Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Priori Incantatem: Harry Potter Memories – Chapter One: Lumos!

With the publication of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child on the immediate horizon – a play that is effectively serving as the eighth story in the Harry Potter canon I have been reflecting on the series I quite literally grew up with, and shaped me in so many ways. It has been nine years since I last opened a new Harry Potter book. I was not yet in High School. I was still four years away from launching my own website and podcast. My father was still alive. So much has changed. And yet, when I think that I shall be reading a new Potter story in less than a week, I get chills down my spine, a familiar excitement filling me that I have not felt in close to a decade.

With that in mind, I am today republishing what remains one of my favorite articles I have ever written: Priori Incantatem: Harry Potter Memories. This piece was originally published in seven parts in November 2010, anticipating the theatrical release of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1.” It was my final major statement and reminiscence on the Harry Potter series I love so dearly. Thinking this might be the case when I wrote it, I chose to focus on my memories of the franchise, in sequential order, to give the reader a sense of how I experienced this unique period in pop culture history. It is among the most emotionally open, honest, and confessional piece I have ever composed – closer to autobiography at times than review or analysis – and I therefore hold it very close to my heart. Over the next few days, all seven pieces will be published here on the site, leading up to the release of The Cursed Child on Sunday. Enjoy…

Continue reading after the jump…

How does one measure the quality of literature? This is a task often left to scholars and critics, those who judge tomes by their age, cultural impact, thematic intent, or linguistic innovation, creating a definition of ‘classic’ that will have little, if any, practical meaning to the reader. I believe that the simplest and best way to evaluate the power of a literary work is to do so individually, that when one reads, one must consider the effect the book has had on them. 

Under this criterion, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series is the greatest work of fiction I have ever encountered, and I have read and enjoyed more of the books scholars would define as ‘masterworks’ than I can count. No other story, be it a book, a movie, a piece of music, or a simple anecdote, has ever had such a profound effect on my life. I have grown up alongside Rowling’s boy wizard, and without those books by my side, I would not be where I am today.

This is the story of how Harry Potter has influenced and enriched my life, told chronologically from when I entered grade school to the present day. It is a story I suspect many people my age will understand, because the impact Rowling’s work has had on my generation is incalculable. One can quote statistics about the financial success of the Harry Potter franchise for hours, but what often gets lost in the discussion is why Rowling’s creation is so successful.

That is a question that can never be definitively answered, but perhaps my personal narrative will illuminate why so many were inspired by the adventures of a bespectacled orphan wizard, turning Rowling’s creation into one of the biggest cultural phenomena of all time. 

Priori Incantatem: Harry Potter Memories
By Jonathan R. Lack

Chapter One: Lumos!

My relationship with the Harry Potter series began on October 8th, 1999, when I was given the book Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone as a present from a friend on my seventh birthday. I distinctly remember unwrapping the book and laying my eyes on it for the first time. I had never heard of Harry Potter before and, looking at the wonderfully quirky cover art, I had no idea what I was in for. I assumed it was a book about magic from the title, but the description on the dust jacket did not sound very promising (looking back at it today, it’s a far more generic description than the book deserved), and at first glance, the book did not inspire much enthusiasm.

Little did I know that just a few weeks later, that book would have already begun changing my life.

Just a month earlier, I had started first grade, entering the year with more baggage than a seven year old should probably bear. I was born in Des Moines, Iowa, but my family moved to Washington D.C. when I was three, and to Arvada, Colorado when I was five to care for my mother’s ailing parents, my Grandmother and Grandfather.

We lived in their house for a year alongside them, during which time I grew closer to my grandparents than I have to most of the other adults I have ever met. The most permanent memories we have are the ones born from times of great joy and sadness, and I have many vivid recollections of both kinds from the year I spent with them. I loved my Grandparents dearly, and I adored that old, wonderfully antiquated house; but my time there with them was limited. They were dying, and though I did not quite comprehend death when we first moved to Colorado, the concept came into clearer focus with each passing day. 

