Witches & Wizards: Harry Potter

Inspired by the FoundryCast theme from back in February, which was Witches and Wizards month, I wanted to share my story about the magical world of Harry Potter… a magical world that I almost missed out on completely. I would never have discovered Horcruxes or Animagi, forbidden spells or Patronus charms, even Tri-Wizard Tournaments and Hogwarts Houses! Here’s my story and my feelings on Witches and Wizards in media today:

In the beginning, I cared neither for the Harry Potter books nor the movies. The first two films were only just coming out and the marketing was simply appalling. I used to frequent the Walden Books in the old Biltmore Square Mall every two weeks, you know, back when bookstore chains were still a thing. I would go there to buy periodicals such as Star Wars Insider magazine, the Shonen Jump manga, and the Dungeon and Dragon magazines. I would meander around the shop, usually having the entire place to myself. After cruising through the children’s section towards the back of the store, then checking out the Science Fiction section, I would lastly pass back through the Young Adult aisle before paying for my selections. It was neat seeing all sorts of new series and continuations of books I had read as a child. When I spied the Harry Potter series on the shelf, I noted that it was a children’s book, created for children, and not much more than that.

As the overall presence of Mr. Potter's books and associated swag continued to grow, I felt that there were two major problems with what I saw, which instinctively turned me away from checking the books out. The first issue of mine had to do with the current market space, or rather, the trends at the time dealing with witches. The term witch had been brutalized in major or popular media, becoming analogous with either a bubbly magic princess with a coven of sassy friends, or a decrepit horror movie villain who terrorizes the college town with dark voodoo. Neither was a very sophisticated nor layered representation of magic use, and thus good story telling wasn’t expected. Boring old wizards and crazy old witches? Pass.

Another issue for me was the imagery and marketing of the books themselves. After a couple of months, I started to notice that the Harry Potter books had gotten their own end-cap with a cardboard display! The art was zany and bright, looking as if it was scribbled in with colored pencils by a madman. The covers didn’t even look like the first of their kind at the time. I had seen and read other books about children in magical situations, going on adventures and meeting wild characters. What could I tell from the cover art? There was a boy witch, wearing a cape, flying around on a broom; just a huge jumble of stereotypes. I spied unicorn in the distance, a dull looking castle, and a flying golden nugget. The back cover also featured a silly looking old wizard in a purple robe with an owl diving after a key. I felt that I had read this exact story as a child a hundred times over. Let me guess... The titular character would go on wacky adventures, they would allegedly grow as a person by learning life lessons by the end of the book, and make the same mistakes in the sequel. Everything would happened in an encapsulated and predictable way. It was all fluff, no crunch, with a little bit of shimmer. Sometimes things could get a little scary, but everything would be safe and sound with bright rainbows again by the conclusion. This was clearly not a series for me. I was too old, too wise, and too discerning of a reader to get anything out of Mr. Potter’s fancy magical perils.

I am willing to give a movie or a book a fair shot, even if I have a bad feeling about what is to come. I will read the first book of a series and try to remain open minded as I go. Yes, I read all of the Twilight books and saw all of the movies, so now I feel that I can intelligently argue how bad they are. If the subject matter isn’t something I care to ingest at all, I will do some research on the author or the development of a book. And for that reason I can emphatically say that 50 Shades of Grey is a revolting pile of rubbish without having wasted any significant time reading it all the way through. I saved my self from hours of frustration and I didn’t have to subject myself to poorly written pornography that wore a vague disguise as a finding-yourself drama. Ten pages in, and Grey was completely unreadable.

As a side note: it’s okay if YOU like one of those two series…. However, your validity takes a serious blow in any future opinions going forward, but I still like you and we can still be good friends!

Forward ahead a few months to a holiday get-together around Christmas when I was kicking back on my mother’s couch. She had on a movie in the back ground and I was taking a break from the jocularity by staring aimlessly at the screen. She couldn’t remember the name of the program when I asked, but the movie seemed relatively harmless. The music was nice and the atmosphere had a little depth to it. Just then, a moment of clean computer generated special effects caught my attention. A small boy and a giant walked up to a brick wall, in some dirty old English town. They tapped on a few bricks with an umbrella and suddenly the bricks began to unlock and twist, like a massive series of tumblers in a complex lock, shifting aside to let the two pass. I thought to myself, well that was cool, and I watched the movie intermittently out of the corner of my eye for the next hour, eventually losing interest in it. I thought it might have been Harry Potter, but I put it out of my mind and rejoined my family.

Weeks later, I discovered that it was indeed the first Harry Potter movie. Was it the same book that I thought was garbage? Was this some sort of clever reimagining, like I had seen in other series like Pirates of the Caribbean? With a long weekend in college a head of me, I headed down to the Blockbuster Video. Harry Potter and the Sorcerror’s Stone lept off of the shelf and into my hand before I had a moment to question if my $5.99 would be better spent on an action movie, or some anime. On my trip back I grabbed some primo college-town grub and headed back to my dorm room.

