omits this essential function. Lastly, some of the assignations are dubious. For example, she has Branding [J] as “People notice [Harry’s] scar,” but the Branding function should be a consequence of the preceding combat between the hero and the villain [H]. Harry receives his scar in the prequel to the narrative and, at least in Stone, cannot be located at this point in the narrative. Lacoss’ complete list of descriptions is shown in an adjacent column to ours in the tabulated results in the Appendix. We believe the double-villainy directed at Harry within the narrative sequence of Stone is essential to describe correctly this story’s formal organization.

If we translate Lacoss’ table for Goblet of Fire into its symbolic notation, we get the following scheme:


Structurally, this is very similar to our reconstruction of this story (II.4). It is noteworthy that Lacoss’ moves occur on the Beginning Counteraction [C] move rather than on a Villainy [A] or a Lack [a]. However, if her assignment of the Villainy on the main axis were corrected (it should be an ‘A’ rather than a Lack [a]), picking up the axis at the struggle with Voldemort in the Little Hangleton graveyard completes that pairing at the Liquidation [K] function. The sequence (I K ↓) is misassigned to elements preceding the Struggle [H] in the graveyard. Lastly, the Unfounded Claims [L] function is misapplied; Lacoss simply names the false hero dramatis persona, but this does not fulfill the requirement for the narrative constant. Again, her complete list of descriptions is shown in an adjacent column to ours in the tabulated results in the Appendix. We conclude that Lacoss has correctly identified the general structure of Goblet, but has incorrectly analyzed some of the key sequences of functions in the primary axis of the story.

Assessment of Concordance Between Propp’s Scheme and the Harry Potter Series

We now turn to a comparison of our findings of the aesthetic satisfaction with the individual tales in the Harry Potter series and the results of our own complete narrative analyses. Propp’s approach is a data-driven investigation and description of folktale morphology; therefore, it is difficult to answer normative questions about whether a given story represents a “good” instance of the folktale structure or not. What are the criteria for making a meaningful judgment with the data a Proppian analysis yield? We can exclude some measures. It would not be meaningful to count the number of functions present in a Harry Potter story and use the full slate of 31 functions as a benchmark. For example, if Philosopher’s Stone (say) had 23 functions, it would not make any sense to infer that its concordance with folktale structure was therefore 75%. This is because tales often do not involve all of the functions (in fact almost none do), nor are they required to. Concordance with folktale structure does not depend on the maximal use of all the available functions in
Propp’s schema.

One possible basis for a measurement of concordance is out-of-sequence functions. Recall that Propp’s third and fourth morphological laws require that the sequence of functions is always identical and that all fairy tales are of one type in regard to their structure. A possible means of determining concordance with folktale structure, then, is to examine the number of out-of-sequence functions and the extent of their displacement from their “correct” position. We thus define a measure of incongruity by multiplying the two quantities. That is, Incongruity = No. of nonsequential functions × Displacement of nonsequential functions

If we tally the nonsequential functions and compute the Incongruity for each of the Harry Potter stories, we get the following results:


Table 3: Summary of Incongruities in the Harry Potter Stories

Obviously, the value of Incongruity is relative; there is no scale or units of measure against which to interpret this quantity. So we must limit our interpretation to the most basic kinds of comparison. We see that Order of the Phoenix has the greatest Incongruity measured against the linear sequence of folktale structure. Philosopher’s Stone has the next greatest Incongruity. We recall that Order is also one of the Harry Potter stories that readers reported had the lowest aesthetic satisfaction, returning a mode of ‘1’ from all but Novice readers. We also recall that Stone was the second least aesthetically satisfying story according to its mean score. If we examine the other end of the spectrum, we see that Prisoner, Goblet, and Hallows had no Incongruity from folktale structure. We recall that Prisoner and Hallows both returned a mode of ‘7’ from all readers, and that they were the top two aesthetically satisfying books in the Harry Potter series according to their rank by mean score. We arrive at a general—and provisional—deduction: If a folktale has a high degree of Incongruity, the aesthetic satisfaction of the reader will be low. We cannot, however, deduce the contrary, for Chamber has a low Incongruity yet it is viewed as the least aesthetically satisfying story in the series. These are interesting results, but there are other measures for assessing the Harry Potter stories.

