BY: LEWIS MEDEIROS
SPOILER WARNING: If you have not either read the Harry Potter novels or watched the films, and have somehow managed to stay spoiler-free for the past nine-plus years, this article will spoil the series rotten for you. If you don’t care, then read on. If you do, then don’t. At least not until you’ve experienced the story for yourself.
(The movies are okay, but the books are more consistent and coherent in the long haul, so I recommend reading them before watching the films. Take that advice for whatever it’s worth to you.)
Some of you reading this might recall the Great Potter Tangent of 2015 in which the most glaring weakness of BrainScratch Commentaries (namely: sometimes we just don’t know how little we have to say about a game until we’re halfway through it and have put too much time in to give up by that point) lead us to ramble on about a lot of things unrelated to Klonoa 2, most notably Harry Potter, and most unintentionally, in the part numbered the same as the Death card in a standard Tarot deck. I’m not exactly proud of that tangent, in fact I’d say that commentary as a whole is one of the worst on our channel, but it’s useful at this date and time because it saves me the trouble of having to prove I’m actually a fan of the series in the face of inevitable accusations by World Wide Weasley’s Ronnie Random that I’m jumping on the recent Potter retrospective bandwagon for clicks(1) because of the recent theatrical debut of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them(2).
There are a lot of clever details written into the Harry Potter novels. Anyone who was a fan of the series while it was still being written will remember what a good time it was to be a hyper-analytical theorist: after Chamber of Secrets and Prisoner of Azkaban came out, it was clear what kind of writer J. K. Rowling was. Harry talking to a snake at the zoo in the first book’s second chapter ended up being a plot seed for Parseltongue to sprout from in Book Two and that casual mention of Sirius Black back in the first chapter was a name-drop for the main plot of Book Three! Fans went absolutely batshit looking for things that would come into greater prominence in future books; eagle-eyed readers spotting the hints that Dumbledore’s oddball brother might be the owner of a certain dingy village pub were rewarded by him being exactly that in Book Seven. Mark Evans became a fandom-wide legend because Rowling gave him Lily Potter’s maiden name by complete accident. Cynical readers accused Rowling of stealing Snape’s Book Seven plot twist from fan-theory only for someone to discover that Severus Snape’s very first potions lesson in Book One contained coded foreshadowing using the language of flowers that all but spelled the twist out the moment he started in on bullying poor eleven-year-old Harry about asphodel and wormwood. And that’s not even getting into obscure stuff like anagrams, which I’m pretty sure were funky coincidences more often than not.
I’ve been an avid reader and follower of the Potter franchise since not too terribly long before Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire hit bookstore shelves, so I slipped in under the closing warehouse door of “just before people really started taking the books seriously.” Book Four, for those of you who haven’t done your History of Magic homework, was the first cinderblock-sized volume in the franchise, and also, as you might guess from its size, the point where J. K. Rowling had very obviously stopped treating the books she was writing as being for children. Though one can argue from hindsight that it was Azkaban that actually began this process, and they would be correct, Goblet was the destination to which Azkaban worked to transition — a fact reflected not only in tone and word count, but in the way Azkaban‘s plot was a setup for Goblet‘s. But the structural trickery at play in Harry Potter can be seen, now that we’ve had the whole series on our shelves long enough to stare at it obsessively and meditate on its possible usage as fringe cult scripture(3), as running quite a lot deeper than that.
Up until the massive formula break that was Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the novels had a very clear routine when it came to driving their plots. Harry would spend some amount of time languishing in the Muggle world. Some kind of hijinks would ensue that ramped up tensions between Harry and his emotionally abusive aunt and uncle. He would escape them in some fantastical way to spend time with his friends from the magical world. Something would happen prior to the school year that would set up the forthcoming adventure and then Harry would get to school, some kind of mystery would happen (these are far closer to mystery novels than adventure novels), and after a series of misadventures (at least one of which would definitely involve a dangerous creature that the friendly half-giant Hagrid happened to own or have stashed away) and a good deal of sleuthing, snooping, and sniffing out red herrings, it would all come to a head at around the end of the year. At that point it would be made clear not only what was going on and who was behind it, but how the year’s adventure connected to the primary antagonist (the mostly-dead, eventually-revived, and now permanently re-dead Lord Voldemort) and what it did to move things forward — although in the case of Chamber of Secrets, we would not find out the real extent of that last one until Half-Blood Prince.
