Late to Hogwarts: On Reading Harry Potter in my 20s

2016 was the year I read the Harry Potter series for the first time. I’m 29. The Artist had read them multiple times before and we thought it would be fun to share in the story together so we read to each other in the evenings after work, on road trips to Alberta, and on rainy Saturday afternoons.

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I loved them. Here are some thoughts on why and what/who stood out for me.

I had no idea what was going to happen.

When you show up 10+ years late to a party, this can work in your favour. If people had spoiled the books when they first came out, I had no memory of it. And it also helped that I hadn’t seen the movies. (But I’m about to give away some spoilers. Just wanted to warn the few people in the world who don’t know what happens).

The discovery of Sirius as a friend instead of a villain was delightful. So often the transformation is from a seemingly “good” guy gone bad (like Professor Quirrell or Peter Pettigrew), so I greatly enjoyed the reverse in Book 3.

I thought Harry and Cho were going to get back together after they had broken up, so I was not expecting Ginny’s entrance into Harry’s affections.

When Dumbledore died at the hands of Snape, my mouth hung open for a good five minutes. I probably asked my husband several times if his death was for real—surely this was some joke? Some special magic could undo it? I cried like I had lost a friend. When we find out Snape and Dumbledore had planned his death all along, my world turned upside-down again, but in a much more welcomed way.

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Everybody had a chance to shine.

Harry’s not the only hero. He couldn’t have defeated Voldemort without Ron and Hermione. Or Dumbledore and the Order of the Phoenix obviously. Heck, he couldn’t have done it without Dobby, Kreacher, Neville, Ginny, Luna, even Griphook. Everyone had a role to play, even minor characters and those with mixed motives.

I love that Ron and Neville both destroyed Horcruxes. Their transformations from awkward kids with low self-esteem to brave teenagers overcoming their own doubts and taking leadership at crucial moments were awesome to witness.

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Humour makes a difference.

Apart from the trio at the centre of these books, Fred and George Weasley are my next favourite characters because they are so unlike me. In super tense moments preparing for battle at Hogwarts, would I be cracking jokes about winging the battle plan? No, I would be panicking. Or when George loses an ear, would I joke about feeling saint-like because I’m so holy/holey? When Fred and George fly out of Hogwarts in spectacular fashion from Dolores Umbridge’s totalitarian rule, it’s like they’re raising a middle finger to her and all the evil she represents.

Not only did J.K. Rowling include the twins for comic relief in otherwise intense scenes, but I also think she wanted to show the power of humour. Good versus evil is obviously a huge theme in the books and Rowling intimates there is perhaps more than one way to fight evil. Harry does it with strength and sacrifice and the Weasley twins do it with humour. Not because evil is funny (quite the opposite), but because humour is like a lightning bolt that breaks through darkness. It’s unforeseen, and people steeped in darkness don’t know what to do with it. Think of Umbridge again.

As Frederick Buechner explains in The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale:

As much as tears do, [laughter] comes out of the darkness of the world where God is of all missing persons the most missed, except that it comes not as an ally of darkness but as its adversary, not as a symptom of darkness but as its antidote.

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Snape

Hands down, Snape wins my vote for the most interesting character. The morally grey characters always do. This man took me on such an emotional ride that I am still processing my feelings about him. I couldn’t get over him killing Dumbledore and helping the Death Eaters. I so wanted to believe he had changed—that he was working for the good even though he was still a bully to Harry. When we find out his secret near the end of Book 7, I wanted to reread all the books knowing what I now knew about him. But what a shame that “the best of him,” as Dumbledore calls it, was kept hidden all those years.

He is the only one who could have played the demanding double secret agent role that brought about the end of Voldemort, but what toll did it have on him? Here was a man whom no one, apart from Dumbledore, knew the good he was doing behind the scenes. When Dumbledore died, he was utterly alone. The Order unsurprisingly turned against him and he didn’t have any confidants unlike Harry who always had Ron and Hermione. He is the unsung hero who lived and died alone. We think about Harry willingly sacrificing his life at the end to meet Voldemort but Snape did this throughout his entire adult life. Was it necessary?

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Draco and Dudley

I never thought I would have any sympathy for Draco but that changed in Book 6. Ever since he lowered his wand from Dumbledore’s face, he became less cocky and more confused. And that made him more likeable. Sure, he still tried capturing Harry to give to Voldemort at the end, but Harry, Ron, and Hermione saved his life twice and I have a feeling Draco won’t forget that, much like Peter Pettigrew didn’t. (Look at me writing as if they’re real!)

