Essay – Harry Potter, my father, and me?

Harry Potter day falls in the same weekend as father’s day this year,1 and so this seems like an appropriate time to meditate on how I missed the Harry Potter boat.  My father and the book are so inextricably linked in my mind that I vividly remember where I was when I read Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, even if the exact time has fallen away.

When I was at university my parents separated and my father moved to a town two hours north of where we were living – I was an adult and it had been coming for a while, but it was still a shock.  My father and I had had a strained relation through my teenage years; he with a volatile personality, a high stress job and nothing in the way of good parental role models to build off of,2 and me with the big feelings and resentments that come with growing up.  Ironically his leaving was an opportunity for us to build a better relationship, an easier job for him, a bit of distance and emotional maturity from me.  So I tried to visit my father regularly, even though we were in some ways alienated from each other and the situation was somewhat sad.

Reading was practically a religion in my family, and an acceptable escape from one another in the house was to settle down with a paper or book.  By this stage Harry Potter was in paperback (possibly even in sequels), and the buzz from my non-fantasy reading friends was enormous.  I borrowed a copy, I believe from my mother,3  as the chance to escape into a children’s wizarding school each night was exactly what I needed.  Of course I had other books with me, but Harry Potter was going to be my life preserver for a difficult early visit.

I don’t remember most of the trip except that while awkward, it was better than I expected, and part of the long journey to building what was, in the end, a really good relationship with my dad.  What I remember clearly however is the evenings; retreating to the tiny spare room in the house my father was renting, and plowing through the Philosopher’s Stone.

The reason I remember it so well was because I was so underwhelmed.4  The writing felt prosaic, even for a children’s book, and lacking the polish I associated with English fantasy from Lewis to Pratchett.5  I also didn’t like Harry, who felt like he was special because we kept being told he was special.  To be fair though, I identified strongly with Hermione, so my reaction may may have been intentional on the part of the author.6

However, the thing that most bugged me, though completely irrational, was the mismatch of the houses and the characters.  Here we have four children, one brave and cunning, one smart, one loyal, and one villainous, and we have four houses, one for the brave, one for the loyal, one for the smart, and one for the cunning and villainous.  While the drama of Harry’s disposition is well done, it always felt to me like Rowling meant for each of the four main children to go to each of the four houses, but couldn’t work out how to balance the book without putting Hermione and Ron in Gryffindor.7  What is Ravenclaw without the smartest student in years, and what is Hugglepuff without the best friend someone could ask for?  It is a minor point in the grand scheme of things, but for me it broke the self-consistency of the world-building, and shattered my suspension of disbelief.

With the benefits of hindsight, I wonder if the problem was the book or me?  I’d built it up in my expectations, and was asking it to do things that were not really fair.  It was also not the most ideal of circumstances: in retrospect a good science fiction novel over which to bond with my father would have been a better choice.8  Or perhaps it just wasn’t the book for me, not really aligning with my tastes in fantasy, which lean more towards the high concept or the comedic.  Whatever the reason, Harry Potter didn’t speak to me, and sadly, I don’t think it ever will.

In the years since I’ve made my peace with this.  I’ve watched the movies and played through the games: first with my wife, and now with my children.  I may even end up reading the whole series to them.  Still, I’ll always feel a little like an outsider faking the rituals, and I’d trade it all to remember the days of that trip.  My father is gone now, and every memory of him is precious, even the mediocre ones, while I’ll always be able to read a copy of Harry Potter.

Image of what I think was on the copy I read, 9 and my father.

  1. At least in Australian and New Zealand.
  2. Though I genuinely believe he tried his best.
  3. Who is omnivorous when it comes to literature.
  4. From here on in these are recollections of reading a book almost two decades ago.
  5. The fact that Potter is a phenomenon, and the (admittedly later) Tiffany Aching books are not boggles my mind.
  6. Another knock against the book is that she gets sidelined early in the climax of the book.
  7. Yes I get the idea that they are brave too, but think about what defines those two characters, if you didn’t at least say Hermione was smart, you are very different to me
  8. And my Dad was indeed my gateway into SFF as a child, though my Mum pointed me to the world of fantasy beyond the Lord of the Rings and Narnia.
  9. By Source (WP:NFCC#4), Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=40018874

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