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Harry Potter (the Greek Tragedy)

For today’s list I thought we’d try something a little more cerebral. I was going to do the funniest moments in the Harry Potter series, but how do you choose? (Blowing up the aunt, the letters in the fireplace, the howler letter, the car, Ron using the telephone, the boggarts, the immortal dance, and on and on.) Instead, what I want to do is look at the double-meaning significant moments, ones that perhaps don’t take center stage in the climaxes, but all the more deep because of it.

There are some who read Harry Potter simply for the adventure, and that’s fine. However, even a modicum of thought reveals a rich subtle subtext of myth and metaphor brimming beneath the surface. Like many great tales, Harry Potter has many layers of meaning. [NOTE: THIS LIST CONTAINS MILD SPOILERS. TAKE HEED IF YOU HAVEN’T READ AT LEAST THROUGH BOOK FOUR]


#10 TEAMWORK REQUIRED – At the end of the first novel, Harry finds himself in a situation where he cannot solve the problem alone. Only with the help of his friends (Ron with Chess and Hermione with spells) is Harry able to go on to the end. This isn’t ultra-deep, but showed us right away that there was a positive message to Harry Potter about needing others on the path to adulthood. (Just wanted to point out to skeptics that there are positive messages.)

#9 PROFESSOR SNAPE AT THE FIRST QUIDDITCH MATCH – Originally we think Snape is trying to hurt Harry, only later to discover that what Snape was actually doing was keeping Harry alive. This isn’t earth-shattering either, but again shows that the adult world is complicated. Snape is an odious man, and Harry would like nothing more than to believe Snape is evil. But he isn’t, and later on this message is driven home even more with the occlumency lessons.

#8 LIVING UNDER THE STAIRS – At the very beginning of the first book I realized that (part of) the story was a fairy tale. In real life—apart from abuse cases—kids aren’t forced to live under the stairs and they are treated as well as their brother. But what kid hasn’t felt that way (the Cinderella Scenario)? What kid hasn’t wondered what it might be like to have different parents? Harry comes to discover his “real” parents were heroes and died saving him, and there is a whole other world where Harry is celebrity. Again, on the myth level, this is straight out of fairy tales. Just delightful.

#7 PARSELTONGUE – First foreshadowed in the trip to the zoo, and then later with the snake in the dueling club, Harry is a parseltongue. In fact, Harry is the first parseltongue since You-Know-Who. To me, the most interesting aspect of the novels is the metaphor of Voldemort equaling Harry’s dark side. This is just one of many such connections, if you’re willing to look for it.

#6 BLOWING UP AT RON AND HERMIONE – This happens quite a few times to Harry, although I’m specifically referring to Book 5, when all the stress is getting Harry down. Again: as Harry goes from a wide-eyed kid to a teenager (i.e., growing up and becoming a man), his fatal flaw—his temper—continues to rise. And the rise of Harry’s temper coincides directly with the growth and power of Voldemort.

#5 THE WAND – Although the zoo trip is technically first, this is the first tangible evidence that a reasonable reader could latch on to. Harry’s wand contains a feather that was only used in one other wand in history. Can you guess who’s?

#4 HARRY’S DAD’S A DICK – Harry has this great image of his parents: fantastic at magic, noble and self-sacrificing. And while parts of this is true, Harry comes to learn that this isn’t the full picture. In fact, James Potter was a total ass at one point. I remember high school and the type: I’d have hated him. We can relate, as all of us have had to go through the pain of realizing that our parents, though possibly great people, aren’t perfect and indeed have flaws.

#3 FIRST TRIP TO DIAGON ALLEY – This scene works on so many levels. First we get the fairy-tale aspect; that there is a world out there where you are famous and people want to know you: you’re not some kid stuck under the stairs. Secondly we get foreshadowing in the story sense of how epic this adventure will prove to be. It’s much bigger than some little kid, even though the first book is somewhat self-contained. Last, in the development sense, we get a hint of how dark and scary the adult world really is. Harry is entering this world, and for a long time will be lost, unsure of himself, and out of his depth. Who hasn’t been there?

#2 THE SORTING HAT – The best and most obvious example of Harry’s connection to Voldemort, and a hint of the bigger picture. The Hat tells Harry that Harry could be very happy in Slytherin. What we see is that Harry has a choice, two paths he can follow. At the time it’s a no-brainer to be with friends, but as the story progresses and Harry gets more and more angry, will this always be the case?


#1 [spoiler] THE DEATH OF CEDRIC – This to me is the single greatest moment in the series, and really elevates Rowling to a higher level. What’s the big deal with Cedric dying? Well, he’s the first character not in the periphery to die. We see that the world really is getting dangerous, where before it seemed more like an adventure. Second, Harry is quite lucky not to have been killed himself. We see that it’s not always skill that saves you. But here’s the best part: Cedric, a decent fellow, is the love interest of Cho. Harry also likes Cho. Therefore, in a way, Cedric is Harry’s rival for Cho’s affections. Connect the dots with me: Voldemort kills Cedric. Voldemort represents Harry’s dark side. Therefore: the first big character to die, the first time the world gets truly dangerous, is a person that subconsciously Harry might want eliminated. (Although we know it doesn’t work out too well, but Harry couldn’t have known that.) It is the death of Cedric that gives Harry Potter true relevancy as something out of Greek Tragedy, and I say “Hats off.”

Monday: Bears