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The Boy Who Grew Up

Let’s start at the beginning. As we learn in the first chapter of the first book, Harry Potter is an orphan, his parents murdered by Voldemort. That’s the incident for the entire series. Over the course of the series, Harry goes through the usual orphan’s questions: Why aren’t my parents here to take care of me? Didn’t they love me? Am I safe? At first, he asks these questions while under the care of the awful Dursleys. Then Hogwarts and his magical heritage come along to rescue him. Or do they? As Voldemort regains power and launches increasingly dangerous attacks on Harry, he experiences the same anxieties again and again in amplified form.

Indeed, Rowling raises the stakes through books five, six, and seven. Harry’s surrogate fathers and grandfather—Dumbledore, Sirius, and Lupin—all die. A quarter of the way into book seven, the adults are offstage completely, and it’s just Harry, Ron, and Hermione hiding in the wilderness by themselves. The lurking sense of abandonment and helplessness is more intense than anything Harry went through back at the Dursleys.

Notice how many times in the novels Harry thinks he’s found a way to reach his parents again, only to learn that it won’t really bring them back. In book one, the Mirror of Erised shows Harry see himself standing with his parents. In book three, thanks to some clever time travel, Harry thinks his Patronus is actually his father come to protect him. In book four, shadows of his parents reemerge from Voldemort’s wand during the duel. All of this is why the Resurrection Stone scene near the end of book seven is the emotional climax of the series. Harry has come into possession of an object that can almost resurrect the dead—it can certainly bring them back enough for one to talk with them. This is, in one sense, exactly what he’s been yearning for for years. Let’s look more closely at some of the key lines:

And again Harry understood without having to think. It did not matter about bringing them back, for he was about to join them. He was not really fetching them. They were fetching him.

At the exact instant Harry the orphan is finally able to achieve what he’s been hoping desprately for, he also finally understands why it is that he can’t bring his parents back in the sense that matters. He uses the stone to summon them, “neither ghost nor truly flesh,” along with Sirius and Lupin. Notice what they say to him:

“You’ve been so brave”

“You are nearly there,” said James. “Very close. We are … so proud of you.”

“You’ll stay with me?” “Until the very end,” said James.
“They won’t be able to see you?” asked Harry.
“We are part of you,” said Sirius.
Harry looked at his mother.
“Stay close to me,” he said quietly.
And he set off.

There it is. His parents are proud of him. They are “part of” him, they are “close to” him, they will stay with him “until the very end.” These are the words he’s been longing to hear; they’re the reassurances that every orphan, and every child, needs to hear. The fears of the orphan, after all, are just particularly sharp versions of every child’s anxieties. Harry’s quest for his parents has succeeded; they will protect him. Notice how they do it:

The dementors’ chill did not overcome him; he passed through it with his companions, and they acted like Patronuses to him … .

This is a familiar image in the novels; it reaches back to Harry’s summoning of the patronus in his father’s form in book three. The protection is as much spiritual as it is physical.

Beside him, making scarely a sound, walked James, Sirius, Lupin, and Lily, and their presence was his courage, and the reason he was able to keep putting one foot in front of the other.

And here the point is emphasized. Harry’s parents, having protected him with their sacrifice through the novels, will also protect him from inside. This theme reaches back to the two epigraphs that open book seven, particularly the conclusion of the Penn quotation:

This is the comfort of friends, that though they may be said to die, yet their friendship and society are, in the best sense, ever present, because immortal.

This is the final inflection point in Harry’s growth to adulthood. You don’t have to believe that the resurrection stone has done anything — it does, after all, summon figures who are invisible to everyone else and talk only to Harry. But he’s now able to bring back their memory, after a fashion, and that gives him an inner strength. In this scene, Harry understands mortality—that is, becomes an adult—and realizes that he must face a final challenge from which no one, not even his parents, can truly protect him. But at the same time, he knows, knows, that his parents love him and always have in the way that matters: supporting him to the absolute utmost in having the courage to take that last, terrible, necessary step into maturity.

That is, there are three separate movements in this scene. First, Harry gets what he’s wanted for seven novels: to be with his parents and have them promise to protect him. Second, Harry knows that parents can’t protect you from everything in the world; there are some things you have to do yourself. And the third is that these first two aren’t a contradiction or a cruel irony: Harry can make the second movement because of the first. That’s the emotional arc of growing up, and the story of Harry Potter the orphan is a compelling version of it.

Or perhaps, to emphasize this point, we should call him by his other name: The Boy Who Lived.

Comments (3)

I found myself conscious of the fact that, in their walk to the grove where Voldemort waited, they were all silent. That seemed like an important change: An earlier Harry would have been full of questions, even supplications. But not anymore.

Very nice pulling together of that arc, James. It really is the spine of the series and, I'd say, the reason another book isn't really necessary.

Now I want to go back when I get home tonight and read the epilogue. Did she carry the flip side of this theme through in Harry as a father?

Worth noting -- J.K. Rowling in an interview, re: the passage you discuss:

"ROWLING: It's when Harry sets off into the forest. Again. So that's my favorite passage of this book. And it's the part that when I finished writing, I didn't cry as I was writing, but when I finished writing, I had enormous explosion of emotion and I cried and cried and cried."

From here.

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