Wednesday, September 19, 2012
Wasted Wednesday: Reading: The Boy Who Lived
As a ten year old kid, Harry Potter seemed to me to be an over-hyped book series that probably couldn't compare to my Little House books. My love for books, though, got the better of me one day in a Toys R' Us where I spotted a whole section dedicated to Harry Potter and decided it was time for me to start reading the books. I ended up buying the second book at Toys R' Us and bought the first through my fourth grade book order. When I finished reading The Sorcerer's Stone, I remember being so proud because I'd never read a book of that size with such small letters. It was a big achievement. Iam now reading the books for a fifth time. Who'd have thought I'd grow to love this series so much?
When someone tells me that they've never read Harry Potter, I always urge them to pick up all seven books. They have changed my life so much and I always want other people to experience the story of the boy who lived! I always seem to find a few people who only know Harry Potter from the media and not from reading the books. This summer I got into a heated discussion with a friend of mine about the books and told her she had to read them. She had some reservations and her points were very understandable. Before I go into the heart of this blog post, I want to give two points my friend stated against Harry Potter and then I will explain to you why these points are meaningless when it comes to judging a credible book or series. The first point that was made is this – I don’t believe in wizardry. Indeed this statement has been expanded by the media and can be seen as a legitimate reason. However, if we are going to not read something because we don’t believe in it than I guess I give up all murder mysteries and anything to do with rape because I believe murder and rape are wrong. See my point? If Harry Potter was enforcing wizardry than I’d say not to read it and I probably wouldn’t be such a fan of the books myself; but it’s not forcing anyone to be a wizard. In fact, I honestly can claim that this series isn’t truly about wizards at all. Harry Potter is a fantasy tale and just like the fantasy and fairy tales before it, the story uses a mythical group to portray the habits and morals of our own society. Bambi teaches kids that if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all. It isn’t telling us that we must become rabbits or deer or live in a forest. The second point made is this – Isn’t it a bit childish? Its main characters are kids. While the Harry Potter books appeal to the young, they also appeal to all age groups. When I was 17 waiting in line to receive my copy of the final book, there were adults in line with me discussing the books and discussing what may happen in the final one. The book isn’t about children but rather about childhood. It is a story of growing up. The books grow as Harry grows. As Harry becomes more complex, so does his life at Hogwarts and so does J.K. Rowling’s writing. In order to judge Harry Potter in full, one must read all of the books. Reading the first one is like reading the first part of a novel and putting it down before discovering all of the other parts. Harry Potter works like a puzzle and by the end, all of the pieces fit. Another point I may add is this – saying Harry Potter is a childish book series because its main characters are kids is a big statement to make. Haven’t we seen many other literary works suitable for adults that contain children as the main character? To name a few - The Lovely Bones, To Kill A Mockingbird, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, The Kite Runner, The Reader, My Sister’s Keeper, etc. The statement is almost suggesting that for a novel to be adult it must contain continual vulgar language, sex, and adult main characters. This isn’t always true. C.S. Lewis says, “No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally – and often far more – worth reading at the age of fifty and beyond.”
Now let’s quote Stephen King, for King is a huge fan of the Harry Potter books, just to get an author’s perspectives on these books. He says, “Will kids (and adults as well) still be wild about Harry 100 years from now, or 200? My best guess is that he will indeed stand time’s test and wind up on a shelf where only the best are kept; I think Harry will take his place with Alice, Huck, Frodo, and Dorothy, and this is one series not just for the decade, but for the ages.” Not only does Harry Potter resemble past fantasy tales but the series also seems to be a pre-Dickens type. In a recent blog post by Jeff Hanna, Hanna states that many students were struggling to read Dickens’s writing and this was becoming a concern considering Dickens’s is one of the easiest, apart from Jane Austen, Victorian authors. “Reading Harry Potter,” Hanna quotes Suzanne Keen, “is like taking a crash course in reading Dickens because ‘it's got the humor, it's got the caricatured names, it's got the multi-plots, it's got the really long stories that you read for hours and hours and hours, and you enjoy the fact that they're long.’” In this blog I am going to present themes that are featured in the Harry Potter series and use examples, but I am going to write in a way that hopefully won’t give away too much information about the series as I want anyone who hasn’t read the books to read them! Let’s get started!
