At the recent encouragement of one of my friends, I finally took the Pottermore surveys. As I recall, my wand has a unicorn hair core, my alternate house is Horned Serpent, my patronus is a calico cat, and my Hogwarts house is Gryffindor. This last result surprised me. For as long as I had been hearing about this online portal, I had thought that if I ever tried it out, I would be sorted into Ravenclaw because my greatest non-social joy is academics. This venture, coupled with a recent Harry Potter movie marathon in my house, led me to consider how my early thoughts as I read and watched factored into my changing opinions, and how much this story and its film adaptations has paralleled to our own world.
I saw the first Harry Potter movie before anything else, and while watching I knew so little as to suggest that the objective of Quidditch was for all team members to fly simply in a straight line for as long as possible. Over the next year, I read the first three books. As a young boy, as I am sure many others did, I wished desperately that I could be Harry Potter. I wished that I could leave behind the mundane, adventure throughout a castle, track down and defeat enemies, slay a basilisk, and be a hero. The tantalizing prospects seemed as though it would make my life so exciting and extraordinary – a more magnanimous purpose for my life. As I continued through the books, especially after I read that Cedric Diggory died, I feared for the lives and well-being of the main characters. I never enjoy a sense of security that faces continual betrayal or a constant fear of death, injury, or disenfranchisement as elements in a story. That is not to say that I did not enjoy any of the Harry Potter books. Other elements were too attractive to abandon. But as I fostered a greater and greater connection with the characters, I became increasingly concerned for their prosperity and hated the idea of something horrible happening to them progressively more strongly. Sirius’ death was particularly difficult for me to comprehend, and Dumbledore’s caused me legitimate sadness for days after I read Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. All odds seemed to stack against the protagonist force, yet they persevered. They demonstrated the rewards of discipline, commitment to a cause, and the belief in the potential of good for the world around them. To me, their actions provided inspiration for facing my own tribulations, insignificant in scale to me now, but nonetheless very difficult experiences in the moment. Taking on seventh grade science material. Going to teen centers. Conducting PJAS experiments and executing the accompanying presentations. Going to summer camp. In the midst of these, I drew strength from Harry’s bravery, his willingness to face unpleasant encounters and even endure considerable physical and emotional suffering in the quest to effect a net positive impact on his environment.
But beyond the scope of my own journey, I think that J.K. Rowling’s story has much to offer for any person on Earth. I once entered into an argument – quite heatedly, I must admit – with someone who believed that Harry Potter’s journey has no “moral of the story.” It could be that the messages to the audience are so continuous that none in particular distinguishes itself from the others. Or, maybe this person just didn’t read as much into it as I did. Regardless, however, I do believe that Harry Potter and his friends teach us a plethora of lessons applicable in our own lives even if not in a universe that mirrors our own in physicality.
Even in youthful times, Harry Potter and his friends faced situations laced with bigotry, iniquity, prejudice, meanness, and exclusion. We follow the story of a group of people just in the infancy of life in the magical world, and yet they must fight these regrettable features of life just as any adult would. As their friendships and other connections enrich and support their lives, we repeatedly see the value of standing up for our beliefs and remaining loyal to those who imbue our own paths with positive sentiments. Treating house elves as equals, refusing the sniveling welcome of Draco Malfoy, disregarding “Blood Status,” and holding fast in the face of media spitting the lie that Voldemort had not returned are just four of the hundreds of instances in which Harry Potter and his companions did not waver against the evil that permeates our space as humans. It is everywhere, and the capacity for its propagation resides within each of us, but their example, at the very least, demonstrates to us the rewards of suppressing it within our own lives and mitigating its effects in others’.
