Thoughts on Harry Potter

Before the final Harry Potter movie comes out, I want to try to explain what it means to me. It’s a difficult task; the story and the universe J.K. Rowling created are vast and intricate, with rich and real characters and story moments that cover every conceivable emotion, and it’s difficult to find the words to relate just how I feel here at the end. Her story is one of death and loss hand in hand with love and triumph. It is both funny and shocking, both tragic and uplifting. It has drawn, and continues repeatedly to draw, more tears from my eyes than I can count, of joy and sorrow combined. Once I connected to the story it was a part of me; the characters now have a permanent grip on my heart. It’s something that will be with me for the rest of my life, and has had a profound impact on me in ways I’m not sure I fully understand. I’m doing my best not to overstate things here, but the Harry Potter story is, for me personally, one of the most influential and lasting experiences I’ve encountered.

WARNING: Do not, under any circumstances, continue reading if you have not read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows or seen Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2. This essay contains a discussion of the end of the Harry Potter story, and will spoil the ending for those who do not already know it.

All stories are a connection of moments, and the impact of the Harry Potter story, for me can be encapsulated in one particular storytelling moment. That moment, which occurs near the end of the final book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, hit me harder than any story moment I had ever read, seen or heard before. This moment, which has had such an impact on me, consists of a mere five words, the most powerful and perfect words I’ve ever read: “Not my daughter, you bitch!” But to truly understand the force of these words you have to go back three books to another moment defined only by words, in this case: “Kill the spare!”

In the fourth book, Goblet of Fire, just as Harry is sharing his moment of triumph at having won the Triwizard Tournament with Cedric Diggory, Harry and Cedric are transported to a mysterious graveyard. They hear a high, shrill voice from the darkness call out some of the most haunting words ever written, “Kill the spare!” and Cedric Diggory is murdered. And in that instant, the story is changed for good. Before those three words the Harry Potter story was that of a boy wizard, from an ordinary life, who discovers he is extraordinary. He makes friends, fights bullies, solves mysteries and defeats evil. Each book has a happy ending, and while there are tragedies and darkness in the story up to this point (the first chapter of the first book concerns the events immediately following a double murder), this is the first death our hero, and therefore us as readers, encounters. And beyond even being the first of many deaths to come, it is the most callous, unnecessary, brutal and heartless of murders. The thought that the enemy would kill a boy not because he is a threat but simply because he is in the way and not needed is a difficult one to comprehend. It is shocking and unexpected in a way that cannot be exaggerated, forever signaling that the story of Harry Potter is not one just for children (as many people still claim), but is a dark and deep story for the ages.

But more than just shocking and brutal, “Kill the spare” marks the broadening and deepening of the Harry Potter universe. It’s a trend that begins even earlier in the same book, which marks the midpoint of the series. At this midpoint, the characters become deeper and more interesting, with their actions and emotions more real than ever. The plot becomes more complex, with a scope that reaches far beyond the walls of Hogwarts. With Cedric’s murder the threats become real and immediate, and the words themselves are followed by the harrowing and terrifying sequence where Voldemort regains his body, a sequence which contains a man slicing off his own hand, torture, and more attempted murder. It’s a sign to the readers than nothing will ever be the same, a sentiment echoed in the film when Hermione says, “Everything’s going to change now, isn’t it?” But the story doesn’t just randomly grow; on a subsequent trip through the story one realizes how connected those early “children’s’ books” were to the masterpiece of a finale, and everything in between. All of the moments of the story become permanently entwined, each dependent both on everything that came before and everything that comes afterwards, with those three fateful words as the lynchpin. From Hagrid’s delivery of that fateful message, “You’re a wizard, Harry,” to the beautiful epilogue, everything is interconnected. Knowing Harry’s fate gives context to those early moments, and knowing his humble beginnings makes his sacrifice and ultimate victory all the more meaningful.

