It’s been 20 years since “Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone” was first published in the U.K. (soon followed by the American edition, “Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone,” in 1998).
For many of us, “Harry Potter” represents our childhood, and the books had a profound impact on who we became as adults.
In celebration of J.K. Rowling and “Harry Potter,” we wanted to take a moment to think about what the series taught us. Join us as we push up our Harry Potter nerd glasses, drink some Felix Felicis, and embrace our inner Hermiones to discuss how different characters shaped our social consciousness.
The Weasley Family
“Harry couldn’t think of anyone who deserved to win a large pile of gold more than the Weasleys, who were very nice and extremely poor.”
The Weasley family is, collectively, one of the favorite entities of the series. Rowling portrayed them as loving, goofy, slightly eccentric, and happy. She also decided to make them poor, dirt poor. On a visit to Gringotts, Harry noticed that Molly scraped right into the corners of their vault.
Rowling made poverty into something human: instead of the grungy, low life that many people associate with homelessness and poverty, the Weasley family is a bright, hardworking bunch, all of whom seem to get jobs easier than the average Millennial. And this is where it is especially stinging when affluent Lucius Malfoy continuously ridicules Arthur for his financial situation.
Malfoy and Weasley are both Ministry workers, but Lucius was born into money and luxury, whereas the Weasley’s didn’t inherit wealth. Instead, Arthur works dead hard, within a department that helps people, much like nonprofit, and gets paid a lowly amount. With this, Rowling strikes a chord that is only all too familiar to everyone, but most especially Millennials: just because you work hard, doesn’t mean you’ll be earning the big bucks.
One more thing about the Weasleys, Millennials, and poverty: They are suddenly relatable to Millennials. One in five Millennials live in poverty. Many of us live with our parents, or have multiple roommates, and work minimum wage drops, despite having college degrees. It’s not often to see happy and poor characters in books, but the Weasleys are some that Millennials can connect to.
“And I’ve told you a million times. That I am too old for you, too poor, too dangerous…”
Remus Lupin is an amazing teacher: he believes in his students (even Neville), meets Harry outside of class to tutor him on the Patronus Charm, and, after forgetting to take the Wolfsbane Potion, resigns his post rather than making trouble for Dumbledore and the school. (And talk about a man who understands the struggles of the monthly cycle, are we right?)
Despite his cool demeanor, Remus has had a difficult life because he is a werewolf. Dumbledore may have bent the rules in order for him to have an education, but that didn’t stop others from being prejudiced. Umbridge, for one, drafted anti-werewolf legislation that almost completely barred people like Remus from work.
J.K. Rowling said that, “His being a werewolf is really a metaphor for people’s reactions to illness and disability.” Rowling was writing “The Prisoner of Azkaban” in the mid to late 90s, when HIV/AIDS was in the national spotlight. Harry does not respond to Remus with prejudice. He sees Remus as a person first, werewolf second, and isn’t afraid of him just because of his condition:
“‘But you are normal,’ said Harry fiercely. ‘You’ve just got a – a problem.’”
Even in 2015, Pew Research Center reports that, “Disabling health conditions are strongly associated with financial circumstances” due to stigma. We need more people to think like Harry if anything is to change.
“Whoops – My wand is a little over excited!”
Lockhart is apparently based on a real person, and according to Rowling, “the living model was worse.” Lockhart is attractive, charming and accomplished—at least, according to his books. Harry and Ron later find out that Lockhart stole heroic stories from other people, and wiped the memories of anyone who could discredit him.
But Lockhart does offer us a nugget of truth. He points out that people are more likely to be seduced by charisma and beauty than they are by real kindness and bravery:
“No one wants to read about some ugly old Armenian warlock even if he did save a village from werewolves. He’d look dreadful on the front cover. No dress sense at all. And the witch who banished the Bandon Banshee had a hare lip. I mean, come on!”
Lockhart isn’t a scary figure. He is a coward who is rendered completely guileless when his own memory is wiped by Ron’s broken wand. But Rowling makes the point to be wary of the danger of charm when it comes to other characters, too, such as politicians like Cornelius Fudge, and even Voldemort himself.
“I want to commit the murder I was imprisoned for.”
Barty Crouch Sr. sent Sirius to scary-ass Azkaban to serve a life sentence, without a trial. When he escaped, the Ministry gave the OK for Black to be Kissed by the dementors, which is worse than a death sentence. Essentially, Sirius was given a death sentence without a trial. Talk about being unjust.
Rowling is evidently against the death sentence, perhaps most blatantly seen when distasteful characters Vernon and Petunia agree “that hanging’s the only way to deal with these [criminals].” Rowling’s dissatisfaction with the death sentence is mirrored within a recent Pew Research Center survey. According to the survey, 56% of Americans favor the death penalty for those convicted of murder, compared to surveys from the 1990s, which usually had over 70% in favor. In addition, 71% of people are fearful that an innocent person would be sentenced to death. In a different Pew survey, Millennials made up the largest percentage—at 46%—who opposed the death penalty for those convicted of murder.
