In Search of an Era Lived Well: Ageing with Harry Potter

By the time the British Library saw its most popular exhibition come to a close in February earlier this year, it had recorded more than 150,000 visitors with no ticket left unreserved. Apart from that, over 11,000 free tickets were made available for school children to have a taste of the iconic spectacle that was Harry Potter: A History of Magic, now accessible worldwide, virtually, with the help of a collaboration with Google. Surely, the authorities had witnessed nothing like this before.

As J K Rowling steps into her 54th year on the real planet, we look back at our interactions with the other magical world that has been her gift to this millennial generation. Titas Bose writes…

For the Potter crazy multitude of our millennial generation, Rowling undoubtedly punched a hole in the black and white moral spectrum. From a distorted face of Voldemort screaming “There is no good or evil. There is only power” to a Dumbledore explaining to a teenage Harry that one can choose the schoolhouse, and concomitantly their personality traits, over what they are inherently born with, Harry Potter, even in the less nuanced initial few books, had deliberated a lot about choice and circumstance and the very thin line between the two. More than the secrets and the spells, the merchandise and the obsessive devouring of the Harry Potter universe itself, it now seems to me that an entire generation, grappling with its transition into internet socialization, had wanted to find an allegory of itself in characters who were not very different from us. Some of us were members of secret fan clubs, discussing Harry Potter controversies and plots and trying to relate real-life situations to those in the books. It was the charm and attraction of communion really, more so than anything else. We really wanted to feel that our lives were in a state of emergency and it was up to us – those of us who were congregating and making groups to stick together as friends – to prepare for an impending doom. So when 26/11 took place, which was roughly around the time that the last books were coming out, and school was suddenly abuzz with emergency evacuation drills, it all fitted. After all, Terrorism, with graphic images of bombing and destruction of civilian spaces that deflects blame not on particular nations, but on to an overpowering inherent and fundamental Evil, was the phenomenon that came to define our realities.

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Potterland, artwork by Paramita Routh Roy

Looking back critically, the Harry Potter books were thrillers with predestined fate as a looming presence. Each book, a concentric circle within the entire plot(s), ended with the discovery that it is ultimately Fate that turned the wheels of life and that the only choice that Harry ever had to make, was not in action, but in morality. He could never choose to do what he would do; he could only steer himself towards the good, as opposed to the evil. The twist at the end where he managed to defy his prophetic fate by surviving the fatal battle was, of course, the result of massive media attention and heaps of fan letters that begged Rowling to give us a happy ending and a hope for a better world. It was a generation’s one big chance to hope to survive its fate- Terrorism.

In a way then, a set of books primarily about school stories that deftly concealed their moral precepts in a garb of lessons about friendship and bravery(albeit the “correct”  kind of friendship and a show of bravery without choice), had become a franchise and a phenomenon about our lives that were in danger. No longer could our grandparents belittle us by saying that we led nice comfortable lives compared to their World War stricken existence- we had our own big thing to worry about and it was more potent because like Harry, we as civilians, had no choice but to prepare for a terrorist attack.

I recently read a fan theory that explained why the happily-ever-after epilogue to the series and consequently The Cursed Child was not popular with our generation. We had identified too much with Harry as a victim, who was plunged into a world and a life that he needed to survive in order to save the rest of the world; and therefore we had never focussed on the possibilities after Evil was destroyed and Harry did survive. Much has been spoken about the “Nineteen Years Later” chapter of The Deathly Hallows and there I can say that a grown-up Harry with a wife and kids seemed like a farce. So when The Cursed Child was released with changing-history as its dominant theme, it could not garner any attention from this first Harry Potter generation. During The Cursed Child we had all grown up and with social media engulfing our lives, it was impossible to look forward to a happily-ever-after with or without changing history.

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Potter Collage, artwork by Anupam DebRoy

What did it then mean for the Fantastic Beasts franchise that we swear to enjoy, “despite the factual inaccuracies”? Perhaps for us Fantastic Beasts, along with Quidditch Through the Ages and Tales of Beedle the Bard were mere appendices to the actual story, extra information as embellishments that often offered glimpses into Rowling’s reading lists. For example, “Babbitty Rabbitty and her Cackling Stump” from Beedle the Bard about witch hunting was not just a reference to Salem, but also a mytho-historical explanation for the xenophobic worlds of Harry Potter (as an extension of our realities). Fantastic Beasts itself a Hogwarts textbook was actually a middle school biology book, and a great handbook on mythical creatures from different classical pantheons. However, with scribbles and doodles on the margins by Ron (the published edition is designed as the actual copy used by Ron), the book refuses to remain a boring encyclopedic textbook.

Same with Pottermorea paratextual treasure trove of information, news and fan-interactive website designed for previously unpublished material by Rowling- histories of the Harry Potter universe, other schools teaching magic, histories of other wizarding families (including the Potters), information about wands, spells and other entities that feature in the Harry Potter series marginally. What this whole repertoire has done, especially for the generation that grew up with Harry Potter and was disillusioned with its ideal treatment of the hero’s fate, is shift the focus from the hero itself to the universe. For us, effectively, the hero and his story are dead. But Harry Potter as a franchise, as a world, and not as a story, refuses to end.

Fantastic Beasts the film (and hopefully all the remaining films in this series) begins with this sentiment. The wizarding world, now negotiating with America is now closer to our real geographies than ever before. Through the (back)- story of Dumbledore and characters who merely featured as footnotes to the Harry Potter story, we are reliving an important phenomenon of our lives, without the fictional lens of nostalgic construction. Fantastic Beasts is a testimony to a disillusioned generation holding on to old friends.

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Book covers from Google

Title art by Trinamoy Das 

NEXT POST ON 11th August

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