children's literature

Reflections During My Annual Harry Potter Read: Book 1 (PS/SS)

For some years now, I have been reading (via audiobook) the Harry Potter series annually. I have tended to make a second-half-of-the-year tradition, so at the start of July, I loaded up the Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone onto my phone and let the magic commence. (Note: I got the UK recorded version narrated by Stephen Fry, which quite frankly far eclipses Jim Dale’s reading in my opinion. Thus, I was not listening to “Sorcerer’s Stone” in case you wondered about the title).

I’ve been enthralled with the books since I first discovered them, sometime around the publishing of the third novel. Since then I’ve read countless fan fiction, created and facilitated a course in undergrad, unofficially started quidditch at Cal (being that the first ever game was held during my course), and wrote about Harry and the marauder’s map as part of my master’s thesis. The last twenty years of my life have thus been fervently immersed in Rowling’s magical world.

I’m not as interested in the endless commodification and relentless monopolization of the wizarding world. Not the new movie series, the play, the games. I did have an HP-themed birthday for my son, because there’s just too much fun to create (and maybe one day I’ll blog the joy that was that creation). And I would like to visit Universal at some point, but it’s not as real to me as the books are (yes yes, some kind of irony). That’s why I listen each year, to revisit the cabinet under the stairs, the common rooms, the school grounds, and all the people we have come to love and loathe (sometimes simultaneously). I also get a chance to revel in the writing majesty and flaws, reflect on the process as much as the product, as I relive the books with each read.

So, I’ve just completed the first book, and I have some ruminating thoughts lingering. Last year I had a plethora of thoughts over the representation of women and the stereotypes that overshadowed each woman’s story. This year I’m going to try to keep track of my responses to each novel, and see if any greater reflections unfold as a result. Maybe not, it doesn’t matter. But one thing I do find remarkable about the books is their continued relevance and reflection of our contemporary moments. Onward ho!

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

So many times I think “Just open the stupid envelope at the doorway!” or “Hi Dumbledore, why not dupe everyone and keep the Mirror or Erised in your office or somewhere,” but these are silly plot thoughts. We could drive ourselves 50 feet under piling such thoughts on top ourselves.

I’ve been paying more attention to Harry though, how he evolves. He’s a snarky, sharp-tongued kid. It’s darkly overshadowed by the Dursleys’ treatment of him, but he holds his burgeoning adolescent rudeness close to himself, lest they pick on it too quickly. I’m always impressed and baffled by his quick wit with Dudley actually. There’s an implied sense of justification since Dudley thrives on bullying him, but it still unsettles me each time. Not because it exists—anyone kid who is subjected to any kind of trauma, abuse, neglect, is bound to react in some way, and in fact should react—but because no one remarks on it. We all see Harry as the savior, he who encompasses love and loyalty, friendship and righteousness.

But he’s an adolescent, and a snarky one at that.

I think what irks me is that it goes unnoticed because his snark almost fades away (in the first book, I mean. Subsequent novels reel it back in, with other motivations in mind. Re: Snape is evil, Malfoy is up to no good, etc). Once Harry enters Hogwarts, he’s overcome by the magical world that he doesn’t have much room to be witty? I almost crave the one-liners he delivers to Dudley’s doorstep constantly, but I suppose when you’re in an environment where mostly everyone actually likes you, or at least doesn’t hate you, you don’t need to bring the flames.

But that doesn’t ring true for me now. Defense mechanism or not, ten years of mean programming are bound to have some everlasting effect on a child. Yes, that’s supposed to be his remarkable trait, but I’m disappointed. Especially because with that character trait goes another, his intellectual curiosity.

Harry happily reads through his magical textbooks before his first term begins, flipping through them with fascination and an eagerness to read. But once he meets Ron, and sees Hermione with her nose in all the books and hand up in the air in each class, Harry’s intellectual curiosity seems to taper into stereotypical “jock” status (owing to his Quidditch stardom). It’s like a front he puts on and gets used to, relying on Hermione to finish his homework. But it still seeps through, like it or not.

When presented with the invisibility cloak and the potential to see and do anything possible in the castle, Harry chooses to search the library for references to Nicolas Flamel. I’m all for scouring the library, especially those items off limits, in the freedom of the night’s cloak. The thrill of it would be unbridled. But I wouldn’t have thought that Harry’s first or near-only excursion with the cloak. You can’t deny who you are though, and Harry is an inquisitive, curious, knowledge-seeking young lad even if he doesn’t act like it with his peers.

Final thoughts:

Ultimately, I walk away from the book thinking the Dursleys should be arrested for their hateful, neglectful, abusive treatment of Harry. But geezaloo, we live in a day where children are held not in mere cupboards but in actual cages. And the perpetrators of those crimes continue to go unpunished. It’s a reprehensible reality that needs to be fixed. Not all children will walk away from vile captivity (if they get to) with the lightness of heart that Harry possesses. He had a wee bit of magic to protect him after all. But the book asserts its relevance specifically because of that, too. Harry is his own hero, and is surrounded by heroes that support, guide, and follow him. These kids need heroes too, to help and guide them so they can be the heroes of their own stories.

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