Pokin’ More Fun at Harry Potter

So here’s the thing: I really enjoy the Harry Potter books. I do. But they’re so incredibly overrated and amoral (at best) that whenever someone gets a good shot in—and it unfortunately tends to be somewhat rare—I can’t help but get a kick out of that. So much so that this is my third, I think, post on Harry Potter in just under a year. The other two are here and here.

This one below is a bit on the old side—a tad over three years, in fact—but I just discovered it and it expresses beautifully many of the smaller problems I have with the series (although the writer’s actually far more complimentary towards ol’ Harry’s basic character—or, more accurately, the lack thereof—than the lying little cheat deserves). I have therefore decided to share it with y’all. You’re welcome. Yes, I know, I’m too good to you.

Harry Potter
Pampered jock, patsy, fraud
By Chris Suellentrop
Friday, Nov. 8, 2002

Like most heroes, Harry Potter possesses the requisite Boy Scout virtues: trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent. But so do lots of boys and girls, and they don’t get books and movies named after them. Why isn’t the movie that comes out next week titled Ron Weasley and the Chamber of Secrets? Why isn’t its sequel dubbed Hermione Granger and the Prisoner of Azkaban? Why Harry? What makes him so special?

Simple: He’s a glory hog who unfairly receives credit for the accomplishments of others and who skates through school by taking advantage of his inherited wealth and his establishment connections. Harry Potter is no braver than his best friend, Ron Weasley, just richer and better-connected. Harry’s other good friend, Hermione Granger, is smarter and a better student. The one thing Harry excels at is the sport of Quidditch, and his pampered-jock status allows him to slide in his studies, as long as he brings the school glory on the playing field. But as Charles Barkley long ago noted, being a good athlete doesn’t make you a role model.

Harry Potter is a fraud, and the cult that has risen around him is based on a lie. Potter’s claim to fame, his central accomplishment in life, is surviving a curse placed on him as an infant by the evil wizard Voldemort. As a result, the wizarding world celebrates the young Harry as “The Boy Who Lived.” It’s a curiously passive accomplishment, akin to “The Boy Who Showed Up,” or “The Boy Who Never Took a Sick Day.” And sure enough, just as none of us do anything special by slogging through yet another day, the infant Harry didn’t do anything special by living. It was his mother who saved him, sacrificing her life for his.

Did your mom love you? Good, maybe you deserve to be a hero, too. The love of Harry’s mother saves his life not once but twice in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Not only that, but her love for Harry sends Voldemort into hiding for 13 years, saving countless other lives in the process. The book and the movie should be named after Lily Potter. But thanks to the revisionist histories of J.K. Rowling, Lily’s son is remembered as the world’s savior.

What Harry has achieved on his own, without his mother, stems mostly from luck and, more often, inheritance. He’s a trust-fund kid whose success at his school, Hogwarts, is largely attributable to the gifts his friends and relatives lavish upon him. (Coming soon: Frank Bruni’s book, Ambling Into Hogwarts: The Unlikely Odyssey of Harry Potter.) A few examples: an enchanted map (made in part by his father), an invisibility cloak (his father’s), and a state-of-the art magical broom (a gift from his godfather) that is the equivalent of a Lexus in a high-school parking lot.

Harry’s other achievements can generally be chalked up to the fact that he regularly plays the role of someone’s patsy. Almost all Harry’s deeds in the first book take place under the watchful eye of Hogwarts headmaster Dumbledore, who saves Harry from certain death at the end of the book. In Chamber of Secrets, the evil Voldemort successfully manipulates the unsuspecting Harry, who must once again be rescued. In Goblet of Fire, everything Harry accomplishes—including winning the Triwizard Tournament—takes place because he is the unwitting pawn of one of Voldemort’s minions.

Even Harry’s greatest moment—his climactic face-off with Voldemort in Goblet of Fire—isn’t much to crow about. Pure happenstance is the only reason Voldemort is unable to kill Harry: Both their magic wands were made with feathers from the same bird. And even with his lucky wand, Harry still needs his mom’s ghost to bail him out by telling him what to do. Once again, Lily Potter proves to be twice the man her son is.