Living with the burden of dying loved ones is hard under any circumstances, and I often wonder how my mother ever managed, but for me, the torment of watching my Grandparents suffer was exacerbated by a truly horrendous Kindergarten experience. I entered grade school already reading fluently, something my teacher refused to believe; she tested my unusual reading skills every day while the other kids got to play or take naps, leading to a profound sense of isolation.

In the midst of this, my Grandparents passed away within a few short months of each other, and we moved to a new house in Golden. By the time I entered first grade, I still grieved for them, had an intense distrust of teachers thanks to my Kindergarten experience, lacked practice socializing with peers, and my family now resided in our fourth home in six years. Thanks to Peggie Pattie, my brilliant first and second grade teacher and a miracle worker of the highest degree, and the book with the strange cover I’d received on my seventh birthday, my life quickly turned around. 

My parents read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone with me and at first, believe it or not, it was a struggle to convince me to wade through what I then found to be an unbelievably tedious tome. The first three chapters bored me to tears, but my parents convinced me to keep going. We soon met the giant man Hagrid, “Keeper of Keys and Grounds at Hogwarts,” and from there on out, my tune began to change…

Ooh…Hagrid’s cool. I wonder why he’s so big? Is he a giant? Why is his umbrella magical? And what’s Hogwarts, anyway? A school for magic? That sounds neat—and there’s an evil wizard involved too, and he killed Harry’s parents, and that’s why he’s stuck with the nasty Dursleys! Poor Harry!

What, Mom? You want to stop reading for the night? No, no, I think we should keep going….no, I don’t suddenly love the book, I just want to see this Hogwarts place. Ooh, now they’re going to ‘Diagon Alley.’ How do you pronounce that? It’s an awfully strange word. But what a cool place! There’s a wand shop, and a great book store – I love book stores – and Harry had to buy a cauldron and robes and – look, Hagrid got him an owl! I think I’m going to like Hedwig!

And there’s a wizard bank full of Goblins, and Harry is rich – I wish I was rich – and now Harry’s going to ride on a train to Hogwarts! He has to pass through a solid wall to get to the Platform, and now he’s meeting a boy named Ron. Ron’s cool too. This girl Hermione is kind of annoying – how do you say her name? Her-mee-own, right? No? Well, we’ll figure that out later – they’re about to get to Hogwarts! I can’t wait! This is the best book ever! Can we – no, I don’t want to go to bed – I’m not tired, we’re about to see Hogwarts……

The best books are the ones with which we forge such a strong connection to the protagonist that it seems as if we are of one mind. By the time Harry arrived in the Great Hall, I possessed every bit of enthusiasm for this new, strange, and delightful world as Harry did; Harry’s thoughts seemed to be my thoughts, and when I was reading the book, it was as though I really was Harry Potter, off learning magic in England. Harry and I had made a powerful connection, one that has changed and matured in the years since but never once wavered in strength.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but looking back, I see why my early disinclination turned into unbridled enthusiasm. Harry’s life was analogous to my own in subtle ways. I love my parents, and unlike Harry, never lost them, but I did lose my Grandparents when I was just getting to know them, so I knew how Harry felt, missing loved ones he had only limited memories of.

The living hell and isolation Harry experienced with the Dursleys was one I could relate to thanks to my horrible Kindergarten year, and the pleasure Harry found in his true home at Hogwarts was the happiness I was beginning to discover in Mrs. Pattie’s first-grade classroom and in my family’s new house in Golden. The first three chapters, the ones I disliked, were sad, parallel only to the parts of my life I wished then to forget, but once Harry met Hagrid and his life started turning around, just like mine was, it was a story I could stick with.

Sorcerer’s Stone was more than that, in fact: It was a story I could turn to for strength and guidance. I felt a close, almost inseparable mental connection with Harry, but at eleven, he was still a few years older than me, so while Harry was in a sense my friend, I also looked up to him as a role model. It’s the same logic behind having an imaginary friend, a companion a child conjures out of thin air to serve as a personal confidant, companion, and guide.

