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Harry Potter and the Descent to the Underworld: Katabasis in the Final Installment of J.K. Rowling's Septology

Joseph Slama

Truman State University

This paper examines the presence of criteria for a katabasis in Classical authors, focusing on Vergil's Aeneid, and relates them to Harry’s journey to the afterlife in Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Throughout Harry's descent, we see several elements strongly paralleling Classical tradition, but in the end, Rowling produces her own work entirely.

            I employ a set of criteria for defining what constitutes a katabasis. Citing Erling B. Holtsmark's essay “Katabasis in the Modern Cinema,” (2010) I set forth the following criteria: (1) Distinct physical features separate the location of the hero's journey from the rest of the narrative’s setting; (2) the realm in which the katabasis occurs is inhabited by a number of creatures characteristic of death and darkness; (3) the presence of a companion or multiple comrades; (4) the hero undergoes significant character change, often “increased responsibility and leadership” (26); and (5) he may even have experience a rebirth of sorts. In addition to the katabatic elements laid out by Holtsmark, I also add one of my own, that the death of a character leads the hero to make his journey to the Underworld.

            Both the Aeneid and Hallows have elements which serve to satisfy the criteria given above by Holtsmark and myself. In addition to fulfilling these, both texts share certain narrative parallels. First, the hero's descent begins from a location that contrasts with the depths to be entered, a location that is characterized its loftiness and nobility. Both authors use katabasis to elaborate on their philosophical worldviews, through which the protagonist and the audience gain greater personal understanding. Finally, prophecy plays a significant role as a device that heightens the connection between the physical and spiritual worlds.

             In Aeneid 6, Aeneas, with the prophetess Sibyl as his companion and following the death of his crew member Palinurus, goes down from the “high (altus), holy places of Apollo,” which provide the contrast with “Sibyl's deeps, the immense caverns” (Lombardo, 2005, 6.9-10), which provides the physical marker of a removed location. As they travel through the circles of the Underworld, they pass a number of evil spirits, hybrids, and personified ailments, and Aeneas meets figures such as Palinurus, Dido, and comrades from the Trojan War, providing the opportunity for reminiscing the past. He is then reunited with his father, and Vergil uses this meeting to expound a philosophy of death and rebirth and to look toward the future. Upon reascending, Aeneas experiences a near-literal rebirth as he exits through the Ivory Gate. By traveling to the Underworld, both Aeneas and we the audience gain a clearer vision of the task Aeneas has to carry out.

            The climax of Hallows closely follows the criteria for katabasis in Classical tradition. However, Harry's katabasis is not only a literary convention. He experiences a literal death, the most direct path to the afterlife, which sets him apart from the Classical heroes and casts him as a Christ figure. Harry, realizing he must die to fulfill the prophecy given shortly before his birth, begins his descent from the high place of Dumbledore's office tower. He reaches the Forbidden Forest, patrolled by centaurs and crawling with Voldemort's dark creatures, and from there has as companions several of his deceased friends and family members. He experiences a literal death, thus creating a kind of katabasis within a katabasis. Speaking to Anchisean Dumbledore, Harry receives an overview of his life's journey while the dead headmaster elaborates on his philosophy of love and death and what the future may hold, and then proceeds to exit his limbo state and return to the world of the living, mirroring the Resurrection. The end product of Rowling's unique katabasis is one that blends Classical and Christian elements.

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The Next Generation: Papers by Undergraduate Classics Students

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