Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone The Seven Challenges as Rowling's Rite of Passage

In the penultimate chapter of “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” Harry, Ron, and Hermione must successfully pass several challenges in order to retrieve the Sorcerer’s Stone. Each of these challenges emphasizes a different magical skill, which corresponds to the Hogwarts professor who instituted the challenge. The first challenge is to circumvent a ferocious three-headed dog to reach the access trapdoor; the second challenge is to escape from the throttling tendrils of Devil’s Snare, a plant that strangles its victims; the third challenge is to retrieve a flying key from among hundreds and unlock the door into the next chamber; the fourth challenge is to win a giant-sized game of wizard’s chess; the fifth challenge is to master a wizard’s riddle of poisonous potions; and the sixth and final challenge is to retrieve the Sorcerer’s Stone from within the Mirror of Erised.

Harry, Ron, and Hermione each bring a different set of skills to this series of challenges. As first-year students, none of them have the magical experience or talent that would allow them to reach the Sorcerer’s Stone on their own; they must help each other move from challenge to challenge. With her calm rationality and cool grasp of magical knowledge, Hermione is able to move the group safely past the Devil’s Snare and the difficult potions riddle constructed by Professor Snape. The ever-loyal Ron is able to defeat Professor McGonagall’s impossible chess match, though at the price of having to sacrifice himself. Harry is able to use his flying skills and sheer courage to pass by the three-headed dog, retrieve the flying key, retrieve the Sorcerer’s Stone and, in an unexpected seventh challenge, survive a personal encounter with Voldemort.

Through this impressive display of camaraderie and loyalty, Harry, Ron, and Hermione prevent Voldemort from using the Sorcerer’s Stone and regaining the dark power that he once possessed. After the challenges have been won and Voldemort has fled, the three students enjoy the end-year-feast and Gryffindor’s surprise victory over Slytherin to win the House Cup. After the feast, all three will return to their separate homes for the summer holidays and return for the second year of study (and the second novel of the series) after a few months. Yet, Harry, Ron, and Hermione’s successful passage through this series of challenges has a significance that echoes far beyond their defeat of the dark wizard. Although the Hogwarts professors may have only meant to protect the Sorcerer’s Stone, they also create a situation in which Harry, Ron, and Hermione undergo an unorthodox coming-of-age ritual and prove their worth and readiness for adulthood.

In many traditions, societies prepare their young adults to enter adulthood through complicated rituals and challenges that are meant to exhibit their skills as individuals and readiness to become active members of the community. In Ancient Sparta, for example, boys of thirteen were sent into the mountains as a test of their strength, resiliency, and ability to survive under difficult conditions. If they survived, they were deemed fit to continue in their training to become Spartan warriors. Similarly, young adult males in the Luiseno tribe had to undergo extremely difficult and often painful challenges in order to prove their worth, including lying on red ant mounts and taking hallucinogenic drugs. In each of these cases, the difficulty and even painful nature of the initiation emphasizes the importance of a child’s transition into adulthood.

Even in contemporary society, many communities still require a certain ritual to fulfill the transition into adulthood. For example, in the Jewish tradition, boys and girls of thirteen must perform a complex religious ceremony (called a Bar Mitzvah or Bat Mitzvah) to prove that they are ready to fulfill the obligations of the Jewish commandments. Although this ceremony does not require a physical challenge such as older traditions, it still requires a great deal of dedication and hard work for the Bar Mitzvah (“one to whom the commandments apply”) to complete the ceremony successfully.

Considering this background of cultural rites of passage, Harry, Ron, and Hermione’s ordeal in the Hogwarts dungeon exhibits clear similarities to traditional rituals. Each of the challenges tests a different set of skills in the three students, but all require the students to exercise survival skills, as well as intelligence, physical strength, and logic: all qualities that are desirable in a wizard or witch who intends to join the larger magical community. Notably, the other first-years at Hogwarts undergo a more traditional “rite of passage” in the form of year-end exams. Harry, Ron, and Hermione also take these exams, but they do not have the same significance or the same true test of skills as the seven challenges.

At the very end of the novel, Dumbledore acknowledges that Harry, Ron, and Hermione have passed this impromptu rite of passage by awarding them a total of one hundred and sixty points. This amount allows Gryffindor to win the House Cup and, suddenly, the feast becomes a celebration of the three students’ accomplishments. In the end, Harry, Ron, and Hermione’s successful navigation of the seven challenges and their entry into adulthood proves that they are, indeed, worthy protagonists of the six novels that will follow.