Happiness in the Darkest Times: On Terror and “Harry Potter”
We read fantasy to escape.
And this weekend, most of us really needed that. But sometimes it’s difficult: You pick up your favorite story, and suddenly the characters, or their actions, or the evil they’re struggling against, reminds us too much of what’s going on in our real world, right now.
For those of us reading Harry Potter when the books first came out, the Death Eaters and their desire for a wizarding world populated only by pure-bloods reminded us of what we’d learned in history class about Nazi Germany. But what about the kids picking up Harry Potter for the first time today? What will they think of when they read about attacks designed to spread fear at the heart of a place that’s meant to be safe?
It’s heartbreaking to think of how many parallels there are for the Death Eaters’ final assault on Hogwarts: France. Or Lebanon. Or Kenya, Nigeria, or Iraq. Egypt. It’s a lot. Enough to make you long for a fantasy world to escape to where nothing bad ever happens to anyone.
But there has perhaps never been a more important time to pay attention to how our favorite characters confront these masked shadows of evil and face them down.
I’m not pretending to have any answers about the events in Paris and elsewhere this weekend; we know from the questionable decisions made, at times by characters like Dumbledore and Snape, that hardly anyone knows the right thing to do 100% of the time. But I don’t think the answer is found in the myriad, bewildered articles about terrorism I’m scrolling past in my Facebook newsfeed either. Everyone thinks they have the strategy or strike or policy that will end this scourge of terror, but right now it just looks like a lot of scared talk. At MuggleNet we don’t do politics, which is perhaps never more crucial than in times like these. Because what we learned from J.K. Rowling’s world is that the arbitrary lines that divide us into different tribes or systems of belief are not important, that they can hurt more than they help.
This is what can give us hope, and the belief that we are powerful enough to change the world, at a time when we might feel scared or small.
Just think: Of all the wizarding world’s magic and mystery, it is his mother’s love that truly saves Harry Potter and allows him to defeat Voldemort – not a fancy spell or wand work. J.K. Rowling wanted us to know this, when we were young and impressionable, reading these books for the first time and deciding what sort of people we were going to be. She wanted us to know that the only way evil can defeat us is if we stop acting with courage, with integrity, and with kindness. Harry Potter didn’t just save the world; he did it within his code of what it means to be a good person.
The beautiful thing about this is that we don’t have to be strategic military experts to ensure terror never becomes bigger than us. We can do it ourselves – now, today. We can remember how we decided we were going to behave, the kind of people we wanted to be – kind, forgiving, loyal, tolerant, thoughtful – and we can practice being those people as hard as we can. We can accept that, like the Death Eaters entering Hogwarts, we cannot stop – very occasionally – terrible things from happening on our doorsteps or in the heart of our communities. But we can ensure that the efforts to create fear, to turn us against each other, to make us act in ways we would not be proud of later, are always small in comparison to the love and freedom we espouse every day.
We can remind ourselves that in the midst of Voldemort’s campaign of terror, the Weasley family had a huge wedding party.
We can remember important lessons in the books about the way that sometimes threats come from places we least expect them: from among our friends, our society, or even within ourselves. Harry struggles against his desire to hurt those who have hurt him (not helped by being Voldemort’s Horcrux); Neville is faced with the daunting prospect of standing up to his friends. I look at some of the hate-filled rhetoric filling up my Twitter feed, and I know that this is what J.K. Rowling meant when she wrote the songs of the Sorting Hat: that we can only successfully face our foes united, with hearts full of peace and concern for everyone around us. While I don’t know what the coming weeks will bring, I assume there will be attempts to divide our communities both from outside our borders and from within them. Our freedom only matters if it is, as Harry found, won by doing the right thing.
What J.K. Rowling teaches us about remorse and redemption is hard to hear when we are grieving, but the books are waiting for us when we’re ready. She has spoken, eloquently, about why it was so important that Dumbledore did not reject Snape entirely, when Snape revealed to him the person behind the mask. His actions were sickening, but they were not all that Snape was. We can learn from that. And I’m one of the people who was saddened by the decision to send the entirety of Slytherin House away before the Battle of Hogwarts. I don’t believe in writing off an entire group of people, and I wish individual Slytherins had been given the chance to be part of defending their school. We can learn from that, too.
It might be that the comforts you take from the books are different than mine, and that’s okay. That’s the beauty of them. Wherever you find comfort, or inspiration for how to behave, in Harry Potter, remember it. Remember Neville’s determination to stand up to his friends next time you hear a word of hate. Remember Hermione’s care for those who didn’t have rights. Remember Harry, determined that he would work out the next right thing to do, even if it was hardest thing imaginable. Remember Lily, who loved so hard she inadvertently saved the wizarding world. Remember Dumbledore, Fred, George – who lived (and sometimes died) believing that the only true failure in life was in not bringing light to dark times.
We must reflect on these characters we love and dig deep.
In such heartsick times, it can be difficult to have hope and compassion for others. But never has it been more important that we try.