But the power of “Not my daughter, you bitch” lies beyond just its place in the story. For every person who loves the Harry Potter universe, they each have a moment when they connected to the characters, and for each person that moment is different. It’s that point when the “what” in our minds is replaced by the “who” and the “why” in our hearts. The moment when we stop thinking and wondering about what is happening and start feeling for and with the characters. There are plenty of moments to choose from, and while I can’t remember what that moment was for me, I feel sure it was in Goblet of Fire. That book is so full of character building moments, both large and small. For me the two that stand out are both Hermione’s. In one, the morning after Harry’s name has emerged from the Goblet, Hermione meets him at the portrait hole with some breakfast, knowing that it would be too hard for him to face the crowd of people there. It’s such a genuine and heartfelt moment, one of many that bring tears to my eyes with the truth of the feelings behind it. The second is, of course, Hermione’s emergence at the Yule Ball, where a child becomes an adult. Each reader finds their own moments, when the characters become real to them, when they care not about what happens to them, but actually care about them. It is perhaps a subtle distinction, but one that makes all of the difference.

But there’s even more to be considered, because the very nature of the Harry Potter universe is one of community and belonging. If the point of the story is that love is the most powerful magic of all, then love for each other, as a community that shares this story in common, is an integral part of the story itself. It’s evident in the manner in which Harry Potter has reached so many the world over, and transcends language and culture. It’s the way the books have expanded and intertwined with the larger visions of the universe, from the films and audiobooks, to the attraction in Florida, to the fan communities of artists, musicians and writers who keep the stories alive in things like A Very Potter Musical, to the book clubs and the conventions, to the Harry Potter charities, to the people I’ll be standing next to in line on Thursday night. We’re a community, a family, and anyone who has experienced the story is a part of that family. We all share this one thing in common, and it something we will always carry with us.

In the end, I think, the love for Harry Potter comes down to the issue of ownership. It’s a tricky subject these days to figure out who has ownership of a story. It was very apparent when the Star Wars prequels were released that the ownership of that universe didn’t belong to the fans but to the creator of that universe. That is a perfectly valid way for things to be, but it upset people who felt they did not get what they wanted. On the other hand, trying to appeal to the masses consistently backfires, and corrupts the story by trying to please the audience. But with Harry Potter, the situation is unique. There’s no question that our beloved J.K. Rowling (Jo to the fans) is the creator and owner of the universe, and it’s her vision and her brilliance that has guided this journey. But while the characters and the story and the universe are hers, the feelings are ours. By not only allowing but encouraging us to climb into the world she created, she lets us experience those feelings ourselves, rather than just reading about them or watching them unfold. It’s the difference between her telling the story and her sharing the story. She invites us to be a part of it. From a literary standpoint, she starts Harry off as something of a blank slate, allowing us to inhabit him, seeing his life through a pair of glasses held together with tape. By becoming Harry through the reading of his story, Ron, Hermione and the others don’t just become Harry’s friends, they become our own.

It’s this sense of ownership that has allowed the universe Jo created to grow. It’s what allows the films to stand beside the books in a way that no other literary film adaptation has ever managed to do. We can fill in the gaps in the movies with what we know of the books, but simultaneously take the best moments of the films and work them back into the text. I can’t read the books now without envisioning the sets and locations from the films, and without seeing the faces from the big screen in my mind as I visualize the characters I love. Instead of the films conflicting with the books, they compliment them, a rare feat to be sure; and instead of an “interpretation” of the books, they simply offer another lens through which to view the story. It’s the little moments in the films that add to the characters, like Hermione hugging Harry in fear before his battle with the dragon in Goblet of Fire, or the absolute beauty of the Tale of the Three Brothers in Deathly Hallows: Part 1. This ownership has allowed millions of fans to contribute in their own way according to their own talents, from artwork to writing to song. It’s the reason something like A Very Potter Musical can be so good, at times hilarious and at others touching, able to capture some of the true emotions of the story in a musical parody. That ownership has inspired people to good works, and allows things like the Harry Potter Alliance to exist.

