Volume III (Summer 2008)
ISSN 1934-4324

Sherri Alcock

Sherri Alcock is a student at the University of Maine at Fort Kent.
Readers should note that this article was written prior to the release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Scholastic, 2007).


Harry Potter 101

Lessons to be Learned From the Boy Who Lived and His Creator

J . K . Rowling has a story to tell . She wants us to become immersed in the story of a young wizard by the name of Harry Potter . In this respect, she has succeeded magnificently, beyond anyone’s wildest dreams . The world has fallen in love with this young boy and the story surrounding the trials and tribulations of his teenage years and his coming of age . One of the most amazing things about the Harry Potter stories are the infinite lessons to be learned by reading these books . Rowling does not only teach very important lessons to every child who picks up one of her stories, but the adults that read her works cannot help but be amazed by the glorious amount of wisdom found in her pages .

Many children today seem very unaware of the things that happen outside the safe walls of their schools . Going hand in hand with this ignorance of the world around them, are parents who don’t feel their children are ready for such evils and want to shelter their children for as long as possible . While this is an admirable idea, Rowling shows us carefully, yet sometimes violently what the consequences of these behaviors are . She shows us that there are indeed scary and evil people in the world . That people who seem nice don’t always have your best interests at heart . While each lesson Rowling teaches enlightens a child, each lesson also enlightens an adult, perhaps even more then ever intended . Rowling is also blessed with the remarkable ability to bring us back into those formidable years between childhood and adulthood without sounding phony or condescending .

Each book in the Rowling Harry Potter series has its own theme and/or story line, and as such the lessons learned vary from book to book . Most of these lessons span the entire story but some of the ones that show up strongest in some books will be brought out while trying to make connection to the other books.

In Rowling’s first novel about our beloved Harry Potter, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, one of the most powerful themes is the evil of intolerance . Harry’s relations the Dursley are “normal” people . They despise anything unusual in their world . Vernon Dursley wears boring clothes and he disapproves of having an imagination (5) . When he sees people in cloaks and “funny clothes” (3) he is “enraged . ” The Dursley’s hate anyone different from them and this theme of prejudice and hatred is carried throughout the series . Later on, we will meet the “pureblood wizards” who dislike anyone “Muggle Born,” and people who hate those different from themselves, like centaurs, werewolves, hypogriffs and giants .

In showing us these intolerances, Rowling makes these people seem so foolish and shallow . Even within their “superior” status, you find that even these wizards who hate “mixed blood” might not be pure blood themselves . The most telling example is, of course, Lord Voldemort . We hear the story of his parents in chapter 10 of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, (p194-216) . The most powerful and the most evil wizard is indeed born from a muggle father . This does not stop Bellatrix Lestrange from screaming at Harry for having a muggle born mother though in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, “You besmirch (Lord Voldemort’s) name with your half-blood’s tongue?” (784) . Contradictions like this one make these prejudiced people look as ignorant as they are .

Another great theme found in book one is that of insecurity .   Hermione’s looks and bloodlines make might make her act so presumptuously . Ron’s insecurity might stem from being the hand-me-down boy in a very poor family of successful big brothers . Harry has not known a day of love for ten years and knows nothing about the wizarding world he should have been part of . Voldemort is insecure because Harry poses a direct threat to him (because of the Prophecy) and almost destroyed him (several times as we will come to see) .   Perhaps his lack of parents and Muggle bloodline created the monster we see today? Snape is insecure because he was tortured by James and Sirius and because everyone (like Umbridge, OP 363-4)) knows Dumbledore won’t give him the job he really wants . His status as a "former" DeathEater makes everyone uncomfortable around him except Dumbledore . Hagrid is insecure because everyone knows he is half-giant and people are afraid of giants . (Perhaps rightly so after we meet Grawp in The Order of the Phoenix) . Hagrid was also expelled, so he is not really allowed to use magic and does not have the same level of education as everyone else .   Most of the main characters are plagued by insecurities that shape their character and dictate how they act and what they think .   The lesson to be learned here is that everyone is insecure about something . The trick is to overcome and succeed in spite of those insecurities as (almost) all of the above-mentioned people do . The trick is to find what you are good at, like Harry creating Dumbledore’s Army in chapter 16-18 Order of the Phoenix, or Fred and George using everything they have got to create their dream: Weaslys’ Wizard Wheezes! (OP675) .

