'A Great Deal Of Bravery' : What I Learnt From Harry Potter
Harry Potter's universal popularity is undeniable. Just why did the story of The Boy Who Lived have such a huge impact on millions of people? How did it change, even save, the lives of so many?
Twenty years on from the Battle of Hogwarts, Lucy Rahim discusses the life lessons we can all learn from J.K Rowling's generation-shaping series.
Harry Potter is widely acknowledged to be one of the most successful book series of all time, selling over 450 million copies worldwide & generating one of the largest grossing film franchises in history. The story of a young orphan who goes to a school for wizards, penned by a hitherto unknown author, sped to fame in the late nineties, and has since been translated into eighty languages and become an integral part of our collective consciousness.
My first encounter with Harry Potter was via the audiobook of the Philosopher’s Stone, aged six. A group of us were sleeping on the floor in the spare room on New Year’s Eve, and the grownups put the tape on in an attempt to keep us quiet. I don’t believe any of us stayed awake beyond side 1A. Something about it must have stayed in my mind, however, because a few weeks later I chose to listen to it again. This time, I turned the cassette over. And over. And over. I’m not entirely sure how many times I listened to it, but it wouldn’t require much exaggeration to suggest that I had the book almost wordperfect in a matter of weeks.
Not long after, a trip to WH Smith revealed that there was, in fact, a sequel. Delighted, I picked it up and had completed the first chapter by the time my mum came to find me. She then found herself press-ganged into purchasing it. A similar situation occurred with the Prisoner of Azkaban, which I spotted in Tesco and read solidly in the trolley for the entirety of our visit. By the time the fifth, sixth and seventh book were released, a copy would arrive in the post on the day of publication, and became the sole focus of my life for the ensuing days. It’s fair to say that I was beyond obsessed. I knew the books backwards, I had the stationery and the dressing up clothes, I wrote my own editions of The Daily Prophet, dreamed up my own endings and brewed up potions in tiny bubble-bath bottles. I simply couldn’t get enough.
It’s hard to put my finger on exactly what drew me into Harry Potter. I had not read much fantasy fiction up to that point: my knowledge of witches and wizards extended to Mildred Hubble and Sabrina Spellman. I was reading Animal Ark and books by Dick King Smith, all of which were charming, but relatively tame. Harry Potter was a world apart. JK Rowling devised the perfect formula with her combination of the boarding school chumminess of Enid Blyton with the kids-in-charge adventurousness of CS Lewis. She captured our imaginations by seamlessly integrating magic with contemporary life and believable characters. Her stories do not require a parallel universe, but exist in the world we think we know. Magic is tucked in to the most curious and idiosyncratic areas of modern life: useless litter is a means of transport, portraits can talk and walk about and saucepans can stir themselves. By being ordinary these objects become extraordinary, forming the fabric of a world so complete and full of nuance that it becomes a credible alternative to the painfully muggle landscape we must reckon with each day.
Like many millenials, the series formed the backdrop to my childhood (Stephen Fry was the soundtrack), and has had a more profound impact on my personality than anything I have read since. They were not just my favourite books, Harry’s wizarding world felt like an extension to my own life. The characters were not merely words on a page, but real, living and breathing people. I felt their struggles and their joys as though they were my own, and I cried like a baby when it was all over.
Everyone has their own story about what the books meant to them; the internet is full of articles by my compatriots gushing about why Harry Potter saved them or made them who they are. The BBC recently went so far as to say that Harry Potter ‘shaped the millennial generation’ and it is no coincidence that those of us who grew up in the late nineties and early noughties are sometimes just referred to as the “Harry Potter generation”. The books formed part of our education, and as we grew and learned about life, so did our fictional counterparts. The series is littered with flashes of wisdom, and now that I’ve lived a bit, and read a lot, I’ve come to realise how many useful life lessons JK Rowling managed to slip into the series, all of which have influenced me without my really knowing it. Here’s a basic list of the useful things that I learnt from Harry Potter:
- It’s ok to despair of your family, sometimes (Harry and the Dursleys)
- Being smart is good (Hermione saves the day too many times to count)
- Popularity is not the same as worth (compare Malfoy to Harry)
- Being a teenager is a weird and confusing time for everyone (Book five is brimming with adolescent angst)
- “Normal” is overrated (who wants a world without Luna Lovegood, Tonks or Dumbledore?)
- Girls and boys can be friends without wanting to sleep with each other (Harry and Hermione)
- Youth and size are no indication of strength (Dobby, Ginny)
All of these things are particularly useful to hear on the cusp of puberty, as many of us were when reading the series originally. Whilst not being your typical secondary school saga, Harry Potter manages to disseminate the same sort of messages you’d find in those books, but without having to spell them out. As it were. But of course, what makes the series stand out is its wide appeal: children are not the only ones reading it. The values instilled by Harry Potter are not limited to surviving adolescence, but surviving full-stop. The books bridge the gap between generations in the same way as fairy tales and fables; the messages they hold are universal, applicable to all times and ages. Their very simplicity is their strength.
