What I learned reading Harry Potter for the first time as an adult

Last summer, at the ripe old age of 24, I read through the Harry Potter series for the very first time.

Yes, you read that correctly. Somehow I made it through middle school, high school, and college with barely any knowledge of the Boy Who Lived (much to the chagrin of my mega-Potter-head college roommate). Finally, after having been filled with the appropriate amount of shame (I was an English major, for crying out loud!) my co-worker Kelly finally thunked her hardback copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone on my desk. This was May. By August, it goes without saying, my life was forever changed.

Sometimes I feel twinges of regret about waiting so long to join in the magic. I wonder what my childhood would have been like, if I’d been able to grow up alongside Harry, Hermoine, and Ron. I look back at pictures of ecstatic, costumed children at book releases and movie premieres and think, man, that could have been me! I imagine how excruciating it would have been to wait years between the installments, instead of just a few days (I know, I’m incredibly spoiled).

But at the same time, I know I was able to glean a whole lot from my first-time reading of Harry Potter that my 12-year old or 15-year old self would never have noticed or appreciated. It’s a testament to the vivid imagination, dedication, and literary prowess of Jo Rowling that for most of the series I barely felt at all that I was reading books meant for children.

Here are just a few great things I took away from Harry Potter as a first-time, grown up reader.

Hufflepuff is actually the greatest house

We’ve all heard them, the Hufflepuff jokes. Oh, they’re the reject house. When I suggest to certain friends that they would probably be sorted into Hufflepuff, I get back the inevitable “Nooo, that’s so lame!” And sure, as a kid, it can be easy to dismiss qualities like “loyalty” and “mad gardening skills” as being inferior to the mental prowess of Ravenclaw or the breakneck bravery of Gryffindor. I mean, I myself was sorted into Gryffindor, and I have a fair amount of house loyalty!

But from a more seasoned perspective, Hufflepuff House is not only inspiring, but almost tear-jerkingly beautiful. It takes experience of a betrayal to realize how valuable loyalty is. It takes being hungry, unemployed, and far from home to realize how important family and a hearty meal can be. It takes a brush or two with death to begin to see the importance of life and growth, and the endless promise of dirt, earth, and springtime.

Maybe the most beautiful part is that Helga Hufflepuff didn’t want to turn anyone away from her house, no matter if they weren’t quite brave, clever, or ambitious enough. Because she knew that we all need love, community, and education to turn into our best selves. And that is a goal worth fighting for.

Harry is the best, obviously, but also might be hard to be friends with sometimes

Harry is our man. We get to see the world through his eyes. And, having lacked any kind of familial love and security as a child, naturally he’s going to be a bit on the wild side. When you’re a kid, you’re happy to get into trouble right along with him! After all, you’re learning about Hogwarts and the Wizarding world just like he is. But man…as an adult, you really feel a lot of sympathy for the teachers, pretty much any responsible adult Harry has to interact with…even the Dursleys! (I mean, they did live with a Horcrux for 17 years).

At the same time, though, you can’t totally blame Harry for his antics. He’s a kid who had so much working against him, and most of the people he trusted were either dead or lying to him for most of his life. As Harry matures and we see how much he’s willing to sacrifice for those he loves, even the grown-ups can’t help but take a page from Harry’s book. He’s the boy who lived, loved, and won our hearts.

Hermoine is so incredibly inspiring

OK, so, this is pretty obvious to anyone who reads the book, no matter their age. But it’s even more powerful and inspiring to watch Hermoine grow up from an older perspective. She is the definition of a self-made woman. Hailing from muggle origins (the daughter of dentists, no less) only-child Hermoine Granger has to rely on her own gumption to succeed at Hogwarts. She doesn’t have magical blood, a famous pedigree, a secret vault full of money, or even an older sibling to teach her the ropes. But gosh darn it, she’s got the library, and a copy of Hogwarts: A History, and she’s going to succeed if it kills her.

As a fellow young woman trying to make my way in the world, how could Hermoine not be my hero? Her flaws teach me that humility is important to making my relationships work. Her strengths teach me that being a nerd is OK. Her care and preparedness save the day (and usually someone’s life) in every single book, and she makes me want to work hard to be just as awesome of a friend (and roadtrip companion) as she is.

It’s an epic, magical story that’s also totally feminist 

Now, make no mistake. Harry Potter is a boy’s tale. It’s a coming of age, hero-quest that unabashedly features a little boy in the narrative perspective.

