What Harry Potter Teaches Us
Posted on 20 November 2014
This is from a speech I gave for Halloween 2012. The site it was on has been taken down, so I thought I would reprint it here.
The Harry Potter series was launched the 30th of June 1997. It’s the story of an orphan who is introduced into a magical world of witches and wizards. In this world he was apparently born with a mission: to stop the evil of Lord Voldemort who seeks to be all powerful and immortal.
For five years I was a literary judge for a children’s and young adult book award. I read hundreds of fantasy books. The Harry Potter books were undoubtedly a step beyond the vast majority of books submitted for recognition.
Author JK Rowling indulges not only in the usual wish-fulfillment story with a dash of adventure, but explores human nature. In particular she examines the use and abuse of power from youthful bullying to parenting, teaching, bureaucracies, and magical manipulation; and the true measure of human character.
JK Rowling is no stranger to struggle. She was an unemployed single mother, just a whisker away from living on the streets, when she wrote the first Harry Potter book. She also worked previously at Amnesty International and has some chilling stories about the sort of inhumanity people around the world must cope with.
Her books do not go for cheap cliché values. They are rich in real world wisdom.
So what do the Harry Potter books teach us? Many things really and I will touch on a few of the lessons.
The value of friendship.
This is a standard trope in children’s books. Most of their plots only work when a team of children pool their skills and determination to win the day. We too frequently forget as adults that friendship continues to be of value throughout our lives.
Harry has two close friends: Ron and Hermione. Hermione is thoughtful and bookish. Ron is something of a doofus, but in the end his heart is always in the right place. Harry needs the support of Hermione’s clear thinking and the sense of normalcy and acceptance he finds from Ron and Ron’s family. Together they keep Harry grounded.
“Harry—you’re a great wizard, you know.”
“I’m not as good as you,” said Harry, very embarrassed, as she let him go.
“Me!” said Hermione. “Books! And cleverness! There are more important things—friendship and bravery…”
—J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone
Harry also has a ring of close school mates such as Neville Longbottom, Luna Lovegood, Cedric Diggory, and Ginny Weasley.
At one point Dumbledore, the headmaster of the magic school of Hogwarts, tells his students this:
“Lord Voldemort’s gift for spreading discord and enmity is very great. We can fight it only by showing an equally strong bond of friendship and trust. Differences of habit and language are nothing at all if our aims are identical and our hearts are open.”
—J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
In the world today we are facing some very big evils, only we don’t have a single face upon which to focus our hatred. Instead we must thoughtfully seek compassionate answers. We have allowed ourselves to accept a lifestyle that is damaging our planet and creating a greater divide between the rich and poor. We must look inside ourselves to change this.
And yet the answer is the same for us as it was for Harry and his classmates. We must not allow ourselves to become fearful and isolated. We must not allow ourselves to be divided by class, gender, age, ethnicity, or marketing group. Our current culture makes an idol of independence and competition. In this way we are left without the skills to combine efforts and change the world for the better. Well the way to fix that is in forming more and better friendships and thereby form caring communities.
Respect for all living things.
This is largely portrayed by the half-giant gameskeeper at Hogwarts, Rubeus Hagrid. It is noted in the text that “Hagrid had an unfortunate liking for large and monstrous creatures” but it goes further than that. In his Care for Magical Creatures class Hagrid introduces the students to smaller creatures such as Nifflers, Blast-ended Skrewts, Flobberworms, Bowtruckles, and Kneazles.
Harry, Ron, and Hermione on more than one occasion protect and rescue abused magical animals such as the dragon kept at the Gringotts Wizarding Bank.
Another ethical concern is the way house-elves are treated. They are self-aware humanoid creatures that are being used as slaves. Some house-elves claim they live to serve, but quite clearly not all of them do. Hermione recognises this unfairness within the magical culture. She alone does what she can to release these beings, while others including some of our heroes, are indifferent. The house-elf Dobby consciously sacrificing his own life for Harry’s finally begins to change some attitudes.
We should all ask ourselves who and what do we overlook at our convenience and other’s grief? Who and what should we be showing more care?
