One of my many favorite things about the Harry Potter series is that JK mostly refrains from making her characters either completely evil or completely good.  Her heroes – Harry, Dumbledore, Sirius Sirius – have flaws.  Her villians are either humanized – Voldemort, Malfoy – or non-Death Eaters – Umbridge.  Slughorn continues this grand tradition by giving us a character who is ostensibly one of the good guys, while being truly impossible to really like.

Slughorn is, at his core, just a really selfish person who doesn’t really care about anyone else in the world as long as he’s comfortable.  Harry thinks of him as a giant spider, collecting his “prizes” (former students who went on to do great things) in his web and twitching the strings to ensure his comfort, and I think that’s pretty accurate.  He obviously isn’t evil – after all, he’s horrified at the idea that his advice could have led to Voldemort’s seeming immortality – but he just doesn’t care much about the big picture.  Slughorn has no interest in serving a greater good or offering his talents to the world – as long as he has his crystallized pineapple and oak-matured mead and a comfortable, safe place to stay, he’s pleased with himself.

It’s another friendly reminder from JK that the world is not split into Good People and Death Eaters (simple as that may be), and that just because someone isn’t a Death Eater doesn’t mean they’re implicitly worthy of your trust.


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Teenage Struggles

My favorite Harry Potter book is Order of the Phoenix, which is strange because Sirius is my favorite character, and he dies towards the end of the book (spoilers?). I don’t think it’s strange, though, because it came out exactly when I needed it, in 2003, the summer between my sophomore and junior years of high school.  I was 16 (Harry’s 15 in this one, so yes, I am the Harry Potter generation and basically grew up right alongside him.  Be jealous) and oh my goodness being a teenager was kicking my ass.

Harry is just such a teenager in this one, and 16-year-old me related to him in this book more than any other character in any other book I’d read to that point.  The whole world was against him, and he wasn’t being taken seriously, the adults were just patting him on the head and sending him off on his way, as though he couldn’t possibly understand the situation in front of him. Up till this point, he’d put a lot of faith in the adults in his life, that they were doing what was necessary to keep him safe & that he could trust them.  Order of the Phoenix is the turning point where he started realizing that the adults in his life are people, and they weren’t perfect, and they had flaws and weak points and he may not agree with them on everything.  He is angry, and reacts to it in a flawlessly teenage way, by being withdrawn and secretive and blowing up at people and generally clinging to the idea that nobody could possibly understand his struggles.

I was absolutely that teenager.  Without dragging my entire life story out, I have had a few times in my life when I had struggles with my mental health, and around this particular time, those struggles basically came out of the woodwork and vomited all over me and my life.  I’m sure I was an absolute joy to be around, but believe me when I say it wasn’t awesome being that person, either.

But Harry – specifically the Harry of this book – was the first character that I ever saw go through the same struggles that I did.  Obviously our lives weren’t a perfect parallel – dark wizards never attempted to assassinate me, and my godfather is alive and well to this day – but there were similarities that resonated with me. I saw him struggling with the idea that he was expected to take on adult responsibilities while the adults in his life still treated him like a child when it was convenient for them;  I saw him struggling with a sense of anger towards the world at large and an inability to control it or even direct it properly; I saw him struggling with the idea that even people who he considered “good guys” can be flawed and that there is more than one flavor of shitty person in the world – and I related to him going through those things.  I have been a voracious reader my entire life, and I had never – have never – related to a character as strongly as I related to Harry during Order of the Phoenix.

And that, my friends, is why Order of the Phoenix is my favorite Harry Potter book, despite containing the death of my favorite Harry Potter character.

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Balancing Act

I’m really curious about the Muggle born students who go to Hogwarts and how they interact with the Muggle world when they’re on holiday.  Like, obviously there has to be some sort of provision in the International Statute of Secrecy for the parents of Muggle born witches and wizards (and my research on the subject tells me Hogwarts / the Ministry send a representative to explain things to the parents rather than just sending the standard owl when the kid’s 11), but what about their friends and extended family?  Do all of Dean Thomas’ cousins and aunts and uncles just think he goes to some random boarding school?  Don’t they ask him what he’s studying?  Does Hogwarts send home notices to Hermione’s parents letting them know what their daughter is getting up to during the school year? Did Lily Evans ever have a summer romance with a boy who didn’t understand why she couldn’t call or write when she went back to school?

Harry’s life in the Muggle world is terrible, so he’s all too happy to cast it off and jump feet first into the Wizarding world.  Lily & Hermione both ended up marrying pure blood wizards and leaving their Muggle lives behind, despite not having any trauma (that we know of), but there’s no reason why that should be assumed to be true of all the witches and wizards born in the Muggle world.  I’m just very curious as to whether any of the Muggle born students at Hogwarts ever tried to balance both sides of their lives, and how it worked out for them.

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James Potter has a bad rap, and he doesn’t deserve it.  Severus Snape has a good rap, and he doesn’t deserve it.  The defining moment of James Potter’s character, as far as the HP series goes, is when Harry breaks into Snape’s memories (on accident, of course) and sees his father bullying Snape.  Now, don’t get it twisted – I’m not going to defend Potter from bullying Snape.  It was a shitty thing to do, bullying is bad, etc. etc.

But! Snape was not just an innocent victim in this scenario.  In fact, while he was not the agressor, he was much more vicious –  he used the much more vicious Sectumsempra (James used Levicorpus).   Not only that, but he waited till James’ back was turned, and he and the other Mauraders were walking away, to attack.  This was clearly not about defending himself, this is about revenge.

Kudos to Alan Rickman for making a character who should frankly be despised throughout the fandom so universally loved.

