Tuesday, August 9, 2011

In Praise of Harry Potter

More than a decade ago, I became a reluctant reader of Harry Potter. I was never worried about the supposedly diabolic effects of stories featuring "white magic" -- after all, on that charge, Narnia and Middle Earth should be pitched out as much as J.K. Rowling's world.  Rather, at the age of fourteen I was vehemently opposed to anything that seemed popular, and the Potter books were gaining enthusiastic fans quickly. Fortunately, a determined friend read the first chapter to me over the phone (and this in the days when someone actually had to pay for long-distance calls!), convincing me that the story was worth following.

Though I have said (surprisingly) little about literature on this blog, books and stories have always been part of my understanding of home, community, relationships, and all the other things I began this blog in order to explore.  Some of my earliest memories of home involve my parents reading to me, and I have chosen to pursue a PhD in literature because I believe that stories matter in our lifelong, faltering attempts to become fully human (The Gospel is a story, not an argument, after all). At its best, literature at has the power to disorient and reestablish, undermine and affirm, create good desires, instruct and delight.

Last week, as I reread the final book in the Harry Potter series, then watched the final film, I was particularly moved by two extraordinary virtues of these stories.  One is personal, the other general.  
First, the books demonstrate that stories create communities. The Potter books were one of the first things that made me feel a part of my own generation, rather than alienated from it. I loved to read long before Rowling published her first book, but until high school, I believed my interests should be entirely my own. This wasn't only because my thirteen-year-old peers weren't swooning over William Blake as I was, but because I felt that sharing something cheapened it. Having one or two friends was fine, but I wanted secret, special, and unique interests.  With the Potter books, however, my pride in precocious and hidden knowledge gave way to delight--delight too strong to be weakened by the fact that I shared it with millions of other people. Indeed, like many of my peers, I feel a kind of communal ownership of the Harry Potter saga. The first book was published in the US when I was fourteen, and now the last film has premiered when I am twenty-seven.  As the books were published, I was often only a few years older than the characters themselves, and according to the internal chronology of the series, Harry Potter and his friends were born in 1979/1980, making them all about four years older than I am.  I wouldn't say that Harry Potter defined my generation, but the stories--both in print and on screen--have certainly been companions for those of us who came of age since the late 1990s. As I watched the final Deathly Hallows movie, I thought about all the friends I've enjoyed sharing the books and films with.  I remembered seeing past films with friends from high school, college, and graduate school. I remembered Will reading that first chapter to me on the phone, and the letters I have shared with Emily, Julianna, Dave and Mandy. This year, I watched the film with one of the families from my recent China trip, glad to witness one more beautiful and powerful story with them.  

My second note of praise for Harry Potter is quite simple. J.K. Rowling has provided a series of books that glorify friendship, and such stories are badly needed.  I am increasingly convinced that friendship is the most important and neglected kind of relationship in adult life, and I want to cheer each time I read or watch Harry and his friends overcome evil with love.  The clip I've linked to (below) is from Part I of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and while this little scene was not actually in the book, it gives a picture of the kind of tenderness and courage that characterize all the best friendships in the series.  Harry, Ron, and Hermione are in the middle of the journey to defeat the dark wizard Voldemort. Like many of us, they have noble ambitions, but no idea where to go or what to do to. They are tired and wandering and heartsick. Ron, frustrated and impatient, has abandoned his friends, and in the scene below, Harry tries to remind Hermione that all is not lost.

Watch: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Scene

I nearly cry whenever I watch this. We need these pictures of friendship, pictures of friends who are not lovers, pictures of friends who are brave and honest and beautiful even in their awkwardness. We need stories to make as fierce rather than sentimental. Watching this film, I am overcome with gratitude for my own friends. More times than I can count they have offered their hands when I was lost and sad.

I would rather be a friend than a fangirl, but so long as the rest of the world is buzzing with news about "The Boy Who Lived," I wanted to offer a few thoughts of my own. They are our stories, after all.

Have you read any of the Harry Potter books? How have these or other stories shaped how you live your life alongside others?


  1. :) I love you, Bethany Joy!!! :)

    I've read all of the books...multiple times. :) The stories have strengthened some of my friendships, not only by giving me a picture of true friendship, but by giving me a common point of interest with others. It's my favorite series, followed closely by the Chronicles and, now, The Hunger Games. :)

  2. I read all of the Potter books as a mother as well as a lover of literature. I read most of them out loud to my sons--though I did let Jim Dale take over for the last two! We have seen all of the movies. The series has been a big part of my boys' childhood.

    Important Potter Memories for the Bedwells:

    taking Stepehn out of school early to drive to San Angelo for the opening of HP Movie 2. We sat by a girl who was obviously mentally challenged, but she so loved it. She was in costume, and she acted out many of the scenes from her seat.

    Going to the Hastings release party for book 5 with Stephen--in costume! Stephen's picture was on the front page of the Waco Trib the next day. (He was Seamus Finnegan due to coloring--I was Professor Trelawney.)

    Listening to several of the books on audio while we drove across New Mexico and Colorado, and then seeing Movie 5 in the movie theater in Durango.

    Going to the midnight parties for the last book with all three of the boys--the younger two were finally old enough. Stephen and I also went to a party at the library, where he won his own copy of book seven in an HP trivia contest. THe next day, Stephen and I went to Ginger's apartment with several other friends from Baylor and read over half the book, chapter by chapter, discussing as we finished.

    We own CDs of books 4, 6 and 7, and Drew and Philip have listened to them so much that they can recite long portions.

    It's bittersweet to me that Harry is now over, for it goes along with Stephen becoming a high school senior, soon to leave the nest. I know many Christians disapprove of the series, but I can only be thankful for something that has provided so much joint interest for my family over the years. Discussing Harry, checking the rumor boards before the books came out, going to the movies together, listening to the CDs, reading aloud--all have provided interaction with my boys that I wouldn't trade for anything.

  3. I, too, hesitated to read the HP books for exactly that reason. I didn't want to be associated with anything so popular or (horrors!) "mainstream." But when I got to graduate school and I found colleagues I respected talking seriously about them, I decided to take a look. Plus, I realized that once I was in the classroom on a daily basis, I had better have some idea of what my students might be reading. (It never occurred to me until you pointed it out just now that the characters were supposed to be exactly my age.)

    In retrospect, the popularity of the series should not have put me off, and my initial disdain was sheer intellectual arrogance. It think it was G. K. Chesterton more than anyone who helped me see that what is popular is not necessarily suspect merely because of its popularity, and even that what is secretive, exclusive, and elite should frequently be suspect. That's a habit of thought that typically runs counter to my natural inclinations, which is the reason I think GKC (along with HP) has been good for me. Fairy tales, Chesterton said, are made by the majority of people in the village, who are sane. The history book is usually written by the one man in the village who is mad.

  4. Thank you, friends, for your thoughts, and for letting me know that when I delight in these books, I am sharing part of that joy with you. Each of you has given me more ways to ponder our need for good stories.

  5. OK. Now I'm crying! Thanks for a wonderful post, Bethany. :)