My roommate was away for the weekend, so I drew tight the blinds as if I was ashamed of what was about to take place. I locked the door, got comfy on my futon, and pressed play on my PlayStation 2. The first twenty minutes of the film helped to further affix my previous feelings about how dopey and childish the series was bound to be. A bland old wizard and a frumpy old witch met in the middle of the night on a dark night in a small English neighborhood. Some ogre looking bloke on a magic motorcycle swept down from the sky and brings out a magical baby. I braced for more fantastical drollery as the boy we met next, who I assumed was the baby, was an orphan that lived in a cupboard underneath the stairwell with an abusive aunt & uncle.

However, I didn’t know about the slow burn and the gradual escalation that was about to take place.

This movie took its time; slowly introducing concepts may have felt disjointed, which would later prove were fairly well integrated. What felt would have been a throw away incident or magical cameo of “Hey, look at this amazingly silly thing” would later resolve in a satisfying way. Witches use brooms? Mostly to play sports, they do. Wizards need different cauldrons? To brew different quality potions they do. And their magic wands? Little did I know the payoffs that would come from those twin cores until much later on down the road! I felt like the world was unfolding and connecting in a way that could be uniquely explored, taking advantage of the usual tropes about magic, but turning them on their head and making them fresh again.

By the end of the movie, I felt strangely moved by the balance of tragedy and optimism. It was youthful, but not childish as I expected. The musical score was composed by John Williams and it was incredible, building tension and providing a backdrop of wonderment. Even the young actors weren’t terrible. They weren’t good, but they were serviceable when supported by the gravitas of real marquee talent in the form of Alan Rickman and Maggie Smith. Dumbledore was about as boring an old geezer wizard you can imagine, which I thought was a misstep but an accurate depiction of many wizards in media up until that point.

It wasn’t yet 9pm, and so I walked off of campus, down a handful of blocks and back in to the Blockbuster. I returned The Sorcerer’s Stone in exchange for The Chamber of Secrets and The Prisoner of Azkaban. I watched one that night and one the next morning. There were heart wrenching betrayals, surprise villains, characters actually developing, and a recasting of Dumbledore due to Richard Harris’s unfortunate passing. The new Dumbledore felt more mischievous, clever, and warmhearted. Before the weekend was out, I was already looking up the books online and counting my pennies to dive deeper into the Wizarding World.

Over the next few months, I worked my way through all of the books via a combination of reading physical books as well as absorbing audio books. I was enthralled with Tim Dale’s reading of the series. I remember at one point, I burned the audio to a CD for a long road trip because I didn’t have an mp3 player. I would have to forward through hours of story to pick up where I left off whenever I stopped. When I read the books, I heard Tim Dale’s voice, and when I saw the movies, they felt very in sync with what I had read. It was a great time of discovery and rediscovery, as moments I didn’t hold dear to from the books took new meanings for me in the movies.

I guess hadn’t really become a fan until Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince was out, or maybe it came out but I wasn’t quite there yet. After listening to book 6, I reread it, and then I listened to the audio book again! I felt as if I had to unravel the mysteries as to what was next before anyone else. I even purchased a book that predicted elements of Book 7, and in retrospect, they were about 50% correct. It was a good time to be a Harry Potter fan, reminiscing with your friends and deeply analyzing the characters. I was at my old Walden Books the night that Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows released. I wore my Griffindor scarf, was fifth in line to pick up my book, and read a few chapters before I slept that night. And as I rested, I dreamed of magical lands far away where I could fly on my broom and go on adventures with my friends.

So, what is it about Witches and Wizards that capture our imagination so? I find that there is such an deep intrigue in our psyche when it comes to the world of the unknown that is hiding just beyond our understanding. It as if magic flows through the whole world and we are just on the other side of a rice paper thin membrane that masks our knowledge of it.

For the longest time, names such as Gandalf or The Wizard of Oz were virtually the only wizards of note; one was wise and powerful while the other was clever but a charlatan. Wizards were masters of the arcane; peculiar in nature as having transcended the mundane and often times driven mad by the pure weight of their power. Witches were nameless, base, and crude. Their essences were tied to natural forces of the moon, of blood, and of ichor. Theirs was an ugly form of power, corrupting and yet bewitching, compelling us in animalistic ways.

As media adapts to the sensibilities and escapism needs of its audience, the iconography of our fantasy tales shift to create new metaphors. Monsters have for centuries been manifestations of society’s fears and anxieties. The most recent evidence of this in modern television and movies is that of the Zombie. The term Zombie comes from Haitian folklore, where a dead body is reanimated through various methods, most commonly through Vodou (often inaccurately referred to as Voodoo). In this context, the term zombie is used to describe a deceased individual who is revived and has their every action governed by a sorcerer or bokor. The revived subject is thought to have no will of its own as the bokor captures and stores the victims soul (or zombi astral) in a jar or bottle, which can be either be used to strengthen their powers or sold on to clients as a good luck charm. As the imagery of shambling soulless corpses began to mirror mindless labor fears in a Capitalist society, Zombie movies took on new meanings.

