WHEN HARRY MEETS HOMER

UNDERSTANDING THE CLASSICS WITH A LITTLE HELP FROM THE BOY WHO LIVED
SHARON GERALD, JONES COUNTY JUNIOR COLLEGE, ELLISVILLE, MS

About Homer
The Ancient Greek epics, The Iliad and The Odyssey are attributed to a poet named Homer. Homer is thought to have lived around 750 BCE. His tales of the exploits and adventures of Greek heroes are based on legendary events that were thought by the Greeks to have happened centuries before Homer’s crafting of his epics. Legendary in this case means that the people of Homer’s time by all indications believed the events to be historical--they believed The Iliad and The Odyssey to be not so much exact factual history but rather stories based on real history. We don’t have enough historical evidence today to know whether the Trojan War really happened or how much of it happened as remembered by Greek legend.
continued on page 2

Who is Odysseus?
Odysseus, one of the Greek heroes of the Trojan War, has not returned to his kingdom in Ithaca, though many years have passed since the Greeks conquered Troy.  The Odyssey is the story of his adventures during his struggle to go home and of the turmoil faced by his wife and son due to his absence.  The journey is complicated by the antagonism of Poseidon, god of the sea, who has vowed to keep Odysseus off course.

Harry’s scar is the shape of a lightening bolt, the source of Zeus’s power in Greek mythology.

Harry has to get past Fluffy, the threeheaded dog, just as Odysseus encounters Cerberus, the guard of the gates of Hades.

Hermes is the messenger to the gods in The Odyssey. Hermes shows up as an owl, a messenger for wizards, in Harry Potter.

About Homer continued
orally. They were also passed down orally for several more centuries before ever being written down. If you think reading The Odyssey is difficult now, imagine being assigned the task of memorizing the entire poem for the purpose of handing it down word-for-word to the next by Sharon Gerald ••• generation. Just imagine. While you are There is some archeological at it, imagine that the poem is evidence to back up the stories, actually about the greatest heroes though not enough to tell us of your own culture. Imagine exactly what really happened. you’ve heard about these heroes Still, it is enough for our purposes your whole life, that you were told in studying Ancient Greek about them even before you could literature to know that the Greeks walk and talk. Imagine that the of the day would have believed greatest form of entertainment their stories were--though possibly known to your family and friends elaborated for dramatic effect--at is the telling and retelling of least based upon real historical stories about these same heroes. events. Now imagine that because It is enough to know that the you have no written language you Trojan War, whether mostly real have had to memorize everything or mostly imagined, was the stuff you know. You can’t jot down of legend for many, many reminders to yourself. You can’t generations. rely on Wikipedia to refresh your Homer lived during a time memory about any facts you may when there was no written forget. Your memory and the language in his part of the world. memories of the people around Thus, his poems were shared you are the only means you have of keeping information from one year to the next, one decade to the next, one generation to the next. Such was the world in which Homer lived. He did not write more than 25,000 lines of poetry. He composed them in his head, memorized them, and recited them to his audience. How would you like to have that job? The heroic warrior job almost sounds easy by comparison, doesn’t it?

Fast Facts on Homer • He lived in Ancient Greece more than 2700 years ago. • He is credited with the composition of the Greek epics, The Iliad and The Odyssey, based on the Trojan war and its aftermath. • His epics were not written down until long after his death. • He lived several hundred years after legend says the Trojan war took place.

MINERVA
In The Odyssey, our hero is championed by and watched over by Minerva (aka Athena), goddess of war and justice in war. Harry Potter has his own Minerva in the form of Professor McGonagall.

HERMIONE
Hermione is the daughter of Helen of Troy and her husband, King Menelaus. This Hermione bears little resemblance to the young witch who is the smartest of her class, however, and Rowling has said she was thinking of the Hermione in

Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale when she chose that name.

SYBILL
Harry’s divination teacher is Sybill Trelawney, aptly named as sibyls are prophetesses in Greek mythology.