Recent racial injustices have stimulated debate and a demand for change within the criminal justice system. But for many, the first clue-in that the justice system, and those who we look to to enforce laws, may be corrupt or outdated was through the character of the fiercely loyal Sirius Black.
Hermione Granger, Molly Weasley, and Minerva McGonagall
“The truth is that you don’t think a girl would have been clever enough.”
Molly, Minerva, and Hermione are badassery in every sense of the name. Within these three diverse women, J.K. Rowling basically made all of her readers into feminists.
Molly is the loving mother, who devoted her life to raising her family but who also proved to be just as strong and capable as a tiger. Minerva McGonagall appears the classical matronly schoolmistress type. But Rowling isn’t that simple. McGonagall is a wise force, a strict and effective educator, a logical thinker, and a person who stands up for justice.
Hermione Granger is naturally clever, has a thirst for knowledge, simply ignores bullies, and yet unfearful of fighting against evil. Lupin called her “the cleverest witch of her age.” Rowling helped young girls embrace their brains, especially since Hermione’s looks are second to her smarts. In fact, Hermione’s physical attributes are scarcely mentioned, as her brains and kindness are the qualities that are most oft accredited to her.
With McGonagall, Rowling inspired all girls and women to become bosses. McGonagall demanded respect from her students, peers, and enemies. Through McGonagall, Rowling shaped a woman into a powerful force. And we are getting more powerful: In 2000, only three women held the title of CEO of a Fortune 500 company, and as of this year, that number is at 24. That is still a tiny amount, but at least more women are becoming #theboss.
Rowling has said that McGonagall is a “worthy second in command,” and she proves herself to be, as when she survives six stunning spells to the chest, and cooly leads Hogwarts into battle. Rowling as created a positive female mentor for Harry, but she wasn’t just another maternal figure: she was a pillar of strength and wisdom.
Molly, on the other hand, was often seen as “just” a mother throughout the series, with nothing particularly special about her. Rowling has said:
“Very early on in writing the series, I remember a female journalist saying to me that Mrs. Weasley, ‘Well, you know, she’s just a mother.’ And I was absolutely incensed by that comment. Now, I consider myself to be a feminist, and I’d always wanted to show that just because a woman has made a choice, a free choice to say, ‘Well, I’m going to raise my family and that’s going to be my choice. I may go back to a career, I may have a career part time, but that’s my choice.’ Doesn’t mean that that’s all she can do.”
“[Hagrid] has long since earned my respect for the care he shows all living creatures.”
Those who are familiar with the series know of Hagrid’s tender care for animals and their homes. Rowling underhandedly made one of her most beloved characters of the series into a subtle environmentalist and animal advocate, and his views have carried over into the minds of her readers. And while it is never stressed, the Forbidden Forest acts as a refuge—a national park, if you will. This sort of environmental awareness, and concern with animals is present within the Millennial generation.
How? Hagrid doesn’t kill animals for sport, and he spends his time healing those he can. Let’s talk about the imprisonment of the dragon in Gringotts, which rings a familiar bell with the Ringling Brother’s circus elephants.
Both the dragon and circus elephants are kept in extreme conditions, and both are victims of physical abuse. Sensing a shift in their demographics, earlier this year, Ringling announced they were retiring their elephants by the end of 2018.
While Hagrid does keep Norbert, he realizes that he (or rather she) would live a better life away from him. He also releases Aragog in the wild, as opposed to keeping him in captivity. Plus, he is basically like the park ranger of the Forbidden Forest, constantly caring for this vitally important protected area.
Mudbloods, Purebloods & Squibs
“You place too much importance, and you always have done, on the so-called purity of blood! You fail to recognise that it matters not what someone is born, but what they grow to be!”
The Wizarding World is—like us—obsessed with the idea of race and racial purity. Instead of skin color, this is expressed through prejudice against Muggle-born wizards, and the Ministry’s attempt to police bloodlines. This fixation on blood resembles regimes throughout history and around the world.
Rowling’s characterization of Voldemort and the Death Eaters must have been influenced by Hitler and the Nazis’ support and propagation of eugenics in the name of preserving a “pure blood” race. And both leaders, despite their belief in purity, don’t truly belong in the groups they claim to be so superior—Voldemort was himself a half-blood, and Hitler was not an “ideal” Aryan with blond hair, blue eyes and tall stature.
“Harry Potter” also draws attention to our attitudes towards race in the United States, specifically the “one drop rule”—the idea that any amount of African blood makes an individual black (and, as it is often implied, inferior), even if their heritage is overwhelmingly non-African. This ideology was used to justify both slavery and segregation. Rowling puts us on the side of the oppressed in “The Deathly Hallows,” following Harry, Ron and Hermione into exile for their bloodlines and beliefs.