In the discussion which follows the presentation of the 31 functions of the dramatis personae in the Morphology,17 Propp makes several general “deductions” about the observed patterns which emerge from an examination of individual folktales “at close range.” He asks, “What does the given scheme represent in relation to the tales?” and answers thusly: “The scheme is a measuring unit for individual tales. Just as cloth can be measured with a yardstick to determine its length, tales may be measured by the scheme and thereby defined.”18 If Propp is correct, then we have confidence that in the current study we may therefore “define” the tales in the Harry Potter series and the series as a whole. We extract the following five propositions about folktale schemes that Propp identifies and discusses in the remainder of the Morphology. We will present them in the order they appear in his text.

Common Pair Arrangements

Proposition 1: “we observe that [the following functions] are arranged in pairs:”19

  • Prohibition—Violation [γ δ]
  • Reconnaissance—Delivery [ε ζ]
  • Struggle—Victory [H I]
  • Pursuit—Rescue [Pr Rs]

When we examine the schemes for the Harry Potter books, we find these notable results concerning their common pair arrangements:

  • Only Chamber has a Reconnaissance—Delivery [ε ζ] pair on its main axis that does not target Harry (it targets Ginny Weasley)
  • Only Goblet and Hallows have all of the pairs

There are notable results for other books in the series, especially Half-Blood Prince, but we will limit our assessment to the books identified earlier at the extremities of readers’ aesthetic satisfaction.

Proposition 2 concerns what tasks the hero is given or undertakes. Propp claims that “(…) it is always possible to be governed by the principle of defining a function according to its consequences. (…) all tasks giving rise to a search must be considered in terms of B; all tasks giving rise to the receipt of a magical agent are considered in terms of D. All other tasks are considered as M, with two varieties: tasks connected with match-making and marriage, and tasks not linked with matchmaking.”20 When we examine the schemes for the Harry Potter books, we find these notable results concerning their task differentiation:

  • Only Order has no M task whatsoever
  • The M task in Chamber is less urgent than the M tasks in the other books
  • Prisoner and Hallows have an M task that ends in a “match” or wedding
  • Only Prisoner has a B task with a victim- and seeker-hero other than Harry (Sirius)
  • Hallows has more than three D tasks (there are a whopping nine)

There are notable results for other books in the series, especially Stone, but we will limit our assessment to the books identified earlier at the extremities of readers’ aesthetic satisfaction.

Spheres of Action of the Dramatis Personae

Proposition 3: “(…) many functions join logically together into certain spheres. These spheres in toto correspond to their respective performers. They are spheres of action.”21 The following spheres of action are present in folktales:

  • Villain [A, H, Pr]
  • Donor [D, F]
  • Helper [G, K, Rs, N, T]
  • Princess (or sought-for person) [M, J, Ex, Q, U, W]
  • Dispatcher [B]
  • Hero [C, ↑, E, W]
  • False Hero [C, ↑, E, L]

When we examine the schemes for the Harry Potter books, we find these notable results concerning their spheres of action:

Only Prisoner has a villain other than Voldemort22

  • Hallows has a whopping seven Donors
  • In Hallows, the seeker-hero includes the whole trio and the victim-hero includes Snape
  • Snape is the false villain in Prisoner and Hallows
  • Draco is the false villain (by narrative misdirection) in Chamber
  • Only Order has a villain Donor (Umbridge)
  • Only Prisoner has unique Helpers in each Helper function (Fred & George Weasley, Dumbledore, Sirius, Harry, Hermione)
  • Order and Hallows have a clearly identified Sought-for person
  • Harry serves as a Dispatcher in Order and Hallows