What’s more interesting is that there appears to be a larger formula that operates as a framework for the single-book formula. Let’s call these the macro-formula and the micro-formula: the formula for the series and the formula for the individual book, respectively. At this point, some readers of this article who haven’t touched anything Potter-related or just didn’t like it when they did might be rolling their eyes and muttering that this confirms what they’ve always believed, that this series is an overblown, overrated pile of trash subsisting off the fanatical devotion of misguided and overgrown babies, akin to Twilight(4). Hold your Hippogriffs, though, a formula isn’t automatically a bad thing. In fact, sometimes it can be a very good thing, if it’s handled cleverly, or in this case, if it’s hidden well enough.
The “macro-formula” in this case extends over three books, repeats over the next three books, and then is turned completely on its head and shattered by the seventh book, which interacts with elements of the macro-formula in interesting ways on its own merits despite the formula-break. We’ll call this the Faculty Cycle, since the clearest and most obvious elements are tied directly to the characters who are introduced, early on in each successive book, to serve as new, permanent staff at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, and who only serve as one of Harry’s teachers for a single school term, even if they appear in future books to serve other roles.
This three-step, twice-repeating cycle is one of subtle parallels that wind their way into the overall structure and happenings of the books these specific Hogwarts professors feature in, and in certain ways, the mark the pacing of the story and worldbuilding over the course of the series. The way in which worldbuilding is paced from book to book is, in itself, a topic I’d like to cover in another article at a later date, but it is significant that it is a three-step cycle and that the points at which the cycle restarts (Book Four) and breaks completely (Book Seven) mark major transition points for the series.
The parallels in question are the exact roles that the one-year professors play in their corresponding stories. Books One and Four, Philosopher’s Stone(5) and Goblet of Fire (both named after a specific magical object) give us Quirinus Quirrell and a servant of Voldemort disguised as Alastor Moody, both of whom are tasked by Voldemort at obtaining a key ingredient, kept safe at Hogwarts right under the nose of Voldemort’s nemesis Albus Dumbledore, which will allow Voldemort to restore himself from the pitiful existence he had been forced to exist in since his failed attempt to kill Harry while he was still a helpless baby. The first thing I’d like to highlight about the way these two compare and contrast with each other is that they’re both totally fake, just acts, but that Quirrell is regarded by the school at large as being a bit of a joke due to his paranoia due to his past practical experience with dark forces; Moody shares the “paranoia” and “past practical experience” aspects but presents them in a more threatening, cynical manner that immediately establishes him as a character whom the entire school comes to know as a force to be reckoned with.
In spite of this difference, they share what is essentially the same story niche, with the chief difference between them being that one of them failed and the other succeeded. However, both of them ultimately have Harry at their mercy in the end and would have killed him had Dumbledore not realized what was happening and arrived in the nick of time to prevent Harry from dying (a likeness that’s lost on the film, since Quirrell disintegrates while Harry is still awake, whereas in the book, Harry passes out during the struggle, and finds out what happens afterward) Both Quirrell and Crouch, Jr. perish after this, neither surviving to be questioned by the Ministry of Magic about their role in attempting to revive Voldemort, with Quirrell being left for dead by the fleeing soul of Voldemort and Barty, Jr. having his own soul sucked out by a dementor, so that both characters meet their end upon a soul forcibly leaving their bodies. (Again, this is a likeness which is lost on the films, this time ironically because the film doesn’t show or tell what happened to Crouch, Jr. after Dumbledore interrogates him.) As a final likeness, both of these servants of Voldemort must regularly drink a dangerous substance in order to maintain their bodies long enough to do their work for Voldemort — Quirrell must drink unicorn blood to keep sustain the parasitic Voldemort, and Crouch, Jr. must drink Polyjuice Potion to maintain his disguise… and Harry encounters both of them in the dead of night while they’re going about what they need to do to obtain these substances. And while Harry can be said to have worked out a fair few of the mysteries thrown his way, he neither knew nor suspected either of these professors of working with Voldemort until they told him themselves — and in both cases, Harry witnessed a direct verbal confrontation between the villain and Professor Snape while under an invisibility cloak, though the intimidation went in the opposite direction with Moody than it had with Quirrell.
