Me and Harry Potter
It’s funny how dismissive you can be of a book before you have actually read it. If you’d told me last January that I would spend the year making my way through Harry Potter, I would have been rather disinterested, or, maybe, a little frustrated at myself for caving to cultural pressure. I was always rather distrustful of the books that all of society seemed to devour. An overly popular book always seemed to remind me of Goosebumps, or the Babysitter’s Club.
But in the last couple of years I’ve begun to see the value of being relatively culturally informed. I finally read the book in an evening this spring, and deemed it engaging, cute, and whimsical, with a bizarre strain of gratuitous darkness that just didn’t seem to fit. The characters felt a little flat and cliche, but it was enjoyable.
I waffled about reading the rest of the books, but when a co-worker offered to lend them to me several months later, I had no more excuses. I decided to buckle down and read them all if only to make myself a more informed member of society.
With each chapter, however, I began to change my mind. Eventually, I saw that maybe I hadn’t been so wrong about the first book – maybe it was a little overly bright and flashy, and maybe the Voldemort-ian story line did seem horribly out of place. But I suddenly saw that Rowling was quite brilliant to write it that way, and she knew exactly what she was doing.
Simply put, Harry was only eleven. The magical world was new. She was able to portray this wonderment, fascination and freshness and yet still give evidence of the dark, horrible, and frightening history and future that underlay Harry’s introduction to the wizarding world. The sight of a teacher stooping to suck blood from a unicorn in a dark forest probably seemed grotesque and out of place to an eleven year old Harry as well – shocking, even, in its incongruousness.
It was Harry’s first real emotional experience, the discovery of his godfather in book 3 that made me realize that I had been the shallow one, expecting adult-level emotions and actions from a mere child, and that what I really had wanted was for Harry Potter to be a meaningless childish side character to a story involving adults – which would, I reasoned, be so much deeper.
It was Dumbledore’s revelations to Harry at the end of book 5 that really fleshed out the creativity of Rowling’s angle on the story to me. Harry was protected from having to grow up immediately, to be young. The horror and darkness mount throughout the books not simply because Voldemort grows in power, but because Harry changes too – both as his understanding, age, and emotions develop, and as the experiences he has each year at Hogwarts irrevocably shape him, jade him, and confuse him.
The use of a growing child as the main character in an extremely complex adult-level story was brilliant and unique. The story could have been written from Dumbledore’s point of view, of course, and we could have had so much more information and facts from early on. But it was more challenging and the mark of a greater writer to show the story from the mind of a young boy, who not only learns the facts piece by piece as he grows up, but comes to understand them in new and increasingly deep ways as his mind and heart develops.
It is true that Rowling does not delve into deep questions of human nature, after life and redemption like Tolkien does. But she does engage with good and evil, love, mercy (Peter Pettigrew and the silver hand… wow) and sacrifice and she tackles the complex issue of respecting and trusting people even when there are facts about them you can’t fully understand.
I have less than 150 pages left of book 7, and already I miss Harry Potter. This last book has been the best, and more than worth the effort and time. When I read books like this, I thank God for the blessing of stories, especially the ones that take us outside of ourselves.