I am so inspired by re-researching monster metaphors in media that I am now planning a future blog on this subject, in more detail, and with a slightly more collegiate take!

Today, the images of Witches and Wizards are beginning to change. Thanks in no small part to movies like Harry Potter or shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer or The Magicians, writers are getting more inventive and more insightful in their stories. The theme of magic in general is on the rise, allowing storytellers to play around with ideas that bind together the flights of the fanciful with the depths of the human psyche.

This new wave of media challenges old beliefs and once again makes positive the mythos of the unknown and the mystic, such so that there has been a resurgence in the practice of actual witchcraft. Females in particular, both young and old, are embracing the power that comes with the strength of the modern witch in today's society. During the rise of the feminist movements in the '70s, the women activists often expressed politics openly holding what some journalists would call the "fearsome power of a 'witch.'”

The fantasy of having power is quite potent. In a new age where technology brings to light world affairs with immediacy and vibrancy, younger generations are feeling moved to fight, fly, or freeze. In times like these, fairy-tales can be powerful tools to provide an escape, as well as to tell stories that can arm us for the troubles of the future. What would a person like me do with the power to sculpt the world around me? But we do have the power to change the world. We have free will and the resolve to make real things happen when we focus our minds and dedicate our spirits. Many amazing pieces of art, architecture, and influence in world affairs have been wrought through the machinations of the inspired! However; magic has a cost.

Good games and stories about magic are parables for our own lives where our actions have consequences. The easy way out isn’t always the best way out, and cheaters never prosper in the end. In the fantasy books, the use of magic is often protected, and it’s abuse is seen as sacrilege by the other practitioners. I think we all can relate to feeling the need to restrain ourselves when we are given power over others. And I think it is safe to say that we have all seen how absolute power can corrupt absolutely.

Lastly, I believe that there was a great appeal and a just representation in the magical world by the story that was being told through the lead characters in the Harry Potter series, where the world of magic acts simply as a device with which to live and breathe. These were very real people who grew along with the readers, which was something you could hardly find in any other series. Let’s just look at how the lead four characters grew up along with us.

  • Book 1 Harry: A tiny, bespectacled child, maltreated by his adoptive uncle and aunt. He was a victim of circumstance. He was weak, scared, and an outcast.

  • Book 7 Harry: He became one of the greatest wizards that ever lived. Defeated the greatest evil because he took control of his destiny. He showed bravery even in the face of death, saving his friends on his own terms.

  • Book 1 Ron: He came from a poor family and was the 2nd youngest sibling out of 7 brothers and 1 sister. He had no particular talent and wasn't very clever. He was shy, meek, and awkward.

  • Book 7 Ron: King Weasley! He grows out of the shadows of his elder brothers, overcoming jealousy and insecurity by becoming the man he wants to be. He finds love in a witch who compliments him perfectly, and remains loyal to his friends above all else.

  • Book 1 Hermione: As a girl who does not come from a pure-blood family, she was an outcast. Her intelligence was overshadowed by her lack of control and tact. Seen as a nerd, she was never acknowledged as a girl.

  • Book 7 Hermione: She becomes one of the smartest and most capable witches of her age. She was loyal, almost to a fault, choosing to sacrifice her family to protect her friends. She was beautiful, intelligent and incredibly brave.

  • Book 1 Neville: He was a fat, nervous, socially awkward tag-a-long. He was constantly bullied throughout school, getting picked on and left behind. He too was a victim of circumstance, exactly like Harry, losing his parents and growing up with his overprotective grandmother.

  • Book 7 Neville: He becomes a rebellion leader in the school when the other main three are on the lamb. Loss and hardship made him strong, and he valiantly fought to save his friends. He also had one of the best moments in the entire series, becoming the Snakeslayer by killing Lord Voldemort’s final horcrux.

Everyone overcomes insurmountable odds in these books. They do this by relying on friendship, and by striving to do what they believe is right, even when it isn’t easy or safe. As I discovered, the magic of each person was merely an extension of their personalities. Although he knew a great deal more about Dark Arts than any other student at Hogwarts, Harry’s spell of choice was a simple disarm spell. Hermione’s cleverness in the utilization of her spells were what made her powerful. Ron’s skills in Wizard’s Chess and his goal keeping abilities at Quidditch show that his strengths were more tactical than magical.

I am glad that I finally “got it” when it came to the Potter franchise. It is a book series that grew with its audience and a movie series that tells a fairly comprehensive and compelling story for the limited runtime available. Harry, Ron, Hermione, Neville, Ginny, Luna, Cedric, Fred & George; these were characters representing virtues and values which we hope to convey. They were examples of how we should act, think, and be. Long and forever gone is the image of witches as ugly, evil, old hags, promoting witches and wizards as protagonists rather than victims and villains. This is a magical world of potions, of spells, and of flying broomsticks that represents our world in a cunning way. The lessons we learn along the way are not easily earned, and not all endings are quite what we imagine.

Where there is loss, there can be a ray of hope.

Where there is a curse, there can be an antidote.

Where there is a strong spirit, there can be a little magic.