Perhaps at this point you’re raising an eyebrow and having thoughts of the sort of story-rhyming thing George Lucas thought was so clever. But wait! It gets even better. Books One and Two are the years where Hagrid is doing blatantly illegal things that involve a high risk of burns (hatching a dragon egg in his hut in Book One; illegally breeding blast-ended skrewts in Book Four) and also the years when Hagrid prompts Harry to use his invisibility cloak for situations involving dragons being shipped in (during Book One) or out (during Book Four) of Hogwarts, both of which are situations involving Charlie Weasley. These are the years when the Dursleys are visited by a wizard come to take Harry away to the wizarding world, both involving a huge outpouring of weirdness from the living room fireplace; Dudley comes away from these situations pranked in a humiliating and body-changing way, with a pig’s tail in Book One and a gigantic swollen tongue in Book Four (the entire Dursley portion of Goblet was left out of the film, so this is a book-exclusive parallel). Both of these years include an uncomfortable period during which Harry is widely disliked for a high-profile breakage of rules, with the school not knowing the full story in either event. Both of these years end with some variety of obstacle course which Harry must get through, both of which involve a riddle challenge (the films left both of those out) right before Harry encounters Voldemort, whose name is Riddle, and both of these encounters were specifically Voldemort’s attempts to return himself to a proper body — the latter being at the graveyard nearby the Riddle House.
A running joke on the part of less-analytical readers is that the Defense professor is always going to be a bad guy, and it’s steps one and two of the Faculty Cycle that drive that impression home. Yet step two in the cycle has its own unique presence: this is the slot occupied in Books Two and Five, Chamber of Secrets and Order of the Phoenix, by Gilderoy Lockhart and Dolores Umbridge. The likenesses between these two can be difficult to spot because of how different the characters seem on the surface. Both characters with whom Harry first meets in an uncomfortable situation during his summer holidays, both characters with whom Harry serves detention writing lines in one fashion or another, both characters with exceptionally tryhard personas of artificial outward pleasantness, whose offices are decorated with monuments to their chosen expression of it (Lockhart’s with vanity, Umbridge’s with kittens and frills). Both of them are villains whose allegiance was not to Lord Voldemort but to their own personal ambitions, both of them are characterized as being quite detrimental to the education of their students, and both of them, lured into a dangerous, secluded location in search of a dangerous, hidden secret, turn on Harry when he and his friend lose control of the situation but are undone instead by their own ego and malevolence (Lockhart by accident, and Umbridge because she was a bigoted toad who was dumb enough to claim authority over a herd of pissed-off centaurs). And both of these characters, instead of being treated like mysteries, are obviously portrayed from their very earliest appearances as obvious problem characters who nonetheless have nothing to do with the main threat.
