Coming of Age with Harry

Curator's Note

I happened to be in Orlando when Universal’s “Wizarding World of Harry Potter” opened. An unabashed fan of all things Harry, I was among those waiting for a chance to visit Hogsmeade, drink butterbeer, and tour Hogwarts. All of which, by the way, was great fun.

I grew up going to Disneyland, I’ve been to Disneyworld, I’ve stood in thousands of lines with what feels like millions of people, all willing to share their misery with everyone around them. This line was different. Maybe it was because it was opening day, maybe it was the people I was near. Me, I think it was Harry. These people were downright companionable; we exchanged cell numbers so that parents could take their kids on a ride and then find their place in line; anyone who left for food offered to bring some back for those who stayed. The wait was long; it was hot and humid; it rained on us a couple of times. But Leo, the eight year old boy in front of me, never complained. He refused to leave the line for a drink, or a ride, or for anything. Leo was going to go to see Harry, and he was determined to stand in that line as long as it took.

Children’s literature is didactic, and never more so than in coming-of-age stories. The Harry Potter series is no different—the narrative revolves around watching the characters learn what it means to be adults. With the exception of the Slytherins, they are decent kids trying to do their best and generally succeeding. Most of us can see ourselves as such people.

These children are also capable of heroism. They encounter frightening circumstances, face problems that must be dealt with through courage and effort. They’re willing to sacrifice themselves for the greater good. Most of us would like to think we can be such people.

Above all, they have a sense of wonder. That, I think, was what kept people standing so cheerfully in line—we wanted to partake in that wonder, and like Leo, were willing to wait for as long as it took.


Mary, thanks for giving us such a joyful contrast to yesterday's topic of death.  While the Harry Potter series does deal with some very adult topics - death, betrayal, jealously, among others - the world of Harry Potter has also given many of its readers/viewers a profound experience of unabashed joy.  The unity of the crowd's wave in your video perfectly expresses this joy.  Amidst the crowds and heat, people were careful not to forget the central message of the series: kindness and friendship are necessary to survive in a sometimes challenging world.

You also touch on the power of the series to expand beyond the borders of the text and provide a real life model of behavior (for both children and adults).  Your example of this from your experience in line is quite compelling, and it's nice to hear stories about people actually being kind to each other.  I'd even wager that the Slytherins in the crowd couldn't help but be kind to each other.  Like you, I'm going to give Harry credit for that.

You are absolutely right, this literature is didactic, but we miss a great deal if we assume that its incredibly vast public is learning a consistent set of messages from it. Between Tom Morris' reading that discovers how to be a great CEO and Luke Bell's reading that discovers how to be a great monk, we cannot know how many distinct visions the franchise's morality are possible. The question, then, is how diverse communities come of age through the specific "Harry Potters" they share.

I bring this up because while friendliness is a likely take-away from the series, there are also possibilities in the text for readings which might produce young people who totally resent standing in line at a corporate themepark. These are, among other things, potentially books about young people banding together for radical social justice activism. Universal does not have Disney's famouly poor record of labor practices (and their janitors won a meaningful victory this year), but there is certainly another readership whose friendship would be just as internally cohesive, but which we cannot locate in line for the theme rides.

[Correction: My earlier edition of this comment made the silly mistake of placing the theme-world at Disney rather than Universal.]

As it turns out, the Harry Potter Alliance  is being discussed on NPR this morning []. Here is a bit from their "About" page:

"The commitment of our members combined with our innovative strategy for social change has enabled us to accomplish astounding successes during our past campaigns. Just as Dumbledore’s Army wakes the world up to Voldemort’s return, works for equal rights of house elves and werewolves, and empowers its members, we:

  • Work with partner NGOs in alerting the world to the dangers of global warming, poverty, and genocide.

  • Raise funds for partner NGOs to support equality, literacy, and human rights

  • Encourage our members to hone the magic of their creativity in endeavoring to make the world a better place."

Encouraging, no?

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