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.

img_2705

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.

harry-potter-fans-are-freaking-out-over-a-theory-about-dumbledore-that-makes-a-lot-of-sense

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.

neville

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.

twin-escape

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?

severus-snape

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.

draco.jpg

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.

4e9b9a85-e72b-40ed-8f65-9f5b95a20e69

A Story of Origins

I can’t get London off my mind. After a dazzling opening ceremonies last night that poignantly captured British history and culture, my heart went back to 2009 when I visited the city for the first time.

It was summer of my 3rd year in university. Being an English minor and knowing I wanted to eventually do my Master’s in English Lit, I knew I also couldn’t go further in this field without taking a trip to the birthplace of what I was studying. It may sound silly but I really felt I had to experience the origin of what I loved to love it even more – as if a dark cloud would be hanging over me and my academic future if I didn’t make this trip. I had to go.

I went with so much expectation, hoping to find answers about where I should study for grad school (Canada or England?) and what area I should specialize in (17th century, Romantic, Victorian, or modern literature?) I came back without much clarity on these questions (I’ve learned that when I want a big revelation in life, I don’t get it), but I did come back with a magical summer I like to relive every now and then.

Herstmonceux Castle, England

I studied literature at a castle about 45 min south of London (see pic above) – yes, a castle with sheep baaing out my bedroom window and a Shakespearean garden where I read As You Like ItThe Winter’s Tale, Oliver Twist and Mrs. Dalloway. How much more British can you get? It felt like I was transported into a fairy tale world, or maybe Harry Potter. Not only did I read Shakespeare’s plays but I experienced them in their original form, performed at the Globe theatre in London, where I stood so close to the stage I could see the sweat dripping from the actor’s faces.

front-line view of the Globe Theatre, London

After the six-week program at the Castle was complete, I did my own literary tour through the UK.

With my bucket-list of places to visit that I had only experienced second-hand through books, I traipsed through England, Scotland, and Wales to see places like this first-hand:

Tintern Abbey, Wales

Romantic poet William Wordsworth made this abandoned Cisterian monastery famous in his lyrical poem, “Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey.” Did the words ever come alive when I was reading them in the space that inspired them!

How oft, in darkness, and amid the many shapes / Of joyless day-light; when the fretful stir / Unprofitable, and the fever of the world, / Have hung upon the beatings of my heart, / How oft, in spirit, have I turned to thee / O sylvan Wye! Thou wanderer through the woods / How often has my spirit turned to thee!

Overlooking the River Wye, Wales

“While here I stand, not only with the sense of present pleasure, but with pleasing thoughts that in this moment there is life and food for future years.”

Early grey tea and a poem. Couldn’t have been happier

I’m looking back on this trip three years ago and realize there was life and food in it for future years, even though I didn’t see it at the time. I took a course that summer called “Literature and Place” that ended up having a huge influence on my interests in grad school. We took field trips to London to regularly walk the city like a character in a novel, travel the tube, and get to know the city that provides a muse for so many writers.

This London course began in me a fascination with literature and cities that hasn’t ended yet – nor do I want it to. I applied a lot of what I learned in London to my Canadian home context, Vancouver, when I wound up doing grad school (in Canada), and I’m still exploring ideas from the course in my current creative and non-fiction writing. So I guess London hasn’t left me yet, nor left me unchanged . . .

Needless to say, because of this background, I loved the literary references in last night’s ceremonies. Did any part of the long 4-hour ceremony strike a special London memory with you?

Children representing the Great Ormond Street Hospital, the NHS and children’s literature take part in the Opening Ceremony. (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)