Harry Potter: The Remarkably Unremarkable Main Character
Harry Potter: two words. Two words are all it takes to gain recognizable attention; two words are all it takes to for potter-heads everywhere to raise their metaphorical wands—some literally. Harry Potter is a series of stories, seven books, eight movies, is unforgettable and praised around the world, but, what is it that makes the unremarkable Harry Potter as the main character so remarkable that he could power through seemingly impossible undertakings, impact generations and have such worldwide media success? When we first meet our notorious Harry Potter, he is an eleven-year-old neglected orphan boy being raised by his unloving, overly social- conscious Aunt Petunia, her husband Vernon, and their spoiled son Dudley. Going from Harry the muggle boy under the stairs to Harry the wizard, the “Chosen One,” does his normalcy and relatability hinder or empower him as the main protagonist of J.K. Rowling’s series?
In the beginning pages of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, we are introduced to a young Harry Potter, the unremarkable eleven-year-old ‘muggle’:
Harry Potter rolled over inside his blankets without waking up. One small hand closed on the letter beside him and he slept on, not knowing he was special, not knowing he was famous, not knowing he would be woken in a few hours’ time by Mrs. Dursley’s scream as she opened the front door to put the milk bottles, not that he would spend the next few weeks being prodded and pinched by his cousin Dudley…. He couldn’t know that at this very moment, people meeting in secret all over the country were holding up their glasses and saying in hushed voices: “To Harry Potter — the boy who lived!” (Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone 17)
All he knew was his miserable life of living in a tiny closet, at the foot of the stairs of his Aunt and Uncle’s home. He knew no real compassion or love. He knew not of magic, dragons or Quidditch. He knew nothing of his parent’s true lives or unfortunate demise. He is essentially a muggle just as is explained to him in chapter four: “A Muggle,” said Hagrid, “it’s what we call nonmagic folk like them [referencing to the Dursley’s]. An’ It’s your bad luck you grew up in a family o’ the biggest Muggles I ever laid eyes on” (Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone 53)
The Dursley’s in their desire to remain completely ordinary raised Harry without empathy or nurture; they left Harry unable to explore his creativity and imagination or question any ‘magical’ oddities that he may have experienced or accidently caused. “Rowling emphasizes the preeminence of the imagination of childhood and the need for children to question and dream. The lack provided him [Harry] with an urgency for a compensatory endowment of magical power” (Natov 312) As he was raised, Harry embodied the typical characteristics of the orphan archetype:
The Orphan [archetype] understands that everyone matters, just as they are. Down-home and unpretentious, it reveals a deep structure influenced by the wounded or orphaned child that expects very little from life, but that teaches us with empathy, realism, and street smarts. […] To fulfill their quest, they must go through the agonies of the developmental stages they have missed. Their strength is the interdependence and pragmatic realism that they had to learn at an early age. A hazard is that they will fall into the victim mentality and so never achieve a heroic position. (Jonas)
Because he embodies this archetype, Harry becomes eager for any attention in childhood and a ‘thirst’ to prove himself worthy of life lost by his parents. Enter dozens of owls and letters, a secluded island with a broken-down house, and Rubeus Hagrid, Keeper of Keys and Grounds at Hogwarts, the deliverer of the life changing sentence, “Harry—yer a wizard” (Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone 50) Harry is mostly thrown into a world full of magic and possibility/impossibility. Being neither fantasy nor reality, the wizarding world unites elements of the extraordinary— to components of a present world in which the uncommon exists, side by side, with the common elements of regular mundane ‘muggle’ reality.
For a boy who was never allowed to question and develop his imagination, he then must walk into the wizarding world—where everyone knows his name, with his mind free of judgment and welcome the wonders that are magic. Furthermore, he doesn’t understand why he is considered famous, “Everyone thinks I’m special […], But I don’t know anything about magic at all. How can they expect great things? I’m famous, and I can’t remember what I’m famous for.” (Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone 86)It wasn’t until his eleventh birthday that he discovered he was special. He grew up feeling powerless when in reality he was just condemned to his current miserable life due to his potential to be powerful. “Like most orphans, Harry has little sense of having any power at all.” (Natov 310)
Harry goes from an invisible, unremarkable boy to a famous highly talked about celebrity known as the-boy-who-lived. A brave young Mr. Potter enters Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry with a stomach full of butterflies and an excitement of the unknown. We are present as he meets his first friend, discovers his first enemy, and pushes his stubbornness to the brink when he unknowingly attempts to sway the Sorting Hat’s house placement of him: “Difficult. Very difficult. Plenty of courage, I see. Not a bad mind, either. There’s talent, oh my goodness, yes—and a nice thirst to prove yourself, now that’s interesting… So, where shall I put you?”[Sorting Hat] […] “Not Slytherin, not Slytherin.” [Harry (Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone 121) Though he was considered for other houses, Harry embodied all that makes a Gryffindor— a Gryffindor. He shows bravery, chivalry, determination, and courage in abundance throughout the many trials and hardships of the series plot points.