Much children’s and young adult fiction uses the trope of “the chosen one”. A people are being threatened by a malevolent being and only one special boy, whose coming is foretold, has the power to defeat this threat. The original Star Wars movie used this trope. After its success the concept of “The Hero’s Journey” was popularised.
Chosen-one stories are a form of wish-fulfillment. Usually the boy appears to be of no significance. He is often bullied. Then one day he discovers, either on his own or with the help of a mentor, that he is special and has access to super-normal powers. Many of us would like to believe we are special.
Of course not everyone identifies themselves with the chosen-one, but they still believe that the world moves on the backs of great leaders. They will claim that the formidable problems we are facing will only be changed when another Martin Luther King Jr or the like rises up. Where oh where are our next avatars of justice?
The Harry Potter books appear to be another in a long line of chosen-one stories, but immediately begin to subvert the trope.
First, Harry is repeatedly shown that he can’t face Lord Voldemort on his own. He needs the help of his friends and community.
Next, Harry has to come to grips with the fact that Lord Voldemort is not solely his problem. Lord Voldemort is of concern to the entire magical community and as such is everyone’s responsibility. When lives are at stake, you can’t just wait around. You can’t pin all your hopes on a single individual. What happens if that person fails or worse, dies?
Then, Harry is made aware that Lord Voldemort is not the whole problem. He is a powerful nexus to a much wider problem that is supporting his success. People’s fears and skewed values make them party to a thousand acts of every day cruelty: cruelty that is enacted in their bureaucracy, their media, their schools, and their justice system.
Finally, Harry discovers that the prophecy of a chosen-one did not necessarily apply to him. Another child equally fulfilled the prophecy. Lord Voldemort simply chose Harry as his most likely nemesis.
The Harry Potter books teach us that we are all equally responsible for the creation of a better future.
In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire we are introduced to the character of Cedric Diggory. Cedric belongs to a rival house to that of Harry Potter. They are on opposing sporting teams and end up competing with one another in an international wizarding competition.
At various points Cedric and Harry are both put into positions whereby they can take unfair advantage of one another, but don’t. Fair-play and respect are seen as higher values than simply winning. It is because of this they are put in a position to face Lord Voldemort together and are able to defeat him, but at the sad loss of Cedric.
Dumbledore says in memory of Cedric:
“Remember Cedric. Remember, if the time should come when you have to make a choice between what is right and what is easy, remember what happened to a boy who was good, and kind, and brave, because he strayed across the path of Lord Voldemort. Remember Cedric Diggory.”
—J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
That is the clearest example of ethical fortitude in the Harry Potter books. But JK Rowling does not keep things so clear. She creates many characters who fail in their judgements. Dumbledore himself played with thoughts of absolute power and was partially responsible for the accidental death of his sister when he was a young man. His regrets drove him on to become a kind, accepting person, and a protector of the vulnerable.
People are not usually born with ethical fortitude. They often find it as experience forges their characters and they see the logic in compassionate action. This is why forgiveness and mercy must have their place in our lives and our culture.
Judging people by their choices and actions
In the era of pulp fiction and B movies whole peoples were portrayed as evil and therefore expendable. Most notably at the time were stories about the “yellow peril” or Asian peoples, which you might find in Doc Savage, The Shadow, Buck Rogers and the like. With the advent of ethnic civil rights in the US, editors began to reject stories that portrayed obvious xenophobia. However, to this day we are still inundated with stories of metaphorical xenophobia. These are found largely in our youth media such as scifi and fantasy books, movies, comics, and computer games.
The audience is presented with an alien or fantastic race that are intelligent, self aware, and completely evil. Therefore it is considered acceptable to commit genocide.
However, the moment a race of beings is both intelligent and self-aware, their members are capable of independent thought and individual decisions. It would be injust to judge them as if they were a single being. The responsibility for the crimes of one can not fairly be extended to others.
As reasoning beings not all of their actions can possibly be evil, since they must have sufficient empathy and cooperation to manage the lengthy process of raising intelligent off-spring.