Why We Love Epics
by Sharon Gerald
•••

Ancient World contributed written language to the

Whether you know it or not, you too love epics. People have always loved epics and always will. They are exciting. They bring us adventure of the sort we’ll never see in real life. They have suspense. They have drama. They have romance. They have violence, seduction, poetry, magic, and everything else the human heart responds to for the good or the bad. Epics are, at their core, stories of the adventures of heroes. They have to be larger than life in some way. There has to be something massive at stake in the success or failure of the hero. And the adventures all have to tie together toward a common goal. If it’s got all that plus suspense, excitement, and so forth, it’s an epic. Mostly we think of things like The Odyssey and Beowulf when we hear epic. Those are the stories everyone reads in school. There’s a reason for that. Those ancient epics, like Gilgamesh, The Iliad, and The Aeneid, are where it all started, and what they contributed to the world of literature has remained, throughout all the centuries, the biggest crowd-pleaser of any literary form ever. Think about some of the epics of our own time. The

epics aren’t just for adults (and Harry Potter isn’t just for generations to come, and the 15th children). Not only does HP have all of the characteristics of the Century gave us the printing epic, the stories are also packed press, but the 20th Century made full of allusions to Greek its mark in film, and that is where Mythology and to ancient epics. we find many, many modern day The scar on Harry’s epics. Remember, the epic is high forehead is in the shape of a entertainment as much as it is lightening bolt, the symbol of high art. We don’t get too many Zeus’s power. Minerva is the parties these days with a hired bard sitting in the corner reciting name of one of Harry’s teachers. It’s also the Roman name for the history of our people in Athena who is the Greek goddess dactylic hexameter, but we sure do love to gather in big groups to of wisdom and justice in war. Athena just happens to be watch the movies. Odysseus’ patron. She looks out Case in point, the Star Wars for him, and it is no coincidence movies represent classic epics of that she appears as a character in our time. Check it out. Go read Harry Potter. Then there is the characteristics of the epic and Hermes, the owl, who shares his the epic hero and see how many name with Hermes, the messenger of them sound like Star Wars. of the gods. And Fluffy, the threeThat is exactly what George headed dog, who bears amazing Lucas intended to create, and he resemblance to Cerberus, the said so himself. three-headed dog who guards the Another set of beloved gates of Hades and who can also movies, which were actually be lulled to sleep with music. beloved books long before they Hermione, Harry’s friend, is the made it to the big screen, is the namesake of Hermione, the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Epic, daughter of Helen and Menelaus. epic, epic. Aragorn is the closest There are many, many more of thing you’ll find to Odysseus these likenesses. Read The since the days of the Roman Odyssey. Then read Harry Potter. Empire. He’s brave, cunning, You’ll be astounded by how alike noble, favored by the gods (or they are. Elves as the case may be), and the Indiana Jones is an epic. fate of the world rests with his Spiderman is an epic. The Wizard success, as it does with Frodo’s. of Oz is an epic. The Matrix is an Then there are the Harry epic. The list goes on and on. Potter books/movies, proving that

Why We Love Epics continued
•••

Star Wars is one of the most enduring epics of our time.

Two recent films that were directly based on The Odyssey are Cold Mountain and Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou? The book Cold Mountain, a Civil War novel, won the National Book Award and made the bestseller list too. That just shows that a good epic, even in our own time, wins both respect and popularity. Oh, Brother is an adaptation of The Odyssey into Depression Era Mississippi. If you haven’t seen either of these movies, I highly recommend both. But with Cold Mountain, you should read the book first. It's fantastic. The point is that epics appeal to the human spirit at all levels. They have something to teach. They have thrills to offer. They play on our emotions. Most importantly, they inspire. Epics exist because real life isn’t nearly that exciting, and when life does get exciting, often things don’t work out very well. Epics are there to remind us to believe in the extraordinary capacity of the human spirit and the human imagination to overcome. They make us believe in heroes. They make us believe

What do Harry, Luke, and Odysseus all have in common?

that there is something inside ourselves that can rise to greatness as the situation requires. They cheer us up. They comfort us. They give us something to dream about. Epics perform several important functions. In ancient days when there was no written language, epics were a primary means of preserving the history and the values of a people. They also bonded nations together with a common pride in culture and heritage. They inspired people to do their duty and to work

together in all of the various roles necessary to have a thriving civilization. They made people believe in the heroes inside themselves. Not much has changed in 3000 years. People laugh, cry, love, and hope in the same ways they always have. And that is why we love epics.

Points For Discussion
What are some examples of contemporary epics in popular mediums, such as film?

Do action heroes like Spiderman and Batman count as epic heroes? What do they have in common with classical literary heroes?

How are women depicted in ancient epics like The Odyssey as compared to contemporary popular epics like Harry Potter?

The Epic and the Epic Hero
by Sharon Gerald
•••

Epics are long narrative accounts of the adventures of a hero. The ancient epics were long narrative poems. We tend to use the term more generically today, referring to movies and novels and other forms of literature as epic when they share other characteristics of the epic, but Homer’s epics that we are studying in this unit are poems in their original forms. In the epic, the hero is a larger than life character. He is stronger, more agile, even luckier than anyone else. He (and yes, ancient epic heroes usually were men) also has greater responsibilities than anyone else, as we learn not just from watching Spiderman movies, but from reading ancient epics as well. The fate of the world--or at least of the hero’s world--rests on the fate of the hero.

