Why “Harry Potter” Matters
by Sam Williams
Why does Harry Potter matter? This was the question posed to me months ago when I first relayed the news to a friend that Binge Mode was scheduled to cover the Boy Who Lived and his wizarding world. It’s been 11 years since Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows entered the hands of millions of fans and seven years since the final movie hit the screen. Why is it that fans continue to discuss the story – to tweet, post, blog, vlog, and create podcasts?
We’re in the beginning stages of an entertainment empire, much like that of Star Wars or Marvel. J.K. Rowling transitioned into multiple canonical mediums with the release of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. She’s released some control to others within the wizarding world corporation, allowing writers to tackle plays and video games. As when anything gets this “big,” it’s easy to criticize it, to question its validity and believe it’s lost what made it amazing. And with all the changes, it’s just as easy to forget what made Harry Potter a global force when the story only lay in ink and paper.
What is the value of a story? Of entertainment? Are fairy tales important? Can they affect people’s lives? These are large questions, but they’re worth exploring in the context of Harry Potter. For it’s impossible to understand why a singular story like the Harry Potter series matters if we don’t understand why fairy tales, now called fantasy, have value.
It’s often touted that entertainment, be it movies, music, sports, or books, brings a mirror up to society. Look at the NFL. Football has somehow become synonymous with freedom of speech and protest rights. In the supercharged cooking pot called entertainment, we as a collective get a chance to see all the good and bad of our society come out. We see scandal, we see triumph, we see love, we see hate.
Books have a unique place in our collective experience, for they are, generally speaking, a solitary experience. Books provide a refuge from the Other: other opinions, people, sights, sounds. When people read books, they dive into the material, formulate opinions, and separate from those around them. It’s not an audience experience like at the theater. Yet we’re able to have national conversations about the racism in Moby Dick, the morality issues in Fifty Shades of Grey, or the power of grief in H Is for Hawk, even after this solitary experience. With books, we raise a mirror to ourselves first and our society second.
Albert Einstein is credited as having said, “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be very intelligent read them more fairy tales.” Genre stories, like Harry Potter or A Midsummer Night’s Dream, pull back a curtain of dizzying real-world complexities, simplifying problems at the same time. It can be easier to understand issues of morality if they’re put in terms that are only hypothetical or made up. Fairy tales, fantasy stories, genre novels, they give children – and adults – an avenue to think deeply, to dream, to think of problems outside the normal conversational conventions.
All the while, stories shape not only the mind of the reader but the character as well. Walt Disney said, “Movies can and do have tremendous influence in shaping young lives in the realm of entertainment towards the ideals and objectives of normal adulthood.” We can safely include books, especially books with as large a readership as Harry Potter, in this influencing idea Disney discusses. Harry Potter is about the story of how real, universal love triumphs over the forces of evil.
Children, teenagers, adults, your grandmother’s gardener – it doesn’t matter – they gain from what they read. There’s an intrinsic value to stories, proved not only by the geniuses saying so but also by the fact that humans have been storytellers for, well, forever. Harry Potter is no different. It provides a story of love over hate and did so in a major way, helping kids read, women write, and ignorant ideas die.
In 1998, when Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone first stocked the shelves of Borders, the world was introduced to a children’s fantasy book. In a decade in which reading had become “lame” or “stupid” – the epitome of uncool – young children began to read again due to Sorcerer’s Stone. With the rise of video games, due in particular to the Nintendo 64, boys were reading less, and reading was thought to be just for girls. Yet Harry Potter drew in boys as well as girls and helped launch a redefined children’s and young adult field of books.
This proved an aid to women in writing fields. In the 20th century, it was generally accepted that female authors couldn’t reach the male population. In what is now a famous story, J.K. Rowling, legally named Joanne Rowling, was told boys wouldn’t read her book so she needed to go by her initials. Having no middle name, she chose K for Kathleen, her grandmother’s name. In 2018, the idea that a woman can’t write a book boys would read is preposterous.