The first theme I am going to discuss in this blog is the theme of death. Death is probably the biggest theme in the novels mostly because it has to do with what made Harry famous and what sets him apart from other wizards. This theme can be split into two sections, one being the dead remain with us and the other being literal death. I quote the third film, “The ones that love us never really leave us.” Harry experiences death as a baby but never really understands it while he grows up until he finds out he is a wizard. Harry’s parents murder lives with him everyday just as his parents live within him and around him everyday. Harry’s looks alone reflect his mother and father. The books continually remind us that Harry has his mother’s eyes and his father’s messy jet black hair. His parents also are reflected through his actions. Harry shows a great deal of love which reflects his mother, and he doesn’t always abide by the rules but is a great Quidditch seeker like his father. Even Harry’s patronus is exactly the same as his father’s, showing that James (Harry’s dad) is as much alive in Harry as ever. Harry also encounters many friends and professors who knew his parents while they were alive and the stories they tell him keep his parents alive in spirit. Harry sees a lot of his parents through pictures given/shown to him, memories from the enchanted Penseive, and letters he comes upon. He sees his parents in the Mirror of Erised and finds himself emotionally attached to the object just so he can be with his family that will never exist. At one point in the books, Harry comes upon their graves; “the last of Lily and James lay, bones now, surely, or dust, not knowing or caring that their living son stood so near, his heart still beating, alive because of their sacrifice and close to wishing, at this moment, that he was sleeping under the snow with them.” Literal death is very prevalent in these books as well. Many characters who Harry becomes close with end up dying and we as readers see the toll it takes on Harry’s emotional state throughout the novels. The entire plot of this story literally revolves around two things: the night Harry’s parents died and Voldemort’s fear of death.
The next theme I want to look at is the theme of alienation/humility. The death of Harry’s parents and the story of his survival and his scar set him apart even in the wizarding world. Harry is constantly alienated in these books and it often leaves him feeling isolated and frustrated. He is alienated in the Chamber of Secrets when people suspect him of murder, in the Goblet of Fire when people suspect he is a cheating dark wizard who is conceited, and in the Order of the Phoenix when the wizarding world claims that he is a liar. Harry is also very alienated during his childhood living with the Dursley’s. Harry feels most isolated during the summer months he has to spend away from Hogwarts and at his aunt and uncle’s because the wizarding world is going on without him and he is too far away to enjoy it or sometimes know what’s going on that effects his life. His scar keeps him isolated because he has to live with the rumors and the pain and the spotlight that he doesn’t want. Death sets him apart from others especially when Harry can see thestrals when mostly no one else can. Harry isn’t the only one who feels isolated and alienated. Even his best friend Ron experiences isolation and alienation at some points in the books. This alienation, though, helps Harry humble himself. He knows he hasn’t asked to be in this rather unique position but he accepts it anyway. He accepts his destiny to help the wizarding world rather than running away from it out of fear to protect himself. Harry shows his modesty most prominently when he is meeting with other students in the beginning’s of Dumbledore’s Army. All of his friends are naming the incredible things Harry has done but Harry tells them that he gives all his credit to luck. He strides to do good even when it may not benefit himself. The biggest example is in the first book with the Sorcerer’s Stone. Harry never lets fear hold him back.
Which brings me to the next theme of the books: Fear. "Fear of a name increases fear of a thing itself,” Dumbledore tells us at one point during the books when referring the a wizards fear of speaking Voldemort’s name. Yes, fear is a very powerful theme in the Harry Potter books. It is revealed to the reader that Harry’s biggest fear is fear itself. He learns to conquer this fear which shows his true strength and determination as a character and as a hero. Fear is also represented in these books through the magical creatures called boggarts which transform into what a certain person fears the most. Characters such as Cornelius Fudge and Professor Slughorn represent a large amount of fear during the books. Even unknown witches and wizards show fear during the books when the wizarding war occurs. Wizards give into the fear of dying when Voldemort comes to kill them for information or just some fun. Voldemort himself, as I stated above, fears death above anything else and it proves to be his greatest weakness. I guess the theme of fear actually should be altered to be conquering fears because this series encourages standing up for what you believe and doing what you think is right despite fear.