What makes the parallels between these two characters interesting is that the simple element of “one’s a joke, the other’s a serious threat” reappears here again, even more pronounced than with Quirrell and Fake Moody. The presence of story-wide parallels between Book Two and Book Five are just as prevalent as before, yet the uniqueness of the characters and the overarching situations make it harder to spot the rhyming. Both years begin with horrible summers and garden shrubbery, angsting over lack of communication with the wizarding world. Both years, Harry received an unwelcome visitor who lands Harry in a situation where he’s been accused of breaking the law by using underage magic. Both years follow this by having someone call at Harry’s house to extract him while he languishes in his room being fed through a cat flap, with the film version of Mad-Eye Moody even echoing the “Rescuing you, of course!” line that the film version of Ron answered with when he did this. Both of these escapes are by sky, and both introduce Harry to a new wizarding home — and one would be right to point out that the homes of the Weasley and Black families are direct opposites to each other in just about every aspect one could name. Both of these years go on to be the years during which Harry is seen as a villain by the school at large, not because of mischief (as in years one and four), but because of something outright criminal and evil that he’s wrongly accused of. Both years involve Harry and one of his friends, with one member of the trio absent, being led into the forest to encounter a creature that Hagrid is keeping hidden there: Aragog the acromantula in year two, Grawp the giant in year five — one of the few cases where the “joke-followed-by-real-threat” pattern of rhyming is reversed so that the less-deadly thing comes after, though I must point out here that the less-deadly of the two situations was by far the more complicated circumstance. Both of these years see Cornelius Fudge, the Minister for Magic, interfering at Hogwarts to pin blame on the wrong person out of political insecurity, and both of these years see Dumbledore forced to leave the castle until his reappearance at the end of the adventure… at which point there is a confrontation with Lucius Malfoy that ends with Lucius receiving some sort of punishment (the film leaves this part out, but Lucius was fired from the Hogwarts Board of Governors after the Chamber of Secrets incident). And almost as if to further rub in the places where these years and their corresponding professors line up with each other, Umbridge’s year is the one during which Harry happens upon Lockhart at the hospital, and sees the undisguised, ungilded result of his previously-humorous comeuppance. Unfortunately the entire St. Mungo’s Hospital sequence was left out of the movie, which is a shame for more reasons than just losing the Lockhart cameo appearance and its disconcerting look back at a turn of events that just seemed so simple and easy to swallow at the time.
And I think the parallels and contrasts between Harry’s daring journey into the Chamber of Secrets and his desperate rush into the Department of Mysteries are lampshaded enough by the names. Secrets are hidden things that you just don’t know until someone shares them; mysteries are confusing things you must unravel on your own and which can lead one to incorrect conclusions, even when one believes themselves to understand them; and a department is more complex and confusing than a single chamber. Both of these climaxes are sprung by Voldemort deliberately exploiting Harry’s reckless bravery, his “saving-people thing.” With the Chamber of Secrets, it’s simple, romantic, straightforward: a young girl (Harry’s future wife, in fact) gets kidnapped by the villain and taken into a vile monster’s lair, and Harry, the lone hero, rides forth to save her from a dark wizard and an enchanted sleep. In the Department of Mysteries, Harry wishes to go alone but a group of friends insists on helping; the person he is lured there to save is both one with whom he shares a close connection and not in any peril to begin with; the trap was laid with the intention of forcing Harry to comply with a demand only he could fulfill, and the net result is that the person Harry hoped to save rushed to his rescue and died in the process. In the Chamber of Secrets, Harry is saved by a phoenix swooping in to reward his loyalty to Dumbledore. In the Department of Mysteries, Harry is saved by when the Order of the Phoenix swoops in, and after a long and furious confrontation, he subsequently mends an at-that-point fractured relationship with Dumbledore.
At this point, the real value of this three-step “cycle” should be dawning on you. The first three novels, the books where Harry and the intended audience are youngest and most idealistic, presents a three-step journey through simple, easily palatable concepts: villains who are so unthreatening on the surface one wonders what harm they could even do, even though they have done harm and would have done more; magical creatures that are dangerous to the protagonists and which they can’t understand Hagrid’s affinity for; good triumphing unquestionably and evil being vanquished or driven away without fail. The first two steps of the cycle in their second incarnations, once the series grows out of and sheds the snakeskin of a child’s naivety, echo the first run of the cycle in key ways but with far more pessimistic twists and conclusions. It’s a game of self-introspective questioning and re-questioning. And no step in the cycle is more important to bridging the gap between the two than step three, the transition phase, always the novel that ends on the most inconclusive, level-headed note, and always the one which directly sets up the adventure immediately afterward.
