Holding On to “Harry Potter”: Modern Myth, Common Tongue
Harry Potter has become more contentious than ever. Both outside and within the fandom, adherents and detractors clash over issues of canon, politics, commercialism, authorship, and more. Even the most devoted fans come to question their unwavering allegiance as new information, stories, and branding sow doubt. Yet as close as Potter seems to come to being “canceled,” those same fans who have become vocally critical of it have also clung to it more tightly than ever, affirming its value and meaning on both a personal and cultural level while acknowledging and analyzing its flaws.
Harry Potter cannot and should not be so easily abandoned – and not just because it played such an essential part in the childhood of a generation whose identities, interests, and emotional development are bound up with it. Harry Potter has become a modern myth, a part of our cultural consciousness and collective imagination. It has provided us with a common language for discussing ourselves and the world around us. As Dumbledore once said, “Differences of habit and language are nothing at all if our aims are identical and our hearts are open” (GoF 723).
Consider the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Darmok.” The crew of the Enterprise struggles to understand the language of an alien species who speak exclusively in metaphors alluding to their shared mythology. Captain Picard must figure out the relevant characters, places, and stories to interpret the language. Ever the Renaissance man, he shares a human myth, The Epic of Gilgamesh, as an analog from his own planet. Similarly, referring to someone by a Hogwarts House holds meaning (though certain connotations may be fiercely debated). Dumbledore’s Army and the Order of the Phoenix are stand-ins for resistance movements. Dementors and Boggarts help us talk about our feelings and fears. Invoking Dumbledore holds an expectation for wisdom, and a comparison to Umbridge is highly unflattering. Potter memes in all corners of the internet utilize familiar faces and scenes to humorous effect, and politicians, analysts, and activists quote the series when discussing current events.
In an era jam-packed with binge-able content from a plethora of different streaming services, it is becoming increasingly rare for a huge portion of the population to be following the same story and sticking with it over an extended period of time. It’s hard to determine, even among the most popular series, what will have staying power and what will just be a brief blip on the cultural radar, a craze that dies down. But landmarks throughout Britain have become shrines to Potter. Even those who have never read the books or seen the films understand the references and recognize the imagery. And like The Odyssey, Arthurian legend, and Shakespeare’s plays, the story continues to be deconstructed, reshaped, and applied differently over time. That’s not necessarily to make any judgment of its literary merit in comparison to the classics but rather to acknowledge that popular narratives do not survive in a vacuum or stasis.
Partially due to its universality, Potter provides a common basis to discuss so many other topics – from language, mythology, and history to psychology, religion, and politics – and though parallels may be dismissed as reductive of real-world issues, they can still offer a gateway to deeper discussion and understanding. Potter may be neater than our messy reality, but it can be a useful jumping-off point. That doesn’t mean we need to leave it behind once we’ve moved on to more complex ideas. The vast, detailed universe rewards rereading and continually offers us new things to consider as we and our society grow and change. We relate to different characters, see things from different perspectives, and pour our souls back into the books like so many Horcruxes (minus the murder) to gain more insight.
Harry Potter doesn’t have everything – nor should it be expected to. There are many arguments to be made for flaws in the text itself as well as the author and the wider franchise, not to mention the fact that at least the first few books were aimed primarily at children. But a work need not be perfect or all-encompassing to be beloved or indeed useful. And we need not throw the lightning-scarred baby out with the bathwater when finding problems or disappointments.
One of the many lessons Harry Potter taught us is to question absolutes. Just as “the world isn’t split into good people and Death Eaters” (OotP 302), just as Dumbledore can disappoint and Draco can doubt, we don’t have to – nor should we – unconditionally praise every aspect of the series without deeper reflection or disavow it entirely because we take issue with a particular part. In fact, imagining how the series could have gone further or been more progressive and inclusive – whether through straightforward discussion or fan fiction and headcanons – can be a useful thought exercise and one that demonstrates the richness of the universe that has inspired such discourse and creativity.
Harry Potter’s impact – on individuals, relationships, economies, and our shared culture – is undeniable. Whether the story or the author “deserve” it is beside the point, and criticizing the series doesn’t mean we love it any less. We can’t and won’t give up on Harry Potter. He won’t let us.