Harry’s one undisputed talent is his skill with a broom, which makes him one of the most successful Quidditch players in Hogwarts history. As Rowling puts it the first time Harry takes off on a broom, “in a rush of fierce joy he realized he’d found something he could do without being taught.” Harry’s talent is so natural as to be virtually involuntary. Admiring Harry for his flying skill is like admiring a cheetah for running fast. It’s beautiful, but it’s not an accomplishment.

In fact, Harry rarely puts hard work or effort into anything. He is a “natural.” Time and again, Harry is celebrated for his instinctual gifts. When he learns that he is a Parselmouth, or someone who can speak the language of snakes, Rowling writes, “He wasn’t even aware of deciding to do it.” (In fact, when Harry tries to speak this language, he can’t do it. He can only do it instinctively.) When Harry stabs a basilisk in Chamber of Secrets, Rowling writes that he did it “without thinking, without considering, as though he had meant to do it all along.” In Goblet of Fire, during Harry’s battle with Voldemort, Rowling writes that “Harry didn’t understand why he was doing it, didn’t know what it might achieve. …”

Being a wizard is something innate, something you are born to, not something you can achieve. As a result, Harry lives an effortless life. Although Dumbledore insists, “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities,” the school that Dumbledore runs values native gifts above all else. That’s why Harry is such a hero in wizard culture—he has the most talent, even if he hasn’t done much with it. Hogwarts is nothing more than a magical Mensa meeting.

Chris Suellentrop, a writer in Washington, D.C., is a former Slate staffer.

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About the other scott peterson

Writer of comics and books and stuff.
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2 Responses to Pokin’ More Fun at Harry Potter

  1. Julie says:

    So start writing your own novel series about a teenaged female protagonist who weilds the weaponry of intellectualism (based on reading the classics at the library), whose causes include the alleviation of eco-human suffering funded by her “I can change your car oil for $15.00 bucks” home business and who sings old Bruce Springsteen songs in the shower.
    Break all those stereotypes… She should also not be a cheerleader, but she can wear skirts just to keep from overdoing the feminist thing… you know, Forster’s round characters and all that. 🙂
    No one’s stoppin’ ya. 🙂
    Julie

  2. Scott says:

    So start writing your own novel series
    [Snip]
    No one’s stoppin’ ya.
    You know, Jules, if I didn’t know better, I’d swear there was a certain snark element at work in your comment here. Could it be you’re tired of me pointing out all the flaws in the books you’d previously not noticed? May I suggest no one’s stoppin’ ya from reading my own bitchy comments on Harry Potter? 🙂 [Fortunately, of course, I do know better and know that snarking is far beneath you. Unlike me. I live for a good snark.]
    ‘Cuz here’s the thing: I’m kinda thinkin’ that Ms. Rowling’s can handle pretty much any criticism I lob her way. I feel like John Madden and Arlen Spector and Bono can too. Michael Vick, obviously, cannot. But that’s his problem.
    You do bring up a good point however, which is that few books can even get looked at these days unless it’s part of a series. So a book as brilliant as Bruce Brooks’s “Midnight Hour Encores” would likely not get published today if it were his first, as it’s a self-contained novel as opposed to being part of some huge series. Yet another bonus Harry has bestowed upon us.
    Or perhaps you feel that anyone who has not done cannot comment upon those who have? In which case I assume you’ve never criticized a film you’ve seen? Or, for that matter, have criticized the lyrics of the singer of the world’s most popular rock band. Unless you’ve perhaps been just a person yourself?
    Son of a…you’re not Julie! You’re Madonna! (Or is it Britney? I can’t see a thing through these old glasses o’ mine…)
    Hmm…did I just snark again? I’ve been meaning to cut down on that. Oh, what the heck—it’s the holiday season. Time to indulge a little.

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