The Harry Potter series was also controversial, with the books being banned in some areas for dealing with witchcraft and magic. The topic was serious enough that the New York Times covered it in an op-ed by Judy Blume in 1999. Blume wrote, “In Minnesota, Michigan, New York, California and South Carolina, parents who feel the books promote interest in the occult have called for their removal from classrooms and school libraries.” She added later in the article, “According to certain adults, these stories teach witchcraft, sorcery and Satanism.” Harry Potter didn’t manage to kill off this attitude of banning fantastical stories, but it did some heavy lifting in the book banning fight, showing parents and others that just because a story may show something that’s usually seen as evil, like witchcraft, as good, that doesn’t mean the book is a tool of evil.
A skeptic reading this article might say, “Getting kids to read again, launching a redefined genre of books, helping women authors and fighting against the ‘banning books’ movement? Fine, all good, but what has Harry Potter done for me lately?”
Plato has been attributed as saying, “Those who tell the stories rule society.” J.K. Rowling has an influence on her fans and readers; she’s politically active, much to their pleasure/horror. But more importantly, those kids from 1997 to 2011 who read or watched the movies are part of the voting collective across the world, and some are heavily influenced by the tale of an orphaned boy, left in a system where abuse was rampant, who fought the system and won. A study even showed that readers of Harry Potter were less likely to vote for Donald Trump, possibly because they saw similarities between the current US president and the story’s main antagonist, Voldemort.
But the true value of the Harry Potter franchise may best be seen in this quote from Anthony de Mello, an Indian Jesuit priest. De Mello said, “The shortest distance between a human being and the truth is a story.”
Harry Potter isn’t really a story about magic. Its value doesn’t come from the incredible world-building or character development. It doesn’t come from Dumbeldore’s quotes or Harry’s actions or even the ability to divide the world into four Houses. It comes from Rowling’s ability to help those who read the books.
Harry is an orphan, raised to believe he’s alone in the world, no one likes him, and no one will protect him. He comes to find the opposite is true. And through this story, we find truth. No one is alone. People are good, and there are those who will extend the hand of friendship to even a small scraggly boy.
I asked MuggleNet staff what made Harry Potter special and got back more responses than I could share. People wrote in about how Hermione saved them, how Luna made them feel safe. All in all, the overwhelming theme was that it made outsiders feel safe. At one point or another, we all feel like outsiders, but Harry Potter provides us with the truth that there’s a place for all of us. That’s why it matters.
Here are some of the responses I got:
[Harry Potter] saved my life. As a kid I was dealing with a lot of abuse, and things kind of came to a head when I ended up in a homeless shelter. I was suicidal and coming up with ideas for checking out when I found a copy of [Sorcerer’s Stone] in the cabinet of my shelter room. I was curious to read it because my mother had always forbid books like that (Satan and all, you know…), and that first book distracted me from everything. I couldn’t die before readin[g] the rest of the series, so then I started waiting for the rest of the books to come out, and by the time the last was released I’d gotten married and had a son.” – Emily Hargis-Wells
Potter gave me a family. It helped me see light in total darkness and that it’s okay to be angry. It was my escape from isolation in a world that I thought was full of bad people. When it felt like I was constantly battling against the world, I felt like the trio were beside me and it gave me the strength to carry on.” – Lizzie Gladwyn
Potter is the thing that kept me afloat throughout my [teenaged years]. Through bullying and illness, it was always something that at the end of a rough day I could delve into. I could come home and be reunited with the characters and world I loved so early in a way that was so comforting, painting colour into a dark few years. Potter provides a voice to the voiceless and was a massive comfort to me, someone who identifies as a cross between Hermione and Neville. It makes those who feel rejected by their peers because they are too quiet or too worried or too studious embraced and celebrates their strengths in those traits. For everything it has give[n] me, Harry Potter above all has made me take off my invisibility cloak that shielded me from the world and be proud of who I am.” – Holly Peckitt
About a year ago, I was a cutter, anorexic, and suicidal. I couldn’t find any hope in the world. My life seemed to be falling apart and it wasn’t getting better. However, I always had a light I could count on: Harry Potter. It transported me into a different world, allowing me to forget all my pain. I enjoyed going on adventures with Harry, finding friends, losing people. He even dealt with self-loathing at times, which I strongly related to. The books gave me happiness, relief, and even a sense of love.” – Madeline Francis