Anthony Doubek found that the Harry Potter books taught him specific morals, introduced him to politics, and gave him a way to honestly look at the world for the first time.
At the age of ten I picked up a book that would change my life. As a young kid with few friends and a social designation of “freak”, the friends I did have made endless fun of me. I was one of those kids who didn’t fit in anywhere, not at school or even in my own family. Wondering where I was supposed to be and terrified that I would never find the answer, I wandered the playground in the hopes of finding the key to social grace.
In fourth grade I did not find the key to social grace, but I did discover the key that unlocked what childhood should truly be. I was handed the first Harry Potter book and instructed to read it. It was the first book I ever read. I hated reading, mostly because I was awful at it. A woman who mysteriously resembled Professor McGonagall inspired me to become a bookworm with a book that taught me so much about escape, life, love and the world in general.
I owe J. K. Rowling my childhood.
When I started reading Harry Potter I found myself escaping into a world filled with magic, told from the perspective of a boy that I could relate to. I wrote fan fiction to escape even further into this alternate reality, attended midnight premiers and dressed up in maroon and gold.
Recently I realized I’ve never met a Harry Potter fan I didn’t like. I found that interesting but slightly obvious; they were Harry Potter fans, why wouldn’t I like them? Then I started to think further about what qualities these individuals possessed, the beliefs they held, the traits they embodied. They were all genuinely nice people, none of them were homophobic, and very few of them were deliberately racist or sexist. What’s more, many of them shared the same political views as myself. This potential correlation seemed strange to me and I wondered if there truly was a connection. I started to look further into my suspicions that Rowling had actually had an impact on our morals and not just our imaginations.
I ended up finding a book called Harry Potter and the Millennials: Research Methods and the Politics of the Muggle Generation. First of all, I really hope one day we are referred to as the Muggle Generation. Second, this was exactly the book I was looking for. These researchers were interested in the way that the Harry Potter series affected the morals and politics of those who grew up reading them. Their findings were fascinating. Not only did they find that Harry Potter fans are more accepting of diversity and slower to judge, less authoritarian and violent, but they also believe in full equality, are more likely to be against torture and capital punishment, and are somehow both more skeptical of government leaders and at the same time less cynical in general; overall they are more politically left and were more likely to vote for President Obama in the 2008 election. Many of the participants in the studies cited specific portions of the Harry Potter books that reinforced these beliefs. Many other readers like myself didn’t realize how much this series affected us until it was pointed out. J. K. Rowling had not only offered us an escape to a new world, she had taught us specific morals, introduced us to politics, and given us a way to honestly look at the world for the first time.
For instance, as Harry was learning how dark the world could be, I was being told by my teacher that men from across the world had flown planes into the World Trade Centers, taking away more lives than my young mind could understand. When Harry was experiencing his first crush, I was holding myself back from telling a girl how cute I thought she was. When Harry lost his godfather and had to learn how to grieve and how to let go, I was experiencing two of the most dramatic deaths my family had seen and learning what it really means when someone passes away. These books were teaching me about life and how to cope with it. For a closer look at what Rowling was teaching us, we can look at the moral theme behind each story. [SPOILERS AHEAD]
In Book One, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, themes of finding your place in the world, making strong and lasting friendships, learning to fight for the right side even through temptation, and overwhelming demonstrations of bravery are woven into the first adventure of the boy wizard.
In the second book, The Chamber Of Secrets, many of us were taught our first lessons of prejudice. The entire book is centered around the concept of “mudbloods”, witches and wizards who are seen by some as ‘less than’ because they have muggle blood; this concept is first introduced by the attitude of Draco Malfoy, a “pureblood”, towards Hermione Granger, who comes from non-magical parents. It is then further demonstrated by the extreme persecution of muggle borns once the Chamber is opened and the monster within starts attacking muggle borns.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban’s main theme, in my opinion, is the value in being open to all sides of a story before passing judgement. Sirius Black is thought to be a mass murderer when he breaks out of Azkaban at the beginning of the story, but as time goes on, more and more suspicious evidence pops up suggesting that the man Black was convicted of murdering is still alive and was actually responsible for the betrayal of Harry’s parents. By the end of the story, it is discovered that Sirius remained true to his friends and that Peter Pettigrew, the man thought to be killed in the fight, was the true culprit behind the death of the Potters.
The cost of winning is addressed in the fourth installment of the series. From the beginning we see that Harry has no desire to even take part in the Triwizard Tournament, an event that promises the winner riches, fame and glory. He already has all three of those things and barely knows what to do with them. When his name is pulled from the Goblet of Fire he is mortified, not to mention confused. The tournament is extremely dangerous and it is clear that someone has planted his name in an attempt to harm him (one suspects Lord Voldemort). With each task Harry has to recognize the value of each victory and how to continue forward. In the very last task, Harry is brought face to face with Voldemort, who kills another contestant, Cedric Diggory. While Harry wins the Triwizard Tournament, it comes at the price of a young man’s life and later, skepticism and suspicion of himself from others in the wizarding world as to whether is he completely delusional and dangerous or the much more terrifying truth that he is telling the truth and the most powerful dark wizard of all time is back in power.