When I saw the seventh movie, I was in the midst of perhaps the hardest and most miserable time in my life. Today, I always remember this connection by the loneliness and silent anxiety that characterizes much of the film: on the run, without direction, in search of Horcruxes while loved ones are put at great risk. We can see how it wears on the trio, disintegrates the fringes of their confidence, and creates a negative-normative atmosphere. But at the lowest, loneliest point, soon after Ron’s departure, Harry and Hermione share a playful, even goofy dance. Harry’s seemingly forced offering of his hand palpates the scene, but once he and Hermione overcome that barrier, they enjoy a painfully short yet nonetheless blissful period of mirth and laughter. Scenes in both the books and movies like this one show us that even in the darkest of times, we can still point out the light, and even make it for ourselves, if we look and try hard enough. As much as life astounds us with its incomprehensibility and abstraction, a certain degree of compartmentalization can breed greater peace. Yes, the odds were stacked, and they had just lost one vertex of their inseparable triangle, but they still allowed themselves to smile and enjoy that which they saw in front of them. When I watched that scene, while this did not remedy everything, it gave me a glimpse of hope that the period in which I was might have an end, even one, perhaps, that I could enjoy. When we lose a friend or family member, or when we make an enormous mistake that hurt someone else, all can seem lost, but we cannot permit a single sorrow to cut us off from the positive events and feelings that our lives have to offer. Yes, we must make amends and seek to build up good, but voluntarily drowning ourselves in misery and sequestering away all happiness isn’t conducive to this goal, nor does it make better “repentance.” All efforts for acting against evil are connected and reinforce one another. Could Harry, Ron, and Hermione succeeded in the Gringotts venture if they surrendered to the grief of Dobby’s untimely death or of Luna’s kidnapping? I don’t think so. Of course, we allow ourselves to feel these things, for only then can we accept and let them go, and even to use them as motivators, but not to control us.
Finally, my favorite line of the entire film franchise sums up the last and most important moral. Sirius Black, in reassuring Harry that the horrors of his past were not converting him to “badness,” says, “The world isn’t split into good people and Death Eaters. We all have light and dark inside us. What matters is the path we choose to act on. That’s who we really are.” I could not express the number of times in my life since seeing this movie that I have remembered this quote and allowed my meditations on it to guide my actions. Most of the outcomes, incidentally, have been positive and/or mutually beneficial. Sirius’s maxim tells us that we should never characterize someone as entirely “good” or “bad,” as if to imply that they are incapable of wrongdoing or good deeds, respectively. I am a fan of second chances. We never really understand what’s inside someone’s mind and heart, how they may have changed since the most recent encounter, and how they plan to choose in moving forward. If we are to see positivity from someone who acted wrongly, from our perspective, in the past, we must look for it, appealing to their better nature, validating it, acknowledging it, and not treat them in kind with bitterness and disdain. What would you expect from yourself if treated unkindly? I can’t say that I would feel very empowered to come back with smiles and compassion. And we see that Harry, when consumed with anger, even if not his own, whether by means of Voldemort’s mind-linking or inter-Horcrux contact, conducts himself in a way that he would regret were he in a more positive mindset. We cannot write off someone who has suffered terribly through life or endured tragedy as permanently damaged, hopeless, and destined to die alone and without companionship. The circumstances do not control person or choice, and those who surmount the negativity that surrounds them in the most unfortunate of settings and act on their intentions for good distinguish themselves as the best friends, spouses, mentors, parents, and even strangers. Likewise, we cannot condemn someone who acted in the opposite manner in the past as evil and immutably corrupt for the rest of our lives. Do we know whether or not they have pondered the ramifications of their actions and sought self-improvement? Do we know what kinds of emotions they may have been experiencing at the time of the action? No, and yet grudges and vengeances are the order of our day. It makes sense when considering the fact that we have been genetically tuned to focus on negative memories than positive ones, but when we live in such a globally interconnected, modern world, what purpose do cynicism and pessimism serve? Sirius, Harry, and the many that fight against Voldemort in J.K. Rowling’s story demonstrate that this quest requires not only militancy against evil but also a willingness to seek out and foster good wherever it exists, even if entrenched within the spirit of a wayward companion.