I’m reading the Harry Potter books again for the 27th time. No, I lie — it’s only been 26 times. But that’s okay because it’s been about five years since I as much as picked up anything with J.K. Rowling’s name on it. See, ever since I decided I ought to start reading books that weren’t Harry Potter I’ve had the attitude that the time I would be spending rereading stories I’ve already read umpteen times could probably be better spent reading something that I’ve never read before. Expanding the catalogue of books in my library rather than reading the same seven books over and over again.
So what prompted me, a little over a month ago, to finally pick up Harry Potter again was my friend conscripting me into his team for a Harry Potter trivia night. See, I may avoid reading the books too often nowadays, but I take my status as a diehard Harry Potter fan and my unimpeachable knowledge of the stories as a point of utmost pride. No way was I going to suffer the humiliation of being beaten by some Muggle on a test of Harry Potter knowledge. I needed to swot up if I was going to win, so I set myself the task of reading the entire corpus in less than a month.
As it turned out, I only got through a little more than three of the books in time for the trivia night and we didn’t even place in the top three. Shame beyond shame, my friends. I could scarcely look at myself in the mirror that night. How could I call myself a Harry Potter fan after that? I was clear to me that it was more important than ever that I finish reading all seven books, even if exam day had come and gone. People who don’t win Harry Potter trivia don’t deserve the luxury of starting and not finishing a Harry Potter reading marathon.
And so I continued reading. As of now, I’ve just finished Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and intend to continue reading without interruption until I’ve finished Deathly Hallows.
I’ve always thought it was a boring cliché when people say of a great work that they notice something new every time they read it (or watch it). I can’t say I’ve noticed something new every time I’ve read the Harry Potter books — because if I did I certainly can’t remember. But this time round I have. Or, at least, I’ve seen the stories in a different light. It struck me that these are, very much, stories for children. Yes, I have actually noticed before now that the Harry Potter books are children’s books, seeing as I first read them when I was a child. And nor do I deny that adults can’t benefit from them as well, as evidenced by the throngs of grown-ups, as well as children, who populate the Harry Potter fandom. But the point is, if J.K. Rowling had wanted to write the Harry Potter books for adults, I think she would have written them very differently.
Let me explain. The themes of the Harry Potter books come through very clearly: love, friendship, loyalty, tolerance, sacrifice. And good and evil. The stories uncomplicatedly oppose good and evil, light and darkness, love and hate, life and death. Lord Voldemort and his followers unambiguously represent hate and evil. Fine for a children’s book. Things really are that simple when you’re a child. But there aren’t many grown-ups’ stories that are about good and evil in such a stark, black-and-white way. Where the villain of the piece is plainly and uncomplicatedly a monster. Certain groups excepted, mature adults don’t tend to think simplistically in terms of “good” and “evil”. We know, or ought to know, that things are rarely that simple.
It’s not a mature way to look at the world to think the world is divided up neatly into goodies and baddies. There are goodies and baddies, but the greater mass of humanity falls somewhere in between. Sure, sometimes mature adults do need reminding that genuine good and evil exist in the world — that’s why stories like Harry Potter exist. But far more often, in the real world, evil is done not by evil people but by ordinary people (that is, people who are neither straightforwardly good or evil) who do evil in the belief they’re doing good. Or ordinary people who are too weak, scared, selfish or uncaring to resist doing evil. Man is Fallen, but not evil. Much evil in our age, in my view, is not done by the would-be Hitlers and Voldemorts of the world but, maybe ironically, by people who are utterly convinced of their own moral righteousness and the evil of their opponents.
I think if Harry Potter were written for adults, it’s more likely that the central theme of the stories wouldn’t be “good versus evil” as much as how human weakness, fear, ignorance and prejudice can result in the propagation of evil. Voldemort and the Death Eaters were explicitly based on the Nazis. But the story of the Nazis’ rise to power wasn’t of an elite, secretive faction of nihilistic terrorists taking power through violence and infiltration — it was of hate-peddling fanatics winning mass popular political support for their cause by playing on people’s genuine anxiety and misery. It was ordinary people who permitted evil, in the form of the Nazis, to win.
Indulge me further for a moment, but I think what might make for an even more interesting story would be a humanised “Dark” side that represents the way naïve, idealistic people who believe themselves to be acting for the greater good can bring about enormous suffering. Modern history is replete with crusading ideologues utterly convinced of the righteousness of their cause, adept at winning the allegiance of the ignorant masses through their charisma and demagoguery, and whose dogmatism and swivel-eyed zeal leaves them oblivious to the suffering and misery caused by their agenda — or, worse, who actively go about killing and imprisoning and committing vile abuses in the belief that it’s all necessary in pursuit of The Greater Good.
Maybe it’s just me, but I’d find a story about a magical world divided between a powerful, mass cult-like political movement which sees violence as a legitimate means of bringing about its lofty objectives, and its persecuted dissidents, really interesting. What would make such a story genuinely creepy and compelling is that, just like in real life, it’s the ignorance and moral weakness of otherwise good, ordinary people that allows the violent demagogues to win. It wouldn’t be as much a story about bad men doing horrible things as one about ordinary people letting them, if not openly cheering them on. Equally, the malefactors of the story aren’t simply hateful death-worshipers like Voldemort, but naïve idealists willing, like so many political Utopians, to propagate misery for The Greater Good.
“If you’re so keen on this dumb idea then why don’t you just write it yourself instead of dragging J.K. Rowling’s books?” you ask. First of all, I’m absolutely not dragging Harry Potter by any means. I’ve been an über-fan since I was eight and I love the Harry Potter stories to pieces. I wouldn’t change a single line of them. But that shouldn’t stop me speculating about the kinds of themes that might feature if the Harry Potter books were written for a more grown-up audience. Secondly, I would love to have a crack at writing this idea as AU fan fiction if I actually had an ounce of creative writing talent, let alone the patience. Unfortunately, the best I’ve ever been able to manage in the creative writing department was a well-complimented short story I wrote for English class in my last year of high school. It’s all been downhill from there. I’m just going to have to content myself with short, lazily-edited blog posts, I’m afraid.