Multiple Villainies, Interwoven and Sequential

Proposition 4: “A tale may be termed any development proceeding from villainy (A) or a Lack (a) through intermediary functions to marriage (W), or to other functions deployed as a denouement. Terminal functions are at times a reward (F), a gain or in general the liquidation of misfortune (K), and escape from pursuit (Rs), etc. (…) This type of development is termed by us a move. Each new act of villainy, each new lack, creates a new move. (…) One move may directly follow another; but they may also interweave (…).”23 We find these notable results concerning multiple villainies:

  • There are no multiple villainies in Prisoner or Hallows
  • The villainies in Chamber only indirectly affect Harry
  • Only Order has an interwoven villainy

Exclusive Pairs of Functions

Proposition 5: “(…) we observe that there are two such pairs of functions which are encountered within a single move so rarely that their exclusiveness may be considered regular, while their combination may be considered a violation of this rule (…). The two pairs are the Struggle with the villain and the Victory over him [H – I] and the Difficult Task and its Solution [M – N]. In 100 tales, the first pair is encountered 41 times, the second pair is encountered 33 times, and the two combined into one move three times [Some moves exist which develop without either of these pairs.].”24 We find these notable results concerning exclusive:

  • Only Order lacks an M—N pair
  • Chamber, Goblet, and Hallows break the exclusionary rule and have both pairs
  • Prisoner has a hybrid pair: the H-I pair involves Sirius on the primary narrative axis whilst the M-N pair involves Harry on the secondary axis

If we examine these results, we can deduce two outstanding patterns, one positive and one negative. First, we find several unusual features that become apparent when its structure and dramatis personae are related to the other books in the series and the series as a whole. We regard these unusual features as creative exploitations of the structural phenomena described by the Propositions.25 Second, we can identify clear violations of the Propositions. In the two books in the Harry Potter series that were identified as the least aesthetically satisfying, Chamber and Order, we find that there are fewer Creative Exploitations and more Violations than in the stories viewed as more aesthetically satisfying.

Chamber violates Propositions 1, 2, 3, and 5:

  • it has a Donor who is also a Villain
  • it has a Hero who is also a Dispatcher
  • it has an anomalous villainy move.

If we examine the two books in the Harry Potter series that were identified as the most aesthetically satisfying, Prisoner and Hallows, we find that there are fewer Violations and more Creative Exploitations than in the stories viewed as less aesthetically satisfying. Prisoner has no Violations of the Propositions. On the other hand, it has three Creative


  • a B-task with a hero other than Harry
  • an M-task that results in a customary [W] function.26
  • a villain other than Voldemort.

Hallows has one Violation: it contains the exclusive pairs H-I and M-N. On the other hand, it has six Creative Exploitations:

  • it has all of the common pair arrangements (Goblet is the only other story in the series that has them all, too)
  • it has nine D-tasks, more than twice as many as any of the other stories (Stone is closest with four)
  • an M-task that results in a customary [W] function.
  • it has seven Donors (the tale with the second largest number of Donors is Prisoner with five)
  • Snape is revealed to be a false villain
  • Snape is revealed to be a victim-hero (and also a seeker-hero outside the explicit narrative of Hallows.


Let us summarize our assessment and conclude this study of the Harry Potter series. We recall that Propp regards the schema of 31 functions as a “measuring unit” for folktales. Our provisional conjecture was that one “measuring unit” for the discordance of any given tale to the schema is the quantity we have defined as Incongruity. We then arranged in five Propositions the “deductions” Propp derived from the formal organization of the schema. From our analysis and interpretation of these Propositions, we derived two additional qualitative measuring units: Violation and Creative Exploitation. We therefore have three independent measuring units with which to assess the concordance of the Harry Potter series of books to the fairy tale structure of the 31 functions of the dramatis personae: Incongruity, Violation, and Creative Exploitation. The properties of Incongruity and Violation are disconcordant; the property of Creative Exploitation is concordant. If we gather together our assessments of these properties determined in the previous section, and correlate them to the results we determined concerning the aesthetic satisfaction of readers, we get the following results:


Table 4: Measure of Concordances in the Harry Potter Stories

Recall that to interpret these findings correctly, the negative measures, Incongruity and Violation, correspond to relative disconcordance with the schema, whilst the positive measure, Creative Exploitation, corresponds to relative concordance with the schema. Therefore, Chamber and Order have relatively disconcordant fairy tale structures whilst Prisoner and Hallows have relatively concordant fairy tale structures. This correlates with the respective aesthetic satisfaction reported by readers. We therefore conclude that our hypothesis is confirmed: the aesthetic satisfaction with any particular book in the Harry Potter series positively correlates to that book’s fairy tale structure as enumerated in Propp’s system of 31 functions of a folktale’s dramatis personae.