Books Three and Six, Prisoner of Azkaban and Half-Blood Prince (both named after plot-crucial characters rather than objects), give us professors who break the established formula of “the new teacher is a bad guy!” quite spectacularly, almost as if they’re an inoculation shot against the sharp change in story tone and direction that Books Four and Seven would be. Professors Remus Lupin and Horace Slughorn stroll in from two very different walks of life, one shabby and often sickly, living a lonely existence due to his lycanthropic affliction, the other enjoying a rich belly and a wide social circle of talented and well-known people who made it far in life and aren’t shy about showing gratitude to a teacher that helped them along. Like Lockhart and Umbridge, the two are so very different that the parallels between them might be missed, but they are just as prominent here as with the other two steps in the cycle, right down to them being the only two professors whom Harry and friends encountered on the Hogwarts Express, in the same year that Harry suffered an embarrassing and humiliating mishap on the same train (dementors in year three, a failed attempt to eavesdrop on Malfoy in year six) with which he had to be assisted, first by Lupin with his Patronus, and in year six, by the woman who’d fallen in love with him (shortly after which, Harry glimpses her Patronus, and later learns it had changed to match Lupin’s… and you probably didn’t think that went any deeper than a sappy behind-the-scenes romance plot, eh?).
Lupin and Slughorn share the striking characteristic of both being really good at their job (teaching), and both take their positions in the same year that long-standing familiar face took over another position in the school: when Lupin was hired, Harry’s closest friend among the faculty took the Care of Magical Creatures job, and when Slughorn was hired, Harry’s most hated teacher took over Defense Against the Dark Arts. The fact that Slughorn was hired to a different position than Defense in spite of being the sixth book’s new plot-important professor as always is significant by itself because it constitutes yet another formula break in the book that precedes a formula-breaking sequel, but apart from that it’s important to note that while Severus Snape is technically Defense professor during this year, his story significance is not explained or resolved until Book Seven, so he’s the subversion case at the death cry of the cycle and not the third step on its second run.
The roles of Lupin and Slughorn echo each other in that both are possessors of secret knowledge that is necessary to understanding the past to solve mysteries of the present day: after two pairs of teachers who represent hidden antagonism and direct antagonism amongst adults and authority figures, the back-ends of the two teacher trilogies are two different cases of the same strangely level-headed and adult answer to the previous: they are well-intentioned adults who have lived lives of their own and hold onto deep regrets, and in both cases, understanding their pasts and the mistakes they’ve made is key to uncovering a vital, buried truth. They aren’t servants of any Dark Lords, and they aren’t vile human-shaped animals trampling the lives and happiness of others to satisfy themselves, they’re just adults. That their regrets happen to involve knowledge of illegal magic falling into the hands of underage wizards years before Harry met them doesn’t change that. One other common thread connects them, though: Lupin had a deep and enduring friendship with Harry’s father, while Slughorn counted Harry’s mother as a special favorite among his students. It’s no accident, then, that these are also the years during which the specific form a person’s Patronus might take are called under a particularly bright spotlight through Harry’s stag, representing his father, and Nymphadora Tonk’s sudden change to a wolf Patronus — because she fell in love with Remus… and establishing a magical principle in advance of Book Seven’s reveal of the doe Patronus and the twist that came with it, which is an interesting point to mention since it’s Snape himself who first calls attention to Tonks’s new Patronus.
It wouldn’t be the Faculty Cycle if the parallels between teachers weren’t backed up by parallels between the story structures and events of those specific years, though, and they certainly are here. Of particular interest to me is the way Books Three and Six treat magical creatures. Contrasting a harrowing two years in which Harry, Ron, and Hermione encounter magical creatures only in situations where they’re dangerous, annoying, or both, Azkaban presents us with Care of Magical Creatures class and Buckbeak, where we’re first given a sense that magical creatures must be treated with care and respect, that the danger is as much in handling them recklessly or irresponsibly as it is in what they can do to you if they attack. In Azkaban‘s case, we’re given the prospect of Buckbeak’s trial and impending execution, which ends with Buckbeak’s escape and Hagrid having an all-night celebration (probably a drunk one, but the books were still skating past certain things at the time) of his beloved hippogriff’s continued survival. In Half-Blood Prince, we’re instead shown Hagrid burying and mourning Aragog, the spider who mercilessly consigned Harry and Ron to death by devouring in Book Two, who died quite a natural death in spite of being entirely too dangerous to expose children to, and Harry joins Hagrid and Slughorn as the two of them get drunk after the funeral. This is a weird, dual-layered subversion of previous “magical creatures are dangerous” expectation, and with Grawp and the thestrals sandwiched between them in Book Five, it gives a strong, multi-layered portrayal of the Potter world’s wildlife in general.