Even the gods take note of what the hero is up to and often intervene in his affairs. Sometimes they champion the hero, as Athena does Odysseus, and sometimes they pit themselves against the hero, as Poseidon does Odysseus. The epic hero is constantly tested and experiences a series of adventures that all tie together toward a common goal. Odysseus, for example, faces all of his adversities with the one goal of returning to Penelope and to his home.

The fate of the hero is the fate of all.

The foes of the epic hero are also larger than life. They are bigger, meaner, and more impossible to defeat than any normal human could possibly endure. The fact that the hero does endure proves his own strength and worthiness. The epic hero shares many characteristics with other types of literary heroes. Like the tragic hero, for example, he often rushes in where others fear to go. He is full of pride and an overdeveloped sense of selfconfidence, even cockiness. Perhaps the main difference in the epic hero and the tragic hero is simply that fate is on the side of the epic hero. Even if an epic hero dies in the end, he dies heroically and in a way that still saves the world around him. The epic hero is the reason others can sleep at night. He is the great protector of those around him. Though often at the very last possible second, he always manages to save the day against the most impossible odds.

Fast Facts About the Epic • Long narrative poem about the adventures of a hero. • The adventures lead the hero on a quest toward a common goal, usually one that saves or protects his own world.

Fast Facts About the Epic Hero • Larger than life in strength and ability. • Faces foes that are larger than life. • Prevails in the end even if at the cost of his own life.

The Epic Hero
•••

Character Traits of the Epic Hero

1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7.

Proud Brave Loyal Cunning Quick to action

HOW DO HARRY POTTER AND ODYSSEUS FIT THESE CHARACTERISTICS? WHAT SPECIFIC SCENES CAN WE POINT TO IN THE STORIES WHERE WE MIGHT FIND EXCEPTIONAL LOYALTY OR CUNNING? ARE THESE TRAITS ALWAYS STRENGTHS? ARE THERE TIMES, FOR EXAMPLE , WHEN BRAVERY OR PRIDE SERVE AS WEAKNESSES RATHER THAN STRENGTHS?

Characteristics of the Epic Hero’s Life

1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6.

Responsible for the fate of all Embarks on journey or quest Given tasks to prove worth Faces many adventures Has larger than life enemies Faces temptations as well as trials

hero. Many of them might also apply to other types of literary heroes, in particular the tragic hero. The most basic difference in the tragic hero is tha t he or she starts at a high point and ends up at a low point. The epic hero, by contrast, often starts at a low point and ends up prevailing over adversity. You don’t get much lower than Harry’s cupboa rd under the stairs, do you?

WHAT IS ULTIMATELY THE MOST Exceptional abilities DIFFICULT OBSTACLE FOR HARRY AND FOR ODYSSEUS TO Born to be a hero OVERCOME--TRIALS OR TEMPTATIONS? IN WHAT WAY IS HARRY TEMPTED? IN WHAT WAY IS ODYSSEUS TEMPTED? CAN YOU THINK OF SCENES IN WHICH A NOTE ABOUT OTHE THEY BOTH CHOOSE LOYALTY R HEROES TO OTHERS OVER THEIR OWN These are characteris tics of the epic TEMPTATIONS? HOW IMPORTANT IS THE IDEA OF FATE TO THE HERO? DO ODYSSEUS AND HARRY HAVE FATES THEY MUST FULFILL REGARDLESS OF THEIR OWN CHOICES? IN WHAT WAYS DO THEIR CHOICES MATTER?

7. Sometimes aided by gods 8.

(or Hogwarts’ teachers)

Has supporters and sidekicks, but must ultimately complete the quest alone

IDEAS FOR WRITING
1. Choose a scene in Harry Potter to compare to a scene in The Odyssey. You might choose, for example, Odysseus’s journey

into the underworld, and Harry’s descent into the Chamber of Secrets. Or what about Harry’s battle with the troll in Book 1 and Odysseus’s encounter with the cyclops?

2. Write your own Odyssey fan fiction by taking a scene from Homer and inserting characters from Harry Potter into it (or a scene from Harry Potter with characters from The Odyssey).

Why We Love Harry Potter and What Harry Can Teach Us About Literature
by Sharon Gerald
•••

Epic Adventure
For most of recorded literature, the epic has remained the most popular type of story (see “Why We Love Epics” on page 3). What’s not to love? It has adventure, survivable violence, and romance. The Harry Potter series makes use of that winning combination to once again prove the rule. We love epics. The series also draws on a whole lot of tried-and-true literary devices that often go along with epic adventure.

our collective memories of fairy tales and other fanciful things.

