“It is a curious thing,” Rowling writes in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, “but perhaps those who are best suited to power are those who have never sought it.”
I have read this series more times than I can count and like most in my generation, I have grown up with it. Though my love for literature started with Nancy Drew, Famous Five and The Hardy Boys – I didn’t go as crazy as I did when these books came out. I remember buying the first 3 books and reading it in one go before I had the agonizing wait for the fourth which turned up right in between school tests. I recall begging my parents to let me just read it so that I could concentrate on my studies right after. Me and my school friends went for all the movies, spoke in a British accent and waved imaginary wands and pet owls (imaginary again!) that we spoke to. When the last book came out, I went through a low. I knew that no matter what I read after, there would be nothing that came close to this. This wonderful feeling of belonging to a secret world of quills, parchment, dragons and best friends. I mourned the end of this era for a while before I decided to start reading it again and the grief got a little better. So now, whenever I suffer through a drought of good books, this series is what I go back to – like comfort food.
I can’t say that reading Harry Potter at the age of 20 or 28 constitutes as ‘reading as an adult’. This book reveals new things every time I read it. The first two books are largely children’s books – Harry is an orphan living with his maternal aunt, her husband and bullying cousin (the Dursley’s) because his parents died in a car crash. On his eleventh birthday, he discovers that his parents were powerful wizards killed by a Dark wizard, Voldemort and he magically survived the encounter. He was ‘The Boy who Lived’ and now had to study in Hogwarts, a school of witchcraft and wizardry. What’s interesting here is how his Muggle upbringing didn’t allow him to grow up feeling special which he would have done had Dumbledore decided to give him to a wizarding family. He didn’t grow up with an inflated head (which was largely his father, James Potter’s problem) and this gave him a generous amount of empathy – instead of hating the Dursley’s like I did before, I’ll give them credit for Harry turning out to be such a wholesome human being.
Though all the books have an element of evil and they do get progressively darker, I think you can see the sudden spike in some books – for example in the third book (‘Prisoner of Azkaban’), Voldemort doesn’t manage to make an appearance at all but it is a sudden mood change compared to the first two lighter books. Harry has to come to terms with the past and it is almost painful to watch him make decisions like asking Lupin how to fight dementors that make him relive his mother’s final moments before being murdered; when he struggles internally regarding his decision on Sirius, Pettigrew and even Snape. It is also the only book where Dumbledore didn’t know everything already nor did he have a hunch. Another change in mood is the sixth book, The Half-blood Prince (Voldemort doesn’t make an appearance here either)which is another sort of coming of age for Harry where he is vested with enough knowledge Dumbledore has related to his nemesis. Both these books give Harry a deeper understanding of the sacrifice he will have to make and the responsibility he must shoulder.
One of the first things that pops in your mind when you read the books as ‘an adult’ is the underlying prejudice. How the wizarding world has similar classist distinctions like we do – the Malfoys have influence and money and inter marry to secure their pure bloodline, house elves are meant to serve and obey, magical beasts are dangerous and Muggles have dirty blood. The prejudice with house elves is so deep rooted that even old wizarding families like the Weasley’s think house-elves don’t want to be freed when it is only a matter of ignorance of what life is like without these chains. It takes a Muggle born witch, an outsider to really see the flaws in the system and do something about it. Which brings me to my next observation.
Hermione beats all female role models out there. She never, at any point resorts to a cliche by – the- book nerd nor does she become one of the boys. She seems to retain her own independent spirit along with her skill, logical reasoning and lack of enthusiasm for wizarding sport. She is also highly self-aware and it’s evident in the first book where she tells Harry her strengths are just theoretical but his strengths were far more valuable – courage and loyalty. It comes up repeatedly – how she makes Harry start teaching, how she understands that Harry is not putting enough effort in Occlumency while knowing how dangerous it still is. She seems to have the ability to see the good in others – whether it is Winky or Kreacher, Hagrid or Snape and even the bad (Sirius, Crouch Senior and Umbridge) who are all people she either mistrusted or judged correctly in their treatment of others. She knows she is the outsider without an ounce of magical blood and the only way for her to keep up is to know more than what the others have taken so much for granted since birth. She and Malfoy seem to be the smartest kids in class though both use their knowledge to achieve very different ends. Her cautiousness in ‘The Order of the Phoenix’, when Harry wants to rush to the Ministry of Magic because he had a vision of Sirius being tortured just goes to show how she is miles ahead of the others and can somehow see the larger picture. Her note before she gets petrified because she figures outs it’s a Basilisk, teaching Harry the Summoning Charm when he faces the dragon, training him for the Third task and being so prepared in case they needed to make a quick getaway to find the Horcruxes. Her preparedness and knowledge saves their asses so many times, I find it hard to understand how they would have survived otherwise.Every time I read the books, my appreciation of Hermione only increases because she is a formidable witch but still manages to be kind and sensitive.
Another aspect I noticed is the concept of death and time. Rowling seems to play with these two themes in a multitude of ways. The time turner that can take you back in time, the Pensieve that helps you remember your version of events, The Mirror of Erised that shows a person’s deepest darkest desires are all time concepts. The Resurrection stone, the Dementors, the Horcruxes, the Philosophers stone, the Hallows are all death concepts or means to evade death. The death of Harry’s mother is an underlying theme in all the books and affects Harry’s decisions in many ways. Another interesting thing that struck me was that every child is fighting their own personal battle in this world. Harry is neglected during his early life and then is thrust into this world with great expectations. Hermione faces prejudice because of her Muggle parentage and sexism because she’s smarter than most of the boys. Neville’s parents were tortured and they can barely recognize him. Ron, the youngest son of so many siblings, always feeling second best because every other brother had already been there and done that. Draco is fighting his own internal battle during the later stages of the book – a belief system set in stone by his parents versus Dumbledore and his teachings that are finally starting to make sense after Voldemort’s rise in power and their dip in fortunes. The wish to be special and the fear of being ordinary is real.
Dumbledore’s faith in old magic is jarring, knowing that he went through such a profound change in philosophy, once consorting with the Darkest wizard of his time and now fighting against the same ideology of pureblood wizards reigning supreme. He says, “Don’t you see? Voldemort himself created his worst enemy, just as tyrants everywhere do. Have you any idea how much tyrants fear the people they oppress? All of them realize that one day, amongst their many victims, there is sure to be one who rises against them and strikes back!”. I still wonder if he was thinking about Grindelwald then.
War is another thing that Rowling introduces – an underground resistance that has infiltrated the Ministry and bureaucracy and is trying to fight the prejudice and influence of a twisted individual. How the media (Daily Prophet and Rita Skeeter) controls opinions and they have the power to warp the truth. The slow and often tragic ends because of the sacrifices a few have to make just goes to show how revolution is always a painful and slow moving process because of a general resistance to change. Rowling tries, through her book, to teach the consequences of fear and avoidance along with raising a generation full of kindness and tolerance.