Harry basically grows up with blood relatives who despise him and then he enters a world of people who love and accept him not just because of his famous status and his scar. Many men in the story play the role of father figure in Harry’s life such as Hagrid, Dumbledore, Professor Lupin, and a certain someone who is nicknamed Snuffles. These father figures all have unique attributes to them that overall shape and influence Harry during his years at Hogwarts and basically help mold him into the man he becomes. The role of family in these stories is another big theme. Harry Potter makes it clear that family isn’t just defined as having a mom and a dad but rather it is defined as being surrounded by people who genuinely love and care about you. In Harry’s case, the Weasley’s are his family as well as many of the Hogwarts professors and members of the order. Mrs. Weasley is always giving to Harry like she gives to her own children and treats him like one of her own sons. The graphic featured to the right is one that can draw speculation to Harry’s childhood. In Western culture childhood has a definition but no one usually thinks about it because it is just apart of life. Questioning the definition of childhood today is like questioning why we eat cereal for breakfast instead of macaroni and cheese. It can easily be argued that Harry did have a childhood and that it was good in the sense that it humbled him. It was a childhood, just not the one we read in the definition or the one that most of us have experienced. Love surrounds Harry all of the time in the wizarding world (as much as hate) and is probably one of the best known themes in the books. We see love in the form of romance and love in its invisible form that saved Harry’s life the night Voldemort gave Harry his scar. His mother’s love runs in his veins and is what sets him apart from Voldemort.
This next point I am going to make carries a few themes but ultimately proves this: that this book is packed with three dementional characters. Emma Watson once said in an interview, “What I love about J.K. Rowling’s books is that no one is ever painted completely black or white apart from Voldemort.” Indeed Watson is right on the money with this statement. The characters in Harry Potter have so much depth to them and they all have a story, even if they are only minor characters. Each character brings a theme of the fallen façade as well as redemption and forgiveness. We see these themes in characters like Neville, Snape, Lupin, Ron, Draco, and many others. This theme of fallen façade also occurs when looking at the Hogwarts houses. I’m not sure who said this quote but it is very important to remember when reading the books. “Not all Gryffindors are brave, not all Hufflepuffs are weak, not all Ravenclaws are stuck up and arrogant and not all Slytherins are dark wizards.” If you’ve read the books I think it is safe to say that each of these statements represents a single character and you know who they are. The only character that stays the same, as Watson pointed out, is Voldemort who is always seeking power and a way to conquer death.
These books are packed with wisdom! Dumbledore says, "To the well organized mind, death is but the next great adventure,” and, "It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities,” and, “We all must make the decision between what is right and what is easy,” and, "Do not pity the dead, Harry. Pity the living, and, above all, those who live without love," and, "Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?" AND, “it matters not what someone is born, but what they grow to be!” There are lots of other quotes I love said by Dumbledore and many other characters but those are some of my favorites. The books continually give the reader time to reflect upon their own lives as Harry reflects on his life, and the characters teach wisdom through their actions.
One last topic of discussion I want to touch on is actually a question. Where is God in Harry Potter? Faith in the Harry Potter books is one of the reasons why I love Harry Potter. I see so many biblical references (intentional or not) and the books have helped guide me as a follower of Jesus. To start off, the idea of humility (something bigger than ourselves) is a huge attribute when talking about being a follower of Jesus. Another is patience which we see represented through the interaction of Dumbledore and Harry. Harry doesn’t always understand Dumbledore’s decisions because of his own preconceived ideas, but he trusts them anyway and that is another thing we need to remember – to trust God because He has more wisdom than we do. Poet Jeff Bethke once said in an interview when asked if he didn’t agree with some passages in the bible, “This is what it comes down to, I’ve noticed. Is that, they’re still things I wrestle with [in the bible] and still things that if I were to say I’m God, I wouldn’t do it that way – which of course is the most arrogant thing you could ever say…we don’t have people putting the word of God above them and humbly submitting in hopes that they would ask the Holy Spirit to open their mind every time they read the scriptures and just reveal truth. Instead we have people putting the bible below them and saying ‘I’m going to force my worldview that I already have into this book.’” Of course I’m not saying that I would put Harry Potter before the bible however I do feel Harry Potter can teach us these lessons of what it means to be a follower of Christ. As I said above, Dumbledore is constantly doing things that Harry is very confused about and struggles with and he even gets angry with Dumbledore sometimes yet in the end, he always trusts him and that is the way we need to live. Yes there are times we will get angry with God but we can’t let our anger lead us down an easier path but we need to trust God because he may just have more wisdom than we do. Another huge link to faith in these books is seeing Harry as a Jesus figure as well as Dumbledore as a godly figure.
To conclude, Harry Potter is more than the media has made it out to be. It isn’t simply some children’s story about getting bad grades or missing a homework assignment or having a crush but rather it is about courage and facing our fears; learning to love and to be humble, and to never judge a book by it’s cover!