Harry Potter was all of these things and more; I figured, for instance, that if Harry could make friends at Hogwarts, despite being unpopular and isolated for years before, then I could too. So I, like Harry, did make friends, many of them, and I don’t think it’s any coincidence that many of us bonded over our mutual love of Rowling’s magical world (though I always knew I loved the book the most). I had dreaded first grade, but it instead became one of the best years of my life, and I owe much of that rehabilitation to my pal Harry.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone had quickly become my favorite book, and once I was done with it, I wanted nothing more in the world than the next installment of the series. But since I had finished the book sometime in early November, Christmas had to come along and mess everything up. There’s a tradition in my large extended family that relatives of the same age send each other gifts at the holidays, and that season I was partnered with my cousin Will. My parents, unaware of how much I craved, nay, needed the next Potter book as soon as possible, suggested that Will (or, more accurately, his parents, since we were seven) gift me the book.

And thus the longest two months of my young life began. How would I ever make it to the end of the year without more Harry Potter? It seemed impossible! 

Naturally, the present eventually arrived, and my parents, now fully aware of how excited I was for the new book, allowed me to open it early. What a glorious day it was! I still remember standing next to the telephone table by our front door and unwrapping the package to gaze upon the beautiful, mysterious cover of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets for the first time. Inside the front cover, there was a festive Christmas sticker, reading “For Jonathan, From William,” written in handwriting that, upon modern analysis, was almost certainly not written by a seven year old. It remains one of the most special Christmas presents I’ve ever received, and whenever I re-read Chamber of Secrets, I take a few seconds to look at that sticker and silently say thanks to my cousin. The book in and of itself was not that special, but the memories it forged are eternal. 

Like Sorcerer’s Stone before it, Chamber of Secrets changed my life. Whereas the first book was an infectiously fun, sugary romp, Chamber of Secrets was dark, edgy, and extremely frightening, at least to a seven year old. More than any other book in the series, Chamber is a visceral mystery-thriller, one that gets more intense with each passing page and builds to a crescendo that forever changed how I judge the effectiveness of a climax.

This was a book I could not put down, and while my parents had read Sorcerer’s Stone with me from front to back, I couldn’t always wait for them to continue the story. So for the first time, I started reading long passages on my own; I distinctly remember sitting in our family room on one snowy evening and reading the fifteenth chapter, ‘Aragog,’ from start to finish. I was so proud; it was the first Potter chapter I had finished all on my own.

But as the story spiraled into increasingly darker territory, I needed my parents for guidance; when we got to point where Ron’s little sister Ginny is taken down into the Chamber – and for all I knew, brutally murdered – I could not sleep, and my Dad had to look ahead and assure me Ginny would be alright before I could finally rest my eyes.

My parents, of course, might have been just as into the books as I was; after Harry’s adventures with the Basilisk, they too were hooked. That’s probably why, after making me wait two months for Chamber of Secrets, they didn’t delay in buying Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, which had arrived stateside only a few months earlier.

My dad ordered it from, and I remember opening the package, looking at the inspiring, Buckbeak-centric cover art, and then tearing open the book only to drop my jaw in shock. The spine was broken, right down the middle, at the start of ‘Chapter Nine: Grim Defeat.’ Later on, I also discovered that a pair of pages was printed twice during ‘Chapter Fourteen: Snape’s Grudge.’ The experience made me disinclined to order anything from the internet for many years afterward.

It was no big deal, though; a minor inconvenience like a broken spine wasn’t going to stop me from reading, and as I dived into Prisoner of Azkaban, my world was rocked once more. At the time, it was easily my favorite in the series (today it’s a three-way-tie between this one, Goblet of Fire, and Order of the Phoenix). More so than in the first two books, I really felt I was living at Hogwarts while reading, perhaps because Harry’s universe had so widely expanded. Thanks to the addition of Hogsmeade (“the only entirely non-Muggle settlement in Britain”), some great new classes like Divination and Care of Magical Creatures, and a slew of new characters who all became instant favorites such as Remus Lupin and Sirius Black, Hogwarts was more of a real place than ever before, and the book was my ticket to Platform 9 ¾.

