Written by: Jorinde Berben
Image credit: Jorinde Berben
Last year around this time, my daughter received the complete Harry Potter book set from her godfather. She dived straight into the books, but I also started reading them to both her and her brother in the evenings, at the rate of about one chapter per night. We finished the final chapter of the last (7th) book last week, and as I was reading the books to my young children as a parent, I was, time and time again, struck by the complexity, the values and the nuanced characters, on top of the humour and exciting plot. If anything, I’ve become even more of a fan than I was after I read the books in my teens.
In my blog post of today, as I’m sitting next to the kids watching one of the Harry Potter films, I want to go into some of these values, both implicitly and explicitly taught, that make the Harry Potter series such a modern classic.
Let’s dive in!
- 1. The importance of friendship
When you strip down all the magic, mystery and adventure, Harry Potter really is the story of three friends who stick together through challenges both extraordinary (fighting Voldemort, for example) and very ordinary, such as jealousy, betrayal, envy and romance.
- 2. Nobody’s perfect
From the get-go you learn that Harry Potter is no saint. He harbours a very human resentment towards the aunt, uncle and cousin who’ve been pestering him his entire life. But even the larger than life character of Dumbledore reveals his flaws throughout the books, from his tendency to keep secrets to his attraction to power at an early age resulting in the death of his sister.
- 3. Nobody’s pure evil
At the same time, the ‘bad’ characters are not purely evil, at least they’re not born that way. Tom Riddle’s back story explains why it is so impossible for him to love and trust. Snape’s bitterness is also understandable when we dive into his memories and even in the mean character of Umbridge we are encouraged to see that she, herself, believes she is doing what’s right (even if it is due to pretty screwed up ideas about education).
- 4. The power of choice versus the determination of character
This dichotomy is at the core of Harry’s struggles: he wants to be good but fears skills that would make him an excellend Slytherin candidate. When he expresses this fear to Dumbledore at the end of The Chamber of Secrets, the professor replies with the following magnificent words:
“It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”J. K. Rowling
- 5. It’s okay to be scared
Heroes don’t become heroes because they’re not afraid of anything. Real courage lies in doing what needs doing in the face of fear. Harry and his friends are not immune to fear, and neither are the adults in the books. All of them fear losing those they love, and they fear pain. This makes the characters far more relatable than your standard superhero who doesn’t feel anything.
- 6. There are fates worse than dying
Debatably the scariest beings in the whole book are the Dementors, with their Dementor’s Kiss as the ultimate weapon. Surprisingly, the Dementor’s Kiss isn’t lethal, instead it sucks out your soul and leaves you as a hollow shell, void of feelings or personality. It is described as a fate worse than death. Similarly, a Dementors’ presence drains you of all joy and hope, making you feel as if you’ll never be happy again. Rowling has mentioned before how the Dementors were inspired by her own experiences with depression, where the idea of suicide can be seen as a way out.
- 7. Kindness is severely underestimated
From Hagrid’s kindness to fierce creatures to the kindness Dumbledore displays to the Divination teacher Trelawney (whose predictions are questionable, to say the least); Harry Potter is full of instances in which characters display kindness to people and creatures who inspire doubt, conflict or even revulsion. Hermione’s kindness to the house-elf Kreacher is what makes him turn from a bitter elf to a devoted and loving being. And it is ultimately Harry’s understanding of Voldermort as a scared and hurt being that makes it possible to walk straight up to him with the intention of letting Voldemort kill him. Empathy is woven as a thread throughout the entire series.
- 8. Respect also means adjusting to other’s needs and values
In order to approach a Hippogriff safely, one must first make a bow and make sure not to insult it. When talking to the giants, Hagrid and Madame Maxime make sure to bring gifts, and in approaching the centaurs, Harry makes sure to keep a distance. Respect is not something that is earned, it is a right, and just because you feel insulted doesn’t mean someone insulted you. The other may have a very different idea about what that entails.
Harry’s approach to other creatures is one of curiosity and prudence. He takes his time to understand what makes someone or something tic, so he can approach them in the correct way. Not having grown up in a wizarding world, he is free from the stereotypes many of his friends grew up with, such as the idea that all house-elfs enjoy being in service and that goblins are not to be trusted (even though this proves true for the goblin Griphook, Harry needs to trust him to get into the Gringotts bank).
- 9. It is never too late to make the right choice
The Malfoys, a family that has supported Voldemort from the start, end up in the great hall holding their son after the battle of Hogwarts, and no one bothers them. Snape, who was a death eater the first time around, also is given a second chance by Dumbledore, who never questions his loyalty again. Forgiveness is a key theme in Harry Potter since all the characters are flawed. Yet, holding each other accountable for mistakes also plays a crucial part. It is after Ron and Hermione have taken responsibility for their attitudes in The Chamber of Secrets that they are able to let go of their resentments.
With all its marvelous values, there are also one or two things I question in the messages we get from Harry Potter. The strong contrast between good and evil is one that is too black-white for my taste. When I look at the current war in the Ukraine, it is easy to start thinking of only good guys and only bad guys, whereas we know war creates victims on both sides. Always.
As a parent, I also have some beef with Dumbledore for the way he sets Harry up to sacrifice himself. I guess in a way it’s a good thing Harry’s an orphin, or the headmaster might have had some very angry parents to deal with.
My children are both pretty obsessed with HP. After the books, we are now listening to the audiobooks over and over again, and I’m letting them discover the films one at a time (after I’ve watched them to calculate the danger of subsequent nightmares.)
Are there books you enjoyed reading to your children that have strong values in them? We could use some tips on what to read next!