Harry Potter is not about magic. It is not about flying broomsticks and wand-accompanied mumbo-jumbo. Well, it is if you are eleven. But for those sceptics who wonder if twenty-somethings and even middle aged people continuing to moon over the canon is just a case of nostalgia and escapism at its worst, it is much beyond that.
For starters, it is the story of its creator, Joanne Rowling, a single mother who, before the books were published, was “as poor as it (was) possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless”. As is Harry, orphaned and left at his unforgiving aunt’s doorstep, forced to live like a second-class human in the cupboard under the stairs, eating leftovers and occasionally exhibiting traces of magic in his blood. It is about how Harry discovers that he has something that sets him apart from those who are bent upon convincing him otherwise. Just as Rowling, after a failed marriage, surviving on state welfare with an infant daughter in tow, realised with her gift of storytelling.
It is about dealing with the loss of people who care about you - parents, friends, mentors. Both Harry and Rowling have to come to terms with this grief, the kind that one would not wish upon the most hostile of his enemies. Rowling’s description of Dementors, those cloaked, dark, scabby soul-sucking creatures, is the closest to that indescribable darkness that one experiences. But she does not desert us, or herself, there.
There is Expecto Patronum, the recollection of your happiest memory that conjures up a bright counter-charm which banishes these Dementors. The tremendous effort that Harry puts in to bring out a happy memory from the deepest recesses of his mind, mirrors Rowling’s own struggle to deal with her mother’s death and the depression that followed. Anyone who has found himself in that unfortunate situation can empathize with the struggle and truly appreciate the brilliance behind the entire Dementor-Patronus theme.
It is about personal growth. As a wizard, Harry is not exceptionally gifted. He is a child who was marked by his enemy by sheer coincidence and therefore finds himself in exceptional situations. What sets Harry apart is his acceptance of circumstances as they stand and the determination to see things to their end. He is, very aptly, someone whom greatness has been thrust upon. And that is where magic-wands, charms, potions, spells - are mere instruments, and courage, friendship, faith and hope reign supreme. When Harry decides to face Voldemort alone, trusting his friends to destroy fragments of the latter’s soul, the Horcruxes, it is the culmination of all real, non-magical, human qualities. He understands the significance of the words on his parents’ tombstone, “The last enemy that shall be destroyed is Death.” In accepting his inevitable death and embracing it with open arms, he is reunited with his parents and father-figures and is liberated from all fear. Isn’t this moment of enlightenment what all human beings, with their many religions and philosophy in the world strive to attain?
It is about how love, in all its strength, is the most underrated of all human emotions. Voldemort, albeit by no fault of his own, is incapable of feeling love. In his trivialisation of this emotion, he unknowingly creates his nemesis. His nemesis is imparted the strength by his mother’s sacrifice. And in another instance of just how powerful love can be, a Death Eater, Severus Snape, becomes Harry’s silent benefactor in innumerable ways, even as Death looms large over him. It is love that imparts courage, and courage that creates heroes out of the most unlikeliest of men like Snape and Neville Longbottom.
The world of Harry Potter is not utopian. It has its hierarchy, its criminal underbelly, its corrupt authorities. Far from being “unreal” and “escapist”, it sensitises readers to these realities, something that naysayers should understand. It resonates with the British reader as it talks of economic disparities dividing even the Wizarding community, and it also resonates with the Indian reader, with its segregation of Purebloods, Halfbloods, Muggles and Squibs. We’re curious to know how many “children’s books” are able to drive home these sordid realities while still preserving the innocence of children and continuing to be an engaging read.
Above everything else, Harry Potter is about hoping for the best in a world where everything appears to head for the worst. Every generation in history has sensed the Apocalypse approaching in a matter of years, and the Harry Potter universe is no different. But the world, both ours and Harry’s, has survived decades of dictatorship, destructive wars and personal hostilities projected to the masses, and still prevails. If the Harry Potter books were to teach us only one thing, it would be this, which holds particular relevance in the world we live in today. For this gift of optimism, we are grateful to JK Rowling.
And so whenever critics of “that magic book” ask us if, even as grownups with the responsibilities of the entire world on our shoulder we’d carve out time to read, and re-read Harry Potter, we’d say, “Always”.
Title image: huffp