Even Dudley extended his arm to Harry when they parted ways and had a hard time saying goodbye. That was a surprisingly tender scene and I was a little sad that the Dursleys didn’t reappear again after that. There is so much they could have said to each other.

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I don’t know if a book series has captivated my attention and imagination in the way these ones have. I’m going to miss spending another year with the characters, but I’m sure Harry and company will be friends I will visit again and again.

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A Lament for Lily Bart

A month later, here I am. I haven’t been doing too much reading lately, but this last one was a winner.

I picked up a used copy of The House of Mirth at the recently-opened Y’s Books on Main Street, and started reading it at Queen Elizabeth Park (the day my bike got a flat tire). I love Edith Wharton novels so it wasn’t a surprise that this one also captured me.

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The main character, Lily Bart, is beautiful, well-bred woman in the upper echelon of New York society in the early twentieth century. The problem is, she is unmarried at 29 and has no money to her name. She must secure a man with a fortune so she can survive in the society she wants to continue to enjoy. However, her proclivity for gambling & expensive tastes lead her into more debt & bad decisions. She becomes a tragic heroine.

What makes Lily Bart such an interesting “heroine” is that she’s not particularly likeable or easy to sympathize with. As a money-conscious reader in the 21st century trying to make it in one of the world’s most expensive cities, Lily’s thoughts about how awful her aunt’s draperies are didn’t really resonate with me. But, where I think the genius of Edith Wharton comes into play is that even though I couldn’t empathize with Lily’s lavish tastes & subsequent woes, I felt Wharton fleshed out her character so well that I could understand why these upsets would be so distressing to her, even though they weren’t to me. And I think great writing can make a reader feel for the character, even one they don’t really love.

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While reading it, I was really fascinated by Lily’s name because I know authors never choose these things lightly, especially in the era Wharton was writing (House of Mirth was published in 1905). “Lily” is such a beautiful but fragile name, like the flowers. And like Wharton’s main character. A beautiful woman with perfect poise and grace, yet swayed with every passing wind.

I was dissecting my thoughts on her name to the Artist, and he brought up an interesting connection. “Where else do lilies get mentioned—in the Bible?” The wheels were turning. Ah ha!

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? 28 And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31 Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” 32 For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33 But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

34 ‘So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.

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As an aside, who knows if this allusion was in Wharton’s mind or not, but if I was in grad school again, I’d write a paper making this connection and linking it to how many times her appearance is mentioned as “veiled”. Lily’s name was a reminder of what she already had and didn’t need to strive for. But she kept striving anyway. Striving after men, money, and a good position, betraying her own heart along the way. But even when she almost seals the deal on a man, she calls it off or discreetly runs away.

“That’s Lily all over, you know: she works like a slave preparing the ground and sowing her seed; but the day she ought to be reaping the harvest she oversleeps herself or goes off on a picnic.”

Mrs. Fisher paused and looked reflectively at the deep shimmer of sea between the cactus-flowers. “Sometimes,” she added, “I think it’s just flightiness—and sometimes I think it’s because, at heart, she despises the things she’s trying for. And it’s the difficulty of deciding that makes her such an interesting study.”

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I think that’s one of the best lines in the book: “She despises the things she’s trying for.” And what a commentary this is on the society that bred her. It’s a bitter twist of fate when the woman who is raised to wear the best dresses & vacation in luxurious places is refused by the society that created her.

By the end, yes, there is sympathy for Lily Bart. At the end of the novel when she goes over to the home of a working-class girl in a tenement area of New York and makes the following remarks, the reader knows, “Okay, this is a different Lily. A wiser Lily whose veil has been lifted and who relearns her understanding of frailty, permanence, and of what it means to have a home and be at home in the world.

The poor little working-girl who had found strength to gather up the fragments of her life, and build a shelter with them, seemed to Lily to have reached the central truth of existence. It was a meager enough life, on the grim edge of poverty, with scant margin for possibilities of sickness or mischance, but it had the frail audacious permanence of a bird’s nest built on the edge of a cliff—a mere wisp of leaves and straw, yet so put together that the lives entrusted to it may hang safely over the abyss.

On a side note, the theme in this novel loosely reminded me of this song I am kind of in love with: