Harry Potter and the Trip to the Underworld
This essay was originally published with the Book Smugglers in October, 2016.
Welcome to Halloween, Hogwarts students of all stripes.
J. K. Rowling is a master mixer of genres. She will dress up a skeleton of a British “school days” story with magic, sprinkle it with social satire here and there, and borrow a creature and a concept from mythology. She doesn’t shy away from horror, either. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is rife with elements of horror. Harry Potter finds that Hogwarts, once his safe haven, is haunted by a disembodied voice that no one else can hear. The only way he can address this horror is by diving deep into Hogwarts’ history, there to meet his own Shadow – Tom Riddle. In this freeform essay, I will argue how the symbolic use of characters and places enriches the conflicts within Chamber of Secrets.
Tom Riddle, the boy who becomes Voldemort, operates as a much more subtle villain than his future self. He is Harry’s Shadow: Harry’s counterpart and unconscious self, the embodiment of all that Harry cannot help being, fears to be, could be – but chooses to reject.
Tom himself points out the similarities between himself and Harry, noting they are “both half-bloods, orphans, raised by Muggles… two Parselmouths… we even look something alike” (Chamber, chapter seventeen). They both see Hogwarts as their home. Through a mere diary, Tom manipulates Harry into thinking what Tom wants him to think, saying “they gave me a nice, shiny, engraved trophy… and warned me to keep my mouth shut,” thus appealing to Harry’s distrust of authority (chapter thirteen).
Harry also has a manipulative streak – witness how he pressures his Uncle Vernon, in Prisoner of Azkaban, to a deal to sign Harry’s permission slip to visit Hogsmeade. And although Harry does not literally pour his soul into objects, he does treasure things deeply, such as his father’s Cloak of Invisibility – one of the few reminders of his lost family.
Tom Riddle is also obsessed with his lost family, but his vision is very different from Harry’s. Riddle, raised as a Muggle, essentially makes up what he wants Slytherin’s legacy to be. As we learn in later books, Riddle murders the members of his already disowned family, making an utterly clean slate of his past. (Appropriate, then, that he first appears in the same book as Gilderoy Lockhart, who makes a literal career out of erasing the past and building up a new one in his own image.)
Where Riddle rejects his flawed past, Harry Potter can accept his own. In Deathly Hallows, he is able to let the Dursleys go on to their own lives, without vengeance or rancor. He can understand and memorialize the flawed people that Albus Dumbledore and Severus Snape were (in Snape’s case, very flawed). And accepting the flaws of people started when Harry accepted the complexity of his first home – Hogwarts. He visited Hogwarts’ dark underbelly, its Underworld, the Chamber of Secrets.
The Underworld is an archetype of a place. Generally in world mythology, the “Underworld” is shorthand for the world of the dead. In modern storytelling, the Underworld is just as likely a psychic phenomena: the place where the soul’s struggles become real, where the hero must confront his own darker nature before carrying on with his Quest.
Now, why do I say that the Chamber is Hogwarts’ Underworld?
Well, the most obvious reason is that the Chamber sits beneath Hogwarts. But the Chamber has a symbolic force far beyond its mere location. No other place parallels Hogwarts in the visceral way that the Chamber does. Not the Shrieking Shack, not the Room of Lost Things, not even the passage guarded by a three-headed dog named Fluffy.
The Chamber has been there since almost the very beginning of Hogwarts, laid down by the fourth Founder, Salazar Slytherin. Hogwarts, as the Founders intended it, was going to be a city on a hill, a safe place for all students of magic. But the Founders themselves could not live up to their ideals. I like to imagine that all four Founders had their role to play in the falling-out, but it was Slytherin who actually departed. He did not only depart, but corrupt his life’s work: in the midst of Hogwarts’ safe haven, the Chamber’s monster is meant to murder the “unworthy.”
And the Chamber, you’ll notice, is just barely sealed away. The entrance sits in that most prosaic of places, a student’s bathroom, connected to the school pipes. The Chamber was there all along. It is in the very water that the students drink.
Then, Harry’s meeting with Tom Riddle is more than just a scheduled villain fight, dictated by the laws of genre. Harry is meeting his own worst self and confronting it. He saves Ginny Weasley (who I’m tempted to say symbolizes the sleeping summer goddess, but that is the subject of another essay) and at the same time, he is trying to redeem the very soul of Hogwarts itself.
Harry’s victory is incomplete. Slytherin’s corrupted memory lives on in the form of Voldemort and his followers. But, Harry breaks Tom Riddle’s hold over the school, and over young Ginny Weasley. Harry, according to Dumbledore, “has many qualities [that] Salazar Slytherin prized in his hand-picked students,” and this means he has the ability to heal the fracture between Gryffindor and Slytherin. Where Tom Riddle seeks to steal, erase, and control the legacy of the Founders, Harry can reconcile and redeem what the Founders left broken.
And he could not do it without facing the worst of Hogwarts’ memory, within the Chamber itself. He faces the ghost within the haunted house and drives it out. Some heroes find great strength and grace in the Underworld, but Harry is not one of those heroes. Instead, linked with his friends and Fawkes, the phoenix of death and rebirth, Harry soars out of the Underworld without once looking back. He returns to the world he knows, a world that J. K. Rowling has re-organized into her unique combination of boarding school story and whodunit – with Harry the detective summarizing the solution to the mystery.
Perhaps Harry is a tad more Riddle-ish now – he handily interprets the last mystery of who planted the diary, and manipulates Lucius Malfoy into accidentally freeing his own house-elf. Such selflessness is far beyond Riddle – and that is why Rowling condemns him to die in the dark, while Harry strides out into summer sunshine. So ends one of the most symbolically rich of the Harry Potter books, a series laden, even in its least impressive volumes, with symbolism and mythological undertones that give it lasting meaning, depth, and complexity.