All of this gets folded back into the universe, with addition bringing something new but without ever losing the thread. If Jo’s story were a simple tune being played alone, it has now evolved into a full orchestra piece, with each instrument serving to compliment and accompany the tune while allowing Jo’s melody to shine bright and clear above the rest. And this feeling of community and togetherness lends a weight to the story that is unprecedented. And for me, all of that weight came to a head when I read those five amazing words, “Not my daughter, you bitch.”

In my life I have only ever had two instances where a story or experience was so strong as to have a physical impact on me. The first was during my first viewing of Schindler’s List, after the sequence where a train full of women that Schindler had paid to rescue was sent to Auschwitz. It’s one of the most memorable sequences in what is, without a doubt, the greatest film ever made, and it hit me like nothing ever had before. I was watching it alone on a rented VHS, and when the sequence had ended (with the women being spared a horrible fate) I stopped the film and sobbed uncontrollably for half an hour. I was nauseas, and I cried so hard as to almost make myself sick. It was like being punched in the chest, it had that sort of impact on my body. My chest ached, my limbs shook, and I had so little control over my body that I somehow fell off the sofa and onto the floor, though I didn’t realize it until I had recovered. I had never felt anything like it before, and it unequivocally showed me the power of story, made all the more powerful by the true basis for the film and the unparalleled ability of the storyteller, Steven Spielberg.

The second was, of course, those five words. In 2007, when Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was released (around the same time that the film of Order of the Phoenix was released), I was due to fly across the country that same day, in preparation for my wedding (my marriage is, of course, the greatest thing I have ever been a part of, and is the most meaningful and amazing thing in my world). I had been laid off from my job a month before, and our future was uncertain. I went at midnight to pick up my pre-ordered copy of the book, made a quick stop by the store on the way home for some supplies for my trip, and immediately started reading. I read until approximately six in the morning, when I had to leave for the airport. I read waiting for my flight, on board the airplane to Los Angeles, waiting for my connection, and I finally finished on the flight to Charlotte.

I was prepared for how emotional the book would make me, and it didn’t disappoint. My first tears came in the very first chapter, with a surprising and wonderful goodbye from Harry’s cousin, Dudley. The tears came again and again over the course of the story, as each emotion was stronger and more powerful than the last. The tears turned to sobs with Ron’s departure, and became elated weeping upon his return. There was fear, too, and death, with terrifying sequences including Harry and Hermione’s fight with Nagini in Godric’s Hollow and Hermione’s torture at the hands of Bellatrix. Dobby’s death was both beautiful and tragic, and a sign of things still to come. The return of Percy Weasley brought the happy tears to the forefront, and the deaths of George, Tonks, Lupin and many more changed the feeling once more. By the end of Snape’s story, as Harry began his walk towards death, I was a wreck, as I’m sure many who read the book were. It’s something special to know that millions the world over were experiencing the same feelings as myself, and to feel that connection. And when Harry “died” and was resurrected, and Voldemort and Bellatrix were the last ones fighting, the end seemed so certain.

Harry, hidden under his invisibility cloak, thought by everyone to be dead, is watching the final battle, waiting for his moment. He sees Voldemort fighting McGonagall, Slughorn and Shacklebolt, while Bellatrix fights Hermione, Ginny and Luna, and struggles to decide whom to help. Voldemort is his mission, and his destiny, but his friends represent so much, not only to him but to us. Hermione is the best hope for the future, the voice of reason and maturity, Harry’s guide and his conscience. Ginny is Harry’s promise of a real life, of love, family and everything worth living for. Luna is innocence and honesty and love, all of the things in the world worth protecting, the things that give us strength. And as Ginny narrowly dodges a killing curse from Bellatrix, he makes up his mind and moves to save them. But before he gets a chance, someone unexpected intervenes, the embodiment of unconditional love, Mollly Weasley. She screams those amazing words, “NOT MY DAUGHTER, YOU BITCH!” and throws herself between Bellatrix and her prey. Bellatrix’s taunts vanish on her lips as she comes face to face with the power and ferocity of love in all its forms; and in just a few short moments, Voldemort’s last and most loyal supporter is dead.

