Twenty years on since the first film, the Harry Potter phenomenon is worth reassessing. Simply put, it is the greatest literary tour de force of the past quarter-century. I would claim more. JK Rowling has been the greatest contributor to the public good in the Western world in this period.

Harry Potter has drawn millions of eight-year-olds, in the era of addictive electronic devices and video entertainment and communication, to read dense 800-page books written in an advanced prose that makes few concessions to limited syntax and vocabulary.

In an era in which fewer and fewer people read books, Rowling has reversed the trend magnificently and created in many children reading habits that will last a lifetime. She has fed their imaginations with a treasure trove of vivid themes and characters.

To provide more context, recent studies across many countries are showing the best predictor of adult success in life is the single factor of child reading engagement and ability, often correlating with the number of books kept in the home. It is not the more commonly assumed influences of quality of school attended or the socio-economic status of parents.

The singular worldwide popularity of Harry Potter, in book and film form, far outstripping all else in terms of sales and viewing – 600 million books sold – for both child and adult, and continuing so on to new generations of children, suggests that it speaks to contemporary preoccupations and strikes a contemporary nerve. It has lessons to teach about the inner needs of the time.

The grim shadow of death

So, what is this story about? Progressing through its seven-volume series, it narrows steadily, inexorably down towards a climactic focus on one surprising subject: death. Death shadows the third book and thereafter steadily turns into the all-encompassing preoccupation. The narrative is propelled by Harry’s nemesis. Lord Voldemort has flight from death scripted in French into his name.

The single motive driving everything he does seems to be to defy death. Vol de mort also means theft of death, with obscure associations with someone who steals away from death, like a fugitive in the night; or steals death itself, as his private possession. Third, Vol de mort could be translated as flight of death – for he is death personified, death animate in quasi-human form.

Voldemort’s servants are called Death Eaters. And death, in menacing aggressive form, is represented by Dementors, wraithlike creatures who attack humans and try to embrace and kiss them, to suck their souls out of their mouths. Dementors reduce their victims to the living dead.

After the first couple of volumes, the atmospherics of Harry Potter become oppressive. Fun, excitement and adventure give way to a grim struggle to prevail. Here is quite a conundrum, for this is a story primarily for children. And children love it.

The grim shadow of death is bearable partly because of the compensating pervasiveness of magic. Enchantments, illusions, broomstick flying, metamorphoses, killing curses, transformative potions, magical creatures such as centaurs and unicorns, ghosts and wizards who live for hundreds of years signal to those millions who engage with this story that their apparently normal everyday world may not be as it seems.

The audience is invited into a domain somewhere between what they know and what they conjure up in their most fantastical dreams, a domain in which supercharged reality and allegory intermix.  

The chosen one

The hero appears unknown, as a nobody, aged 11, arriving from out of nowhere. Here is one of several Jesus motifs, except Harry Potter is unprepossessing: ordinary-looking, diminutive, scrawny, shortsighted and with no obvious special talent. Harry doesn’t display the conventional masculine attributes of the hero.

What is Harry’s purpose? Is he on a quest? The obvious goal that governs the narrative becomes to destroy the man who tried to kill him as a baby. The surface plot is a stock good-and-evil story. But the story is not simple.

Harry becomes widely known as the chosen one and the boy who lived. These are titles that erupt out of the substratum of the text, part of its deep pulsing organism, so to speak. They suddenly come into the mind of others, magically, with those others parroting them without knowing what they are saying or why.

But chosen for what? Once Harry finds his way, he is driven from within. Whenever he finds himself propelled into something, any reasonable cautioning from his friends has no effect. His puny physical presence is indomitable. He is, in classical Greek terms, daemonic, possessed by a powerful inner demon.

If Voldemort is flight of death, Harry discovers he himself is brilliant at flying. His greatest pleasure becomes soaring and speeding on his broomstick as he plays the school sport, Quidditch. His role is that of Seeker, chasing a tiny gold ball the size of a walnut, propelled by diaphanous silver wings, trying to catch it, as if it were the elusive angel of charmed destiny.

The headmaster keeps a phoenix that intervenes at key moments to save Harry. Its presence counterbalances the relentless company of death. The mythical bird has an elusive dignity, mediating some distant, redemptive supernatural order to which it travels, then returns. It is the messenger from the beyond, a visitor to the human world, but one that is never at home in that world. Rowling’s phoenix provides a rich metaphor for the human soul and its complex, troubled yet sublime relationship to both the individual it inhabits and to the world.

Does Harry’s soul take flight like the immortal phoenix? Harry does save his school and his friends. But the stage he comes to occupy is littered with the corpses of the people most important to him. Part of him dies with them. While he is celebrated, and he has every reason to be triumphant, in reality Harry is exhausted and dispirited by the close. And he is solitary, for the fact is that he shares little deep affinity with his two close friends.

