Harry Potter and the Fate He Made Himself

The first time I read the Harry Potter books, I did it standing in the library of an old women’s college turned high school in Yonezawa, Japan, turning pages furtively like an addict. I wasn’t going to school there, the English language section was for students to practice with–but I was starving for books in my own language.

I devoured the ones they had and paid 4000 yen for an imported Goblet of Fire in Nariita Airport. I stayed up most of the night reading it on the night bus I was taking home, and got up the next morning only to open it up again.

The guilt of sneaking a read (both not my property and my family being part of the sub-culture that frowned on Harry Potter’s form of magic) somewhat muted my appreciation for the series, since I didn’t enter into fan culture about it.

Now that some of the fervor’s died down, though, I find that my love of Harry Potter hasn’t really waned. As a writer, on a reread some years ago, I was captivated by the use of sounds for worldbuilding–I think what really set Harry Potter apart to be a long-term beloved story.

Right now I’m listening to it in the car, and hearing it makes some other facets of the writing leap out.

Harry of the Dursleys

One of the things that made me start thinking was Harry’s interactions with the Dursleys. First, it seemed way longer than I remembered before Hagrid arrives to pick Harry up. Why is that? Why would Rowling spend so long with the Dursleys, after just teasing us with Dumbledore and McGonnagal?

It’s important to establish the world outside the wizard world is as we know it–and that Harry doesn’t belong there. He NEEDS the Wizarding World to exist, because as a wizard he’s being systematically oppressed.

I was first noting how Harry is openly hostile and rude to the Dursleys, particularly Dudley. That’s not very hero-type. I realized this is actually how he has been raised. While the Dursley parents often threaten him violently (and he uses violent language about their reactions, i.e. “They’re going to kill me!”) but they do not do physical violence to him. They know, ultimately, that striking him is going too far. They have their own logic by which their psychological abuse is rationalized.

They award their own son for being demanding and rude (unless pretense is needed for social climbing) and they never reward Harry for being polite, either. Of course he’s going to be rude. And because he’s punished every time he is “wizard” like, but he has no idea what it is he’s done wrong, since they withhold information from him.

Harry of Hogwarts

The rest of the story unfolds from this basis. Harry goes into a world where he has to figure out how it works from hearsay from other children and hard lessons when he gets it wrong.

While it seems odd to older readers that Harry and his friends never seem to go to teachers, Harry’s mode of survival makes a lot of sense–adults don’t understand where you’re coming from, in his experience. His surprised relief when McGonnagal is reasonable about mishaps is that of someone primed to expect abuse for mistakes.

Dumbledore isn’t strict in appearance the way the Griffindor House Professor is, but he is largely absent. This is true when he is called away by circumstance–it is also true when he emotionally withdraws because he fears Harry being compromised by his close connection to Voldemort.

And while he finally finds a role model he can relate to in Sirius Black, his godfather is also a child of an emotionally abusive family, where he was punished for irrational “wrongdoing”. He can’t provide support for Harry, since he’s never had any of his own.

Harry of course is going to forge on trying to make things work alone, because he’s never had any experience with people being there for him–in fact, his lucking into Ron and Hermione’s friendship is really what saves him.

And they get drawn into his dependence in a way that may actually have done them harm more than it did him good, but such is the nature of friendship.

There is one exclusion from this rule…

Harry of the Burrow

From the moment we meet Mrs. Weasley, before we even learn her name, she is mothering Harry. She is there to see him onto the train, when he’s dumped to figure it out by relatives who suspect a cruel joke is being played on him. (And *relish* it.)

Mrs. Weasley has mothered her own children well enough that they form a de facto family for Harry that functions as his only support. Fred and George may not be exemplary, but they have a careless affection for Harry (and Ron, and Hermione) that makes them safe at the school in at least emotional ways, if not physical.

But the story would have gone very differently if Harry could have just been adopted into the Weasley family. He is endangered by the deliberate ignorance of the Dursleys–and while Rowling eventually made it organic to the storyline, she had to ride a fine balance between the welcoming nature of the Weasley family, and Harry having to go back to his awful family over the summer.

Why?

The relief of returning to his proper world had to set up each story, even as the closure of having a secret world to withhold from them ends each book.

Harry of the Wizarding World

In retrospect, I love the idea that Harry didn’t have to be The Chosen One. That someone else could have fulfilled the prophecy. In fact, if Neville had been the one marked instead of Harry there would have been no reason for Harry to have an interesting story at all. However, this is the story of a boy who not only found a home where he belonged, that he could CHOOSE, but the story of someone who determines to make himself a hero.