For example, he shows all traits multiple times within the pages of the fourth installment of Harry’s story, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, but he also shows plenty of wit and luck. The first task, in the Goblet of Fire, was a test to do just that: test courage. Thanks to his friends, even with their disgruntled attitudes, Harry discovered the first task involved stealing an egg from a live and a rather angry dragon. He then uses his skills to his advantage by using a summoning charm to retrieve his Firebolt broomstick. Though Harry fetched the egg on his own in the actual task, it was an effort of many that got him prepared for the point. Hermione’s unwavering support, Hagrid’s infatuation with dragons, and Moody’s suggestion to use his superior flying skills to his advantage. The second task again shows teamwork and friendship, but it also highlights Harry’s chivalry and determination.
The first task, in the Goblet of Fire, was a test to do just that: test courage. Thanks to his friends, even with their disgruntled attitudes, Harry discovered the first task involved stealing an egg from a live and a rather angry dragon. He then uses his skills to his advantage by using a summoning charm to retrieve his Firebolt broomstick. Though Harry fetched the egg on his own in the actual task, it was an effort of many that got him prepared for the point. Hermione’s unwavering support, Hagrid’s infatuation with dragons, and Moody’s suggestion to use his superior flying skills to his advantage. The second task again shows teamwork and friendship, but it also highlights Harry’s chivalry and determination.
“Come seek us where our voices sound,
We cannot sing above the ground,
And while you’re searching, ponder this;
We’ve taken what you’ll sorely miss,
An hour long you’ll have to look,
And recover what we took,
But past an hour — the prospect’s black,
Too late, it’s gone, it won’t come back.” (Rowling, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire 463)
Harry’s success is an aftereffect of other individuals’ assistance in figuring out the second task in the Triwizard Tournament: Cedric instructs him to take a bath and offers him the use of the prefect’s bathroom. A spying Moaning Myrtle tells him to open the egg under the water like Cedric had, and Dobby—kooky, darling Dobby, gives Harry the gilly weed allowing him to breathe underwater. Outside help is particularly critical as Harry enters the Black Lake, an unexplored place where he doesn’t truly know what he will find or face. What he didn’t expect was to see his two best friends Ron and Hermione along with his crush Cho and another young girl underwater. Harry was determined to save all the taken, not just Ron. Harry was the first to arrive and the last to leave with both Ron and Fleur’s sister in tow.
Besides seeing Harry in extreme situations, such as the tasks presented in The Goblet of Fire, we also get to see the ordinariness and relatable side of Harry throughout the seven installments. Goffman suggests there are two types of emotional ‘extreme’ performances: the sincere and the cynical. A performance that is sincere is when the performer [in this case protagonist] and the audience [readers] won’t have any doubts about the ‘realness’ of what is portrayed. The cynical would ultimately have no concern in the conception they have of himself or of the situation; they’d have no belief in his own acts and no ultimate concern with the beliefs of his audience (Goffman 10). Harry is sincere in every situation. We see Harry’s first crush when he asks Cho Chang to the ball, “wangoballwime?”, And even more awkward first kiss. Harry experiences the rush of flying a broom and playing Quidditch. He’s impulsive and breaks the rules— breaking into the restricted section of the library whilst hiding underneath his invisibility cloak after curfew. He’s relatable in his procrastination of homework and complete distaste for exams—ugh. It’s Harry’s imperfections that make him relevant, but it’s his heart and friendships that bring him success.