Step three of the cycle is important because this is the step where, through subversion of expectation — both with the professors themselves and the story and world elements surrounding them — the shameless idealism of Books One and Two are balanced with the moody pessimism of Books Four and Five. It is in this step of the cycle that Gryffindor wins the Quidditch cup in spite of Harry’s run-in with the dementors in Book Three and him getting stuck in detention during the championship match in Book Six. The third step on the cycle is the step where the good guys slip out of sight to obtain a secret victory (both of which involve a magic necklace and a son of the Black family wrongly believed to support Voldemort, I’ll point out), and the step of the cycle on which a werewolf was loose on the grounds at Hogwarts, placing a danger of catastrophic and irreversible disaster in direct contact with schoolchildren — but avoiding the worst possible end to that situation. It’s the step in which we see the angriest side of Severus Snape, in which he shouts (or murmurs, in the film? …Yeah, I don’t get that change) directly at the protagonists because his grudge against James Potter was directly struck. This is also the step in the cycle in which Draco Malfoy has the most direct influence on some part of the main plot in both cases, even if the “joke-then-real-threat” pattern applies as clearly here as with Lockhart and Umbridge; and it’s probably also not an accident that Draco always features most prominently as a sequel to his father’s fuck-ups. And both years ultimately end with servants of Voldemort fleeing the Hogwarts grounds, along with someone the public at large believes is a Death Eater but is really one of the good guys… with the key difference between the two cases being Harry isn’t in on the secret when it happens in year six. Both climaxes are prefaced by Professor Trelawney telling Harry something about either the future (in Book Three) or the past (in Book Six). The prediction of the future foreshadows a revelation about the past that was at that point yet to come to Harry, and the information she lets slip about the past foreshadows yet more information that Harry had yet to obtain but would in the future: the information foreshadowed was, in both cases, dispensed via the Pensieve in the headmaster’s office at the end of a later book and both related directly to the same event, the day on which Dumbledore and Snape first heard Trelawney’s prophecy about a boy with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord and the plot of the whole series was set in motion.
There are other parallels worth mentioning (years three and six marked the start of Harry’s crush on Cho and his crush on Ginny, respectively, with both of these things being tied to the year’s Quidditch season… just as an example) but counting off the individual parallels isn’t as important as noting how the three steps fall together, and what they accomplish through this two-pass repetition of stages. Comparisons between characters or situations in fiction can be more valuable in what they contribute context to each other than for how they aid the understanding of situations. Lupin’s unfortunate existence was not invalidated by Fenrir Greyback’s viciousness, nor was Voldemort’s defeat in Philosopher’s Stone invalidated by his victory in Goblet of Fire, and Harry saving Ginny from the Chamber of Secrets wasn’t made moot by the death of Sirius Black in the Department of Mysteries. These are all vital components to what is ultimately a three-dimensional view of the world — “a sweet but uncompromising view of human nature,” as Stephen King described it in that quote of his that landed on the paperback version of Deathly Hallows. It portrays the same general three families of things from different angles, and with different results on repeat visits, the very definition of a three-dimensional view, and through that one is able to weigh the angle seen in one pass through the cycle against the angle shown in the other. By doing so, one can see those aspects of both that compliment or balance aspects of the other.
