“Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”*
Ten-year-old Harry Potter sleeps in a cupboard. He dreams of a magical world. His mean, adoptive family inspire the villains in his imagined adventures. Strange people he sees are transfigured into witches and wizards. Behind broken glasses he views the world askew.
Harry Potter in the absence of magic is a very dark place. Without magic we behold a terrified child whose safe space is the cupboard under the stairs. Harry’s family are dead. He stays with relatives who do not like him. He is under continual attack. His imagination takes flight… Can the saga be read as the projections of a traumatised child?
The Boy Who Dreamed
The first thing Harry does is wake up. Harry… tried to remember the dream he had been having. It had been a good one. There had been a flying motorbike.
He sees things that may or may not be there:
A tiny man in a violet top hat… A wild looking old woman dressed all in green… A bald man in a very long purple coat… they seemed to vanish the second Harry tried to get a closer look.
‘It was a dream,’ Harry told himself firmly. ‘I dreamed a giant called Hagrid came to tell me I was going to a school for wizards. When I open my eyes I’ll be at home in my cupboard.’ …. But he still didn’t open his eyes. It had been such a good dream.
Harry had never been to London before… It was a tiny, grubby-looking pub… Harry had the peculiar feeling that only he and Hagrid could see it… For a famous place it was very dark and shabby.
Harry is lonely and has no friends. He perceives the world unusually. He twists words amusingly: diagonally, Diagon Alley. When he finally gets friends they are super geeks: girly swot Hermione and hand-me-down Ron. But while the castle sleeps, Harry and pals are 11-year-old superheroes. Short-sighted Harry becomes a star sportsman whose role is to find and catch some tiny thing at high speed. Traumatised Harry dreams of his parents in an old mirror. Wishes fulfilled.
Harry’s experience of Muggledom, in the first chapters of Book One, gives specific cues for the stories that follow. Harry and the Dursleys visit the zoo and there is an incident with a snake. In the magical world, Harry can communicate with snakes. The cupboard under the stairs is full of spiders. Harry meets the daddy of all spiders in Book Two. Dudley’s friend Piers is a scrawny boy with a face like a rat. Harry the wizard encounters Wormtail.
In Dudley’s spare room: there was a large bird-cage, which had once held a parrot that Dudley had swapped for a real air-rifle, which was up on a shelf with the end all bent because Dudley had sat on it. Other shelves were full of books. They were the only things in the room that looked as though they’d never been touched. In the next chapter Hagrid arrives and bends a rifle. Harry receives the owl, Hedwig, in a large bird-cage during the visit to London. Harry discovers a world of books at Flourish and Blott’s.
And Dudley’s school uniform foreshadows Harry’s Hogwarts robes and pointed hat. Smeltings boys wore maroon tailcoats, orange knickerbockers and flat straw hats called boaters. They also carried knobbly sticks. Harry carries a wand.
The Dursleys flee from magical mail. Alas, the letters follow: Mr H Potter, Room 17, Railview Hotel, Cokeworth. Curiously, Cokeworth is the home town of Harry’s mum and aunt. Sounds like a family outing. If we are witnesses to Harry’s fantasy might Hagrid be some Muggle-world uncle and Sirius an errant godfather? Are stern McGonagall and sweet-toothed Dumbledore granny and gramps?
Dudley Dursley is Draco
First impression of Draco: Harry was strongly reminded of Dudley.
Dudley and Draco are blond. They hunt in packs. In Dudley’s gang, he’s the biggest and thickest. Draco is invariably flanked by a pair of dumb Dudleys, Crabbe and Goyle.
Harry is the usurper, the cuckoo. His arrival at Privet Drive upsets Dudley’s privileged position in the household. His arrival at Hogwarts prevents entitled Draco from being the school’s star. In time Dudley learns to respect his cousin and Draco unlocks empathy. “Perhaps he has decided to befriend Harry Potter?” taunts Voldemort.
Dudley makes amends with Harry in Book Seven. But try Dudley’s speech in Draco’s mouth: “I don’t think you’re a waste of space.” … [Draco] had turned red. Harry was embarrassed and astonished himself. “You saved my life.” [Draco] subsided into scarlet-faced silence.
“Coming from Dudley, that’s like ‘I love you’,” quips Harry in the book. The cousins shake hands. Draco is not awarded a pacific moment. But his final instruction to Crabbe and Goyle is for Harry’s protection: “Don’t kill him! DON’T KILL HIM!”
Vernon Dursley is Voldemort
Harry’s wicked uncle is big and beefy and angry, hugely intimidating to a small boy. The traumatised ten-year-old in the cupboard might naturally reimagine Vernon as the ultimate villain. What’s in a name? Vernon Dursley… Ver- Dur-… Vol- Dur-… Voldemort. Harry feels under attack, with reason. His parents are dead. He fears being dead.
Like Voldemort, Grunnings director Mr Dursley is preoccupied with status – note the dinner party in Book Two, note Aunt Marge. Harry is not of his blood and destined to thwart him. In Book Five, Order of the Phoenix, angry Harry is shocked by his own rage. He fears turning into that role-model for angry men, the villain with a capital V.