Strange circumstance can bring people together, defeating a mountain troll in the first year, sharing sweets on a train, having a body-bind curse placed upon you, or even seeing the skeletal winged thestrals (after witnessing death) pulling the carriages. Friendships have many ways of manifesting:
Luna had decorated her bedroom ceiling with five beautifully painted faces: Harry, Ron, Hermione, Ginny, and Neville. They were not moving as the portraits at Hogwarts moved, but there was a certain magic about them all the same: Harry thought they breathed. What appeared to be fine golden chains wove around the pictures, linking them together, but after examining them for a minute or so, Harry realized that the chains were actually one word, repeated a thousand times in golden ink: friends. . . friends . . . friends . . . (Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows 417)
Harry uses his friendships to balance out the pressures of being famous and being ordinary. Harry, Ron, and Hermione are the primary ‘friendship’ throughout the series. Ron is the poor pure-blood who comes from a family of many siblings. He’s not used to being seen as just ‘Ron’ but rather as just another ‘Weasley.’ He’s naturally selfless, headstrong, and a bit impulsive. His light humor makes him lovable and relatable. Hermione, on the other hand, is an only child of two muggle parents, a mudblood. She’s determined to learn and perfect all she can about being a witch and succeeds in being dubbed “The brightest witch of her age.” She depends on her cleverness and knowledge to be the voice of reason within the ‘Golden Trio.’ The friendship of the trio is tested a tried over the pages of seven books and eight movies, yet no matter the obstacle, their loyalty, and love for one another, no matter their differences, always prevails.
William Styron wrote, “A great book should leave you with many experiences and slightly exhausted at the end. You live several lives while reading.” He makes an impactful point. Reading a good piece of literature can transport a mind to live, breathe, and feel as the characters in the book do. We live their lives with them, learn from their mistakes, our hearts can even break for them. Reading helps your mind travel away; it can keep evil and negative thoughts at bay, it can enable you to view things using fantasy, it lets you express yourself and become a piece of its world. Whatever the literary merits of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, critic Harold Bloom wrote, “Rowling’s mind is so governed by clichés and dead metaphors that she has no other style of writing,” it is the ability of the books to engage young audiences that will be their enduring legacy. Since the publication of The Sorcerer’s Stone in 1998, kids have discussed, dissected, and debated the books with a critical eye. Anyone who has listened to Mugglecast, a podcast for Harry Potter lovers, must acknowledge the close textual reading of every single chapter of the series, and fan fiction sites abound in an efflorescence of, albeit channeled, creativity—not to mention the billions of dollars between 2001-2011 grossed by the eight Harry Potter movies. The books have taught children to read, to think, to write and to criticize, all hallmarks of free expression (Olukotun).
Harry is one in a long line of many YAL characters whom are thrust into a word of wonder, take a young Percy Jackson, from Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan, for example. Percy is the protagonist of his series where he no sooner finds out that he’s a demigod son of Poseidon, he is forced to jump through metaphorical hoops to prove his innocence after being accused of thievery by his Uncle Zeus. Percy must learn how to fight and protect those he loves not only from the real-world threats but those of the mystic-world as well. He proves himself to be gifted and remarkable throughout his quests, but unlike Harry, he relies solely on what makes him special rather than what makes him ‘human.’ Could this be why the book to movie adaptations failed to largely gain in box office success? “Literature with complex, developed themes and characters [like Harry] appear to let readers occupy or adopt perspectives they might otherwise not consider; and it seems that Rowling might get at the beautiful, sobering mess of life in a way that could have a meaningful impact on our children’s collective character” (Stetka). Even though fiction is based on imaginary worlds and characters, through reading and relating, we can experience other possibilities, and a life beyond our own—all seven books in the Harry Potter series allow the reader this experience. Staying up till midnight waiting in line for the release of the newest books, skipping school to stay home and read cover-to-cover in a day, we are the Harry Potter Generation.
Harry is as remarkable as he is unremarkable. He’s your average teenager making friends, going to school, and struggling through adolescence one year at a time. We see him struggle and we see his triumphs. “The great irony of existence is that what makes life worth living does not come from the rosy side. We would all rather be lotus-eaters, but life will not allow it. The energy to live comes from the dark side. It comes from everything that makes us suffer. As we struggle against these negative powers, we’re forced to live more deeply, more fully” (McKee and Fryer). We see his bravery as the sword of Gryffindor presents itself to Harry after he travels into the Chamber of Secrets to save Ginny from the basilisk Tom Riddle controlled. We witness his petty feud with Ron after his name being chosen out of the Goblet of Fire. But we also see Harry, Ron, and Hermione create Dumbledore’s Army a prohibited defense against the dark arts training club in retaliation against Dolores Umbridge. “Harry [is] an outsider, an orphan who wants to belong, and we all want to belong. He finds at Hogwarts the home he never had. That really touches a chord. The core values are loyalty and friendship and trust and courage” (Katz). He may not be as wise as Albus Dumbledore, as powerful as Voldemort, or as ambitious as Gellert Grindelwald but Harry has heart. Dumbledore makes a point to reassure him, “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities” (Rowling, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secret 333). After all life has thrown at him, he still possesses empathy and compassion in abundance. It’s his love of life and friendships that make him such a remarkable wizard/man.
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