As a society, we are still invested in the construction of race and racial purity, hence why people like Obama—the product of both white and black ancestry—are seen as black, first and foremost, and a light-skinned person can “pass,” and not “be” white. Hogwarts is admittedly a colorblind world. There are characters of different ethnicities, but our main characters are white and no marginalization is ever discussed, which is reflective of one of the problematic elements of Millennial attitudes to race.
Mychal Denzel Smith argues that, “As children of the multi-cultural 1980s and 90s, Millennials are fluent in colorblindness and diversity, while remaining illiterate in the language of anti-racism” and knowing how to recognize the prominence and effects of racism in society. Still, children who read about the oppression of Muggle-borns are hopefully internalizing the allegory to understand that all oppression is wrong.
Tom Riddle AKA Lord Voldemort
“Voldemort,” said Riddle softly, “is my past, present, and future, Harry Potter.”
One of the most fascinating parts of “Harry Potter” is seeing what happened to make Tom Riddle, Jr. grow up to be Lord Voldemort. There are both nature and nurture aspects to Voldemort’s cruelty. His heritage is a mix of a long line of Muggle-hating wizards (including Salazar Slytherin himself) and the wealthy, detested Riddle family of Little Hangleton. Tom’s father abandons him, his mother dies giving birth to him, and the boy is left to grow up in an orphanage.
Rowling explained that Voldemort’s very conception is part of what led him to the Dark Arts:
“The enchantment under which Tom Riddle fathered Voldemort is important because it shows coercion, and there can’t be many more prejudicial ways to enter the world than as the result of such a union.”
In a word, Rowling is talking about rape. (Perhaps Rowling was exploring the correlation, studied in “Freakonomics” that unwanted pregnancy prevention also prevents crime?) As unhappy as Harry’s childhood was, he was at least conceived in love and cared for as an infant, and that accounts for much of why these two orphan boys grew up to be so different.
“It seemed impossible that I would be able to come to Hogwarts… But then Dumbledore became headmaster, and he was sympathetic.”
J.K. Rowling recently settled a debate on Mic about how much Hogwarts tuition would cost. She Tweeted her response: “There’s no tuition fee! The Ministry of Magic covers the cost of all magical education!”
This is in keeping with what Dumbledore’s Hogwarts represents in the series: it is a social equalizer where even poor students like the Weasleys can have a first-class education and get prestigious jobs after they leave school—even if they have to do it with shabby robes and second-hand books. In regard to the Muggle world’s issues with rising tuition fees, Rowling agreed that we need to make serious improvements.
Dumbledore is an egalitarian headmaster who actively makes sure that otherwise-forgotten students such as Lupin, Hagrid and Harry have access to education and opportunities. He creates the Shrieking Shack and Whomping Willow to give Lupin a place to transform. He protects Hagrid when he is wrongfully expelled, by giving Hagrid a job and a home at Hogwarts. He intervenes with the Dursleys when they try to evict Harry from Privet Drive, which would make him vulnerable to Voldemort and the Death Eaters.
Hogwarts is more than a school. It is home:
“Harry could hardly believe it when he realized that he’d already been at Hogwarts two months. The castle felt more like home than Privet Drive ever had.”
Jodie started reading “Harry Potter” when she was about to go to secondary school herself. (It was not as fantastic as Hogwarts.) The last book came out a week after her 18th birthday, and this, more than anything, felt like a real sign of adulthood.
The series had a huge impact on her writing and her outlook—and she still listens to the Stephen Fry audiobooks all the time. Jodie recently took a road trip from her current home, South Carolina, to Harry Potter World in Orlando, where she stood outside the model of Kings Cross Station, a place she had been going to for her entire life in England.
Kristin first read “Harry Potter” after her sister begged her to, at the age of seven. “The Sorcerer’s Stone” had only recently come out, and there was a lot of hype about it. But being too cool for school, she resisted to conform and hop on the bandwagon. She eventually relented to read the first chapter, mainly to get her sister off her back. After that first chapter, she was hooked.
By the time the second book came out, Kristin was nine, and Harry just a few years older. She stood in line for the sixth book release, just at the age of 15, and just as much as a teenager as Harry. When she was 17, Harry and Kristin were the same age, and she arrived seven hours early at the bookstore, to stand in line and get her copy.
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Good points, all! I’d also add “house elves” and “Muggles” to the section “Mudbloods, Purebloods, and Squibs.” The horribly blind treatment of house elves, Hermione’s campaign, and Dobby’s free choice sacrifice helps readers see the evils of slavery. The disdain of Pureblood families toward Muggles is similar to the attitudes toward Mudbloods. Quite the allusion to WWII and Hitler (Malfoys!), it helps readers see how wrong it is to treat people with bias based on their skin color, religion, or sexual identity. Additionally, I wonder if the growing distrust of mainstream media can be traced back to the obvious bias in reporting in the Daily Prophet that escalates in book 5.