I’ve just seen Voldemort murdering a woman. By now he’s probably killed her whole family. And he didn’t need to…they were just there.
It was 20 years ago today—well, not precisely today, but close enough for magical work—that a shy, bespectacled young man with wizardly potential arrived in this mad world of Muggles, courtesy of a brick of a novel published in Britain as Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. (In the United States, where any hint of witchcraft comes with the threat of school board fatwas, but where witchcraft is at any rate better than pointy-headed intellectualism, it was released the following year as Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.)
Young Harry, as is so often the case in children’s literature, is an orphan, but with a twist: a very unpleasant black-magicky fellow, the aforementioned Voldemort, more formally Lord Voldemort, killed his parents for reasons that are slow to emerge. He has it in for Harry, too, and while he’s waiting to do the lad in, he takes an appalling toll on anyone who happens on his path.
What’s a young stalwart lad to do when Sauron or his moral equivalent is on the hunt? Train for battle, of course. Inducted into a school for budding wizards and witches called Hogwarts, Harry learns his craft over the course of a series of novels, seven (magical number that it is) of them in all, that, ever darker and more urgent in tone, ended 10 years ago today (well, this month, anyway) with the final installment, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Along the way Harry learns how to work a wand and cast a spell and how to fight otherwise when spells and wands just won’t do the trick. At Hogwarts and in the world, Harry comes to know how to care for himself and others, how to love.
Just so, thanks to the humane vision of author J.K. Rowling, untold numbers of children learned something of the big-picture issues that govern our lives. My niece, just 6 when Harry landed in America, grew up reading the series—devouring it, in fact. The experience made her a good reader, but what is more, she took from those books lessons of resourcefulness and self-esteem, earned and not somehow entitled. Those lessons were hard-earned, for, as we came to discover, Rowling pulled herself up by sheer hard work and bottomless brainpower out of poverty with the Potter books—and, unlike so many dark lords, showed that it was right and proper to share one’s good fortune.
The world may seem to conspire against sharp, shy, sensitive kids without two pennies to rub together, but from first book to last, Harry Potter tells us, good triumphs over evil in the end, and justice prevails over injustice, even if it takes time, considerable effort, and not a few incantations of a kind to levitate pentagons, subdue dragons, and vanquish the hungry ghosts that gnaw at our heels day and night. The Harry Potter series, whose anniversary we note with gratitude, tells us as well that even we Muggles have a part in that eternal struggle. Expecto Patronum, then! Resist!
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor.