Anyone who knows me can tell you about my passion for the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling. My mother read me the books until I could read them myself and I have never been the same since. But even though I can spout trivia for days on end, reiterate passages verbatim, and quote the films in their entirety, there’s something I can no longer ignore:
I’ve outgrown the story.
I blame the rush of new content from J.K. Rowling, what with her website Pottermore attempting to color in the lines of her universe, and the expansion that is the new Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them film series. I’ll leave the play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child alone for now since that’s a whole other can of worms. But, by the time Rowling began producing content again and expanding her magical universe, I had spent years deep in the archives of fanfiction and fandom derived works, even putting my pen to paper to imagine a different version of events.
And there were problems I could no longer ignore.
I’m not going to give you an itemized list detailing every inconsistency and plot hole — that would fill a book and I don’t consider nitpicking a constructive endeavor. I’m not even talking about her “after the fact” amendments like Albus Dumbledore’s sexuality or Nagini’s backstory. No, the thing that bothers me most now is how Harry Potter treats its heroes and the villains.
The values are all wrong.
I can almost hear your indignation, “What’s that supposed to mean?” after all, anyone who’s read the books would argue quite the opposite. Friendship and bravery, the love of a mother, and the triumph over evil — how is that wrong? Please, allow me to explain.
As an American, I have lived in a country divided for as long as I can remember. We’ve got the progressives on the one side, the conservatives on the other, and instead of discussing the issues we disagree with it’s turned into the Blame Game — they did this, they did that. The argument has existed all my life. And the way white nationalism mirrors pureblood supremacy is uncanny, to say the least. But I have no faith that the way Harry Potter goes about tackling the issue would ever work and considering we’re all stuck in our own war of ideology that’s a problem. We can’t afford to push the solution off to our kids anymore.
Join me for a thought experiment, if you will.
We want to create a hero. Someone who will swoop in and save the day, rescue the damsel in distress, the poor farmer, the Kingdom itself. Humans always have problems. Not enough food, not enough land, not enough health, not enough wealth. To succeed means to achieve peace and prosperity till the end of your days, and if you’ve done it just right, for your kids as well. In this case, we need our hero to stop a fascist tyrant bent on minority genocide. Oh, and he’s got a large group of followers that hide their faces and routinely commit acts of terrorism in the name of their supremacy.
Like I said before, uncanny.
But back to the Hero — what kind of person can and will stand up to a tyrant? Let’s name some of the traits that we’re looking for: bravery, determination, a strong sense of morals, the ability to see the injustice in the world and the desire to do something about it. These are traits we want to see more of, so we’re going to reward kids who seem to embody it. And just to make things easier, let’s put all these kids in the same place and have them attend the same classes.
It seems like a good idea — at first. In reality, what we’ve done is draw a line in the sand, singling out everyone on the other side. You see, we take our hero, and we tell them who to admire and who to demonize. We tell them to protect and save and to defeat and conquer. But worst of all, we point and whisper, “See them? That’s the enemy.”
Then, when we’re sure they understand the role they have to play, we let our attack dog run wild — and at that moment, we’ve killed our hero and created a villain.
Speaking of villains, let’s discuss Slytherin for a moment.
The picture painted by the books of those clad in silver and green is not a flattering one. The instant Harry learns about the Hogwarts Houses, the snakes are used as a warning sign and equated with the Dark Side. In the book, it was Hagrid, in the film it was Ron Weasley but the message is the same —
“There’s not a witch or wizard who went bad who wasn’t in Slytherin.”
Let’s ignore the disgusting display of bias and move right to the consequences of this statement. When Harry takes a seat on the Sorting Hat and it tells him he’s got the makings of a great Slytherin, he begs not to go there. He’ll take anything else. And because he’s Harry Potter, the hat throws him into Gryffindor instead.
In a world that stacks the deck against them, I’m amazed there are any good Slytherins at all. Do you realize what Hogwarts has done in creating an us versus them narrative? Both sides dehumanize the other and paint childish caricatures — sound familiar? And guess what, if you start with children it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. We make our villains.