But even so, almost without our noticing, Rowling has weaved the most awesome, female-empowering cast of characters. Not because it’s a story made up entirely of females. Not because every girl character is flawless and epic and saves the day. But because there’s a huge cast, good and bad, funny and sad, friend and foe, and made up of equal parts men and women—with multifaceted and complicated personalities!

Which is, of course, how real life is! But if you just watched action or fantasy movies, you might never know that. Too often the Hollywood ratio of men to women seems to be about 5-1 in hero stories. Not so with Harry Potter. For every Ron, there’s Hermoine. For every Neville, there’s Luna. For every Dumbledore, there’s McGonagall. For every Snape, there’s Bellatrix. For every Lucius, there’s Narcissa. The list goes on and on and on!

If I read this as a child, I probably wouldn’t have noticed it. Or if I had, I certainly wouldn’t have appreciated its significance. As an adult woman hoping and fighting for continued gender equality across the globe, getting books like these into the hands of young boys and girls thrills my heart. Because the more boys who read about Luna’s intuition and Hermoine’s smarts, maybe fewer girls will be teased, tormented, and dismissed in the future. Maybe we’ll start seeing more female CEO’s and world leaders because kids everywhere got to see in Harry Potter how strong we can be when we all work together as equals.

I’m still not over Dumbledore or Dobby

I think almost everyone I’ve talked to who saw/read Harry Potter as a child or teen was the most crushed by the death of Sirius Black, out of all the characters who meet an untimely demise. And from a teenage perspective, that makes total sense. Sirius is Harry’s mentor, and more, friend. He’s like the father Harry never had. There’s so much promise of a life with Sirius, and as an added bonus, Sirius is a lot like Harry! Their friendship feels cut short and cheated; his death is a tragic blow that stays with Harry through the rest of the series.

And while I was horrified and so upset for Harry, Sirius’ death didn’t strike me anywhere near as hard as the deaths of Dumbledore, Fred, Dobby, Tonks, or Lupin. Perhaps it’s because, from the distance of age, you can kind of tell that Sirius was always doomed. He lived in the past. He wanted Harry to be James. He had zero self-control, which, while it endeared him to Harry, is a dangerous trait in a powerful, emotional Wizard. It’s always clear to the adults in the room that Sirius is going to land himself in big trouble…it’s only a question of when.

Conversely, I cried like a baby when Dobby died. I’m not sure exactly why. Perhaps because Dobby is so innocent and child-like, and so full of love and goodwill for Harry. The war and the deaths are manageable when people like Dumbledore and Sirius fall in the line of battle, because they are power-players making conscious, tactical decisions. But the ache and sting of death becomes almost unbearable when it touches innocence like Dobby’s, or promising youth like Fred’s.

Tonks, a character for which I had an instant and resonating fondness, died when she was just 25 (a few months older than I was, when I finished The Deathly Hallows). She was a newlywed, like I was. When you can so clearly see yourself, and your peers, in the casualties of war, it takes on an entirely new and sobering dimension.

Words Matter SO MUCH

We all know this great quote from Dumbledore:

“Call him Voldemort, Harry. Always use the proper name for things. Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself.”

The older I grow, the more I realize how much pain in our world stems from fear and avoidance. And, as Dumbledore counseled, this only makes bad situations worse. When we see something rotten in the world and want to find a solution, we can’t just chalk it up to some vague term. We have to call things what they are, whether it’s “Racism,” “Sexism,” or another of the many harmful ways humans treat each other. Just like Wizards couldn’t unite to stand against vague “evil,” something which could not be named, so we in the Muggle world have to be brave and name our Voldemorts when they arise, in order to effectively make a change.

(Seriously. How is Dumbledore so profound?)

My list could go on and on. For the record, while we all love Snape for his noble sacrifice and continuing devotion to Lily, he is the literal worst professor of all time and should never work with children. But why not crack open The Sorcerer’s Stone and revisit the magic for yourself? If it’s been a while since you read the Potter books, you’re in for an avalanche of new lessons and feels that you might have been too young to appreciate the first time around.

[Image courtesy Warner Bros]

Debbie Holloway
Debbie Holloway lives in Brooklyn, New York, and works closely with Narrative Muse, a fast-growing source for movies, TV, and books created by and about women and gender diverse folks. Read more
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