One lesson to be drawn from Harry’s quest is that the human individual is required to live in contact with death, wrestling to tame the monster that sleeps in its cave, striving to find some harmonious and even intimate relationship to it. Harry is the master of just such a life. This reading, if correct, needs some digestion. It is most strange, and perplexing, in a children’s story addressed to the modern secular, sceptical world.

Harry is born to struggle. For him, things are never easy. His childhood up to the age of 11 is spent in a household that fears and hates him, one that is terrified by the profane meaninglessness of its own existence.

His early years are spent locked in a cupboard under the stairs. In the second half of the grand narrative, his typical psychological state is worried, tormented and wrought by anxiety, fearing the next challenge, fearing that he may not be up to it.

He is more like the Titans of Greek mythology, born for eternal backbreaking labour – Sisyphus rolling a rock up a hill, only to have it roll down the other side, and his having to roll it back up, in a cycle that recurs on forever, into eternity. Sisyphus may never rest. He may never taste the satisfaction of success and completion. His life is ordeal without reward. His burden cannot be shared. He is forbiddingly alone.

Harry, serving and suffering

Harry’s case is that of Sisyphus, yet different. He is Sisyphus metamorphosed into the figure of Jesus – in his suffering servant persona. Harry’s ordeals, especially in Volume Seven, are akin to crucifixion. He serves and he suffers. He can’t bear to let anyone else suffer on his behalf or because of him. He takes on the woes of others. He is in tears when anyone close to him is hurt; flattened into inconsolable grief if they are killed.

The principal archetype that Harry Potter taps into is the saviour as suffering servant. Here is the source, deep in the genesis of the Western dreaming, of this story’s energy, and its capacity to seize attention and engage.

Rowling has revisited the New Testament, adapted it, and brought it alive for very different times, ones to which it has demonstrated a singular capacity to communicate. Her Messiah does save the world, taking on its sins, its weaknesses, and its errors. He releases it from evil, allowing its inhabitants to live freely and happily. The lights are switched back on.

What may we conclude? Virtually all of the major Harry Potter themes and implied messages clash with the claimed mainstream beliefs and attachments of the age in which it was created. That age has been confident, even arrogant in its proclamation of the freedom of individuals, the supremacy of their right to live as they wish, taking any pleasure they may, holding to be true whatever they choose, while being largely dismissive of universal laws and metaphysical truths.

The untimeliness of this story is echoed in its physical setting, which seems deliberately and nostalgically anti-modern – a remote Victorian English boarding school, set in a castle, in which staff and students wearing academic robes feast together in a Great Hall with a High Table, and gather together in studies, common rooms, and dormitories.

Harry Potter is diametrically at odds with the Rousseau delusion, once again in ascendancy, that humans in the state of nature, before civilisation corrupted them, were happy and good, untainted by any equivalent of original sin, and that individuals, once freed from constraint, can become perfect. The picture it leaves is the opposite of the cloud-cuckoo-land dream that life was meant to be easy, a condition of perpetual, untroubled leisure; that humans are all inherently good; and that insecure identity, disappointment and chronic free-floating anxiety may all be wished away.

Speaking the truth

The first conclusion follows: Harry Potter speaks truth to times that are deceived about their own condition, and hypocritical in their self-deception, to times that are profoundly ill at ease in themselves. It is radically unmodish, providing a vital subtext exposing the falsity of the lived surface, a subtext that is seized on with deep existential need, even fateful craving, and embraced as the real truth, which it is – first and foremost by children. It alerts to what matters.

Harry Potter counters the presiding cultural repression of an era in which the discontented conjure up enemies whom they believe have stolen their happiness.

Rowling has herself has become victim of the foul social media inquisitors of our time, censored and hounded because of an essay she wrote last year on sex and gender – a sane and balanced reflection drawing on painful personal experience. The creator of Harry Potter is courageously taking on the times directly and in allegory.

There are further direct and substantive conclusions to be drawn from Harry Potter.

First and foremost: death is the primary human experience. Its tentacles stretch backwards over everything that comes before. Second: life is made bearable by sublimating incipient dread of death into compassionate service, giving it purpose. Third: the qualities servants need are drive, grit, courage, resilience, canny good sense and love of life. Fourth: the saving mission is, simply put, fated – what he or she has to do, what they are chosen for. Anything else, any other path, would be unthinkable. Fifth and finally: life is ordeal, a solitary labour lightened by magic and enchantment, by fitful companionship with friends and favourite others, and by finding some modest fulfilment in the completed task.

But the phoenix will not necessarily return. The Harry Potter vision is stark.

This article has been republished with permission from the Inquirer section of The Weekend Australian.

John Carroll is Professor Emeritus of Sociology at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia; and a Senior Fellow at the Center for Cultural Sociology, Yale University. He has degrees in mathematics,...