In book two Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets, the biggest lesson to be learned seems to be about standing up and facing your biggest fears . Again, it is okay to be afraid, but it what you do in the face of that fear that shows who you truly are and the strength of your resolve . The one fear that comes up in every book many times is the fear of saying “you-know-who’s” real name…that is Lord Voldemort . Almost everyone, in every book cringes in horror at the mention of his name . The only one that is really free of this fear is Dumbledore, of course, and Harry . Slowly, we see people get over the fear, like McGonagall does on Privet Drive (PS11), with the help of Harry and Dumbledore . Of course Harry shows his courage in the face of death when he goes into the Chamber to get Ginny, and kills the basilisk . In The Chamber of Secrets we also find out Ron’s biggest fear is spiders, especially enormous ones like Aragog and his family, who want to eat him . Ron faces this fear, as best he can, because of Hermione . He had the courage to do the unthinkable to save her “Ron…looked sideways at the empty seat usually filled by Hermione . The sight seemed to stiffen his resolve, and he nodded”(CS270) . In later books, like The Goblet of Fire, we also see the drastic precautions one goes to because of their fear, like Mad-Eye Moody only drinking from his own flask for example . This does teach the lesson that it is safer “not to take candy from strangers,” (like Ginny does when she trusts Tom Riddle and his diary) but also that fear can go to far .

The Chamber of Secrets second big lesson is a financial one . We see throughout the series that the Weasley family doesn’t have much money . While we would hardly expect Harry to give them money in year one, it starts to run through the mind in book two . Why doesn’t Harry just get Ron a new wand? Other than the fact that it would ruin the story if Lockhart did not lose his own mind, but Harry knows that it is not the right thing to do . He innately knows that money does not buy friends (even if he did buy the entire Quidditch team new brooms like Malfoy did to get his position), and that good friends would not want his money . When he does finally give the family money (by way of Fred and George) after the Tri-Wizard Tournament, he has Ron’s new robes bought by his brothers (GF733) . The money goes to the twins, but their enormous success will ultimately help the entire family .

Harry’s innate sense of right and wrong continues right into book three, Harry Potter andThe Prisoner of Azkaban . Harry does some very brave things in this book that really test his inner strength . The greatest lesson of all that can be taken from this book is that Harry took the time to listen . If he had done what almost every reader wanted (before we got past Chapter 17) and killed Sirius, he would not have gotten the story until far too late . He would have lost that valuable love and time with his godfather . We see the flip side of this lesson when Professor Snape refused to listen to the story of Harry, Sirius and Lupin in the Shrieking Shack (PA360-1) . He ends up ruining things and gets a good blast to boot . Not only did Harry take the time to listen to Sirius and Lupin’s story, but he also had the power to resist having Peter Pettigrew killed . He knew that his parents would not have wanted his friends to become murderers for the sake of Peter Pettigrew (PA376) .

The Prisoner of Azkaban also teaches us all the terrible price of jumping to conclusions . Ron and Hermione fight throughout the entire story over her cat’s attempts to eat Scabbers . Of course we find out that Crookshanks was right to go after Scabbers/Pettigrew all along . Everyone also assumes that Hagrid’s Hippogriff, Buckbeak, is cruel and deadly because of his past “pets,” and nobody takes the time to really find out that Draco is not a victim . Sirius is accused of being the Grim and of course suffered twelve years in Azkaban for a murder he did not commit, which leads to drastic consequences, including Harry living with the Dursley family and Wormtail’s ability to help bring the Dark Lord back in The Goblet of Fire,(ch . 32) . Hermione also causes Harry to lose the Firebolt in The Goblet of Fire because she assumes that it is cursed (ch . 11) . Many accusations are made in the series and very many of them prove to be false . The old lesson “don’t judge a book by its cover” is an important one in, especially in The Prisoner of Azkaban, and it is quite easy to see how many things could have been different if people’s minds were a bit more open and if they were a bit slower to judge others .

Book four of the Harry Potter series, The Goblet of Fire, is a story about coming of age . Even thought the events in this story revolve around the dangers of the Tri-Wizard Tournament, there is clearly a love story twisting throughout . Rowling is masterful here in bringing us back to that awkward time of first crushes and dates . We have seen the maturing feelings of Ron and Hermione over the last three books, but it becomes very obvious in The Goblet of Fire . Ron is furious that Hermione goes to the ball with Viktor, and Hermione’s response makes clear that her feelings for Ron are reciprocated: “if you don’t like it (Hermione dating Viktor), you know what the solution is, don’t you?…Next time there’s a ball, ask me before someone else does…” (432) . There is also the hilarious exchange in which Harry and Ron finally realize that Hermione is a girl (400) . Meanwhile, Harry faces the prospect of asking out an older girl, and he is crushed when Cho goes to the ball with Cedric . This happens to everyone once, and Harry’s reaction and feelings are typical . As a teenager, it is always nice to know that someone else had gone through the same embarrassment and heartache that you have . As an adult, we forget how tough these times really were, but the eloquent writing in The Goblet of Fire brings it all right back .

Loyalty is also big in the Harry Potter books . In the first chapter of the first book, we hear how loyal Dumbledore is to Hagrid…”I would trust Hagrid with my life” (SS14) . In The Prisoner of Azkaban, the loyalty of Sirius and the disloyalty of Wormtail are crucial . Sirius trusts Peter to be strong as Secret Keeper, yet he took advantage of his knowledge, causing the death of two friends and the long imprisonment of another . In The Goblet of Fire, we hear of Wormtail’s loyalty to The Dark Lord, (ch1) . We also begin to see a shameful side of Percy Weasley as his loyalties sway quite quickly from his family to his new boss, Barty Crouch . Winky’s loyalty to her master is tested in Chapter 8 (in the top box), and her masters lack of loyalty to her is so devastating that poor Winky turns to liquor but still remains loyal to Crouch: “My master is telling Winky some things! But Winky is not saying…Winky keeps her masters secrets…” (382) . Harry and Cedric are loyal to each other, even though they are competing against each other in the tournament and for the affections of Cho . Of course, it is Harry and Cedric’s loyalty to each other that causes Harry so much guilt over Cedric’s death . Always and forever true is Hagrid’s loyalty to Dumbledore – “Great man, Dumbledore…,” and surprisingly, even Peeves can show true loyalty when it comes to promising Fred and George Weasly to torture Umbridge in The Order of the Phoenix (675) . Loyalty is an admirable quality to have and yet we see that misplaced loyalty can cause big problems, (i . e . Winky and Percy) . The message to be found here is that loyalty must be earned . Many people do deserve loyalty, but one must learn to let go when a person has proven himself or herself unworthy of devotion .

Certainly the darkest novel to this point, Harry Potter and The Order of the Phoenix shows Harry at his most vulnerable . He is so angry in this segment of the story . He is overwhelmed by grief over the loss of Cedric and fear of the return of Voldemort . He takes all his anger out on Ron and Hermione, which again brings us into the mind and soul of a teenager in turmoil . We can understand that sometimes people vent things on us that we have no control over . It is easy to see how angry Harry must be, but also how helpless Ron and Hermione truly were . Harry’s anger gets the best of him on occasion in this book and it blinds him to things that must be done . Not only do we learn that anger and resentment cause us more harm than good, but not being able to control your temper makes you do and say things you will regret (i . e . Harry’s explosion at Ron and Hermione when he finally gets to The Order of the Phoenix headquarters . ) Harry also lets jealousy overcome him (when Ron is made prefect) but he also learns to be humble and gracious to his friend…”Was he, Harry, Ron’s best friend in the world, going to sulk because he didn’t have a badge, laugh with the twins behind Ron’s back, ruin this for Ron when, for the first time, he had beaten Harry at something?” (167) . Harry comparing his attitude to Draco here really drives the point home that jealousy and anger can ruin friendships and of course, as we find out later from Dumbledore, there is a very good reason for everything .

One of the biggest lessons that comes through in The Order of the Phoenix is that grown-ups are people too and grown-up people make mistakes . Of course we have seen adults make mistakes before this (ie . Snape’s refusal to teach Harry Occlumency correctly and Sirius’ cruelty to Kreacher), but Dumbledore’s confessions to Harry at the end of the book leave some lasting lessons that we all should learn . Grown-ups are people too and apologies are necessary when they are deserved . Harry has made many mistakes throughout the series by leaving Dumbledore in the dark about what has been happening to him, and now we see that Dumbledore has made the same mistake . He should have trusted Harry with the information that he had . He should have given Harry a chance and been more honest with him about what was going on . Dumbledore owes Harry an apology and whiles he does try to explain himself, he does offer his apology fully and freely: “…another old man’s mistake – some wounds run to deep for healing…I was wrong” (833) . Dumbledore’s ability to come clean to Harry is crucial for everyone to learn . Forgiveness, even for the worst events can be had, if you are willing to redeem yourself with a heartfelt apology and if you learn from the error of your ways . It is never easy to make these apologies, especially to someone younger than ourselves, but it is necessary and children/teenagers deserve this respect if we expect them to give respect to others in return .

