Attention conservation notice: This post is about why I think Harry’s story is everyone’s story, and contains spoilers. Also, it is very long.
The latest and last Harry Potter novel came out in summer. I’m a fan, but I waited to buy my own copy until just a week or so ago.
I had made a deal with myself. Summer felt too active to me, too hot and eventful, not a reader’s season especially for a book like this which is special in the life of the reader. And I (who love for things to have themes and seasons into which they fit) thought the cozy world of Hogwarts would be far, far better suited to colder weather.
So come autumn and the first cold nights of the year, I bought the book at last.
I loved it, though — no Hogwarts this year, until the end! I missed Hogwarts, which was in many ways my favorite character. The one thing I think the movies truly got, as far as my own vision of the books is concerned, is the richness and grandeur of Hogwarts. From the crimson and ebony of the Gryffindor commons to the sun-streaked darkness of Snape’s tense and musty classroom, where motes of dust moved in long streaks of sunlight over the bowed heads of young witches and wizards…the movies got that one right in a big way.
Why do we love these books so much?
We all love a book about a chosen one, don’t we, with a big destiny and plenty of adventure along the way to fulfilling it.
Destiny stories grab us, I think, because they are all our own story. Hidden worlds grab us because we all enter hidden worlds.
I think we all have a magical destiny of sorts. We know the story of the chosen one, because it’s just a grander version of our own story.
We start out as helpless children, but we receive constant intimations of a world beyond our own, of sex and power and actually buying our own possessions and choosing our own lives. Do you remember how exciting it once was just to go to a restaurant, and sit and eat at the table, like the adults? Magical worlds thrill us because they light up that part of the brain that remembers the magical world we once watched and felt from afar, and finally, almost magically, gained entrance to.
Eventually, we all ascend. We drive cars, drink alcohol, experience intimacy and sex, forge alliances, find power in our skill and enter a strange world called adulthood where we may act as we please, decorate our rooms as we want, take on huge challenges and conquer them and be utterly free to do with our lives exactly as we please.
Don’t you sometimes thrill to lay out of work when you deserve to? To drive a car? To live in a space that’s yours? To eat pretzels for lunch when you’ve had a bad day?
Of course there is plenty of needful added seasoning; Harry’s story also makes it clear that there is evil, and betrayal and bravery, and great suffering and injustice, and that there are causes worth dying for.
But many of his lessons are homelier. Friends are the family you choose, choose well! Powerful helpers — mentors — are there for you and are commonly called teachers. Education is magic in its power to make you into something better, something other. Belonging is there for you, among friends and the extended family you can build for yourself.
I find the book totally pro-education, what with mega-nerd Hermione saving everyone’s skins so often with her preparedness and knowledge, all gained through ardent study. And so many of Harry’s successes come from doing research (or having Hermione to do it). Books, learning, school and knowledge are magical in Rowling’s world.
One of my favorite passages happens when Harry rides a broomstick for the first time, in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.
Here, in an old movie review of mine, is how I describe the scene as it happens in the movie, and a problem I had with the movie’s depiction of the scene as opposed to what I got from the book:
…when Draco makes off with Neville’s remembrall, it is one of the book’s most telling, involving and important scenes. As Harry pursues, riding a broomstick for the first time, he finds something he does well without even trying. He discovers the thrill of mastery, all the headier for being an immediate mastery. Harry has probably just taken his first major step to adulthood.
He zooms over to Draco, who is not sitting quite as well on his own broom, and orders him to return the remembrall. Draco notes Harry’s confidence and skill and quails a bit, flinging the remembrall at the ground rather than continuing to challenge someone who is obviously the better flier. In the movie, Draco makes off with the remembrall and Harry gives chase in a chain of unoriginal technical events that titillate the eye but deaden the heart.
Where is Harry’s discovery, his exhilaration, where is Draco’s capitulation to Harry’s power? Why were the visuals so slavishly copied, but all the meaning excised?
Learning to be really, really good at something is always an entry into the adult world. It’s so powerful it will fast-track you into the adult world even if you are not an adult yet.
This part of Harry’s journey spoke strongly to me at the time because I was learning a new grown-up skill myself. Although I was 31 years old or thereabouts, I was learning to be a writer. That review quoted above began as a long email to friends. A friend suggested that I submit it to a new local entertainment site. And my long, thinky email about Harry Potter became my first published work of movie criticism, and my start as a writing professional.
Putting your hand to something, finding yourself quite remarkably good at it out of the blue… For me it was exactly, exactly, like climbing into some very fast vehicle and finding your ordinary self augmented beyond belief. Doing this new thing, you are better, stronger and more powerful than you were before, and it all comes easily. Jesus, what a thrill!
No matter what age you are when this hits, and it hit me rather late, you are in the middle of a transformative life passage — and one of the good ones, too.
So Harry’s story is my story (I even used to call my beloved old community college Hogwarts), and Harry’s story is everyone’s story, everyone who is willing to put effort into her life, or willing to start trying. His power comes as most of ours does, by entering a hidden world where unknown powers and talents are revealed to him, by surrendering to the process of education, by being hammered into adulthood through a series of trials.
Harry finds and cultivates mastery in a field of interest, chooses a profession, makes the friends who support him… These are all familiar passages.
The story of the chosen one is one of the most compelling and attractive stories to us humans. We must like what it says about us, how it guides us and flatters us and is somehow more true than truth.
Or as Jane Espenson said,
The Chosen One paradigm is the most positive, most comforting, most affirming metaphorical version of change, of growing up, that I can imagine.
My generation had Star Wars. (I don’t know what the ’80s/’90s kids had, heaven bless them.) But the milennials have Harry. I frankly SHUDDER to think how utterly obsessed I would have been with this series 25 years ago.
I suppose my generation’s co-optation of these books, which are purportedly for children and young adults, is the psycho-mythic counter to the sheer dreadfulness of everything George Lucas has done since he kidnapped the psyches of millions with Episodes IV-VI.
Ha. I call that fair.
(My favorite diatribe on the awfulness of latter-day Lucas is here.)