The folktale structure is at least one of the keys to the success of the Harry Potter series. We believe that critics who dismiss the artistic value and meaning of the series by pointing out its alleged formulaic motifs, conventional mores and normative identities, arrive at this judgment erroneously and often with limited familiarity with the story. However, they are correct insofar as the Harry Potter series of books follows the schema of fairy tale as outlined by Vladimir Propp. This uniform and repetitive structure congruent to that found in the larger family of such tales accounts for its apparent formulaic character. Moreover, we find that readers’ aesthetic satisfaction with specific tales within the series correlates to those tales’ conformity to the fairy tale structure. If we want to answer the question “How did Harry Potter cast his spell over so many reader?” we need to account for the diversity of aesthetic responses to the individual tales in the series. The Harry Potter series of books cast its spell over readers by closely adhering to the formal organization of folktale structure. J. K. Rowling crafted an expansive fairy tale that has proven to be aesthetically satisfying to readers of all ages around the world. She successfully traced an ancient and enduring “cultural script” found in folk narratives we learn from childhood and articulated this structure with “amazing multiformity, picturesqueness, and color” in her settings, characters, magical objects, themes, and artistic virtues.


This investigation was undertaken with the invaluable assistance of my undergraduate research team at Barrett Honors College, Rita McGlynn, Tracie Smith, and Saswati Soumya, without whom this study would not have been possible. The author gratefully acknowledges their contributions to this study through their painstaking critical analysis of the Proppian functions in each book of the Harry Potter series and their review, corrections, and suggestions to this report.


    1. In this paper we will use the terms ‘folktale’ and ‘fairy tale’ interchangeably to describe the same type of literary unit, following the ambiguity inherent to the Russian skázka, the word used in Propp’s Morphology.
    2. Vladimir Propp, Morphology of the Folktale (1928), 2nd ed., trans. Laurence Scott, ed. Louis A. Wagner (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1968).
    3. Alan Dundes, Introduction to the 2nd ed of the Morphology (1968), xiv-xv
    4. Pace John M. Lynch, the work is Narratives of Human Evolution by Misia Landau (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991), x-xi; 3-16.
    5. Joan Acocella, “Under the Spell; Harry Potter explained,” The New Yorker (31 July 2000): 74-5. John Granger also noted Acocello’s article in How Harry Cast His Spell: The Meaning behind the Mania for J. K. Rowling’s Bestselling Books (Tyndale House, 2008), 21.
    6. In The Ivory Tower and Harry Potter: Perspectives on a Literary Phenomenon, Ed. Lana A. Whited (Univ of Missouri Press, 2004): 67-88.
    7. Ibid, 85.
    8. 85.
    9. Propp, 20.
    10.  He refers to four “theses” (pp 20-3) of which this is the first. It is clear within the pages of the Morphology that these “theses” function as invariant laws of structure. We therefore refer to them as Propp’s four morphological laws.
    11. Ibid, 21.
    12. 21.
    13. 22-3
    14. Appendix
    15. Propp, 92.
    16. Lacoss,86.
    17. Propp, 64ff.
    18. 65.
    19. 64-5.
    20. 67-8.
    21. 79-80.
    22. Although it should be noted that “Fear itself” is a reification of Voldemort’s persona.
    23. 92.
    24. 101-2
    25. As we noted above, Order has one such artistic exploitation, but three violations.
    26. Harry’s family is somewhat restored by his finding and uniting with his godfather Sirius. Only Hallows has the other customary [W] function in the series—Harry’s marriage to Ginny, and Hermione’s marriage to Ron.