The twice-repeated, three-step cycle of story and character structure to the Potter series and its morals is most valuable in context to the seventh volume, the odd number at the end, the point at which Harry Potter becomes a legal adult and the structure that has up until that point governed the progression of events is killed as suddenly and completely as his pet owl on the escape flight away from Privet Drive. If Book Four was the point at which the child became a teenage boy, then Book Seven is the point where the boy becomes a man, and that means dealing with the messy, unstructured world outside of the sheltered and orderly routine of a class schedule and explicit, handholding instructions for where to go and what to do when you get there. Lessons learned in the previous six books are still present, but shredded and scattered in the wind like confetti to land where they may, with Harry foundering in a mire of indecision and confusion as often as he shows authority and initiative, childish notions of climactic comeuppance falling by the wayside in favor of subdued, withdrawn conclusions to long-standing grudges (one could point to the resolutions of Harry’s relationships with Dudley, Draco, Kreacher, and even Snape himself as tragic counterpoints to the unextinguished hatred of James Potter that Snape still held onto when he died), and the conclusion, rather than the usual secluded conflict between the hero from who’s point of view the story is told and his archnemesis, plays out as an open and chaotic battle in which there are many villains and many heroes, many survivors and many casualties, both where Harry can see them and where he can’t, with no direct correlation between that and how much he cared about their individual fates.
“Sweet but uncompromising” is the word. We arrive at a direct answer to where Harry Potter began. In Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, we experienced the story of a child who grew into a brave, honest boy amidst the cruelty and neglect of a family who scorned him and forced him to sleep in a spider-infested cupboard, and we end, with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, with the story of a brave, honest man amidst the cruelty and open malignance of a prejudiced world conquered by a cruel dictator: the Dursleys’ intention to “stamp” the magic out of Harry through neglect and psychological belittling is a softspoken opposite number of the Death Eaters’ violent and hateful crusade to purge the wizarding community of Muggle-borns and to eventually subjugate non-magicals completely. Harry Potter was never a story in which good would always triumph, or where the big goddamn hero bested the bad guy on skill and dashing wit alone, or even, ironically, a story about a Chosen One who had a power granted from on high that could stave off darkness and vanquish evil. It’s a story of a boy becoming a man and standing tall in a complicated world where convicted murderers are sometimes innocent, the government can be working toward anything but the people’s best interests and yet refusing to support them a year later can end up being the wrong choice anywhere, and where bravely rushing to someone’s rescue can, and will, work sometimes, but it also can, and will, lead to tragedy and disaster.
In this final chapter, events unfold in the messiest ways with the lead characters doing their best to establish some semblance of structure and planning all their own, even if it falls apart at the drop of a pin more than once along the way. Important, world-shaking moments of truth are defined by small, seemingly inconsequential things that happened earlier and by incomplete understandings of how things in the past have happened, on both Harry’s and Voldemort’s parts. Severus Snape stands as an inversion of the first step of the cycle, a man on Dumbledore’s side, hidden in plain sight in the Death Eaters’ ranks; stage two of the cycle is represented through the return of an utterly unrepentant Umbridge, whose defeat is as inglorious as it was two books previous; and stage three, the most important part of the cycle, pulls double-duty here through both the questioning and eventual explanation of Albus Dumbledore’s past and the revelation, at the end, of Snape’s true role in everything that had happened up until that point.
In the end, we see the same boy who stood gazing longingly into the Mirror of Erised at his unspeaking, departed family… seeking acceptance among the images of his lost loved ones, conjured by the Resurrection Stone, before heading off to his own death in the Forbidden Forest, the same place where he first laid eyes on Voldemort in the first book. He’s shown to do, in a very literal sense, the one thing that both Snape and Voldemort have shown themselves incapable of: letting go, both of his grief and his fear of death. And in the only honestly fitting way a story like this could have ended, Lord Voldemort the terror and the almighty immortal ego, dies a death worthy of Gilderoy Lockhart when he attempts to kill Harry with what was, technically, Harry’s wand, repeating the same self-defeat he’d suffered seventeen years prior, but this time with no Horcruxes to give him a third chance at not screwing himself over in the end.
Harry Potter is not a story of a hero conquering a villain; it’s a story of a man who knew how to learn a goddamn lesson growing into a person who could look a megalomaniacal Dark Lord in the eye and tell him exactly how and why he was going to screw himself over, and then still be the one standing triumphant when the time came to say “I told you so” because, for all of his power and magical knowledge, for all of his cunning, and for all of the minions, followers, and henchmen he had amassed to stand his grand schemes on top of, Tom Riddle was just a man who flopped to the ground when he died like any other, because the one thing he wasn’t man enough to do was stop, second-guess himself, and try for some remorse.