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Dark Lord

I briefly hinted earlier this week that my posts were leading up to something, and I’ve finally gotten around to it: with the story of Voldemort, JK is very strongly implying that nature is much stronger than nurture, and the way that we deal with various struggles – and the imprints those struggles put on our personalities – is drawn from birth.  WTF is this bitch talking about?  I don’t remember any nature v nurture psychobabble in my HP books! And you would technically be right.  But allow me to present the evidence, in the form of three main characters:

A) An orphan who grew up in a neglectful, borderline abusive situation, who saw Hogwarts as a way out and escape from his painful home life.  His parents were described as strong of conviction, brave, sassy af, and were well loved by (nearly) everyone who remembered their names.

B) A child who grew up poor, in an abusive and neglectful home, who only had one friend throughout his early years (who he would later lose).  He also saw Hogwarts as a way out and escape from his painful home life.  All we know about his parents were that his father was abusive.

C) An orphan who grew up in a neglectful situation and saw Hogwarts as a way out and escape from the tedium of people he saw as beneath him.  He was concived under a love potion to a frightened, desperate mother who was fleeing an abusive home, and a father who left his mother when he discovered the truth of her identity.

(I know you all realize who I’m talking about here, but I’ll continue as though you don’t)

Character A grew up to be a sassy af, brave young adult / man, who was strong in his convictions and well-loved by (nearly) everyone who came into contact with him.  He, essentially, became the embodiment of love and the goodness of man.

Character B grew up to be a genocidal maniac, devoid of any human love, empathy or compassion, bent only on his own power and shaping the world in his image.  In essence, he became the embodiment of the dark side of humanity, conceited and cowardly in equal measure.

Character C grew up to be a gray area of a man, who began wandering down a dark path at a young age, only to turn away from it upon the death of the only true friend he’d ever had (also the only woman he ever loved but I’m not as big a fan of that storyline as some others), while still retaining some pretty sketchy sadistic & abusive personality traits

That’s pretty damning evidence that JK is Team Nature – all three of these men had fairly similar upbringings, but the personalities of their parents shine through stronger than the results of those upbringings.  It’s an interesting twist on the theme of destiny and prophecy that ran through the series – the idea that your parents actions set your path, possibly before you’re even born.

Based on that idea, Voldemort probably would have become Voldemort regardless of his upbringing – though, of course, we don’t know that, and we never will.

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Not only do we get to see a peek into Lord Voldemort’s family history, but we also get a glimpse into his childhood.  Through the Pensive, we see Dumbledore meeting Tom in the orphanage – which honestly reminded me a bit of Annie, though that’s supposed to be a group or foster home (depending on which version you’re watching) and not an actual orphanage.

But I digress.  The point is that we get at least a tiny glimpse of Tom’s upbringing, and it raises some very interesting questions about nature vs. nurture and that sort of thing (I’ll get into that more later, though).  Because it’s pretty clear that Tom already has a sense of superiority about himself, that is probably disproportionate to his actual situation as an orphan dependent on the charity of others.  And it’s clear that he’s already got something of a sadistic streak – he’s clearly stolen from the other children, and the headmistress has a pocket full of stories that she believes are tied to him, though she doesn’t have proof.  He was flexing his evil muscles at a very young age, it’s made clear.

But it raises the question – what if he wasn’t dependant on charity, and borderline neglected?  What if his mother had lived, and possibly found a new husband or a strong support system, and he had grown up with adults who were attentive to him and he didn’t have as much unsupervised time – in other words, if he didn’t get to practice those  evil muscles before arriving at Hogwarts – would things have turned out differently?  If he had been surrounded by love and family and happiness, would the evil part of his personality have developed as fully?  Or would he have simply become an Umbridge, devoid of compassion or empathy but without a drive for genocide?

The books strongly hint that nature is stronger than nurture, and that we’re born good, evil, or somewhere in between – but I wonder how different the wizarding world would be if Tom Riddle had had a happy childhood.

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JK Rowling made a really smart choice – I think – in making Voldemort’s story start with his mother, Merope Gaunt, rather than himself.  I think it gave a lot of depth to the character that he would have otherwise been missing, and it serves one other purpose that I’ll  discuss later.  For now, let’s talk about Merope.

Merope lived in a time when women had few rights to begin with (the early 20th century), and most of those rights were claimed by the rich and beautiful.  Merope, on the other hand, was poor, rather plain, and completely under the thumb of her father & brother, who clearly mentally and emotionally abused her (we can assume they physically abused her also, but I don’t think it’s shown in canon).   The only way she was ever going to get out from under their control was to marry, and that seemed like a wild pipe dream – after all, she was almost never allowed to leave the house, and she was plain and odd besides.  She had very very little chance of ever getting out from  under her abusive family.

So, when her father and brother were locked up and stopped (temporarily) from terrorizing her, she seized her chance and used a love potion on the richest (and most attractive) guy in town, so he could get her away from her life.  And they were married and conceived a child – and Merope could no longer live with herself for keeping Tom there against his will, so she stopped giving him the love potion – and he was horrified at the life he’d been living, and left her.  So now she’s in a worse position than she ever was.  She can’t go back to her family (not only did she steal from them and desert them, but she’s pregnant with a half-blood child), she’s pregnant and alone with no marketable skills and no chance of making it in the world.  What is she supposed to do?

Whatever her choices were, she ended up dying shortly after giving birth to her son – in canon it is at least suggested that she simply gave up on life; we don’t really know.  We only know that this is how Lord Voldemort came into the world, and it obviously paid a huge part in shaping him to be who he was as an adult.


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