Let’s take Severus Snape. His worst memory is shown during the Order of the Phoenix via Pensive when Harry gets too nosy for his own good. After a grueling day of exams, James Potter decides to attack Severus and publicly embarrasses him in front of the girl they both like, Lily Evans. And when asked to justify his hostility?
“Leave him alone,” Lily repeated. She was looking at James with every sign of great dislike. “What’s he done to you?”
“Well,” said James, appearing to deliberate the point, “it’s more the fact that he exists, if you know what I mean. . . .” Book 5, page 647.
Harry is rightly horrified by what he witnesses but though he now understands why Snape hates his father, the animosity between Potion’s Master and Golden Boy worsens. He never returns to Occlumency lessons, and he never apologizes for violating his Professor’s privacy. And Snape?
Well, when you’ve been hated all your life for existing, eventually hate is all you know.
Now that’s not an excuse, is it? Maybe. But if it was that easy, we wouldn’t have bodies dropping en mass every week from angry young white nationalists screaming to Make America Great Again. Instead, we argue and throw blame, it’s access to firearms, it’s violent video games, it’s mental illness, it’s just the way things are.
If fifteen-year old Severus Snape had gotten his hands on an AK-47 how many dead students would it have taken before Hogwarts and the rest of the magical world realized they had created a breeding ground for pureblood nationalism?
And yet, the death toll rises.
This isn’t a call to humanize the alt-right or claim we can solve our problems with a little love and understanding. Hand a Nazi the microphone and violence ensues. But if we don’t teach our kids to get along with those who are different than them, we’ll create adults ready to kill everyone who disagrees.
There are no heroes here.
In real life, there are no Chosen Ones. No prophecy will point us to our knight in shining armor. If you’re waiting around for the Apocalypse and the supernatural return of a savior — kindly remove yourself from the equation. Better yet, come back when you’re interested in building a future rather than orchestrating our destruction.
To that end, Harry Potter is not a hero at all. He’s a lamb raised for slaughter. Even he knows it when he takes that long walk into the Forbidden Forest to die. But the biggest joke of all is that his triumph over Lord Voldemort would settle the matter — humans are not snakes. Chop the head off one and another will take their place.
And this, right here, is my biggest problem of all. Because when you craft a narrative that depicts the good versus the bad and equate it to reality, you inevitably run headfirst into a messy gray area. It’s not that simple. Good and evil are just concepts we have invented to convince everyone to stop killing each other.
The death of Lord Voldemort does not change the minds of everyone who followed him. It doesn’t put the Death Eater’s back in Azkaban or hold the Ministry of Magic accountable for their rampant censorship and influencing the Daily Prophet’s gross spread of misinformation. It doesn’t put an end to the great muggleborn debate.
Oh, but it’s just a fun kid’s story! Who cares? It’s all made up anyhow.
It matters how we treat each other. It matters what values we pass on to our kids. Did you know that the average age of mass shooters is dropping younger and younger? I am part of the generation that grew up with Harry Potter, and I see the chilling resemblance in the wake of racial violence and political propaganda.
And I am most scared of the Gryffindors in this world.
I don’t want a hero who’s been told all his life what to believe and never questions it. I don’t want a hero who’s been told he’s destined for greatness. I don’t want a hero who acts first and thinks later. I don’t want reckless bravery and I don’t want someone who refuses to listen to reason. Some of the worst atrocities in history were committed by people who thought they were doing the right thing.
Because inevitably, we end up with a bunch of loud voices who all claim to know the answer to our problems and the war continues.
So what does this mean for Harry Potter?
Nothing at all.
Love the book, continue to read it, watch all the movies, and shout your Hogwarts House from the rooftops, but in a world where our own War of Ideology takes center stage, it’s time we stopped waiting for a Chosen One to save the day. It’s time we stopped punishing children for the crimes of their parents. It’s time we learned how to discuss our differences before reaching for the nuclear option.
And maybe it’s time we stopped enabling the cruelty of others just because it doesn’t concern us.