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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Connecting the Cougar and the Bison

I was reading E.M. Forster’s novel Howards End when the Graeme Patterson exhibit Secret Citadel opened at the Surrey Art Gallery.

I never thought these cultural artifacts would have anything in common—a classic book written about turn-of-the-century English society and a sculptural installation containing detailed miniature scenes by a contemporary Canadian artist.

But, in an odd way, they did. They both talked about the end of friendship.

I was at the artist’s tour of Secret Citadel as Patterson led the crowd around his chronological work that starts with complex miniature versions of his and his childhood friend Yuki’s homes in Saskatchewan.

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“The Mountain”

Then Patterson walked us over to two life-sized bunk beds called “Camp Wakonda.” Two boys play archery on the top level. On the bottom, a car crashes with a school bus and erupts in flames.

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“Camp Wakonda”. Installation image at Art Gallery of Hamilton. Photo by Mike Lalich.

In an interview with The Now Newspaper, Patterson says:

“It speaks about adolescence and destruction and where friendships go to die. I had a car accident with a van when I was 16. No one got hurt, but a friendship was basically ruined. It was my fault…. There was a lot of guilt and this is the semi-fictional spark that ignites those memories.”

Turns out Secret Citadel is all about Patterson’s friendships—not just with Yuki, but all his male friends at some point in his thirty-something life. That’s why he puts animal heads (a cougar and a bison) onto two human figures as a broader form of representation. You see these masked characters jumping on a trampoline as children, wrestling each other in adolescence, and drinking in bars alone as adults.

It got me thinking about the unfortunate ways that friendships die.

In Howards End, two close sisters with liberal values, Margaret and Helen, become torn apart when Margaret gets engaged to Mr. Wilcox, a rich older widower who represents a system and values so different from their own—capitalist, rational, unfeeling.

While there are multiple tragedies in the novel, the dissolution of the sisters’ friendship was the sharpest to me. Helen cannot like Mr. Wilcox and tells Margaret so. She dislikes him even more when she finds out he had a mistress in his first marriage. This mistress is now the wife of Helen and Margaret’s friend Leonard, who is impoverished due to some ill-timed business advice that Mr. Wilcox gave him.

After hearing the scandalous news, Margaret resolves to forgive her fiancé and stay with him. Helen, however, runs away to Germany and avoids Margaret, barely replying to her letters.

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“Player Piano Waltz”. Installation image at Art Gallery of Hamilton. Photo by Mike Lalich.

It was at this point in the novel where I really started to care about the characters. The sisterly affection that seemed so cemented began to crack. They became the estranged friends in Patterson’s final sculpture, “Player Piano Waltz,” shown in separate window frames drinking in a bar alone and riding an elevator up and down from their bachelor apartments as a haunting melody plays on the keys below.

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“Player Piano Waltz” (detail) via NGC Magazine.

All of us can relate to these characters even though Patterson is speaking from his own experience. Friends we once cared for are now close only in memory (or via Facebook status updates). Maybe the relationship ended over a specific disaster or it was subject to the drifting tides of time, place, and circumstances. Both are sad. But since the latter is an inevitable part of growing up, the former feels especially tragic—when two people don’t have a “natural” reason to be friends anymore.

Refreshingly, Forster takes a similarly tragic situation threatening two sisters’ friendship and offers us a different resolution. The picture closing Howards End is one of unexpected community. Two fragmented houses are reconciled under one roof thanks to Margaret and her ability to bridge the softened Mr. Wilcox with the pregnant Helen who ran away because she was carrying Leonard’s baby.

Margaret’s thoughts about marrying Mr. Wilcox strike a surprising resemblance to the anthropomorphized cougar and bison in Secret Citadel:

“Mature as he was, she might yet be able to help him to the building of the rainbow bridge that should connect the prose in us with the passion. Without it we are meaningless fragments, half monks, half beasts, unconnected arches that have never joined into a man.”

And then comes her insight that sums up the theme of the book:

“Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.”

Forster’s novel shows a believable and beautiful example of what can happen when there is a willingness to connect. Margaret’s language implies we are fully human when we do this—when we choose to connect our lives with others by loving, forgiving, and showing grace, even to those who see things so differently from us. When we love, we’re building a bridge towards wholeness, offering a picture of the world as it could be.

It made me wonder what the narrative arc of Patterson’s tale would be had his friend forgiven him for the car crash. Certainly there would still be bittersweet moments, but maybe a friendship wouldn’t have been relegated to the secret citadel of memory. Maybe the cougar and the bison would take off their grudges, resentments, and hurts they wear like masks, step across the room, and drink a pint together.

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Graeme Patterson: Secret Citadel runs until March 20 at the Surrey Art Gallery.