Thursday, May 26, 2022

Harry Potter and the Great Life Lessons

As dark forces threaten to destroy our way of life, two Harry Potter fans look to The Boy Who Lived for some comfort in our hour of need…

Kelly…

Kelly and her copy of Order of the Phoenix, which has had to be taped up twice

I remember when my mum bought me my first Harry Potter book. It was 1998 – a year after Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone had come out – and she must have heard the hype and decided to pick one up for me. Either that or she was just trying to get a slightly precocious eight year old to shut up and get out of her hair because that said eight year old had already read every book in the house.

I was a voracious reader even then. My first obsession had been The Babysitters Club, with three books a month delivered thanks to the Scholastic Book Club. It was like Christmas every time that package arrived, and as much as I’d try to ration my books they’d be read in less than a week.

So, Mum needed something to fill the gaps – perhaps spurred on by the time she caught me a few pages into one of her Danielle Steel classics.

I vividly remember reading the first book, and every book after that. Waiting for each new instalment was torture for a kid, so I had to make do with reading and re-reading each volume over and over again, which explains my now incredibly nerdy encyclopaedic knowledge of the Harry Potter universe – and my membership to a HP-specific pub quiz team called That’s So Ravenclaw. I kid you not. We made it to the nationals.

I remember taking my brand-new Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire to school and trying to read as much of it as I could in class, terrified that someone would spoil the ending before I had a chance to get there (I also remember almost crying when I accidentally dented the cover and then swapping my book for Jono Kim’s still pristine one – but not realising he’d written his name on the contents page. I still have it – sorry, Jono).

I also remember the final book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, coming out on the same day as my Year 12 ball – a momentous day for 16-year-old Kelly who tried to have her makeup done while she read. Trying to be ‘cool’ while being a bookworm was hard on the best of days, but Jesus, that MAC makeup artist had her work cut out for her. It was also the day that I think my father realised he would never have to worry about me. After months of me begging to be allowed to go to the after ball (which to be fair to him was being held in a warehouse in East Tamaki run by the friendly local gang) I called on the night and asked him to pick me up after half an hour because all I wanted to do was go home and read my book. (And all the booze had run out.)

When I went to Universal Studios in LA last year and jumped on the Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride, I cried with happiness because for the first time in my life, it was like I was in the books. For those four minutes as I followed Harry on a broomstick as he and pals Ron and Hermione darted around Hogwarts, it was real.

My love of Harry Potter has been a comfort, a yardstick, a hobby, an obsession. I’ve been gently mocked for my enduring fondness of the books – I can take or leave the movies – for as long as I can remember, with those older than me in particular left often wondering why I adore a book series “written for children”.

The answer to that particular barb came to me at my lowest point of level four lockdown. I’d lost my job, I’d run out of wine and as I live alone, there wasn’t even anyone to hug. I was sad. Almost subconsciously, I reached for my Harry Potter books. They’re in an absolute state – some held together by duct tape, some with water damage from where I dropped them in the bath. I curled up on the couch and began reading, and for a few glorious hours I wasn’t me, and I wasn’t in a Covid-ravaged world that had robbed me of my career. I was at Hogwarts.

As I read, now with a world-weary, jaded and slightly cloudy head – the wine – I realise just how much JK Rowling and that bloody boy wizard have shaped who I am today. My values, my outlook on the world, my bonds with my friends, my sense of humour – even the way I structure sentences – comes straight out of these pages.

I now understand how many of life’s big issues – racism, power, corruption, life, death and love – were explained to me through these books. Harry Potter helped me understand the world – the real, unmagical world – that we live in.

Nicky and her son delving deep into the Wizarding World

Nicky…

I didn’t read the Harry Potter books when they first came out. It wasn’t that I was unaware of them. Everyone was aware of them. Children and adults were in thrall to them the world over. I made the deliberate choice not to because they were so popular, and I was obviously too sophisticated an individual for that. While everyone else was riding the Hogwarts Express I was wandering around with a copy of Wuthering Heights hoping someone might be impressed by me. In short, I denied myself the pleasure of something great in order to prove an imaginary point to no-one.

But once my children were old enough, and I myself had matured somewhat, I decided to see why people loved this boy wizard and his magical realm so much. We started when my son was four and my daughter was six but after the first two books she tore off and started reading them on her own. Slowly, my son and I have plodded on towards the end of book seven and let me say, it’s been an epic four-year journey of courage, fortitude and finding strength in togetherness.

Primarily because these books are so bloody long. Having to say every single word of them outloud is an act of heroism in itself and I wear that struggle like a lightning scar on my forehead.

But when I think of all the nights we’ve spent curled up in his bed disappearing down Diagon Alley and into the wizarding world I feel very lucky that we’ve been able to share that together. We’ve both had to hide under the covers during some of the scarier scenes and there wasn’t a dry eye in our house when Dobby the hapless house elf died in the line of service.

In this way the books have provided a portal for us to discuss and make sense of what goes on out here in the Muggle world too.

It helps that JK Rowling doesn’t water down the interpersonal conflicts of these characters just because they’re children either. They support each other and hurt each, get jealous and make amends, ultimately sharing all of their triumphs and failings. It’s a beautiful portrayal of the best kind of friendship and a reminder to us both that every relationship has its ups and downs.

That said, some of the subtler themes may be lost on my eight year old – he does seem overly fixated on who is best at Quidditch. There was also much blushing and embarrassment when Harry pashes Cho Chang in book six. As a fellow red head, he finds Ron to be the most funny and relatable character. Harry, by contrast, is harder to like as he constantly wrestles with deep and complex emotions.

But it’s no wonder the poor chap is confused and angry throughout. As if raging teenage hormones weren’t enough, his creator gives him no let up from heartbreak and challenge. Dead parents is a common theme in kids’ books but usually it’s just a device that allows them to have better adventures without any adults holding them back. For Harry you can feel that pain and grief which never leaves him, and he goes on to suffer numerous losses throughout his adolescence. Death is ever present and unreletently and I found myself hopelessly longing for a magical get-out clause that might bring some of these people back. But of course there isn’t. Just like in real-life.

My little boy and I may have been operating on different planes at times during our quest to make it through the series but I think we both understand the underlying message – and it’s more important now than ever. We’ve learned that being true to yourself isn’t the easiest course to take in life, but it is the right one. And that spending time with the people we love is what matters most.

Kelly breaks it down:

Racism 

Differences of habit and language are nothing if all of our aims are identical and our hearts are open.” – Albus Dumbledore

In the Harry Potter universe, there are some who believe pure blooded witches and wizards – those that have no Muggle (non-magic people) blood, are somehow better than everyone else, was my first experience with the concept of racism and bigotry. I remember recognising the parallels with race in the real world and feeling horrified. No one wants to be like Draco Malfoy.

People are neither good or evil

“We’ve all got both light and dark inside us. What matters is the part we choose to act on. That’s who we really are.” – Sirius Black 

This was quite a profound lesson for me as a kid. I grew up thinking the world was very black and white – there were good people and there were bad, and that was absolute. Realising this isn’t the case, and that good people make mistakes, or that their goodness isn’t indelible, was a huge relief for an overachieving bookworm like me, who put huge amounts of pressure on myself to be perfect, and felt even bigger cascades of guilt when I effed up. The world isn’t split into good people and death eaters.

Love is the answer

“After all this time?” “Always,” said Snape.” 

Love is probably the biggest theme in the Harry Potter series. Love is what made Harry into the Boy Who Lived, love is what sustained him throughout his years of battling evil, and love is what eventually saw him triumph over Voldemort (spoiler, sorry – but if you haven’t read these yet, come on). It’s a lesson that’s even more valuable today.

Life isn’t an easy road

“No good sittin’ worryin’ abou’ it. What’s comin’ will come, an’ we’ll meet it when it does.” – Hagrid

So unsurprisingly to no one, that precocious eight-year-old did grow into hopefully slightly less precious 29-year-old, but one who, like most of us, gets the old anxiety flashes. But as well as the series being a comfort, like a big happy memory wrapped in a blanket, the lesson that life ain’t easy was also a comforting one. Adversity happens, but so does triumph.

Death isn’t the worst thing in the world

“To the well-organised mind, death is but the next great adventure.” – Albus Dumbledore

“It is the unknown we fear when we look upon death and darkness, nothing more.” – Albus Dumbledore

Death is a heavy topic for a kid to get their head around, but if love is the biggest theme in the series, then death surely is the second. Voldemort’s mission to achieve immortality, as a sort of eff you to his Muggle half is the central antagonistic plot that shapes Harry’s story, but as Harry accepts the inevitability of death, and even embraces it, it tells us that death is simply a part of life, and it is nothing to be afraid of.

Believe in yourself

“I am what I am, an’ I’m not ashamed. ‘Never be ashamed,’ my ol’ dad used ter say, ‘there’s some who’ll hold it against you, but they’re not worth botherin’ with.’” – Hagrid

I mean, a self-explanatory mantra for nerdy kids everywhere.

We aren’t judged by who we are, but by the choices we make

“It is our choices … that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” – Albus Dumbledore

 “Soon we must all face the choice between what is right and what is easy.” —Albus Dumbledore

This lesson is probably the one that I carry with me the most, to this day. It’s our everyday decisions that define us, not who we once were, not who we were born to be. It’s a constant reminder to be a good person – but also that we have power to be anything we want to be.

Respect is everything

“If you want to know what a man’s like, take a good look at how he treats his inferiors, not his equals.” – Sirius Black

From bosses through to netball coaches, I’ve always measured anyone in an authority position by this quote. It was also often at the front of my mind during the five years I worked at Glassons where I encountered every imaginable Karen. It’s not hard to say please, FFS. I’ve even walked out of a Bumble date when the dude snapped at a waiter. Not today, Satan.

Hope reigns supreme

But you know, happiness can be found even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.” – Albus Dumbledore 

It’s probably one of the most well-known quotes from the entire series and it’s an enduring symbol of the power of hope – especially when you’re a moody teenager with the appropriate angst and pessimistic attitude. Even in true trying times, I remember these words. There’s always light somewhere.

Question authority and seek the truth

“Have you any idea how much tyrants fear the people they oppress? All of them realise that, one day, amongst their many victims, there is sure to be one who rises against them and strikes back!” – Albus Dumbledore

“The truth. It is a beautiful and terrible thing, and should therefore be treated with great caution.” – Albus Dumbledore

I knew that I wanted to be a journalist since I was 10 years old – and now I’m wondering if this series is the reason why. I hold integrity, trust and truth in the highest regard – to the point that when people cross me or wrong me, they’re done.  I don’t forgive easily, and I don’t forget which, at times, is a weakness. But I also question everything, and I can’t stand injustice, on any level. Realising that sometimes the people in power don’t have all the answers – and at times, are just plain wrong – was a huge lesson for me to learn, and it’s one that continues to this day, especially this year.

The power of stories

“Words are, in my not-so-humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic.” – Albus Dumbledore 

A glowing endorsement of my career from JK Rowling herself. I’ll take that. It’s up there with the time Hilary Barry called Capsule a ‘Publishing Empire’ (which was two days ago but still, highlight). 

How to believe in magic

“Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?” – Albus Dumbledore

“Don’t let the Muggles get you down.” – Ron Weasley

Throughout everything, whatever makes you happy, excited, loved, appreciated and valued is magic. The world we’re living in is mental, but there’s always magic to be found if you just look. Always.

Note – Although it doesn’t fit in any category, I just wanted to include my favourite ever quote from the series because it still makes me smile to this day and contains the only swear word in the whole series. 

“Not my daughter, you bitch!” – Molly Weasley

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