It is a curious thing, but perhaps those who are best suited to power are those who have never sought it. Those who have leadership thrust upon them, and take up the mantle because they must, and find to their own surprise that they wear it well. -- Albus Dumbledore
My two daughters attended the midnight premier of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part Two while visiting my parents in Asheville, North Carolina, last week. (The thought of attending the second or third showing at a normal hour later in the day was out of the question.) It was only fitting that they went together, for together they grew up, from pre-teens to teens to young adults, with the story’s main characters. As we reach the final chapter and approach the end of an era, I cannot help but feel a touch of sadness, as if my children have graduated to yet another phase of life and are now primed for adventures of their own making. The youthful anticipation for the next installment of the Book and the hopeful excitement over the next sequel to the Movie are but memories banished to the fragments of time.
J.K. Rowling’s magnificent creation will belong forever in the annals of world literature; the Hollywood versions, though of much less artistic merit, will linger as a cultural phenomenon for years to come. An epic adventure of a normal boy with an extraordinary destiny, Harry Potter is a tale of courage and honesty, conflict and prejudice, in which a young man’s passion for life overcomes the fear of death. It is a series destined to rival the historic classics of C.S. Lewis and J. R. Tolkien.
I watched my daughters grow up with the boy wizard and his friends, and I must now observe as they forge ahead without benefit of Harry’s shared anxieties and Dumbledore’s wise counsel. They developed and matured and came of age at nearly the same pace as Harry, Ron, and Hermione; they shared the same feelings of nervousness and anxiety, of laughter and love; the same hopes and fears of their newfound and, I am certain, lifelong friends. They cried when Dumbledore died in Book Six and they worried over whether (and how in the world) Harry, Ron, and Hermione would survive the dark forces brooding over Hogwarts and the wizarding world. I will miss the energy, enthusiasm, and passion they exerted over the fictional characters that inhabited the pages of these wonderful books. But I will remain forever grateful to J.K. Rowling for creating the Harry Potter series, for providing me a pathway into the adolescent lives and developing minds of my teenage daughters, a chance to connect with them in a way that many fathers of teenage girls never do.
I am grateful to J.K. Rowling as well because, in many ways, Harry Potter is the singularly most important reason my daughters developed a love of reading. In a day of Playstation II and Wii, YouTube and Facebook, when video games and the Internet dominate the cultural landscape, Rowling succeeded in getting millions of kids to read, and to continue reading. Prior to the age of eleven, Jenny had shown little interest in reading. But then she picked up a copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and connected with Harry’s life in a way that only a sixth grader can. She empathized with Harry; related to his fears and anxieties when he first boarded the Hogwarts Express on his way to the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry; understood his confusion and bewilderment at being the Chosen One; laughed at the awkwardness of Harry and Ron, especially with girls, and recognized the tensions which slowly developed between Harry and Ginny, and Ron and Hermione, feelings of jealousy, embarrassment, and missed opportunities that every teenager experiences at some point.
After the first book, Jen and, soon, younger sister Hannah anticipated the printing and release of each subsequent book, and then consumed every word. Jen read each book multiple times (and later listened to the audio readings by Jim Dale). They lived and learned with Harry about the world of wizardry and magical spells, the ups and downs of Hogwarts, the petty jealousies and resentments of its faculty and students, and the many people (good and bad) that Harry and company encounter along the way. Because of Harry Potter, today Jen is a prolific reader of fiction and nonfiction alike, having developed an interest in religion and philosophy that stems in part from the influence of the seven Harry Potter books. Hannah already was a reader before Rowling’s creations, but she shared Jen’s intense passion for the Potter adventures, which simply reaffirmed her love of books, literature, and the power of a good story.
From my vantage point as a father, Harry Potter allowed me to talk with my children about important things, about bravery and courage, integrity and ethics, justice and oppression. We talked as well about the conflicts and tensions that envelop love and friendship. We debated the goodness and badness of Snape and discussed issues such as prejudice (half-bloods, mud-bloods, pure-bloods), the forces of evil (Death Eaters, Voldemort), the significance of being the Chosen One (Harry Potter), and the perils of growing up, of trying to live the life of a normal teenager while confronting the obligations of a larger destiny; of the desire to snog with the opposite sex and compete in Quidditch matches, while having to battle the dark forces threatening to overtake all that was good and decent about the world in which they lived.
At its heart, Harry Potter is about the transforming power of love and its ability to conquer all, to overcome the fear of death, to be willing to sacrifice one’s own life for the sake of others. Once you get past the flying broomsticks, talking centaurs, Dementors and Death Eaters, wands and magic spells, Harry Potter is really a coming of age story of three good friends who, through chance and circumstance and history are bound together, destined for a life of consequence. From the moment they first met on the Hogwarts Express, they formed an unbreakable bond with their readers. We rooted for them to win at Quidditch and to thwart the despicable Malfoy. We worried for their safety and the welfare of the many good wizards who were at risk from the dark forces on the horizon. We attended their classes on Transfiguration and Charms, Potions and Muggle Studies, the History of Magic and the Defense Against the Dark Arts. We cared about them.
There is something truly magical in watching your children connect with literary characters that they really care about, to hear them talk and argue with their friends about the importance and significance of Dumbledore’s wand and whether Snape can be trusted; to genuinely worry over the fates of these imaginary figures. Perhaps it is better to concern oneself with reality, but while Harry Potter is a fantasy, the series successfully captures our imagination because it contends with real life issues of historical import, the age-old dramas of good versus evil, life and death, oppression and violence, and the threats to liberty posed by the forces of prejudice and revenge.
Along the way, like Harry, my daughters also found solace in the wisdom of Albus Dumbledore. “It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live,” he reminded Harry in The Sorcerer’s Stone. “The truth is a beautiful and terrible thing,” he noted on another occasion, “and should therefore be treated with caution.” After the traumatic death of Cedric and the return of Lord Voldemort in The Goblet of Fire, Dumbledore warns the students at Hogwarts that “[d]ark times lie ahead of us and there will be a time when we must choose between what is easy and what is right.” Dumbledore’s life lessons rival those of the wisest teacher.
The death of Dumbledore in Book Six was traumatic, but perhaps a valuable lesson to young hearts and minds. “It’s the unknown we fear when we look upon death and darkness,” Dumbledore advises Harry at one point in the story, “nothing more.” In The Prisoner of Azkaban, Dumbledore admonishes Harry, whose father was murdered by Voldemort when Harry was a baby, “You think the dead we loved ever truly leave us? You think that we don't recall them more clearly than ever in times of great trouble? Your father is alive in you, Harry, and shows himself plainly when you have need of him.” In the end, these truths may have helped Harry recognize that death itself was not something to be feared, that a greater force exists within each of us.
The world of Harry Potter has been an influential part of my daughter’s lives, encompassing more than half of Jen’s young life and nearly two-thirds of Hannah’s. Part of me does not want it all to end, for the end of Harry Potter means it is time to recognize that my daughters are now young adults, two young women ready to live and explore life on their own terms, that they are less in need of Dad’s advice and company. I know that, in many ways, this is a good thing, but I am reluctant to let go. Perhaps we will find a new author or a new story to share in the coming years, some new ground of mutual interest to provide a forum upon which we can talk about significant issues without even trying. But I am forever grateful to J.K. Rowling and the world she created.