Harry isn’t very heroic, in a lot of ways. He spends half his adolescence trying to live down the rumors and speculation. However, because he chose to go for the adventure, because he ran into it, trusting only himself (and sometimes his chosen family of friends) in the end it didn’t matter if he was meant to be a hero or not.

He actually brings the Dark Lord’s attention to himself over and over again. He becomes the boy of prophecy because he understands from the beginning that he’s been chosen for a world he didn’t expect, and he may have to pay a price for it.

Man, I love this story.

TCK Narratives – THE BLUE SWORD

About thirteen years ago, I got several books for Christmas. For some people this may have been anticlimactic. At the time I was a little cautious, myself, though I was a thorough bookworm and would soon bless this pile of books.

I was living in countryside Japan, and all the English books I had access to in the world were in our house.

I was cautious about some of the books because my mom had not read them yet, and the covers were a little…hmmm.

I have all sorts of ways to name it now, but I won’t. Because of course, now this is the only true cover–it’s been with me ever since.

I  had already met Robin McKinley through Beauty. In fact, our week in the hotel after our international move I read it aloud to my brother, as an aggressive comfort tactic. This book was revelatory to me–it showed how a fairy tale could be a skeleton for a deeper novel, how fantasy could be built out of older stories.

The Blue Sword, though, was a story that I resonated with very personally.

In it, our heroine Harry has moved from her homeland to a colonial outpost. She’s always felt like an outsider (from a slight lack of pedigree and fortune: much worse, being tall and not pretty). In this nucleus of outsiders in a strange land she makes friends in a deeper way quite quickly.

Soon after the start of the book, she’s taken hostage–or rather, taken away to become a warrior. Her own untapped magic blooms in the strange culture she’s immersed in–and even helps her learn language more rapidly than could be expected.

Harry was living out a fantasy story–as bi-cultural. Though older than the technical definition of the Third Culture Kid, she very much was living out that experience of being an ex-pat and submersed in a culture that begins to color the very person you are.

Robin McKinley was a military brat, even stopping in Japan (where she read Lord of the Rings for the first time), so she was writing from an experience I resonated with, in this story. Man, did I know how amazing it would be to just subconsciously start picking up Japanese–though after a while, it felt a little like that, to be absorbing it from all around me. A uniquely cross-cultural wish fulfillment element!

But it wasn’t an escapist story, all wish-fulfillment with magic.

In one of the passages, Harry first feels comforted by the very insider-ness of the group she sits with–their strong bonds. But just moments later it isolates her:

The feeling she had had earlier, before she had tasted the Water of Seeing, that the closeness among the king and his men in some way supported her, was gone; she felt lost and miserably alone, and she decided that when there were eighteen people pretending you didn’t exist in a small enclosed area, it was worse than two people pretending you didn’t exist outside under the sky.

How well I understood (and still understand) that feeling! And even as she earns her status as belonging with them, as having a destiny there, because of being born and raised elsewhere she’ll never BE them.

I’m missing what I don’t have, she thought late one night, squirming on her cushions. It’s nothing to do with what I should be homesick for–Jack would understand, the oldest colonel still active, looking across the desert at the Hills. It’s that I don’t belong here. It doesn’t matter that I’m getting burned as dark as they are, that I can sit a horse all day and not complain. It doesn’t matter that their Water of Sight works in me as i does in only a few of their own. It is only astonishing that it would work in one not of the Hills; it does not make that one any more of the Hills than she was before.

 

There was a certain bitter humor to lying awake wishing for something one cannot have, after lying awake not so long ago wishing for the opposite thing that one had just lost. Not a very useful sort of adaptability, this, she thought. But, her though added despairingly, what kind of adaptability–or genius–would be useful to me? …There was, too, a reality to her new life that her old life had lacked, and she realized with a shock that she had never truly loved or hated, for she had never seen the world she had been used to living in closely enough for it to evoke passion in her. This world was already more vivid to her, exhilaratingly, terrifyingly more vivid, than the sweet green country, affectionately but indistinctly recalled, of her former life.

While I didn’t discover I was born with magic or anything, this transformation Harry goes through mirrors the new awareness of being surrounded by a new world. My memory became much less episodic after our first big move when I was 9. Moving to Japan shook up even more of my ability to take things for granted–from mundane things like packaging to flora on your doorstep.

I have been thinking lately about the books that have the narratives of bi-culturals and TCK (Third Culture Kids), inspired by the notes of that in The Goblin Emperor. I’ll be reviewing that element of that book next!