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.
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.