Like many children in the home-schooling, Christian community I grew up in, I was not allowed to read Harry Potter. Why? “It has magical forces in it.” Duh. What about Lord of the Rings? Narnia? Star Wars? Totally fine. Harry Potter? That was of the devil. As my mother now apologetically admits, “All the other Christians we knew were against it, so we were too.” *insert giant eye roll*
Inconsistent value judgements kept me from Harry as a child, and disinterest and snobbery on my part meant that I didn’t begin reading Harry Potter until post-college. What finally lead me to pick up Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is still a mystery. Perhaps it was my desire to appreciate my generation’s cultural references, long lost on me, or my need to better understand the house system my alma mater closely resembles, but twenty years after the first book was published and six years after the last movie premiered, I finally joined the party most of my friends had attended, loved, and now left.
And goodness, was it a blast.
From exploring Hogwarts and eating dinner at the Burrow to sprinting through Great Britain saving the wizarding world, I was immediately enthralled with this universe. While reading the first book, I created a Pottermore account and took the sorting quiz (I’m a Gryffindor). I talked about reading Harry Potter as if I had just started dating a new man. My roommates were the recipients of a variety of sounds – exclamations, sighs, shouts, tears – issued from the chair I curled up on to read in our apartment. A few examples:
“It was Quirrell!”
“Oliver Wood better win this Quidditch match!”
“Oh my gosh! Harry stop!”
*Gasp* “SNAPE! NOOOOOO!” *Cries*
“I love the Weasleys!!!!!” (This was repeated ad nauseam.)
My reactions were met with laughs, grunts, or the occasional sarcastic quip (“You’re just getting to this now?”) from my roommates, who had all read the books or seen the movies years ago. They constantly reminded me how late I had hopped on the Harry Potter bandwagon.
Now that I’ve been let into a previously forbidden world, part of me is sad that I missed the height of Harry Potter mania. I can picture myself waiting in line for the next book release, dressing up for midnight movie premieres, and growing up with Harry, Ron, and Hermione alongside my friends. However, another part of me is glad I didn’t.
As an adult reading the series for the first time, I was able to watch them grow up, rather than grow up with them. Because I have experienced more of life, I was able to grasp themes and concepts that I could only dimly have understood as a child or adolescent. Situations and experiences in the series posed questions for me as the reader. With the plotline surrounding Dolores Umbridge, I wondered, “What should government involvement in a school look like?” While reading about Rita Skeeter and her manipulative devices, I thought about the current political dialogue about “fake news” and “alternative facts,” especially considering the Ministry’s control of the Daily Prophet as a clear example of the problems that arise when the government controls the press.
The Ministry itself provides a wealth of examples of good and bad governance. One can contemplate the creation of a totalitarian state, the rise of a tyrant (cough, Voldermort, cough), the relationship between the wealthy and the middle classes, and so on and so forth.
The series tackles discussions about racism and gender equality almost seamlessly. They arise so naturally in the plot that my 12-year-old self would not have noticed they were there. I don’t think I would have truly recognized the weight of the blow Draco deals Hermione when he calls her a “mudblood,” the significance of Hermione’s Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare (SPEW), or the importance of the wizards’ struggle to protect the Muggle world.
My younger self wouldn’t have appreciated the feminism J.K. Rowling weaves into the narrative and characters. The story is obviously an adventurous coming-of-age tale about a boy, but it includes a cast of terrific male and female characters in a balanced ratio. For every Harry there is a Hermione and for every Dumbledore there is a McGonagall. Neville, Luna, Lupin, Molly, Moody, Tonks, Ron, Ginny, Lucius, Bellatrix, Snape, Lily … you get the picture. The series does not relegate women to eye candy, nor does it put down the men by making them weak. Rather, it portrays men and women as people with equally multifaceted and complicated personalities.
However, my biggest takeaway from the series is perhaps the significance of choice and community. As an adolescent, I probably would have picked up on the obvious emphasis on choosing one’s destiny and trusting one’s friends, but would not have understood the weight and trouble that came with both because of a lack of experience. Now a young adult, I know the pain that comes with and without choice and community. I’ve lived through the hurt Harry felt when he proclaimed that he didn’t want to be human if it meant suffering for those he’s lost. I’ve felt the confusion of not knowing what to do next.
