This piece is cross-posted onWellesley Underground.
Christmas 1999 and the largest box under the tree had my name on it in my grandmother’s scribbled cursive. “I’ve been hearing about this book series and wanted you to have them.” She said as I unwrapped the box, revealing the first three Harry Potter books: Sorcerer’s Stone, Chamber of Secrets, and Prisoner of Azkaban.
This story could end with me grounded for yelling “BOOKS?! FOR CHRISTMAS!” in a snotty, unappreciative manner, but I was (…am?) a nerd. I spent the rest of the holiday reading the first Harry Potter book. I spent the next 15+ years in some way involved (reading, reflecting, watching) with the series.
The first time I read the Harry Potter book series, I stood in line at midnight for each book release, with $60 in cash. The second time, I reread the first six books during the summer of 2007, in preparation for the final novel. In February 2015, I decided to reread the entire series again. This is a mid-way recap of the first three books, through the eyes of an adult that read the seven as a kid.
The Harry Potter book series and J.K. Rowling’s writing grew with its audience. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (Book 1) reads like pre-teen fiction. This is Harry. Harry is special because he is a wizard. The first book features short sentences, oversimplified conflict resolution, several references to characters recounting events, and a pretty high-level understanding of life’s toughest emotions. Example: In the final chapter of Book 1, Harry and friends find, confront, and defeat Voldemort; Harry passes out and wakes up in the infirmary where Dumbledore fills the gaps in the story; Gryffindor wins the house cup; and Harry heads back to suburbia. A single, normal-length chapter with all that action. Later in the series, J.K. Rowling stretches the climax-to-resolution arc in a way that demonstrates growth in her literary style. I’m almost proud of her progress all over again.
What I can’t knock is how eloquently J.K. Rowling describes scenes. What she skimped on with conflict resolution, she poured directly into thoughtful adjectives and descriptions that brought the reader everywhere from the Great Hall to Hagrid’s little shack. Rowling tackled the task of explaining a world without widely understood points of reference in a way in which “It’s Wing-GAR-dium Levi-O-sa…” means something.
By the third book, things start to take a mature turn. There are hints of classism and racism between pure-blood and muggle-born wizards that will serve as an undertone for the remainder of the series. Harry starts to grapple with the death of his parents in a deeper manner than “man, that kind of sucks, huh?” and really focusing on understanding who and how great they were when alive.
Harry Potter grew up passively neglected, mildly tortured, and completely isolated. He had no friends, experienced no love, and had no reason to be hopeful. On paper, this story looks like it will end in him growing up to be Voldemort: a great, powerful, evil wizard. Instead, Harry went to Hogwarts and learned how to be a friend. A really good friend, without any practice or instruction. He knew how to navigate ride-or-die-ness better than adults from loving families. On one hand, I believe that once Harry experienced a taste of genuine kindness (from Hagrid, Ron, and Hermione), he wanted to preserve it at all costs. On the other hand, he could have been a complete shit-head with trust issues and insecurities from 12-years living in a closet beneath the staircase and receiving old socks for his birthday.
From the very beginning, Harry was out here spreading good-friend practices. He shared his food, let Ron ride his new broom, stood up for his friends being picked on, didn’t get sucked into Malfoy’s bully allure, and visited Hagrid religiously. I’m an adult that has loved and been loved all my life and still have trouble sharing my favorite foods with people. This means that Harry Potter was meant to love and be good. His childhood was basically fuel for a revenge movie, but just when you think he’s emotionally depleted with zero effs to give, we see that he’s been saving his best self for Hogwarts. Harry chose to embrace and fully immerse himself in the awe of the wizarding world and make it his safe-place. His home.
I thought this post was going to be about the amazing foreshadowing J.K. Rowling sprinkles throughout the early novels. They’re interesting and will make any re-reader chuckle. However, like my entire relationship with Harry Potter, this won’t end as superficially as I thought.
This series could be a story about a boy that gets a wand, does some stuff, then grows old, but there are levels to this. Harry grapples with deep, dark feelings of confusion, abandonment, and misdirected anger. Everyone knows things about his life that he will never quite understand. His parents were legends and he carries that burden without the benefit of understanding why he should be proud. He lives in a world just as politically corrupt, systematically oppressive, and unfair as the muggle world. These books can be understood and digested on several different levels, making them worth a reread all these years later.