Meanwhile, Vernon shares characteristics with other baddies: the superior Lucius Malfoy and the order-uber-alles Dolores Umbridge. Dolores also stops Harry’s mail. In Book Five, Dolores’ hands come grasping out of a fireplace. Vernon’s hands grabbed for Harry through a window in the book’s opening chapter.
Petunia Dursley is Severus Snape
She spent so much of her time craning over garden fences, spying on the neighbours.
Aunt Petunia spies and Snape is a spy. Both characters grew up in Cokeworth and are described unkindly: horse-faced, uneven teeth, large hooked nose. They hate James Potter, who ruined their relationship with Lily and got her killed. Thin, spiteful and repressed, they love Lily painfully and cannot process their grief.
Petunia sees Lily’s eyes in Harry’s face. Does she feel judged? Or do Lily’s eyes resurrect feelings of envy, the bitter memory of men drawn to the younger sister and rarely to her? Even before the news of her death, Lily is a toxic topic. Vernon, who has been glimpsing wizards all day, finally drums up the courage to enquire: “Er – Petunia, dear – you haven’t heard from your sister lately, have you?” Mrs Dursley looked shocked and angry. After all, they normally pretended she didn’t have a sister. “No,” she said sharply. “Why?”
Shocked and angry… sharply… snapped… stiffly: Petunia conjures Snape in the very first chapter, the acidic Snape of the classroom, the furious Snape who catches Harry facedown in his Pensieve’d memories. At the close, Petunia chokes on her chance to make peace with Harry. Explains JK Rowling: “She almost acknowledged that her loathing… was born out of jealousy.” Loathing and jealousy? Very Severus.
The Girl Who Dreamed
Joanne Rowling’s childhood home in Gloucestershire mirrors the Dursleys’ – including the cupboard under the stairs. The millionaire author bought the house in 2011. Harry returns to his cupboard in Book Seven and finds it full of shoes and umbrellas. What did Jo find?
Jo Rowling was 25 years old when she dreamt up Harry Potter on a broken-down train en route to Kings Cross. The death of her mother came six months later. “The books are what they are because she died”… “an attempt to make sense of death”. For the author and the hero, the stories are an exorcism.
Trace a portrait of the storyteller, one that doesn’t move. Jo Rowling fled Portugal after divorce from the abusive first husband. She relocated to Edinburgh where she had no friends, only her sister. Jo was a poor single mother and suffered clinical depression. She escaped into a world of magic. Did sister Dianne seem perfectly normal thank you very much? Did the author have daughter Jessica in mind when Harry discovers his idolised father was a bully?
There was a child who dreamed these stories. Joanne Rowling wrote her first book at six-years-old. Aged 11, she wrote a novel about seven cursed diamonds and the people who owned them. Years later the author created bespectacled Harry, freckled Ron and Hermione the bookworm, and left a little of herself on the page: “I lived for books. I was your basic common-or-garden bookworm, complete with freckles and National Health spectacles.”
Beyond The Veil
In The Wizard of Oz movie, a tornado whisks Kansas girl Dorothy to the magical land of Oz. She meets a cowardly Lion, a brainless Scarecrow and a Tin Man with no heart. Her three companions, plus The Wizard and the Wicked Witch, are played by actors in dual roles – we initially meet them as family and acquaintances back home. In Peter Pan, Captain Hook and Wendy’s father George Darling are the same guy: in the 2003 Peter Pan movie, Jason Isaacs plays both roles (yes, the actor who portrays Draco Malfoy’s father, Lucius). Famous precedents.
Rejected ideas lurk in completed works. High-resolution scans of the Mona Lisa reveal painted-over eyebrows, a headdress and an alternate line of gaze. Rowling has shared little of her creative process but must have considered every angle on these stories, including the notion that Harry himself dreams these adventures as he grows up. Traces of Harry’s fantasy hail us even in the final book, which strains the established rules of magic to accommodate Harry’s survival, as if the story must protect its hero/creator. In Deathly Hallows, Harry has a significant conversation with dead Dumbledore. His wand acts on its own to defend against flying Voldemort. Harry’s enemies put his glasses back on his face twice. Indeed, Harry’s glasses are an inverted MacGuffin: readers worry about his specs more than the characters do.
Whether the seven books of Harry Potter are a fantasy within a fantasy, or simply a fantasy, does not matter much, because the stories are authentic. The books connect with readers via emotional truth. Harry experiences denial, anger, depression – stages of grief – on his road to acceptance. And so do we. His feelings, and ours, are real.
The saga in brief, from The Boy Who Lived to 19 Years Later: lonely orphan goes away to a new school, ultimately marries the first girl he sees, makes friends for life, grieves his parents and settles down happily with a family of his own. All was well.
*Jo Rowling’s favourite quote from all Harry Potter: “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?” – Albus Dumbledore, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.