Why is it that anything popular becomes instantly polarizing and people feel the need to define themselves by whether they love said anything or reject it? In the midst of this last Harry Potter adoration flare-up, I’ve realized that while there has been endless discussion of the series, I haven’t heard people talk much about the reasons that truly make it great. And frankly, I would say these are worthwhile reasons for even the thirstiest of haterade drinkers to take a gander into Hogwarts.
You don’t have to be a fan, but I think we can all agree that it’s clearly more than just a story about some wizard kid. There are probably spoilers ahead but honestly, if you haven’t read the books by now then neither I, nor your god, can help you. I’m focusing on the books here because the films are more of an illustration of Rowling’s world and I would probably get distracted anyway and trail off about how Neville turned into a total babe.
First of all, I love the idea that J.K. Rowling set up a world in which the safest place is school. Overall in the wizarding world, and especially for Harry, the place that is secure and that he feels most at home, is an educational institution. People die to protect it. This is a remarkable aspect of this series, to focus so intensely on intellectual pursuit and place such a high value on it. It’s not just because setting the story at a boarding school is a smart move when you’re writing about adolescents. One of the most overt themes of the series is that knowledge is power and frankly, that’s a message I can get behind. Come the end of the series, it’s where the battle between reason and madness is fought and won. Even the mayor of Crazytown comes to Hogwarts because he knows that controlling education is the key to controlling society.
Because Voldemort is more than just a literary villain. He’s an absolute sociopath who – and I won’t be the first to point this out – is pretty much a hop skip and a jump away from Hitler. The concept of racial purity is immensely pervasive, and the mixed blood control freak who rants about wizarding purity reminds me all too much of that stumpy brunette madman raving about aryan dominance. It’s the closest the collective consciousness of Western society has come to an open dialogue about the Holocaust. What impresses me most, though, is how Rowling breaks down the psychology of it. She depicts Voldemort as the psychopath he is, but he is not a two dimensional villain. He is a bright, handsome, charismatic young man and the people who follow him are drawn to these qualities. It isn’t a two dimensional world where evil pursues evil for the sake of it. People who are greedy, corrupt, or have other vested interests in Voldemort’s cause are also joined by those who are merely afraid to stand up and oppose him. Others, who mean no harm, choose to ignore his alarming traits because they don’t want to deal with their implications. The result is his descent into complete madness, ultimately altering his physical form to reflect the horrifying person he and his world allowed him to become.
What struck me most about the series was how it dealt with death. I feel like I could give the books to my children to read one day and use them to open up dialogue on some pretty intense issues. I started reading the series in the fall of 2001 and have lost several special people in my life since then. Besides being a haven of distraction, Harry Potter hit a nerve particularly at the end of the 5th book when Sirius died. Harry’s aimless wandering around the grounds, his mood swings, his simultaneous need for both solitude and companionship was a spot on depiction of grief at its utmost. The way Rowling walks the reader through Harry’s experience of Dumbledore’s funeral is stunningly apt. The series has immense soul and Rowling clearly poured her own into it.
Her values come through clearly and they are admirable ones. She not only pairs Harry up to be besties with the kid in class from the lowest social strata, she pits him against the one from the highest. There is an almost aggressively pushed theme of individual qualities having value over social standing, seen both through Harry’s relationships and the whole pure-blood theme. Hermione crusades for the oppressed workers and more than any sort of embedded socialist propaganda, Rowling explores the various reactions to her activism. It’s not so much about whether elf rights is a valid issue, but about how people react to the idea of an established part of the system being challenged, especially if it means sacrificing their own comforts.
This is my favorite aspect of the Harry Potter Septology, or whatever you want to call it (spell-check, for example, wants to call it Herpetology). Through all the issues with the Ministry of Magic, with Dolores Umbridge, with the various ministers etc, Harry is basically challenging bureaucracy and administrative politics. As someone who spent much of high school engaged in debate with school administrators, I truly appreciate how Harry struggles with the systems at hand. He enters the magical world as an unassuming boy but even when the Ministry deals with him benevolently, he is skeptical of getting special treatment. His trial at the start of book 5, everything involving Umbridge, The Ministry’s vilification of him and subsequent solicitation – these are all a criticism of politics on various levels. They speak to abuses of power and reflect issues that are not uncommon in the real world. Stan Shunpike’s time in Azkaban merely because the government needed a scapegoat is not a new concept, but I find it to be a brave and intense idea to weave into a children’s series.
Then, there’s Dumbledore. In a way his character is even more tragic than Snape’s. He’s the old man with the long white beard who sits in the topmost tower, the answer to everyone’s problems who can step in and fix everything with his magic and insight. Until he dies. And until then, he’s up there alone. He’s the only one with no one to turn to, trapped by his intelligence and ability in benevolent solitude. All that hubbub over his sexuality speaks more to Rowling’s audience than her writing. Dumbledore’s homosexuality was a surprise because we’re so hetero normative that unless the word G-A-Y is spelled out for us in neon rainbow letters, we just assume everyone is straight. He is often described as flamboyant and there are small clues to his sexuality, but this is Harry’s story so why would Rowling distract from the plot just to throw a parade? In a world where the wizarding population is already small, I would assume that even without his isolating intellect and stature, Dumbledore would have a hard time finding a partner. Like I said, tragic.
Finally, let’s take a brief moment to learn a few lessons from Snape, because I would never forgive myself if I left him out. Through seven books we see a vicious, bitter, unkempt man who abuses his position. You know throughout the series – assuming you took 7th grade English - that the guy is being set up for redemption at the last minute. I was almost more upset at his death than Fred Weasley’s (I said almost – Jo Rowling, I will never forgive you, that was not nice). Snape turns out to be the socially awkward product of an abusive household. His bitterness stems from a life spent focusing affection where it would never be reciprocated, and his loneliness leaves him with no ability to deviate from this self-destructive pattern. It just goes to show, you never know what someone else’s deal is, and maybe a little sympathy wouldn’t hurt once in a while.
Ultimately, the reason Harry Potter appeals to so many demographics and age groups is because while writing for children, Rowling doesn’t speak down to them. She addresses them with respect and the assumption that they are able to grasp sophisticated ideas. By weaving complex themes into her series she not only opens up these subjects for conversation amongst her readers, but she prepares children for when they have to face similar situations in life. There is a call to challenge the system if it is unfair, and to stand up for morals and convictions. Sure, the escapism of reading a fantasy novel is an enjoyable distraction. But the real hook is that the fantasy removes us far enough from our own reality to examine it and hopefully come to understand it better, emerging back into the real world a more active participant.
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