The Order of the Phoenix is perhaps the most blatantly political book of the entire series. The entire book is filled with the presence of Dolores Umbridge, a Ministry of Magic hag who reeks of corruption and power madness. The Ministry of Magic is terrified of Dumbledore and Minister Fudge is desperately attempting to hold on to any pretense of normalcy he can to preserve his power. Umbridge comes into Hogwarts as a Ministry plant to keep an eye on the school and quickly takes over, eventually ousting Dumbledore (along with a few other professors). Not only did the fifth book address political corruption, it also gave many of us young readers our first introduction to organized resistance through the Order of the Pheonix and Dumbledore’s Army. Formed by those who believe the Dark Arts are on the rise again, these two organizations work to protect themselves and those they love, fight Voldemort and his followers and resist corrupt politicians such as Umbridge.
I feel Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince offers us perspective on elitism and priorities. Right at the start of the book we are introduced to Horace Slughorn, an old Hogwarts professor with a knack for making connections with those who go on to do great and impressive things. He gathers students with incredible potential and collects them into his “Slug Club” in an effort not only to get to know them better, but in the hopes that he will be rewarded later in their careers for helping them get a leg up. He is an extraordinarily well connected man who was even Tom Riddle’s (Voldemort’s) favorite professor while he was in school. While Slughorn is very gifted at giving students he favors a means of making great connections, he has a tendency to ignore all those who do not demonstrate remarkable qualities to him, Ron Weasley included. But one of the most important lessons provided by Half-Blood Prince comes at the very end after total devastation has hit the wizarding world. Harry chooses not to finish school.
Now I’m sure some of you are thinking, how is dropping out of school a good lesson? The lesson here has very little to do with staying school and everything to do with learning how to prioritize. School is always stressed to be the most important thing for a kid Harry’s age, but he realizes by the end of his sixth year that there is something much more important now. Voldemort is at large, a war has started, and he is the only one who knows how to defeat the Dark Lord. He knows that he will be putting his life in danger and that he will most likely die in the process, but he also knows that some things are just too important to put off.
The final book really taught me how to keep going. There were so many losses in that final battle, starting with Hedwig and Mad-Eye Moody and traumatizing us all with the deaths of Fred, Tonks, and Remus. There were so many times where it would have been so easy for the characters to give up. In so many scenes it seemed like the other side had won and that there was absolutely no hope of defeating Voldemort. But what I think really helped them keep going was the fact that they counted every small victory. Sometimes it is really hard to keep fighting for that end goal when you face innumerable obstacles and devastating losses. It is easy to forget the things you have accomplished when the darkness around you is so all encompassing. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows showed us how easy it was to turn away when Ron gave up and ran from the journey when things got too difficult for him to handle anymore. Every loss, every obstacle was screaming in his face and he could not see the end goal anymore, all he saw was a hopeless task with very few instructions and an object that was tearing him apart while the radio next to him kept reading off a list of the dead and missing. That is the perfect way to turn a possible victory into an impending failure.
However, once Ron came back and began to count each victory, like his destruction of the Horcrux that had chased him away from his best friends, he began to see the big picture with a much clearer mind and was able to fight till the end.
This seems to be the big turning point for many of the characters. When the end goal is clear and they understand what has to be done and sacrificed for the “greater good”, if you will, they fight harder than ever to win, even if that means they will not see the better world they helped to create. We saw handfuls of characters we loved laying down their lives in the hopes that their friends and families would live to see a better tomorrow. Each of them stood against incredible dangers without running away and many of them died in the fight, knowing that they would not die in vain.
The moment that sums up everything that they were fighting for, every life they would never forget, every battle that they would never stop fighting, everything they were willing to give up to ensure a better future for those they cared about was brought out in Neville Longbottom’s speech to Voldemort in The Deathly Hallows Part 2 movie:
“It doesn’t matter Harry’s gone… People die everyday! Friends, family. Yeah, we lost Harry tonight. He’s still with us, in here. So’s Fred, Remus, Tonks, all of them. They didn’t die in vain! But you [Voldemort] will! Because you’re wrong! Harry’s heart did beat for us, for all of us. It’s not over!”
It is at this moment that the tides change and that people, including some of the Death Eaters, know that Voldemort has lost the war. This short speech is something that I want tattooed on my body so that every time I feel like giving up I can look at it and remember the bigger goal. So I can remember everything I fight for. So I can remember what J. K. Rowling taught me.
I am a fighter because of Harry Potter. I never give up easily because Rowling taught me strength. I believe in equality for all people, just like Hermione believed in the rights of all creatures in S.P.E.W. I never pass judgement before I know the full story because Sirius would have faced a fate worse than death had Harry ignored the truth being hidden from him. I am skeptical of corruption but believe in the goodness of people. I fight for every person I love, and every LGBTQ kid who is out there struggling with a world that constantly pushes them down. I count every small victory, learn from every failure, and wake up every morning with my mind’s eye trained on the bigger picture that we are fighting for.
J. K. Rowling did not just shape my childhood. She shaped me.
Photo: yaketyyakyak / flickr