One of these morals is equality. A message running throughout Harry Potter is that no gender, race or species should be seen as inferior to another. Witches and wizards of all shapes, colours and cultures feature throughout the series, suggesting a society that is as heterogeneous as our own. Dumbledore is a champion of magical unity, stating that ‘While we may come from different places and speak in different tongues, our hearts beat as one.’ Only the Death Eaters and villains like Umbridge consider themselves superior to other breeds, such as centaurs, squibs and elves. Symbolically, when the Ministry of Magic is taken over by the dark forces, the fountain in the atrium no longer displays an image of inclusivity, but of supremacy, stating that ‘MAGIC IS MIGHT’. The books prove that if casual prejudice goes unchallenged, it can have devastating consequences, as Kingsley Shacklebolt wisely states: ‘I'd say that it's one short step from “Wizards first” to “Purebloods first”, then to “Death Eaters”...We're all human, aren't we? Every human life is worth the same, and worth saving.’
The books also encourage readers to champion and protect the vulnerable. One of the best examples is Hermione’s crusade on behalf of the house elves. She has a moral objection to their enslavement, in which they work for no pay, take abuse from their masters and can offer no resistance. She refuses to accept Ron’s weak protestations that “they like being enslaved!” and sees it as hypocrisy that Hogwarts, an institution that prides itself on its moral values, houses the greatest number of elves in Britain. She is heckled and abused by her peers for her Society for the Protection of Elfish Welfare, but continues despite. Dobby, one of only two free elves in the series, is proof that the most downtrodden in society do desire and deserve liberty, and should fight for their rights. And of course he turns out to be one of the series’ most important heroes. Thus the books teach us that every living thing has worth and deserves protection, no matter what our differences are--from giants to hippogriffs and even us muggles. So poignant is this message that research has suggested that reading the Harry Potter books has made the millennial generation more tolerant, ‘less authoritarian’ and ‘more opposed to the use of violence and torture’. Which is a lot to be said for a book about wizards.
Harry Potter also taught us that, at the end of the day, love is the only thing that matters. The sacrificial love of Lily Potter is one of the most powerful themes of the book: saving Harry’s life on more than one occasion. It is love that leads Snape to live a life of secrecy, to protect Harry and ultimately, to kill Dumbledore. It is Harry’s love for his friends that leads him to sacrifice himself in the Deathly Hallows. It even saves the Malfoys: Narcissa’s love for Draco ultimately trumps her loyalty to Voldemort. Equally, it is the very absence of love in Tom Riddle that leads him to become the embodiment of evil. By loving no other, he is locked into his obsession with power and cannot see beyond it. Riddle does not believe in the redeeming power of love, and says “‘Nothing I have seen in the world has supported your pronouncements that love is more powerful than my kind of magic, Dumbledore."’ To which Dumbledore replies “Perhaps you’ve just been looking in the wrong places.” This fundamental belief in the power of love defines Dumbledore, which he in turn passes on to Harry. It is through his ability to love that Harry is able to destroy Voldemort, for it is ‘the power the dark lord knows not’. JK Rowling shows us that a capacity to love is what makes a great wizard, and that we should follow suit.
The most well-known and oft-referenced lesson taught by Harry Potter is the importance of fighting for good over evil. The entire series can be summarised as a struggle against autocracy, against absolute power, racial purity and bigotry. Peace, tolerance and democracy ultimately triumph over the corruption and fear inherent in Voldemort’s regime. But such things cannot be achieved with a mere wave of a wand, and are never simple. Rowling emphasises that ultimately we must decide whether to fight for good or allow evil to continue, and to consider carefully when we have to make ‘a choice between what is right and what is easy’. For fighting for freedom and decency means being prepared for sacrifice and pain. Countless heroes are lost in the battle against Voldemort: from James and Lily Potter through to Sirius, Tonks and Fred. These deaths cost Harry dear, and more than once we see him struggle with the responsibility on his shoulders, such as when he screams at Dumbledore following Sirius’ death: ‘I DON’T CARE!...I’VE HAD ENOUGH, I’VE SEEN ENOUGH, I WANT OUT, I WANT IT TO END.’ Despite all this pain and loss, the true merit of Harry and his friends is their insistence on continuing the battle, and not allowing their faith to be damaged through suffering. ‘ “It is important,” Dumbledore said, “to fight, and fight again, and keep fighting, for only then could evil be kept at bay.”’ As readers, we are inspired by the strength and resilience of the characters, but also by their human frailty. None of them are perfect, but they can still achieve great things. They are no different from us, and remind us that we too have the power to challenge the forces of evil in our muggle world.
The list of lessons could go on: the importance of humility (‘perhaps those who are best suited to power are those who have never sought it’), of loyalty, respect (‘indifference and neglect often do much more damage than outright dislike’), of not judging others until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes (or delved into their memories in a pensieve) and of the inevitability of death. Not exactly what you’d call “light reading” but arguably these moral messages are a crucial factor in the sensational impact the books have had in our society. Rowling was successful by not underestimating her young readers, exposing them to a host of dark themes including murder, betrayal, grief, prejudice, sacrifice and illness. In drawing children into the war against Voldemort, Rowling made them (and their muggle counterparts) feel responsible and part of big, serious issues, capable of playing a role in the grownup world. In the wizarding world, children are not powerless victims but activists and heroes, giving muggles like us the confidence that we could do anything. Crucially, despite all the darkness they contain, the books remain our comfort reads of choice, the stories we turn to when in need of solace and escapism. Harry Potter teaches us that even when evil seems to surround us, good can still triumph. JK Rowling gives us hope that light will always overcome the dark, as long as we fight for it.