Harry Potter: The Boy Who Loved
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is a major turning point for the series, both the hard-bound behemoth and its streamlined screen equivalent. In the latter -- the film series midpoint, and the first story released both post-Cedric Diggory and post-9/11 -- our hero’s scars finally begins to manifest, the ones that run deeper than his forehead. Voldemort is an inexorable part of him, a force that ploughs its way through the edges of the narrative even when he isn’t present. And, unbeknownst to everyone but Rowling at the time, his twisted soul resides within the boy from Little Whinging. This is Harry’s great battle in the series. Not just with a wizard whose name invokes terror, but with those parts of himself that he doesn’t have a name for to begin with.
Wants and needs are the building blocks of every great character, and the very beginning of Harry’s journey illuminates his clearly. In The Philosopher’s Stone (or Sorcerer’s, depending on your country), Harry spends his first year at Hogwarts seeking out community. This is his impulse, his goal to find warmth after having been denied it for as long as he can remember. However, it isn’t until he peers into the Mirror of Erised that we see this desire’s genesis. He longs for his parents, who are now long dead and exist only in memory, but the now-iconic image of him flanked by James and Lily isn’t just about family. It’s about completion, and the gaping hole at the center of his existence.
There’s a devastating irony to Harry’s ethos. What’s driving him as a character -- a desire to feel whole -- is why he’s “the chosen one” to begin with. His aching heart is touched by magical blood, shining with the love and protection of selfless sacrifice. His very core is one that doesn’t allow him to stand by and let others suffer. He knows what suffering is, more than most, perhaps, and he can’t bear to see it inflicted on others. He loves because he is loved, and he tries his best to give back while confronting the demons within him. But like most personal demons, we also get to see the impact they have on others, an externalization that begins with Tom Riddle’s Diary.
Voldemort’s Horcruxes are a nasty business. They bring out the worst in Ginny in Chamber of Secrets and Ron in Deathly Hallows, but the effects on these characters are, despite their intensity, temporary. Harry doesn’t need to be near these trinkets to feel the weight of their cruelty. He’s burdened with a temper that, as we learn in The Cursed Child, doesn’t leave him for decades. He has Voldemort’s darkness buried deep within him, and like all the series’ mysterious magic, this too is a metaphor for our experience.
“What If I’m becoming bad?”
“You’re a good person who bad things have happened to. The world isn’t split into good and evil; we’ve got light and darkness inside us. What matters is the path we choose. That’s who we really are.”
This is how Dumbledore responds to Harry during a pivotal moment in Order. It’s a summary of the battle at the core of the series, and it helps Harry understand not only the true nature of his father figures -- James, Dumbledore, Sirius and, ultimately Snape -- but also what truly separates him from Tom Marvolo Riddle. An orphan himself, Riddle chooses to amplify the cruelty he was dealt. Harry, however, in many ways his equal, chooses to amplify the opposite. He chooses community over power, love over glory, and that gives him something worth fighting for.
Harry’s connection to the Dark Lord, one born out of trauma, manifests as visions and episodes. Each one leaves him increasingly frustrated, turning him bitter with every turn of page or scene unfolding onscreen. Voldemort even manipulates these visions to show him terrible images. A dark voice in his head, filling it with thoughts of the worst possible outcomes. The episodes also make Harry question his very sense of self, and whether he’s worthy of the love that he’s been given by his peers, his friends and his mentors. Does he deserve love when he feels like he might be rotten to his core?
This part of him, in many ways, is akin to a mental illness, worsening as the series dives deeper into the darkest parts of its story. Anxiety, depression, whatever your point of comparison, much of the story deals with Harry learning to cope once he realizes he can’t easily be rid of it. It’s even prophesized that one can’t live without the other, so while this manifestation of evil with dark robes and slit nostrils may lose its physical form, the essence that lives within Harry cannot be “cured” like a virus. To be defeated, Voldemort must be understood. And above all, Harry must understand that the existence of evil within him does not make him evil. If Voldemort is an illness, Harry has the illness, but he is not the illness itself. It just means he has more choices to make, and more tightropes to tread. Be it trauma, depression or even base desires, we all exist along the same grey spectrum as the kid from the cupboard under the stairs. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t worthy of love, nor is he incapable of giving it.
It’s in this cupboard, this closeted existence, that Harry just wants to communicate. He is denied letter after letter by those who don’t want him to go near the other “freaks,” but his eyes light up when he’s reached out and touched (or even grazed) by this larger world of magic. Be it Hagrid, or even the Burmese Python he frees at the local zoo, his initial bumps with this colorful universe are a wonder to behold. It’s in having to hide a part of himself whenever he returns from school, and in letting loose when free from his abusive environment, that make Harry a perfect stand-in for the uniqueness of misunderstood identity. Harry, like his friends, and like the then-penniless author who created him, is an artist waiting to burst forth and express who he truly is. The only thing holding him back is circumstance.
And he does burst forth, as does Rowling’s story, conquering the world despite unimaginable struggle. The darkness inside of him makes him beautifully imperfect, and that he has to face down its living embodiment is the series’ great thematic achievement. When he’s faced with his lowest moment in The Deathly Hallows, when he believes in his heart of hearts that he must give up and die, he’s greeted by the people who have loved him the most as he walks bravely towards death. As he takes these final steps, he holds on to their love. And when he’s struck with the curse that took his parents and so many before them, he’s left with two choices. Board a train and accept a fate he didn’t have much say in, or keep on living and fighting to make the world a better place.
He chooses the latter.
Harry’s choices are ultimately what decide how he’s remembered. His anger gets the best of him, even as an adult twenty years removed from the battle of Hogwarts. However, it’s not when Harry loses his temper with his son that makes him who is, but that he apologizes immediately and works towards mending their relationship. He’s those of us dealing with the terrible hand we’re dealt, but he’s also a reminder that we can bring joy into the lives of others, even when we’re hurting. We can choose to give Dobby that sock and free him even after he’s tried to sabotage us. We can spend time with Luna when no one else will, accepting her for who she is.
We can choose to take Hermione’s hand and dance to the radio when it feels like the world is ending.