At this point, despite being so close to the end, I shut the book and closed my eyes. I couldn’t have read anymore if I had wanted to, the feeling of the experience was overwhelming me. I shut out the plane-full of people that surrounded me and let the emotions flow over me. I felt a sharp pain in my chest, but it was a pleasant sort of pain. The best way I can describe it is as a feeling of Truth. There was Truth in that moment, the feelings of the story, and the connection to the world. It hit me like a freight train, and all I could do was hold on and let it happen. It’s something that still hits me every time I reach that point in the story, or if I just close my eyes and take myself there. It’s a wonderful, amazing, beautiful feeling, one of those moments so beautiful it hurts, and you know you should look away because of the pain but you can’t because of the beauty. It encompasses everything that Jo was trying to convey in her story of love and death, and how the two go hand in hand, and it allows for a deeper understanding of the world around us.

And if all of that sounds absolutely ridiculous, maybe it is. I can only vouch for my personal experience and I won’t speak for anyone else. But I can say, personal feelings aside, that it is one of the most powerful story moments ever told. It’s unexpected and shocking in its delivery. The fact that Harry isn’t the one to save his friends, but instead the wonderfully ordinary Mrs. Weasley, is a brilliant storytelling turn. It’s an illustration of love’s power that we’ve never seen before. The story is marked by the power of sacrificial love, and it’s full of people dying to save others out of love. The Potters, Dumbledore, Dobby, and even Harry himself died to save the ones they love. The power of that sacrifice is shown to be one of the strongest magics in the world. It’s a theme that’s not only in Harry Potter but is echoed in stories throughout the ages, and the Christ metaphor is a very accurate one. But while Molly Weasley’s power comes from love, and she is more than willing to die to protect those she loves, her love is actually even stronger than that. More than just protecting those in danger, she eliminates the danger itself. Her love gives her the strength not just to resist evil but to conquer it. It’s an active response, one that contrasts greatly with all of the passive reactions throughout the story. That it’s highlighted by one of the story’s strongest use of language just adds to the truth of the situation. It’s a moment that feels so very real and so very strong. It’s the perfect combination of the power of the story and the craft of the storyteller.

I eventually finished the book on that flight, but those words continued to echo in my head. They still do, years later, on the eve of getting to experience them onscreen. It was a moment I was actually dreading until quite recently. At first I was worried that it would somehow be changed or edited, but I’ve thankfully learned that it will not be. I even threatened to walk out if Mrs. Weasley didn’t get to say those words. But even after I learned that the moment would be included, I worried that I might not feel the same way seeing it on screen as I did reading the book that first time. I already went through a milder form of this the first time I listened to Jim Dale’s brilliant performance on the audiobook, though my fears were ultimately dispelled. But the more I look at Harry Potter as a whole, the more I realize that no matter how the film chooses to show the moment, it will only add to the power of the story. It’ll be one more instrument in the orchestra, playing along to complement the music. Instead of upsetting the moment for me, it will enhance it, and each new experience will be richer and fuller as a result. And here, at the end, after 7 books, 8 films, and 14 years, I know that this is in fact not the end, but merely the beginning. That Harry Potter will always be a part of me, just as it will always be a part of many people the world over. I know that this community, whether they call them selves the Order of the Phoenix or Dumbledore’s Army, will only continue to grow and flourish, and that no matter what happens those feelings are just a page turn away.

3 thoughts on “Thoughts on Harry Potter

  1. Pingback: Review: The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – from the heart of an obsessive fan | Love Pirate's Ship's Log

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