As a recent college graduate trying to figure out the next steps for her life, Harry came to me in my time of existential crisis. I am now feeling the agony of having to choose what you want and who you want to become. I am now understanding firsthand what it feels like to be isolated from a former community and the struggle that comes from learning how to fight for companionship.
At the end of Chamber of Secrets, Dumbledore gives Harry sage, everlasting advice. He says, “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities” (Chamber 333). From the fight Harry gives the Sorting Hat at the very beginning of his time at Hogwarts to choosing to die for the ones he loves, Harry’s choices shape his destiny. This power of choice is simultaneously comforting and terrifying. Because of this, the freedom of choice is far better placed in the warmth of a loving community than in a solitary individual.
In Half-Blood Prince, referring to Harry, Snape says that “He has fought his way out of a number of tight corners by a simple combination of sheer luck and more talented friends” (31). While Snape is being condescending to Harry, he is not far from the truth. Without his friends, Harry kind of sucks.
He is moody, full of angst, and would have died in the first book, and all the ones subsequent, without them. His friends love Harry and persist in supporting him – not because he is the boy who lived, but because he is Harry. Just Harry. Through Harry’s trouble-making and attitude issues, Ron, Hermione, Hagrid, Lupin, Sirius, Dumbledore, McGonagall, Neville, Luna, Ginny, and the whole Weasley family are always there for him. As I’ve grown older, I’ve realized how important just being THERE is.
Take this passage from Half-Blood Prince, where Harry tells Ron and Hermione about the prophecy for the first time:
Harry did not really listen. A warmth was spreading through him that had nothing to do with the sunlight; a tight obstruction in his chest seemed to be dissolving. He knew that Ron and Hermione were more shocked than they were letting on, but the mere fact that they were still there on either side of him, speaking bracing words of comfort, not shrinking from him as though he were contaminated or dangerous, was worth more than he could ever tell them (99).
While I immensely enjoyed the magic and adventure that so attracts children to the series, it was these quieter moments that drew me in as an adult. Moments such as when Harry realizes that he finally has family by way of his godfather Sirius, when Neville – sweet, loyal, bumbling Neville – proclaims that Harry is not alone in the Department of Mysteries, and when Ginny, Hermione, and Mrs. Weasley force Harry to talk about his vision of the snake demonstrate the tender strength of Harry’s people winning the day. It is in those moments where they all watch Harry choose who he is to become that they in turn help shape who he is becoming.
As Harry Potter demonstrates, we become our choices in community, which is what makes the epilogue at the end of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows so beautiful. The epilogue – simple and commonplace – is where the true heroism of the story lies. This is where Harry gets to keep on keeping on. It’s where he continues to make choices. It’s where he continues to choose family, community, and love. It’s where his friends continue to choose him. It is there on Platform 9 ¾ where life continues past the grand, dangerous adventure.
In Half-Blood Prince, when Dumbledore tells Harry, “Yes, Harry, you can love … Which, given everything that has happened to you, is a great and remarkable thing. You are still too young to understand how unusual you are, Harry,” Dumbledore hits the nail on the head (509). It is not until you’ve been hardened by the world and your experiences that you understand how incredibly hard it is to love and how amazing it is when you are loved.
The power of the story is that Harry does not exist in isolation. He knows that he cannot do life alone. He is the hero that needed a whole cast of heroes. I constantly struggle between isolating myself and yet wanting to be around people, who I am repelled by most of the time. It’s hard for me to ask for help. The Harry Potter series has not only given me permission to ask for help but has shown me that help is something I need. I’m convicted, challenged, and inspired by Harry Potter.
As a child, I had little thoughts about who I was and what I wanted. I had no idea how hard it was to form and sustain a group of supportive people. I had no understanding of the difficulty that comes with decision-making. Now that I’m a young adult and college graduate, I’m thankful that Harry came to me in my moment of “crisis.” I am glad I enjoyed the tale of the boy who lived and his friends at an age where I could more fully engage and understand the difficult triumph that comes with loving and being loved.
Thanks, Mom, for making me wait!
Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Scholastic Paperbacks. Kindle Edition.
Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Scholastic Paperbacks. Kindle Edition.
Born and raised in New York, Leah Contreras recently graduated from The King’s College with a B.A. in Politics, Philosophy, and Economics. She is currently working as a receptionist which gives her plenty of time to read (mostly fantasy novels and memoirs). Her future plans include a grad program at London School of Economics in history and drinking lots of tea.