On Whether “Harry Potter” Actually Happened
Abstract: The author reflects on Potter and its meaning in his own life.
Something occurred to me last night, during the midnight showing of the final installment in the Harry Potter film series. I think it happened when we saw Severus Snape standing in front of the great hall, acting as headmaster, ordering students to bring Harry Potter forward or face punishment. Or rather, a moment later, when Professor Minerva McGonagall jumped forward to duel with him, hatred burning in her eyes.
It was an epic setup for a duel, and initially, everyone cheered for McGonagall. But slowly, we each remembered the history that we all knew – the knowledge of the plot that we all suspended in order to enjoy the moments of tension, uncertainty, and danger. We remembered that Severus Snape was not an evil man and that we were watching him selflessly sacrifice his reputation and his safety for the sake of a boy who hated him, and for that boy’s dead mother. The cheering faded, and there was a complex tension in the cold air of the theatre, and I remember thinking, “This is so interesting, being in a room full of strangers, but feeling and thinking the same things at the same time. Because they all know what actually happened with Snape and Lily.”
And then I stopped myself.
“… what actually happened…”
Until that moment, I was watching the story unfold in the same way that one watches a civil war movie, or Titanic – Walking in knowing what had occurred in the past and enjoying the dramatic reinterpretation of it. But these events never occurred; these characters never lived.
Or did they?
I think back to when I was growing up, fighting my way through middle school, struggling to exist in the environment that the public school system sets up for children. Straining to focus and study and be quiet and take notes and tests when all I wanted to do was run around outside, or talk to other people. And I remember Mrs. Utz, the strict, unyielding math and science teacher who sent me home with notes about my misbehavior to show to my parents. And my parents, who were as severe and punitive as any teacher I’ve ever had, would flare up and grow horns and rage and send me to my room. And for all I felt, that room was a cupboard under the stairs. My parents were the unforgiving and unloving Dursleys, and Mrs. Utz was Professor Severus Snape. (Her room was even filled with jars of formaldehyde-soaked animals. It was a hard parallel to miss.)
And I – ten-year-old, curious, confused, Ben- felt- knew that this wasn’t right, that I wasn’t the unruly ne’er-do-well that everyone thought I was. I had potential. I had magic in me that nobody else could see or understand. I was Harry Potter.
Of course, the books grew up as I did. Rowling increased the complexity of the description, the narrative, and the themes as her protagonist grew up. And it just so happens that I was never more than a few years younger or older than he was. This experience, of not just growing up on Harry Potter but growing up with Harry Potter, was a privilege for which I can never adequately thank Rowling.
Being a member of the Harry Potter generation has been an extraordinary blessing, and I’m not certain that the experience could ever be reproduced. I plan to feed the books to my future children, sure, and I can try to stagger them, giving one book a year from age eleven to age seventeen. But they’ll see the movies, and they’ll run into spoilers. They’ll never experience the dizzying anticipation of waiting in line for a new one, of diving into the first chapter like they’d been holding their breath since the last one ended. We were the lucky ones. The ones who had to- got to– wait anxiously between volumes, as if the events of Harry’s world were transpiring in some other place, and we were waiting for Rowling’s letter telling us what had been happening.
And in that theatre last night, watching everyone gasp and cheer and recoil in moments of unified anticipation, I realized how connected we all were. If you aren’t a part of it, it’ll sound silly to you, but I promise you I am the last person to romanticize or exaggerate an emotional experience. Harry Potter fans are connected. It’s not an introduction that turns someone from a stranger into something more; it’s shared experiences. If we’ve survived a disaster or adventure with someone, we can’t help but care for them. I hear it time and time again from couples that stay together even long past when they should: “we’ve just been through so much together.” Shared experiences bond us to one another more effectively than any divisions can separate us.
“There are some things you can’t share without ending up liking each other” (SS 132).
The story of Harry Potter bound us tightly to Harry and his two friends and dragged us through the turmoil and danger and delight of his coming-of-age. But they were with us as well, as we struggled through our own. And in that tangled mess of our own lives and of Harry’s life, of emotional investment and fantasy and escapism and personal development, one thing remains indisputably clear: everyone in this theatre – everyone in all of these theatres across the entire globe – went through it together.
So when we look at Alan Rickman’s face and see Severus Snape, and we all collectively recall his story and his sacrifice and his pain, yes, it’s only because we’ve all read the same words printed in Adobe Garamond Pro, and there is no actual record of him ever having existed. But remember the moment when Harry sees the ghosts of his dead parents and mentors? He asks them to stay close, to comfort him in his moment of need, and they assure him that they will stay with him; that they never left. Even when they are no longer visible, when there is no physical manifestation of their existence, we sense their presence beside him. Harry, simply by loving them and caring about them, carries them with him wherever he goes.
There may be no evidence on this planet of Severus Snape’s existence, or of Harry’s, of Hermione’s or Colin Creevey’s, of Peeves’s or Dobby’s or Elphias Doge’s. But like the ghosts of Harry’s loved ones, they hovered around us and lived inside of us, offering comfort and adventure and wonder in our times of need, in those turbulent coming-of-age years. And to me, that means they did live – and they do live.
“Tell me one last thing,” said Harry. “Is this real? Or has this been happening inside my head?”
Dumbledore beamed at him, and his voice sounded loud and strong in Harry’s ears even though the bright mist was descending again, obscuring his figure.
“Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth does that mean that it is not real?” (DH Ch 35)