The Harry Potter Convos We Need to Have Julia Gazdag

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.

Photo Credit: cgespino’s Flickr stream

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  1. That was absolutely brilliant. Wonderful read and insight!!

  2. I also found the Voldemort/Hitler comparison because Voldemort himself is a mud blood and impure- the very thing he hates in other people just like Hitler was rumored to be part Jewish.

    • I find more of the correlation of their hypocrisy in that Hitler was a brunette who ranted and raved in his speeches, while emphasizing aryan purity and the importance of order in society. A rumor is just a rumor, but facts speak for themselves.

  3. Thank you for writing this. It’s absolutely brilliant. :)

  4. I love Harry Potter. I could read the series from Book 1 to Book 7 and then start all over again the very next day. I love these books and the part I love the very most is that I pick up on new little tidbits every time I read them. I love the seemingly insignificant dialogue between two characters, how they treat one another, how they react to one another and how it changes throughout the series. I love the depth of the characters, as you pointed out. They seem so very real to me. They’re human. One of my favorite themes throughout the books is the distinction between good and evil. There are times when it seems as if they are not too distant from one another, especially in the fifth book when Harry feels so close to Voldemort and so far from his friends. It’s because of the closeness between these two characters that good and evil are able to be presented in such stark contrast. I love the emphasis placed upon the power of a pure and whole soul. It’s the simple, yet very strategically portrayed truth, that gets me. We should never underestimate the power of a good person.

  5. I started to read the books before it was cool, I was in 7th grade I think, now I’m 22, college student!! (time has passed) I studied in a catholic church, were discipline and dictatorship were confused with one another. I used to daydream of studying at Hogwarts, and those books opened up new places for me!! :)

    Loved the article, I couldn’t agree with you more! Harry Potter is like a good book of philosophy mixed with psychology, social science and all that interesting stuff.

  6. YEAH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  7. Such a gooooooooood article! I grew up with the series, started reading them when I was eleven. I remember even as a young teen being awestruck that SO MANY kids and adults were SO EXCITED to read such big, beautiful, complex ‘children’s’ books.
    I think they did a great job of bringing to life Voldemort’s regime and the propaganda machine established at the Ministry. When I saw it, it really brought to life the similarities with the Third Reich and the Holocaust, and authoritarian regimes in general.
    It really is amazing that so many relevant themes are found within the series- you made great points!

  8. An article about my favorite subject, and almost as brilliant as the subject itself. Very well thought out. This made me swell with pride a bit, because it’s so damn true.

  9. dude, you are so right about Neville. I mean, who saw that coming??!

  10. Oh my goodness this was fantastic. People need to understand–Harry Potter is awesome for a reason–and you describe these reasons so well. Perfect.

  11. This is a really fantastic defense of the series, exploring a lot of the nuances that those whose reaction is to scoff at children’s books simply refuse to investigate. I would also add to the discussion the fact that not only did Jo Rowling resurrect the declining influence of books in the 21st century child’s life, she has also written very skillfully, blending a clear grasp of the English literary tradition with postmodern themes. In a way, she has educated a generation almost inadvertently, and it is clear that her eloquence has made no small impact on you as well. I really appreciated this piece.

  12. I think that you could not have said it better. I myself did not even finish the books till this past June. And I could not grasp why people really enjoyed them, until the third book. I think this is because from the outside Harry Potter seems like just a series of books that caught a wave of attention, but for every reason you pointed out(and a couple of my own reasons,) I have fallen head over heels for the series because it does explain so much about EVERYTHING! Now having only just recently read the series, I am late on the wagon, but grateful that I did not miss out on a chance to read one of the most influential novels of my generation.

    • Book 3. That’s how she gets you, right?? When I first read it, I was up to the very end (the exciting part) and had to meet some people so I took it with me and sat in a cafe reading while my friends talked around me. They would try making fun of me for being anti-social and I just looked up and said “you’ve already read it, you know where I’m at” and they’d stop. When I put it down I realized I was in trouble: I had one more book to read, and three more to wait years for!

  13. This is so beautifully written. As a huge “PotHead” (what the kids ins school called me before the first movie came out and the series became “cool”) from the beginning I wanted to weep while reading this. You hit so many nails on the head and described it all wonderfully. I seriously wish I could be your best friend after this because you simply rock and are clearly very smart. I wish I could learn more from you and have such in depth conversations. I’m sure if Jo reads this, she will feel the warm fuzzies forever. This piece is truly epic.

    • You’re giving me the warm fuzzies and making me all teary-eyed reading your comment! I feel like we should cry, hug, read books and then have tea and discuss said books. Seriously, thank you for your amazingly sweet words!

  14. This whole piece is spectacular. I’ve been a fan of HP for ages, and more than once I’ve found myself having to defend my love for the series against people who think it’s merely “kid stuff” or “fantasy wizard crap,” and to be honest, it just makes me sad that people write the entire series off like that.
    This article highlights just a few of the series’ MANY key elements that truly, truly make it great.. you even pointed out a few things that I had never thought of before (but I guess that’s why I love HP.. always something new to cogitate on!). Thank you for outlining them so intelligently and beautifully!

  15. Brilliant! I’m a teacher and always looking for books that do not talk down to my 11 yr olds. They are capable of understanding such complex realities and relationships. I loved the points here and the Harry series.

  16. I am almost in tears about how great this is. It was actually just the other day I was wondering what the HelloGiggles team though about Harry Potter (it being such a massive part of my life) and you’ve (more than) managed to really get at what makes the series not only a great read, but a learning experience within itself. Also loving the fact that at the mention of further exploration, it becomes obvious you have an endless amount to say when it comes to the way Jo has created the Harry Potter universe. Wonderful, wonderful article!

  17. AMAZING!! I looooove ur writings Julia… You totally get it…

  18. This is a beautifully written article. The importance that is placed on education that you mention is something that I think will allow these books to stand the test of time (aside from all its other awesomeness of course). As a gay fella myself I got a little teary eyed reading about the loneliness that Dumbledore must have felt being who and what he was. He will always be a gay role model to me though. At least there will always be memories of Grindelwald.

    • I can’t believe that after Rowling made the comment about Dumbledore’s sexuality, no one came out with an article on what the various meanings might be behind her choice to create basically a God character and write him to be gay. What an immensely powerful idea!

  19. That was beautiful. I feel like you took all of my thoughts and put them in much prettier language than I could. Thanks.

  20. This is an amazing article! Every point is totally valid, but I especially liked what you had to say about Dumbledore and that because we’re so hetero normative it was a shock for many to learn of his orientation, but it IS there, subtly. Thank you!

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