My mum likes to pull out pages from the newspaper that she thinks I’ll be interested in. She usually sends a sort of blurry photo over Whatsapp where I can kind of make out a dog wearing sunglasses or something to do with Doctor Who. This time however it was a Harry Potter quiz with extremely obscure questions since the 20th anniversary of the publication of Philosopher’s Stone was a few days ago. (21 points could be won – I got 16 5/6ths.)
To the intern who put this together’s credit, the questions were pretty challenging and I couldn’t for the life of me remember Nearly Headless Nick’s full name. Whilst answering these questions it occurred to me how much useless detail about this book series I had gathered and stored away in a filing cabinet in my brain somewhere. How often for example am I going to be using the answer to the first question, who was Harry Potter’s babysitter, and for the bonus point, what is a squib? Arabella Figg and her inability to use magic despite being wizard-born seems lovely but she’s hardly going to help me on my CV.
But Harry Potter taught me so much else that I find useful in everyday life and which I don’t even think about most of the time. Harry Potter taught me to read. My parents read me the books when I was about three or four, doing voices for Hagrid and Dumbledore, and by the time I was at school at the age of five I was reading them myself. I fancied myself Matilda, devouring books as ferociously as the library could provide, but always returned, without fail, to the world of Hogwarts. I, like many, dressed up as Hermione on Halloween or fancy-dress days at school, taking delight in playing a character for whom my bushy curly hair and bookish ways were entirely acceptable for a day.
I idolised Hermione and longed to be as clever, brave, loyal and determined as she was. I wanted to read as many books as she did, taking out hardback non-fiction from the library in the name of ‘light reading’, although never quite finishing them. I remember desperately wanting to join S.P.E.W. in Goblet of Fire and getting angry at Ron and Harry for turning their back on her. The moment the three of them fight the troll and dodge harsh punishment from McGonagall is iconic but perhaps maybe not as stuck in my brain as the moment when Hermione reveals her priorities: she could be killed but wouldn’t it be so much worse to be expelled? Emma Watson’s voice is embedded in my memory.
Like most children at that time, I was quietly disappointed when I started at my local secondary school and not Hogwarts. Although I had a copy of Harry’s letter from McGonagall blu-tacked to my wall beside newspaper clippings, movie posters and a drawing of Luna Lovegood of which I was particularly proud, I didn’t have my own one to prove my magical abilities. Slightly devastated, I settled for rereading, rewatching and eventually finding fandom online.
To this day, Harry Potter is kept alive by its fans. Hordes of new readers join the club all the time. Second-hand copies of HP would fly off the shelves at the bookshop I worked at, a thrilling thing to witness as a kid starts the journey for the first time. But Fantastic Beasts and The Cursed Child and the Studio Tour and the theme parks are being made because fans of the original series keep wanting more. (Whether what they’re given is what they want is another question.) The magic is well and truly alive. I still have intense analytical conversations about the morality of Dumbledore or the queer coding of Lupin with my friends today and it’s a testament to the series that something we read as children can still provoke such a reaction.
Harry himself is my favourite. He taught me to always persevere, even if all seems lost. He taught me that kindness is possible even if others have not treated you the same way but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t stand up for yourself and what you believe is right. He taught me a little cunning goes well with bravery, that you may believe yourself to be Gryffindor but a little Slytherin doesn’t hurt. It’s the parts you choose to act on and listen to that make you who you are. (Okay, Dumbledore may have told me that but Harry proved it.) His quick wit, piercing and comforting in turn, and his ability to put others at ease combines with his own personal demons, stemming from the horrors he has seen.
His battle in Order of the Phoenix to deal with the return of Voldemort and the suspicion of the wizarding world cast upon him, and latterly the death of his godfather, is by far the most compelling story for Harry’s character. Dumbledore insists that Harry feels things, rage and sadness and pain, because he is human and Harry responds with a roar: “THEN I DON’T WANT TO BE HUMAN!” Harry quits, he backs off, he refuses to continue in his grief and opts out as we see him contend with losing even more of his world.
It is strange to think that I am older than Harry Potter – it is in fact the same age as my younger sister. I existed before you could read about Hogwarts. My childhood would have been very different without it. I grew up with these characters, both in book and film form. I attended midnight screenings and events at bookshops, read them frantically in the car using torches. I mourned for characters, I got hungry when I read about feasts, I visited Alwick Castle and pretended to fly. I have a wand and a Ravenclaw scarf and a Marauders Map mug, given to me last Christmas by people who know me too well. I think in some ways I am late with this post because I couldn’t quite encapsulate just how much this series is built into my life in a way that I will hopefully never lose.