If you are reading this post, then you are probably a young person (at heart or literally). Being a Harry Potter fan, you are likely either British or American, as both of those countries have the highest density of fans. But, regardless of whatever nationality you identify as there is a good chance that as a Harry Potter fan, you have been raised on Western Cultural sensibilities. After all, this is the canon which Harry Potter bases itself on and within. In short, Harry Potter and the West is closely linked.
Why is this relevant? Because the Arthurian mythos is relevant and Western.
It is no surprise, then, that the adventures of the Boy Who Lived take inspiration from the legend of King Arthur. After all, Rowling openly admitted that the Arthurian narrative influenced her writing of Harry Potter; besides that, King Arthur and its attendant myths, have this tendency to cannibalize whatever it comes across. Be it cultural tales or rousing stories of heroism.
Be that as it may, I will not be going through each and every instance of where and how the Arthurian legend interacts with Rowling’s universe. There is just so much overlap; it would be impossible to trace all of it in just a single post. So instead, I will chop up how Harry Potter meets King Arthur in a series of posts designed specifically to tackle the complex yet intriguing ways in which the two worlds collide.
Here, in part one, I want to look at the Arthurian motif known as the Fair Unknown.
According to Alan Lupack in the Oxford Guide to Arthurian Literature and Legend, the Fair Unknown is where “an unknown youth comes to Arthur’s court and proves himself to be a great knight” (443). Usually, the Fair Unknown is someone whose high lineage is unknown to him while being raised but will nonetheless manage to seek out the greatness which was destined for him by his great lineage. The idea behind this concept is that those who are truly great will find a way to prove their greatness regardless of poverty or disadvantage. Come class or high water, the Fair Unknown is someone who will live up to the legend whether they like it or not.
Does this sound familiar? It should because it is the entire plot of Harry Potter.
Early in the film adaptation of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, when Dumbledore and Minerva are talking in the prologue as Harry is delivered to the Dursleys, Minerva remarks how famous Harry will be along with how the Dursleys are terrible people. Dumbledore simply responds that this sort of life is for the best since it will teach him humility and keep him out of the public eye.
Minerva is right, of course, as the Dursleys treat Harry horribly. They make his bedroom a closet, force him to make them breakfast every morning along with a host of other menial tasks, and generally abuse him psychologically. Far removed from the slightest trace of the magical world, Harry is isolated from the community he belongs.
But, Harry makes it!
Harry finds his way to Hogwarts. Not only that, but Harry does do great things! Basilisk slaying, winning the Tri-Wizard tournament and besting the Dark Lord at every turn. Not to mention that he founded Dumbledore’s Army when not playing Quidditch as the youngest seeker in a century. Leading his house to victory on more than one occasion, Harry proves that despite his humble origins he can rise to the top.
To make this comparison fully work, however, we must contextualize some details.
In the Arthurian mythos, for example, the concepts surrounding the Fair Unknown are knightly; knights-in-training, kings and their courts, and epic quests. At first glance, it should be obvious that Harry Potter is not any of these things. Digging deeper, though, we see that the story of the Boy Who Lived is these things when we look at it from a different angle.
Harry is no knight but like a young squire training to be a knight, he is training to be a wizard, which could be likened as a knight in the sense that they are part of an organization dedicated to serving specific institutions (in this case, the Ministry of Magic). Though Harry does not arrive at King Arthur’s court, he does arrive at the prestigious wizarding school Hogwarts, which is a massive castle. There is no king but there is Dumbledore, the legendary headmaster who bears in his name the name of an Arthurian knight (“Perceval”). And while there may be no “quests” to gain fame, there is Hogwarts’s point system which rewards students for doing well in their classes and performing morally righteous deeds. Add all this together, and we start to see that Harry’s world is more Arthurian than we originally thought!
I think it is safe to conclude that Harry Potter is one of history’s most famous Fair Unknowns. Matching everything to a “t”, Harry shows that there are elements to certain stories that truly are timeless. Though we can only guess whether his tale will stand the test of time, right now we can appreciate how elements from the past have found new and unexpected life as components to the tale of the Boy Who Lived.