Fear also plays a crucial role in book five . It is the fear of Trelawney’s prediction that cause Voldemort to continue trying to kill Harry . It is Dumbledore’s fear of exposure that causes him to ignore Harry and keep him in the dark about the severity of the situation at hand . The Ministry’s fear of Dumbledore is what has given Voldemort an entire year to form his plans and recruit evil beings to the dark side . Harry’s fear for the life of Sirius causes him to take drastic measures and he gets so clouded by fear that he forgets he can send a message through Professor Snape . It is the wizarding community’s fear of the return of the Dark Lord that cause them to look the other way and ignore the evidence that is right before their own eyes . A crucial lesson that we cannot be ruled by fear – if we let it take control, we can lose ourselves in it and create more chaos that can be imagined . People must depend on each other and trust in each other . As the sorting hat says: “Hogwarts is in danger/ From external deadly foes/And we must unite inside her/ Or we’ll crumble from within” (OP206-7) . Fear is more manageable when many share it and dangers are not overcome without the support of your family and your friends .

The most terrible lesson we encounter occurs in book six, Harry Potter and The Half-Blood Prince . This is a lesson regarding the horrible pain of betrayal . The extent of the duplicity in this book is overwhelming and painful . The first half of the book is sweetly showing us the betrayals that most teenagers can expect: falling in love with your best friend (like Ron and Hermione) or falling in love with your best friends sister (Harry and Ginny) . Weaving in and out of these gorgeous love stories we begin to see the crueler side of betrayal…beginning with the betrayal of Voldemort’s mother . Merope was betrayed terribly by a cruel father . She was abused and shamed beyond any hope, but when she found a way to save herself, the one person in the world she loved turned his back on her . The extent of Voldemort’s betrayal of Dumbledore is something else altogether . How and why did Tom Riddle turn on Dumbledore? It seems he was evil from day one, but the only person to ever help him was Dumbledore . The same holds true for Severus Snape . One person in the entire world had faith in him and trusted him, and (it seems) that Snape has destroyed that one person, without mercy .

One the other side of all this hatred and duplicity, we once again find the loyal and courageous Harry Potter . He has no problem standing up to Scrimgeour at Christmas . He is and always will be “Dumbledore’s man, through and through” (649) . We also see the intense devotion of Ron and Hermione to stand in harms way, by Harry’s side . They are afraid, but they will face those fears and remain loyal to Harry and his quest . There is no greater gift than good friends and it is always important to be loyal to the true ones you have . They will always be irreplaceable . One of the many weaknesses that Voldemort has is a lack of friends – he never thought he needed them and never wanted them, but we just might see how wrong Voldemort really is and we will finally learn how important you friends really are .

As we are nearing the end of Harry’s journey, Rowling wants to leave us with a message of love from book six . Not just the love between teenagers and the love between family and friends, but just plain old love in general . As Dumbledore told Harry, it is his the ability to love Sirius so completely that makes Voldemort dispossess him at the ministry . Many times has Harry been told that his mother’s love for him saved his life and that it is the oldest and most powerful of all magic . The power of love and the magic it brings is alive and well in all of us . Although the ability to hang one’s enemy’s up by the ankle is very tempting, all should feel good leaving this book secure with the ability that we all contain magic . We are all able to make people feel better, to make someone smile and to give someone your entire heart . The more you love the better you are . The more you love the better you feel . The more you love the more power you have in the world and that is true whether or not you’re a Muggle born or a pure-blood, a Squib or a Werewolf, or just lowly Muggles like so many are . We all have our own ability to perform magic and that lesson is quite clear .

Missing out on crucial life lessons has detrimental consequences on a life, and thankfully anyone reading the Harry Potter series can see those consequences first hand . The lessons are sometimes simple: don’t procrastinate on your schoolwork like Harry and Ron or you will pay for it in the end; that sometimes a parents’ punishment really is the way we know we are loved (i . e . Mrs . Weasly’s parenting vs . the Dursley’s . ); do what you think is right in your heart (i . e . when Harry tries to save everyone from the Merpeople) . Some times the lessons are complex with consequences we could never imagine – like the cruelty of James and Sirius towards Snape being taken out on Harry viciously and continually; and how Dumbledore’s love for Harry and Harry’s hatred for Snape is partially the cause for the most profound loss Harry has had to face since the death of his parents .

The children who love Harry Potter learn valuable lessons about growing up, while the adults who love Harry re-learn how hard it is to be a child…and they have only forgotten how often adults are wrong, for that very reason. These are important lessons, yet, the most important lessons are the ones we see reappear in every one of Rowling’s books: i . e . : loyalty, friendship, love, empathy, trust, generosity, compassion, self-control and courage . These are things that we all have within our power to learn and to teach . These life lessons are much more important than any charm, hex, potion, or spell you can do . These are things we all must learn to survive in our own Muggle world and Rowling has clearly shown us the way .

Works Cited

Rowling, J . K . Harry Potter Collection, years 1-6 . New York, NY: Scholastic, 2005