Friday, July 15, 2011

Harry Potter and Parents

So last night I hauled my younger heathens off to the midnight movie - their first such experience - and we followed the rest of the country into a theater to watch the final installment of the cultural phenomenon called Harry Potter. The final movie, Deathly Hallows Part 2, was amazing and explosive, and wrapped up the series just as it should have. This is not a review of that movie, but watching it did inspire a few thoughts as I sat with my kids and realized the finality of this final film.

SPOILER ALERT: This content will include references to things that happen in all seven books and all eight movies. There is a statute of limitations on spoilers, however, and because the final book was released FOUR YEARS AGO, anything is fair game. If you don't want to know how things end, stop reading right. this. minute.

One of the things that has always struck me about the HP series - book or movie - is that while on the surface people tend to dismiss it as "children's literature," that does not mean it has no value to adults. In fact, I've come to recognize that one of the reasons I, as a parent, enjoy these stories so much is because of the strong role of the parents that JK Rowling has created.

In many kids' books, the parents are non-existent, an afterthought, the butt of jokes and hijinks, or (worse yet) the enemy. They're often one-dimensional and serve no purpose other than to give the kid protagonists someone to laugh at/fight with/ignore. However, in the Potterverse, most of the parents serve a pretty valuable purpose. While they are not defined solely by their parenthood (any more than non-parent characters are defined by their lack of offspring), they are often motivated by it, and thus the role of parent in a HP story is one that has a great deal of influence on other characters.

James and Lily Potter: Before the tale even begins, Harry's parents are dead. While he may be The Boy Who Lived, he is an orphan. However, it becomes clear very early in the series that the reason he is The Boy Who Lived is because of his parents and the actions they took in the final seconds before their deaths. Lily, in particular, is crucial not only to Harry's life but to his final quest to defeat Voldemort. Although the Potter parents are physically dead, Harry interacts with them when he needs them most -- in fact, just before the final showdown he meets with James and Lily (along with his godfather Sirius Black and Remus Lupin, both substitute father-figures) and they tell him that they have been with him all along - and will continue to be there. If it wasn't for the love of his parents - particularly his mother - Harry would have been The Boy Who Died.

The Weasleys: Arthur and Molly Weasley are two of my favorite characters. They've cranked out a whole bunch of kids, but that doesn't mean they have no room in their hearts for more. And if a small boy wizard shows up as their youngest son's best friend, then he too becomes part of Clan Weasley, and they will literally fight to the death to protect him. Harry's lack of family -- because, certainly, Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon don't count - makes it all the more significant when he is welcomed into the Burrow.

More importantly, Molly and Arthur have a deep and unabashed love for their biological kids, no matter how much mischief is managed - Molly rules the roost with an iron fist clad in a colorful knitted jumper,  and will do what she has to in order to guard what is hers. In the final scene between Molly and Bellatrix Lestrange, the audience in my theater burst into applause. Why? Because Molly is a badass, that's why.

The Malfoys: Lucius Malfoy is, point blank, an awful dad. His wife, Narcissa, isn't very high on the Good Mom list either. They're long-time supporters of the Dark Lord, total classists and racists (keep the wizarding world pure!), and all-around asshole parents. It's no wonder their kid, Draco, is such a shitbag. He's mean and petty and cruel, and he's all of these things not just because his parents are mean and petty and cruel, but because he really appears to *enjoy* being mean and petty and cruel. Draco's an ass, raised by a pair of bigger asses.

However - and this is huge - towards the latter end of the series, his parents begin to wonder if perhaps they've backed the wrong horse in the battle of good vs. evil. After a stint in Azkaban prison, Lucius is well on his way to being a hot mess, and Narcissa is seriously questioning her own motives in offering her son up as Voldemort's hitman. By the time we get to the final book, it's pretty clear that the two of them just want to escape alive, with their kid in tow.

Arguably, we could even say that Narcissa is the stronger and braver of the two. Why? Because after Harry's showdown with Voldemort, it is she who tells her master that Harry is dead -- all because she learns that Harry is the one who has saved her son. It is this betrayal of Voldemort on Narcissa's part that allows Harry and the rest of the forces of good to ultimately triumph - and it allows Narcissa, Lucius, and Draco to flee Hogwarts before they can be killed in the battle.