But you know, we could all just complain that Harry should have been a well-trained badass Auror and taken down Voldemort in a straight fight, and ignore all of that well thought-out bollocks(6). Dragon Ball Z would make a good Harry Potter book too, right?
(1)As of this writing, there’s no ad service tied to this blog apart from the one WordPress sticks on free accounts. So the only ones who’d make money from views and clicks are WordPress themselves, anyway. Not that this would stop Ronnie Random. He’s incorrigible.
(2)Fantastic Beasts is fantastic, by the way. You should go see it, even if you didn’t like the Harry Potter movies. What a world of difference it makes when a story is written with the strengths and limitations of movies as a storytelling medium in mind, eh?
(3)I’m kidding**, not that I care much if you have a stick up your arse about it*.
*Religious fundamentalists: I am not seriously promoting the occult, thank you very much. I’m the last person you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because I’m an atheist and just don’t hold with such nonsense.
**Internet Psychotics: Please do not use these books as the basis for lunacy, and do remember to take your medication today! A healthy mind is a mind that doesn’t drive everyone else just as bonkers as you are.
(4)You’re swiftly running out of years during which this view won’t make you look like a judgemental sillyhead, by the way, as it’s looking very much like these books will stand the test of time. That doesn’t mean you have to like them, of course, but you also don’t need to justify not liking them by calling into question the tastes of those who do! Just sit back, relax, and dislike the books in peace. There’s no need to be the Snape in the room, you know? (Severus Snape is a very unhappy person, and no one likes him very much.)
(5)The U.S. editions re-named the first book from Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, a change that I’m not particularly fond of. Fortunately, with the dawn of eBooks, it’s possible to manually un-do such changes if you’re good at using Calibre for customizing your books, so I don’t actually need to own a U.K. version of the series to keep the original naming. It may not matter to most readers, but the mythological origin of the “Sorcerer’s Stone” is, in fact, alchemy’s Philosopher’s Stone, and I’ve spent too much time watching Fullmetal Alchemist to read it as anything else. (It also makes less sense for a wizard to mispronounce “sorcerer’s” than it does for them to mispronounce “philosopher’s,” so this change slightly hurts a certain line of dialogue in a later book.)
(6)There’s a little site called FanFiction.net where people sharing this point of view come out to play. Let’s just say, you know, that there’s a reason “fanfiction” is unfairly treated on the Internet as the buttcrack of a primary school bully’s sick burn of a namecall. A lot of it isn’t very good, and this “fixfiction” mentality is a large contributor to that: you can’t hope to create a good fan-work (of any kind) without a solid and thorough understanding of and respect for what the original work did and why it did it.
All illustrations shown in this post are publicly displayed on Pottermore, J. K. Rowling’s official web-place for all things Potter and Scamander. There you can purchase the series in EPUB format (the main novel series, movie/play scripts, and Hogwarts Library eBooks can also be connected to your Amazon account to unlock a Kindle version free of any additional charge), the audiobooks (though I personally favor Audible as far as those go), and the iBooks-exclusive Enhanced Edition eBooks, which have animated illustrations and such that really make me wish I had an iThing so that I could get them.
Pottermore also hosts a sizable set of supplimentary writings by Rowling herself that relate peripheral information about the people, places, and things in the Potterverse beyond what is explained in the novels, and is also a news site where you can keep up-to-date on what’s going on with the franchise. I highly recommend checking it out if you haven’t already. Alas, the days of it being an interactive flash-game Hogwarts doo-hickey to fool about with are long gone, but you can still take Sorting quizzes for Hogwarts and Ilvermorny houses and find out what animal form your Patronus would take, if that “sort” of thing tickles your fancy, as well as being fitted for a wand.
Mine are Hufflepuff, Thunderbird, a hyena, and a twelve-and-a-half-inch holly wand with dragon heartstring core, slightly springy. I like to believe, due to the combination of Houses involved, that Newt Scamander may be my spirit animal.