HARRY POTTER AND THE CLASSICAL WORLD: Greek and Roman Allusions in J.K. Rowling’s Modern Epic

Richard A. Spencer

McFarland: Jefferson, North Carolina (2105) p/b 324pp £32.50 (ISBN 9780786499212)

This is a book which does much more than its title claims. As well as exploring the allusions to classical myth in the Harry Potter books, S. also draws on scholarship on folklore and legend and deconstructs the uses of the classical languages in the series. The result is an absorbing volume which will doubtless be enjoyed by Potter fans and classicists, as well as pointing the serious enthusiast towards further reading.

Three chapters deal with Harry himself. ‘Harry Potter as Seeker’ sees Harry as an Odysseus-style clever hero on a decade-long quest; ‘Harry Potter as Savior’ compares him to Heracles and Achilles; and ‘Harry Potter and Narcissus’ puts forward a bold claim about the close relationship between the structure of the ‘Mirror of Erised’ episode and the story of Narcissus narrated in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The other characters who are dealt with in detail are Dumbledore and Voldemort, who each get a short chapter discussing different aspects of their personalities and activities. Chapter 6 deals with other major characters, including Ginny Weasley as Persephone being rescued from the underworld, Hermione Granger as both her classical namesake and as a victim of Medusa, and Luna Lovegood as a prophetess, among others. Ron Weasley gets something of a raw deal, not seeming to fit into any of the archetypes proposed, as S. ends up identifying even the ‘close friend of the hero’ character with Cedric Diggory instead.

Chapter 7 deals with the supporting characters, and lists the mythological characters associated with names like Alecto Carrow, Argus Filch and Nymphadora Tonks. This section also covers Rowling’s brief mentions of classical figures like Circe and Agrippa (both make appearances on chocolate frog cards). S. even includes Ganymede here, though the name appears as a moon of Jupiter in an astronomy essay rather than as a mythological figure or a supporting character.

Chapter 8 covers ‘Being, Materials and Resources,’ including the obvious classical candidates such as basilisks and centaurs, but also more surprising observations, such as the role of birds in the series. There is also a section here on the power of language, including oracles, animal languages and the ancient origins of the deadly Avada Kedavra spell. The chapter ends with the significance of the numbers 3, 7, 13 and 17 in the books, in a degree of detail that even the most hardcore fan will not have noticed before.

Lovers of Latin will find Chapter 9, on classical languages in Harry Potter, the most rewarding to get stuck into. S. takes a generous line with the use of Latin and mock-Latin in the text, explaining that ‘Rowling often amplifies her use of the classical languages by toying with them… she takes license with the language’. This proves to be a productive way of looking at the use of Latin and Greek in the books, and leads him to divide the chapter into (a) spells based on genuine ancient languages, (b) personal names based on words in Latin or Greek, and (c) ‘Classical language playfully transformed for magical applications’. Learners of Latin will find this last section a valuable resource for those words which look ancient but mysteriously do not appear in their dictionary, including words like Animagi (animal + magus), the Confundus curse (based on the verb confundo rather than the adjective confusus, presumably to keep the similarity with the English word confounded), and the ever-popular curse expelliarmus (expello + arma + first person plural ending –mus?).

In general, S.’s comparisons between the Potter series, classical myth and the motifs of folklore pay off, and his insights on the books will, in places, be new to even the longest-standing fans. The chapter on Harry as Odysseus or, more generally, as the ‘clever hero on a quest’ of folklore not only points out superficial similarities such as the recognition-by-scar motif common to both stories, but also raises excellent points about Harry noticing details that others miss and devising cunning Odysseus-like plans. Voldemort proves surprisingly hard to pin down, with allusions to Cronus, Hades, Medea, Prometheus and Zeus all thrown into the mix. Sometimes, the comparisons fail to convince: is Harry’s appeal to Slughorn to return to Hogwarts really so similar to Odysseus asking Achilles to return to the fight? Are Harry Potter and Cedric Diggory actually reminiscent of classical pairs of friends such as Nisus and Euryalus or Orestes and Pylades? But S. makes clear from the outset that some readers will find his comparisons a stretch, and that he is willing to push his examples as far as they will go and leave the reader to decide.

Without becoming a dictionary or encyclopaedia of Potter trivia—S. points to several more complete resources of this kind elsewhere—this volume provides a rich resource on myth, folklore and classical languages in the Harry Potter books. It is an ideal book for the young (and not-so-young) Rowling fans who have noticed the classical side of their favourite books and want to find out more.

Dr Katherine McDonald





We welcome your comments; please send via our social media.
Back to Reading Room