WE LOVE HARRY POTTER FOR THREE MAIN REASONS: (1) THE ENGAGING VOICE; (2) THE EPIC ADVENTURE; (3) THE MORAL CLARITY

Moral Clarity
In a literary age filled with moral ambiguity thanks to the experimentalism of modernism and the skepticism of postmodernism, Harry Potter offers what’s often missing for us in both life and fiction--a clear sense of good and evil with clear lines of demarcation between the two.

Voice
Harry Potter has its own unique charm, largely due to the speaking voice of the narrator. The first line of the first book is “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.” If the sentence ended at “normal,” it would accomplish the storyteller’s job of establishing character and setting. The “thank you very much” tacked on goes a step further to establish attitude, tone, and personality on the part of the narrator.

Good characters make mistakes, and bad characters have back-stories to We have a hero who embarks on a help us understand them, but we still journey. He encounters a villain, is have no doubt who the good ones given a quest, and realizes that only are and who the bad ones are. he can save the world as he knows it. What’s more, we know what makes He is an orphan. He has sidekicks a character good--love. Harry and and a mentor. He has a rival. Voldemort are very similar characters if we only look at their These are literary archetypes, or symbolic patterns that we recognize abilities, or even if we look at their circumstances or their weaknesses, and respond to on an instinctive yet Harry is distinctly good where level because they are deeply This quirkiness of speaking voice, Voldemort is distinctly bad because evident throughout the series, tells us ingrained in our culture and in our Harry loves and Harry has been Rowling is very much aware of the previous exposures to storytelling. loved. This is the great moral of the conversational elements of Harry Potter resonates so well with whole series. storytelling, that she’s engaged in a us then because we understand on an conversational performance as she instinctive level how to respond both Along the way to understanding the tells this story. That narrative moral that love is the dividing line mentally and emotionally to his performance is about as close as we between good and evil, we, with story. can get in the written word to oral Harry, learn many other lessons. storytelling traditions, the likes of Furthermore, the books are full of which produced The Odyssey and mythological creatures, legends, and Here are just a few: other great epics of classical other references that add to our sense “It’s our choices, Harry, that show us literature. of being in a comfortably familiar who we really are, far more than our fantasy world because they draw on abilities.” ~Albus Dumbledore,

Why We Love Harry Potter continued
“The truth. It is a beautiful and literary discussion than Oprah. We terrible thing and should therefore be should cherish them just for that. treated with great caution.” ~Albus They can teach us a whole lot more Dumbledore, Sorcerer’s Stone as well, though. If we can “Dark and difficult times lie ahead. understand how literary conventions Soon we must all face the choice function in Harry Potter, we can between what is right and what is understand how they function in any easy.” ~Albus Dumbledore, Goblet literature, no matter how ancient or of Fire how difficult to read. “The consequences of our actions are so complicated, so diverse, that If you understand why Harry is an predicting the future is a very epic hero, you’ll understand why difficult business indeed.” ~Albus Odysseus is an epic hero. Dumbledore, Prisoner of Azkaban
WHAT HARRY POTTER CAN TEACH US ABOUT LITERATURE

Image Credits
Page 1 Top left: Flickr image by Quinn Dombrowski Bottom left: from hubpages.com Bottom center: from educatorunderground.c om Bottom right: from mysticmedusa.com Page 2 from rogueclassicism.com Page 4 from msnbc.msn.com
Retrieved 14 November 2010 via Google Images

Harry Potter has been called a gateway drug of reading because so many kids (of all ages) clamor to read Harry like they’d never read before. Some even go on to take up an interest in reading other books. This is magical. First and foremost what Harry can teach us (or just remind us of when we need reminding) is how to love reading. The books are entertaining, inspiring, and fun to talk about with others. They’ve sparked more

If you understand what it means for Harry to have so many near misses with Voldemort without ever fully ridding himself of the threat for seven full years, you’ll understand what it meant for Odysseus to experience that many years and more of conflict with Poseidon. Harry Potter is more than a gateway to reading; it’s a pattern book to literature. If you read it mindfully with an eye to how it is put together and what has symbolic meaning as well as literal meaning, you’ll know all you need to know about how to mindfully read any other book as well. That’s magic.

When Harry Meets Homer Understanding the Classics with a Little Help from the Boy Who Lived

Sharon Gerald Jones County Junior College Ellisville, MS Contact: sharon.gerald@jcjc.edu

www.teacherlytech.net www.writerlyhaphazardry.net Copies of this document available on Scribd: http://www.scribd.com/ sharon_gerald