In the earliest years of my life, I became an avid reader. As I’ve mentioned before, I started reading very early, and never stopped. I read comic books, children’s books, and a few adult novels. When I was in first grade, they put me in the third grade reading classes, and even that bored me to death. There wasn’t much I could find that really held my attention.
When I was in elementary school, I found the Borrowers novels, and I read them hastily in a single night, absolutely enraptured by their fascinating world. I also loved the rats of NIMH series, and read all three books with a great hunger. Though I still feel a deep affection for those novels, as they helped point my path in life, what they have done for me pales in comparison to one single series. If I’m being completely honest, I have a number of obsessions and display a rabid fanaticism over a great many fictions, but they all fall aside in comparison to a single series.
What I aim to do in this probably overly massive seven-part blog is describe the feelings that these novels have inspired in me, and how the series grew up with me, and gave me something to believe in and hold onto at the very worst of times, as well as the best. As a child who was just starting down the road into a life that would be marred by mental illness and anxiety, these books were a tether to hold me to myself when the world slipped too far away, as well as an escape for when it became too overwhelming. This is an explanation and a message of thanks to J.K. Rowling, who created a world that has done more for me than any.
Note: Some spoilers are inevitable, but even though this series is far past the expiration date of my personal spoiler policy, I shall do my very best not to ruin too much for prospective readers.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
“After all, to the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.” ~ Albus Dumbledore
I blame it all on Brian Foster. I was a nervous, awkward child, who didn’t really know how to process my emotions. As I’ve mentioned before, I mostly went through my life trying to fake feelings, often at the cost of my own dignity. I didn’t do the best job in the universe of making friends. To put it simply, I was annoying and strange, and even those who I was closest to had long stretches of time where they could barely stand me. Compounded with the fact that I had recently switched to a new school, into a program for the gifted, it was a very unpleasant time in my life. I met Brian the first day in the new school, and although he got annoyed with me a lot, he was one of my first friends.
I would like to say that I saw Harry Potter coming, and that I picked up the first book on the very first day. I didn’t, though. I had heard the name tossed about for a few months here and there, but in the grand scheme of things, it never quite piqued my interest. The exact sequence of events that followed are a bit muddled. The first three books hit here in the United States over a period of about a year, give or take. Sometime between the release of the first book and the third, Brian was reading the books, and suggested that I catch up, and join in on the fun. I recall that I took a little bit of convincing, but before long, I was reading the first.
Of this, I am certain: I was transfixed from the very first sentence. I sat in the lunchroom at the school, reading it while Brian sat nearby. I bombarded him with questions, completely unable to wait to find out more (“So Hagrid is some kind of… magical biker giant?” “Just read the damned book, Kyle!”).
What I read took me away from my hectic, confused, distressing life, and showed me something I had never thought of before: a hero I could relate to. I had of course read many books with great heroes, adventurers galore, everymen and women who climbed in the face of adversity, and became more than they were. The problem was that I didn’t feel like an everyman. I felt like an outsider. Harry Potter was a skinny kid with glasses and a scar on his face, just like me (The scars covering the right side of my face are from a dog bite when I was a toddler. They’re barely noticeable, but to a 12 year old boy just becoming aware of the fact that looks meant something, I may as well have been the Phantom of the Opera.). This boy was unsure of himself, and though the school he had just entered was a magic school instead of one for the gifted, he shared my fish-not-only-out-of-water-but-straight-up-on-the-moon experience there. This boy could have been me.
Orphaned as a baby, Harry had been raised by his magic-detesting Aunt and Uncle in a cruel, abusive home, forced to live in a cupboard under the stairs while his cousin was doted on so much that he was given two bedrooms. My own home life was nothing so horrific, of course, but I didn’t really identify with my sports-loving, non-reader parents, and my foolish 12 year old mind latched on to this as a similarity anyway. Suddenly, unexpectedly, it is revealed to him that he is a wizard, and will be attending Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry, where he will learn to harness his magical abilities. He is also, as it turns out, quite famous in the Wizarding world already. You see, far from dying in a car crash like his Aunt and Uncle told him, his parents were murdered by a foul and evil wizard so feared that none would even say his name out loud. Lord Voldemort, or He Who Must Not Be Named, as he was most often called, then turned his wand upon young Harry, casting a powerful killing curse. For reasons unknown, the curse didn’t kill baby Harry, but instead obliterated You-Know-Who, who hasn’t been seen since. The Boy Who Lived is looked at as a great hero in the wizarding world. Far from entitled, Harry’s painful upbringing had left the young boy humble and kind, with a firm sense of justice.
Harry Potter’s first year at Hogwarts was a fantastic, whimsical one. J.K. Rowling was quick with a joke, and brought a smile to my face on every page. The characters felt alive in a way that none ever had before, and I daresay that none ever have since. Don’t misunderstand. There are many, many novels which feel true to me, and which share that kind of power, but there’s something special about Rowling’s. Something I’ve never been able to put a finger on.
From the muggle (The wizard word for non-magical folk) loving, incredibly large Weasley family, to the full range of oddball and fascinating teachers, every single one had a life of their own. We followed Harry as he made friends and enemies, and found something that I had been looking for all my life as well – a mentor. As I mentioned in a blog a few weeks back, I adore my father, and am eternally grateful for the love and guidance he has shown me throughout my life. However, I was just starting to feel the real effects of my misfiring brain, and as I wouldn’t be diagnosed for nearly thirteen more years, I felt quite alone.
The headmaster of Hogwarts, Professor Albus Wulfric Percival Brian Dumbledore, stood out to me immediately. I found myself drawn to his bizarre appearance and wisdom, and his sense of humor mirrored my own. He’s called both a genius and a bit mad in the same breath. Throughout the challenges Harry faces in that first year, from homework, to Quidditch (a wizard sport played on broomstick that sounds far more complicated than it is), to facing off against the greatest evil that the wizarding world has ever known, Professor Dumbledore is there to guide Harry, and keep him safe.
The book showed me a way to find strength in myself, and that even a strange, scarred, skinny kid could face down his past, and become someone new. I call on this same strength today, as I face down my illness and my anxiety. Perhaps more than ever, I owe my resolve in the face of darkness to these pages.
Not only were the chapters within a source of strength, and deeply entertaining, but they faced me with a level of respect that I had never experienced before in my life. Presented in these pages, beautifully told, and without the slightest bit of condescension toward the children the books are meant for, was my very first lesson about death itself.
Lord Voldemort’s ultimate quest, aside from ruling the wizard world, cleansing the earth of non-pure-blood wizards, and subjugating the blissfully unaware muggles, is immortality. He has gone to great lengths to become undying over many decades, twisting himself into something barely human. He returns, not truly alive, sustained only by the evil actions of a servant who still remains loyal to him, and seeks not only to be restored to life, but to life everlasting.
Harry staves him off, with more than a bit of luck and the help of his best friends at the school. It is in the aftermath of this confrontation that Professor Dumbledore speaks words to Harry that I have never forgotten and never will. “To one as young as you, I’m sure it seems incredible, but… …it really is like going to bed after a very, very long day. After all, to the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.”
Mortality haunts us all. The idea that it will all end some day is terrifying and painful. It’s also something we should never shy away from. One of the foremost themes of the Harry Potter series is mortality, and how we should not shy away, but confront it boldly, ready to face what comes next with dignity and hope.
The breaking down and dressing up of such necessary concepts as mortality, finding strength within yourself, turning your weaknesses into strengths, and not just tolerance of those who are different, but acceptance and celebration of them are nothing new. Never before or since have they been discussed so openly, and respectfully, or so beautifully presented to children. This book finds a way to reach deep inside, and plant these seeds in your mind.
That’s not the truly incredible part, though. What’s amazing is what follows. The books continue. More of the story is told. The themes get darker, the tales grow more serious. The books get longer, and deeper, and more elaborate. Characters grow and change. You start out reading children’s books… and end up reading adult novels. The series grows with you, and feeds and nurtures the seeds it planted.
Never has this been more true than with those lucky enough to read these books within my own generation. I picked up the first book a twelve year old boy, unsure of myself and just beginning to seek an identity, and I put down the final book a twenty-one year old man, just becoming sure for the first time of who I wanted to be. I’ll be damned if that wasn’t J.K. Rowling’s intention.
These books have been especially useful for me as I grow older and find myself becoming further and further hindered by my mental illness. I reach out for them in times of trouble, and call on the strength they give me to find my way. No matter how lost or broken I feel, I can always reach out for these truly magical tales, and find myself rejuvenated, stronger than when I picked them up.
Over the next few weeks, I’ll be re-reading them again, and starting today, I’ll be posting a blog of this nature for every book, exploring why it’s so powerful and important, and connecting it with the time in my life that I first came upon it. I hope to take those of you who love the books already on my own personal journey, exploring how powerful they’ve been to me specifically. For those of you who haven’t read them, I hope to show you why these books have become a phenomenon, and why I recommend them to everyone, of all ages.
Above all else, I want these blogs to say one thing: Thank you, J.K. Rowling. These books have changed my life for the better in so many ways that I can barely find the words. Thank you.
P.S.: Hooboy, this one got away from me. The idea was to do a fairly quick overview of the books, and why they mean so much to me. When I started writing, though… well… it just kinda kept going. The plan from here on out is to make this a kind of a recurring series. I won’t post them all in a row, and I’m not sure how long there will be between parts. I’m just going to keep working on them, and I’ll post them whenever the time feels right. I hope you all enjoyed this.