Considering that the eighth and supposedly final of the movies comes out TONIGHT, it is altogether fitting to give a tribute to J.K. Rowling’s masterpiece, the Harry Potter series. Having inspired millions of Muggles (non-magical folk) to put down the remote and spark their imaginations, Potter deserves to be a literary and- on a lesser scale-a cinematic icon.
In 8th grade, the only things that I read were the articles on the Lakers and Dodgers in the Los Angeles Times. I had shunned an activity that I had cherished since I was a baby-reading books-because it was not “cool” to do so. One day, our school librarian suggested that I begin reading this popular book called Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. “No way!” “Yes way”, she responded and handed me the book. I begrudgingly accepted and began to read.
It was good. Not great. However, I was intrigued to read more. After a week, I returned the first book and then borrowed the second and third. Luckily, we had Memorial Day weekend so I could read them over break. Unfortunately, I had to go on a family trip. I found a solution: to read in the car during the many awkward silences that were bound to occur.
Somewhere on the 5 freeway in our world and the Chamber of Secrets and the Shrieking Shack at Hogwarts, I changed. In the car, I devoured every word, magical and non-magical alike. Quidditch. Dementors. The Patronus Charm. And I grew attached to these well-developed and fascinating characters: Sirius Black, Neville Longbottom, Hermione Granger, Severus Snape, the Weasley Family, and of course Harry himself. Next thing I knew, I was obsessed. When my friends got me Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire before a beach trip, they had to hid it in the car so I wouldn’t read it at the beach. They failed. I haven’t stopped since.
There have been two main criticisms of the Harry Potter series that I would like to confront. The first is that the series is “childish” and not a literary classic because it is popular culture. Granted, the first couple of books are geared towards children because simply-Harry is a kid in them. It makes sense because Harry is still growing up and does not yet face the challenges that will confront him in the latter half of the series. When (spoiler alert!) Lord Voldemort returns in a grandiose and malicious fashion, the series gets real dark, real quick by becoming an exploration of good v. evil in history, philosophy, politics, and current events.
Furthermore, Rowling’s writing is clever and gives homage to the myths and traditions of the past. Take for example the name of Remus Lupin, the former Defense Against the Dark Arts Teacher and friend of Harry’s parents. Rowling gives him the first name of one of the founders of Rome who suckled on a wolf as a baby and the last name of the Latin for “wolf”; all to foreshadow Lupin’s big revelation. Finally against this charge, Shakespeare was considered “popular culture” back in his day and too accessible and low-end entertainment. Now he’s considered too complex and hard for the modern teenage student.
The second charge is that Harry Potter leads people especially impressionable children and teenagers about the dark arts, black magic, and witchcraft. True, the school is called Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, but fundamentally the series purports and professes Christian and universal values of sacrifice, fellowship, loyalty, and love. There is the obvious good v. evil with good being represented by Harry and his friends, the Order of the Phoenix, Gryffindor, and Hogwarts and evil being represented by Lord Voldemort, the Death Eaters, Slytherin, and Dolores Umbridge.
Yet on a deeper level, we see a timeless message that is synonymous with Biblical ethics. Just as Christ told us to care for the least of our brothers and sisters, Harry, Dumbledore, and Hermione advocate on behalf of the least of the magical society: houselves, goblins, half-bloods and Muggle borns. They show respect and care for the marginalized and vulnerable even at Hogwarts where our heroes befriend the absent-minded Neville and the eccentric Luna Lovegood rather than the haughty Draco Malfoy. Christ called different, flawed men and women to be his followers, not the same or the perfect. Our heroes value the strengths and gifts of each other whether it is Fred and George’s comedic genius or Hermione’s cool logic and determination to be the best, but also their differences.
And when they are faced with some of their greatest challenges and enemies, our heroes are called to forgive and show compassion. And remarkably-they do. It gives us a model for our own lives and salvations because we are called to forgive each other. In doing so, we receive redemption. These are just some of the reasons that it is so easy to make Harry Potter a portal in which to learn our Catholic faith. I can give examples from the stories to make lessons or ideas accessible in the classroom. Due to this, Harry Potter has helped me to become a better teacher.
Speaking of teachers, I want to give tribute and thanks to my favorite character in the whole series, Professor Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore. I have long done an imitation of Dumbledore in various speeches and skits; most recently manifested in a parody that I did in college (but I digress…) Much like Merlin, Yoda, and Gandalf, Dumbledore is the epitome of wisdom and understanding. He teaches or reminds Harry the big lessons of each book, many of which will stick with me today. I cannot tell you the number of times that I have said to my students or friends, “It is our choices, Harry, that show who we truly are far more than our abilities.” Or been personally inspired by his ideal that it is not what a person is born that matters, but what they grow up to be. Or brought to tears by “Do not pity the dead, Harry. Pity the living and above all, those who live without love.” Through Dumbledore, Rowling is able to impart her deepest wisdom that teaching and education of minds and hearts is far more important than reaching for power and glory. It is amazing to comprehend that the most powerful wizard of the entire series-if not of all time-is a teacher. Dumbledore shows me that it is the duty of the best and brightest to go into teaching. It is humbling to do so, but enlightening as well.
It has been easy for years to delay my sadness for this beloved experience to end because I knew that after the books came the movies. But now this is really the end; that is until they re-boot the franchise with a gritty, darker version. I hope not because it has been a rich and rewarding ride despite my criticisms for what they cut out in the films. Let us thank Rowling, a former single mom on welfare writing on napkins only to become richer than the Queen of England by having the courage and creativity to write. Let us thank Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson who so perfectly embodied their characters and aged with grace and elegance (especially Emma Watson). And finally, let us thank Harry Potter, the outcast who lived under the broom closest to fully become The Boy Who Lived.