I’m trying to cope with the idea that in three days, I will no longer be able to anticipate a new piece of Harry Potter fiction. This world and these wonderful characters have been an important part of me throughout my entire adult life. Even though I was seven years older than Harry, Hermione and Ron when I first met them, I feel that I’ve grown with them, learned things about myself through their discoveries, related my own heartbreak to tragedies they suffered. They lost loved ones and so did I. They disappointed themselves and so did I. They fell in love and so did I.
The most cherished reading experiences of my life remain startlingly fresh in my memory. The sunny afternoon when I cracked open The Hobbit in my father’s study, sitting cross-legged on the floor next to his recliner while he read the paper. Reading Lolita until three in the morning on a school night, hiding a flashlight under the covers so I wouldn’t disturb my sister who shared a room with me. Flying through The Gunslinger in the lobby of a ski resort, eating a ham and cheese sandwich and disdaining the actual ski part of the trip because I was too immersed in the book.
But the clearest and best memory is the day I first entered Harry’s world. I was a freshman in college, and a friend had loaned me the first three books. Like Harry, I’d just started a new school, overwhelming in size and teeming with people I was certain were much cooler than I could ever be. I stayed home alone one night and watched Harold and Maude with a bottle of red wine, taking advantage of the solitude that so eludes those in a college apartment with multiple roommates. It grew increasingly windy outside, the air promising a storm, and that’s just the kind of weather I love most. I moved my chair to the balcony, grabbed the first book and my glass of wine and started reading. I made it most of the way through the third book that night, kept reading long past the storm as it blew in and then out again, and I’ve been spellbound ever since.
Harry Potter starts with a comfortably familiar premise. A normal kid, maybe a little small for his size, maybe a little weird, discovers that in fact he is extraordinary. There is a magnificent world that flourishes outside the boundaries of his small existence, and only he can save it from a terrifying menace. That’s how fantasies work. It’s a solid framework that allows for danger, romance, coming of age and eventual triumph after many hardships. But the real magic that lies in author JK Rowling’s story is the subtle conjury she achieved, gradually transforming Harry Potter from a story about The Boy Who Lived into the story of The Boy Who Loved, and through loving, conquered death. In the world of Harry Potter, as in our own world, the love we feel for those who are gone, the memories we have of them and the gifts they left us—that’s the afterlife. Many characters in the series make desperate sacrifices in the name of eternal life, but their quests always end in futility. Dumbledore, Sirius, Lily and James will always be with Harry, not because of a complicated magical spell, but because love simply does not die. I don’t know why I find that lesson so poignant and comforting, but I do. Maybe because, of the millions of people who have read Harry Potter over these many years, we’ve all lost someone along the way.
Rowling created a universe so rich in detail and complexity as to become tangible. The curriculum at Hogwarts, the stores in Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade, the descriptions of food (oh my, the food!), the firmly established nomenclature of plants, spells, people, places—that’s what brings this story to breathing, thriving, fully-dimensional life. The world of Harry Potter is filled with not just the forty or so central characters that we grow to truly love or loathe by the end of the series, but substantial glimpses into the lives of hundreds of other real people with their own motivations and idiosyncrasies. That’s how life works, but it’s rarely how fiction works.
Rowling is also a masterful plotter, conceiving an intricate narrative that steadily progresses, setting up thematic hints that pay off at the end, developing seemingly unrelated tidbits about characters and places that are eventually revealed to be significant plot points. She resolves all loose ends and nails the ending in a way no sprawling series ever has before or since. She brought to life an epic battle that managed to earn the staggering prophesy that foretold it, and that is profoundly rare.
But Rowling’s greatest achievement is that she created meaningful characters that we care for deeply and relationships that matter to us. I’ve had a lot of love affairs with a lot of fictional characters over the years: some platonic, some conflicted, some pure and beautiful. But I don’t know that I’ll ever find another character to whom I’m drawn so strongly as I am to Harry, Hermione and Ron. These three are brave and compassionate, liberal and funny, ultimately flawed but full of hope and integrity. Obviously the movies aren’t nearly as good as the books; that’s the nature of the beast, and I never expected that they would be. But what the series has always had going for it is the impeccable casting. Each and every one of these actors breathes stunning life into our beloved characters. In particular Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint have grown into tremendous actors before our eyes, and I feel that in some small, special way, they belong to us. Although I grieved far more for the last Harry Potter book, I’m still grieving the loss of wondering how these actors will say the words that have meant so much to me.
I’m not good at saying farewell to friends. When I moved from Austin, I had two full weeks of goodbye parties and I still go back twice a month. And sure, I know I’m not really saying goodbye to Harry, Ron, Hermione, Hagrid, Dumbledore, Ginny, Neville, the Weasleys, Professor McGonagall, Sirius, Dobby, Hedwig, Kreacher, Luna, Snape, Lupin, Tonks, Moody, Fleur, Kingsley, Sir Nicholas and Peeves—and every other one of these complicated, messy, heartfelt friends of mine. I know that I can revisit them any time I open a book or watch one of the movies. So then tell me: why does it feel like goodbye?