In the Harry Potter world even though the school residence of Slytherin is where more than one destructive wizard arose, not all Slytherins are evil. Regulus Black, Andromeda Tonks, Horace Slughorn are Slytherins who fought against Lord Voldemort. The houses of Griffindor, Hufflepuff, and Ravenclaw have all had their share of wizarding heroes, but have also produced baneful magic users such as Peter Pettigrew and Quirinus Quirrell.
Many characters in the Harry Potter series are not what you might expect one way or the other. JK Rowling has not created a world with easy distinctions. You are challenged to understand characters, to discover the truth behind who they are, and rely on the ultimate quality of their actions to speak of the quality of their hearts. These are skills we should all develop when measuring our relationships in the real world.
As Dumbledore observes: “You fail to recognize that it matters not what someone is born, but what they grow to be.” Furthermore he says: “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are.”
We can all use a laugh now and again
After Harry wins the international wizarding competition he decides to give the attached winnings to Ron’s brothers Fred and George who are planning on opening a magical joke shop.
“Listen, if you [Fred and George] don’t take it [the gold], I’m throwing it down the drain. I don’t want it and I don’t need it. But I could do with a few laughs. We could all do with a few laughs. I’ve got a feeling we’re going to need them more than usual before long.”
—J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
All of the Harry Potter books include a twist of humour, even The Deathly Hallows. One of my favourite lines is Ron exclaiming, “What in the name of Merlin’s most baggy Y Fronts was that about?”
Humour in the Harry Potter world and in our own world is good for two things:
1) It gives us permission to be human, to live with awkwardness and to make mistakes. So long as we can laugh at ourselves and the absurdity of life we are less afraid of learning, growing, and getting on with things.
2) Humour is a fount of resilience. Yes, things can get difficult, but so long as we can still laugh, we can still engage with life. This is why the clown doctors and nurses are such a successful movement. If you can keep patients laughing, they find the strength to improve their quality of life.
In the final book of the Potter series Harry, Ron, and Hermione are hiding in the wilderness and their friends in the resistance have gone underground. To keep the wizarding world informed, a group of wizards including Ron’s brothers Fred and George, broadcast the pirate radio program Potterwatch. This show includes humorous banter. It cuts Lord Voldemort to size and dispels fearful rumours. People are made robust through insightful levity.
That’s powerful stuff.
Love is a word abused by popular culture. Certain people want access to its power without taking on its responsibility. However, just because it has been misrepresented does not mean we should shy away from speaking and acting out of love.
In the first chapter of the first book of the Harry Potter series Harry is described as “The Boy Who Lived”. He lived because when his mother and father were attacked by Lord Voldemort, his mother sacrificed her life to ensure Harry survived. Everyday parents are giving all they can to ensure the well-being and survival of their children. This is a love worth naming and honouring.
Throughout the book Harry has friends rescue him from death over and over again. These people cared about Harry personally. They were aware of his ups and downs and weaknesses, and stood by him in any case. We all need friends who will celebrate our achievements, tell us when we need to pull our socks up, and be there when we need comfort. This is a love worth naming and honouring.
Albus Dumbledore was a headmaster known to extend his hand in kindness to people who needed a chance to grow. He could see the potential for good and would nurture it and give it every chance to flourish in the lives of his teachers and students. We all want mentors and teachers like this in our own lives and lives of our children. This is a love worth naming and honouring.
Then there is the love of simple human goodwill. During one broadcast of Potterwatch we hear this conversation:
River: “And what would you say, Royal, to those listeners who reply that in these dangerous times, it should be ‘wizards first’?”
Royal: “I’d say that it’s one short step from ‘wizards first’ to ‘pure-bloods first’, and then to ‘Death Eaters’. We’re all human, aren’t we? Every human life is worth the same, and worth saving.”
—J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
This too is a love worth naming and honouring.
What does Harry Potter teach us? The books demonstrate the value in reaching for a nobility of spirit that comes from sympathy, bravery, kindness, and love and that we find these qualities within ourselves when we form bonds of friendship. Go forth and be great witches and wizards. Accio love!
Peace and kindness,
2012 October 28