The way the Harry Potter stories address life is very different from how many mainstream/fantasy franchises engage with love, death and emotion. In Harry Potter, feelings are deeper than a set-piece. They ring true. And these books are full of nods and winks to more grown-up distractions. So let’s look at the life lessons and life observations in Harry Potter through an adult lens. Fair warning: this piece is a mix of the familiar and the peculiar…
Death Harry begins the stories bumbling along in his miserable life at the Dursleys. But after “Harry, yer a wizard” he is made to really feel his parents death and the deaths that follow: Cedric, Sirius, Dumbledore, Dobby and all those at the Battle of Hogwarts. The Potterwatch radio show even pauses to honour minor characters Ted Tonks and Dirk Cresswell. Contrast the strength of feeling here with, say, Lord of the Rings. Boromir dies at the beginning of The Two Towers, and Frodo doesn’t find out for most of the book.
Jealousy Each of the Golden Trio experiences jealousy, especially in Half-Blood Prince. Harry bottles up his feelings about Ginny and Dean. Ron goes into a passive-aggressive sulk with Hermione after finding out she snogged Viktor Krum. Hermione goes on the counter-offensive when Ron starts up with Lavender, and takes a date with Cormac. Counter-intuitively, jealousy is the route for all three to acknowledge their romantic feelings.
Birds + Bees Sex is a barely-heard whisper in the Harry Potter stories. In Prisoner of Azkaban, Molly giggles with Ginny and Hermione about the time she used a love potion, and adds more to her scandalous back story in Goblet of Fire. Moaning Myrtle spooks any hot boy in a bathtub. A carriage rocks suggestively in the aftermath of the Yule Ball. And Lavender thinks Hermione’s been one-on-one with Ron in the boys’ dorm. More creepy is the vampire Sanguini, who lusts after the teenage girls at Slughorn’s Christmas party. Just say no!
Happiness via Freud Ginny spends her first year at Hogwarts dreaming of a big snake. Soon she’s the most boy-friendly girl at school, and always with older guys. She even chokes Hagrid’s chicken. But Ginny is pure vanilla next to the girls with a crush on Firenze. What first attracted you to the teacher who’s half horse?
Impotence Voldemort is a 70-year-old man having trouble with his wand. He is humbled repeatedly by his teenage nemesis: in Deathly Hallows the boy shoots gold stuff from his stick without even trying, while Voldemort’s wand comes apart in his hand. “Some wizards just like to boast that theirs are bigger and better than other people’s,” says Hermione, as Voldemort charges around for Viagra, excuse me, the Elder Wand. In the finale, no matter how hard he waves his wand, Voldemort cannot land a curse.
Alternative Masculinity Harry is your traditional hero despite the faux geek stylings. But masculinity wears many cloaks. Dumbledore blushes when Madam Pomfrey compliments his ear muffs (those two have something going, am I right?). Alas, the greatest wizard of the age wears ear muffs, likes lemon sherbets and talks a whole lot about love. Meanwhile, Hagrid cries. He bakes. He gives Harry a whiskery kiss. He frets over the littl’uns. He carries a pink umbrella. He takes the place of Norberta’s mother. Men, eh?
Humanity Heroes have feet of clay. Our idols are only human. Contrast again with Lord of the Rings, where Gandalf The White is pretty much a god walking the Earth. Harry spends a few books thinking James is aces — for a chapter in Prisoner of Azkaban, wow, Harry believes Daddy saves him, Hermione and Sirius from Dementors. Nope, dead Daddy was a bully and a douche. But, hey, Dumbledore’s pretty slick. No, sorry kid. The teenage Dumbledore was basically Malfoy. The real hero is that scary Professor Snape.
Oppression As the books progress, the illusion of well-meaning society disintegrates. In Order of the Phoenix, Harry is persecuted for bearing witness to Voldemort’s return. Cornelius Fudge, the Minister of Magic, calls him Fake News, and tries to have him locked up. The Daily Prophet newspaper calls him Fake News, and snarks at his character. Sometime Hogwarts headmistress Dolores Umbridge calls him Fake News, and hypocritically etches a scar onto Harry’s hand: “I must not tell lies.” Harry digs in and, with a little help from his friends, forces out the truth. The truth becomes Harry’s shield as he squares off against the tyrants.
Kindness Despite their Book One bullying of Neville, via Petrificus Totalus, for the greater good, the Trio are all about the underdog. Sympathy for the little guy comes good for Ron when he spontaneously considers the safety of House-elves during the Battle of Hogwarts. He wins Hermione’s heart forever! Hermione: “You finally get it.” Ron: “Oh yeah I do.”
Love and Friendship Harry is a boy who loves hard. And that’s an amazing arc: the boy under the stairs had no love in his life at all. Greater than the sum of its parts, the books show Harry’s love to be relentless — Lily, James, Hagrid, Ron, Hermione, Dumbledore, the Twins, Ginny, Mr + Mrs Weasley, Dobby, Professor McGonagall, Remus, Sirius, Luna, Neville… Sure, he fights evil and wields a sword and kisses the beautiful girl, but it’s Harry’s capacity for love that sets him apart. (And Voldemort can’t stand it.) Many of the sweetest friend-moments involve Luna: the pictures in her bedroom, Slughorn’s Christmas party, Harry rejecting hot minx Romilda Vane in favour of Luna and Neville. The blonde beatnik brings out the best in Harry.
Doubt and Self-Belief Life isn’t fair. Harry has moments when he feels utterly isolated, when he brings isolation on himself, or when almost everyone is against him. The Dementors usher depression, like you’ll “never feel cheerful again”. The Dursleys tell Harry he’s garbage. And again and again, Harry picks himself up and says: screw this. Meanwhile, Ron suffers terrible nerves, but given space and time he rises above it; he escapes the shadow of his family and that of his famous friend. Hermione masks her shyness with her smarts but soon emerges as a Draco-punching, Death-Eater-cursing badass. The Trio, above all, are exemplars of resilience.