Hermione, Neville and Luna: Although Hermione Granger is one of the three main characters in the series, we never really have much interaction with her parents. They are Muggles - non-wizarding folks who happen to be dentists -- and it's always been my thought that Hermione wasn't especially close to them. However, in the final installment, Hermione performs a sacrificial act of love, and uses the Obliterate charm on her mother and father, sending them off to a life without memories of having a child. In the movie, the scene is particularly well done, and highlights that however much of an outsider Hermione has always felt herself to be, she was raised to be strong and compassionate and brave. She's probably the strongest female character in the series, because she is so active in her own fate, rather than reactive. Hermione DOES things, instead of waiting for things to happen TO her, and it's pretty clear that she's been raised to think for herself.

Neville Longbottom's parents are absent. In fact, they were prominent members of the Order of the Phoenix members until Bellatrix Lestrange got hold of them. Neville was raised by his grandmother, and what's fascinating to me about Neville is that so many things in his experience at Hogwarts are related to what happened to his parents. In an early book, a professor asks him to perform the Cruciatus curse on a spider, and Neville refuses - after all, his own mother and father were victims of same. Neville, however, has a strong sense of right and wrong, and his moral convictions may not always make him popular, but he doesn't seem to mind. At one point, Albus Dumbledore awards Gryffindor points for Neville - because while it takes great bravery to stand up to one's enemies, it takes even more to stand up to one's friends. In the final installment, Neville comes into his own, kicking ass and taking names - his bravery with the sword of Gryffindor earned rousing cheers from the HPDH2 audience.

Luna Lovegood is all kinds of awesome. She's a bit daffy, she marches to her own beat, and she's been raised by a single dad who dotes on her. She's a bit isolated socially - because of her own uniqueness - but doesn't seem to mind at all. Like Neville, she's true to who she is. Her father is a decent guy who loves his daughter and just wants her to be safe.

Tom Riddle and Snape: Tom Riddle is a sad, sad boy who is raised in an orphanage after his father abandons the family and his mentally unstable mother dies.  Of course, Tom finds out that he was conceived while his father was under the influence of a love potion, and Rowling makes it clear that kids born under such circumstances are a bit dodgy anyway. As a teen, he kills his father and his grandparents for being assholes. Is it any wonder that he grows up to be the king of all things evil? Not only that, his own messed-up childhood makes it nearly impossible for him to understand the power of Lily Potter's love for her son.

Severus Snape, on the other hand, was raised by both parents, but they were emotionally distant and left him insecure and with little to no self-esteem. His father, a Muggle, was absent a lot, and he was raised in relative poverty and loneliness. His first real friend was Lily Evans, and he loved her until the day he died. It's possible that Snape's neglect by his own family was a driving force in his love and loyalty towards Lily, as well as her young son.

Does all of this mean that the entire Harry Potter series is a great big Freudian lesson, in which people are defined by the individuals who raised them? Not at all. But the fact that the parents of these characters were so much more than just shadows - that they had depth and personality and adventures before their kids came along - makes it a series that I can enjoy just as much as my kids do. And that's one of the reasons why Harry Potter will endure long after JK Rowling's original audience has grown up and left childhood behind.


  1. Dear Patti,
    I have always loved the HP Books--and I am 59. I don't tire of reading them, and the interaction between people like the Weasleys and Harry, the bits and pieces hinted at by Rowling, make the series one I think I'll always love.
    My only wish is that Rowling had--or will-write about those nineteen years after the Battle of Hogwarts. I want to know about the characters' lives after--how Neville married, and Luna, and what was life like for the Potter gang. I noticed that Draco acknowledged Harry with a nod while sending off young Scorpius. He remembers, I think, how often Harry saved his life!
    The whole series makes me wish we had something like that in real life. I've always wished for magic. I think I always will, and I try to keep my eyes open to the possibilities...
    Thanks for this insightful article on the Potter universe!
    Love and hugs,

  2. I'd like to see a prequel, myself, featuring Minerva McGonagall and Albus Dumbledore.

    I bet Minerva's got all kinds of stories :)

  3. I would also love to see a prequel featuring Albus Dumbledore( my hero).I have not seen the final movie of HP& DH.But I read the book an awesome read at that!I do have my suspicions as to J.K. Rowling being one of us magickal folk!
    I am 58 years young and really enjoyed the Hp series and I agree with you Patti, it was well put
    with the parents being the gist of the back ground of the movie. I can only hope that Ms. Rowling will write more on the saga just with different characters(Harry's kids in Hogwarts perhaps?)One can only wish!
    Love & Light!