A challenge of researching reception of classical literature is that we cannot always know whether intertextual references are intentional or incidental. Rereading the Harry Potter series alongside The Odyssey, the parallels are striking. So much so that it’s difficult to believe they’re coincidental. As I’ve noted before, though, it may be a case of timeless human experiences and themes—home, identity, etc.—recurring across literary texts. Whether intentional or not, I love how intertextuality shows us that and how we are connected across time and place.
In my last piece on xenia, I mentioned that tokens (trinkets or physical marks) enable abandoned babies to be recognized. In Homer, tokens in the form of physical marks also feature in narratives about heroes returning home from Troy, called νόστος (nostos/returning). Tokens enable heroes to be recognized though they have changed during the many years they’ve been gone. Being recognized can be potentially desirable or dangerous.
In The Odyssey, Odysseus’ token is a scar on his leg. While visiting his grandparents as a child, he went on a boar hunt and was gored. Harry’s token is his famous lightening-shaped scar, the result of Voldemort’s failed attack on him as a baby.
Parallels and divergences between the two are telling. Harry was the hunted not the hunter. He did nothing to invite violence against him. Odysseus, though a child, was armed and on the hunt, the clear aggressor. This difference remains significant throughout the Harry Potter series. With a few exceptions, Harry typically battles from a defensive position, and even then, he does not attempt to kill. In books five and six, Harry expresses a desire to kill Voldemort, but he never actually attempts to do so. Voldemort dies because his own killing curse backfires on him. Odysseus, in keeping with his warrior culture, goes willingly into battle and sees violence and murder as acceptable responses to perceived threat, affront, or injustice.
For both Harry and Odysseus, their scars are part of their character and identity. As identifying markers, their scars can either harm or help them, especially when they are attempting to return home. Odysseus’ scar becomes a liability when it allows Eurycleia, his nurse, to recognize him before he wants his return to Ithaca made public. Witches and wizards recognize Harry by his scar before he even knows his own identity. In book seven, when Harry is wandering on the wizarding world’s outskirts during his search for Voldemort’s horcruxes, Hermione attempts to mask Harry’s scar to prevent Voldemort’s minions from recognizing him.
As suggested above, nostos in The Odyssey means returning home from Troy by sea. More broadly, nostos can also mean surviving lethal dangers.
Obviously Harry is not returning home from Troy. But it was a war—the first wizarding war that ended when Voldemort failed to kill him—that forced Harry to leave his “home.” Here, home means both the dwelling he shared with his parents and, in the broader sense, the magical world as his true place. After the war and his parents’ death, Harry enters a period of “wandering”: He spends 10 years in the muggle world, as Odysseus spends 10 years attempting to return to Ithaca. Obviously, Harry does not cross a sea to return home to the magical world. But he does cross a body of water to get to Hogwarts, which Harry says in book one feels “more like home than Privet Drive ever had”: Hagrid brings first year students from the train station to the castle across a lake.
The homecoming theme also interestingly reverses in Harry Potter. Each of the first six books begins with Harry returning to the magical world and ends with him leaving it. The final book flips back: It begins with Harry, Ron, and Hermione retreating from the magical world, wandering in their search for horcruxes, then returning at the end. Their quest lasts 10 months—there’s that 10 again! After Harry vanquishes Voldemort (with his trusty and nonviolent disarming spell), he returns to his old Hogwarts dormitory, his first “home” after his return to the magical world. In the epilogue, Harry sends his sons off to Hogwarts.
In Homer, home is a central feature of identity. Odysseus is not the sum total of his personal features—barrel chested, scar on his leg, cunning, brave in battle. Odysseus is also the son of Laertes, the husband of Penelope, the father of Telemachus, the king of Ithaca. These roles define him as much as any of his individual features. Thus to accept Calypso’s offer of immortality and endless youth in exchange for never returning to Ithaca would be to cease being Odysseus. He chooses uncertainty and danger in the hope that he will make it home and recover his true identity.
Harry also chooses uncertainty and danger in order to maintain his identity as a wizard. This notably happens in book two when Dobby visits Harry at Privet Drive to warn him not to return to Hogwarts—the “home” for children coming into their wizard/witch identities. “I don’t belong here,” Harry tells Dobby. “I belong in your world—at Hogwarts.” In the muggle world, Harry is isolated and friendless, cut off from his community and his family inheritance (i.e. his magical skills). The instance in the second book is overt. But throughout the series, Harry willingly faces danger rather than retreat to safety and anonymity because he is fulfilling his role and responsibility, broadly as a wizard and specifically as “the Chosen One.” (Quite literally: Voldemort chooses Harry as his adversary.)
One last feature of nostos narratives I’d like to mention is the idea, in Homer, that the place you leave isn’t the place to which you return. Heroes change, and the landscape of home changes. In Odysseus’ case, he returns to Ithaca to find his home overrun with aggressive suitors. Ostensibly, they’re vying to marry Penelope. In reality, they’re partying all day, and helping themselves to Odysseus’ provisions in the process. He must vanquish them to resume his place as king of Ithaca. Harry returns to Hogwarts at the end of book seven to find the castle overrun with Voldemort’s followers. He must vanquish them to resume his place in the magical world.
Harry Potter is far from a retelling of The Odyssey. As mentioned above, the differences are as telling as the parallels are striking. This is especially so as regards the questions, “what is justice?” and “how do we achieve it?” (surely a topic for a future post in this series). These questions suffuse the literature of ancient Greece, perhaps most urgently in Athenian tragedy. But it’s there in Homer too, and in Harry Potter.
Perhaps this is what makes researching reception feel so compelling to me. Reading ancient and contemporary literature side by side, seeing where and how they intersect and diverge, provides a history of the human imagination. It shows us, as does history of events, that we have been wrestling the same monsters since literature (and recorded history) began. There’s Dumbledore proven right: “It was important, Dumbledore said, to fight, and fight again, and keep fighting, for only then could evil be kept at bay, though never quite eradicated…”