Starting with Prisoner of Azkaban, this was what I enjoyed most about the series: The ability to open the book and be taken to Harry’s wondrous world for an exciting year at Hogwarts. Even the events that didn’t contribute to the main story, the things Potter-haters point out as filler such as classes, Quidditch, and Harry and friends hanging out in the common room, were often my favorite parts. It was the day-to-day material that made me feel like I was really at Hogwarts. Even now, as I look towards graduating High School, I still enjoy the wonderful escapist quality of the books, something that came into vibrant focus when I read Prisoner of Azkaban and dreamed about having my own Marauder’s Map or Firebolt.

But nothing about Prisoner of Azkaban was more eye opening than its core message, a lesson about both the blinding, indescribable grief death causes and the healing power of memory. Nobody dies during the main narrative, but every inch of the story hinges on the brutal murder of Harry’s parents twelve years earlier. The book carries a lot of fascinating and complex exposition, and as the mystery of escaped convict Sirius Black slowly unravels, we learn just how many lives were destroyed on the night the Potters fell. Peter Pettigrew’s betrayal of the Potters left Harry parentless and alone at the mercy of the Dursleys, and the Potters’ best friend, Sirius, framed for murder and thrown in Azkaban for twelve long, hellish years.

None of that, perhaps, compares to the torment Remus Lupin endured. Knowing only the official version of the story, Lupin, another of the Potters’ closest companions, thought his trusted ally Sirius had murdered all his friends, leaving Lupin alone and depressed, his world shattered by betrayal. Later Potter novels would become outright bloodbaths, but Azkaban most powerfully portrayed the stark, unendurable sadness death can cause to those close to the deceased.

The Dementors, first introduced in this novel, are the physical embodiment of this grief. They exist to make people sad; when Harry is near them, he hears his dying mother, reliving the night that destroyed his young life. Dementors represent what the death of a loved one can turn us into should we sink too far into our anguish, and the Patronus charm, a spell devised to ward off Dementors, symbolizes Rowling’s solution for managing grief. To cast a Patronus, one must conjure the single happiest memory they can muster. It is the most poignant metaphor Rowling would ever devise: To ward off our grief, we must remember the happiest moments, using those memories to cast away our sadness and move forward, stronger for the encounter. 

At the time I read Prisoner of Azkaban, I was still trying to manage the grief that accompanied the loss of my Grandparents a year earlier. Like Harry, I was discovering more and more about my Grandparents every day, realizing I hadn’t known them nearly as well as I thought and wishing that I’d had time to get to know them better. Harry’s struggles with grief were familiar to me, and to anyone else, adult or child, who has experienced loss. It is impossible to forget about the ones we loved, impossible not to mourn and wish things were different, but life does not stop for our grief. We must pick ourselves up and keep moving, even when the burden of our sadness weighs down each step to the point of torture.

The book is a powerful read because Rowling denies none of this; the pain Harry, Sirius, and Lupin all feel is completely real, but as Harry’s experiences with the Dementors, the Marauders, and the time turner (note: the beginning of my obsession with time travel stories) teach him, a good memory can diminish the weight of the heaviest burden. Once the ones we love have left us, we can keep them alive in our hearts, souls, and minds, and though this can never truly replace feeling the warm embrace of life, the spirits we keep alive within ourselves can and will give us the strength to move on. 

For Harry, moving on meant facing the Triwizard Tournament and the return of Voldemort; for me, it meant growing up in a world that wasn’t nearly as picturesque as my seven year old brain had imagined. But the strength to move past grief and face those challenges is one of the most important tests on the road to adulthood, and that’s why I believe there may be no better book to help a child cope with loss than this one. Both Harry and I had to learn the same lesson, a lesson I wouldn’t today be cognizant of with Prisoner of Azkaban. Having a friend who understood that struggle, even a fictional one, was an invaluable asset.

By the time the summer of my first grade year and the first summer of the new millennium had rolled around, Harry and I had forged a lifelong friendship, and the Boy Who Lived was well on his way to achieving unprecedented global popularity; but neither Harry nor I could predict the sheer magnitude of the dark, wonderful, and strange times that lay ahead.

The text of this article is taken from my 2012 book, Fade to Lack: A Critic’s Journey Through the World of Modern Film, available on Amazon and other online retailers.  

Follow author Jonathan Lack on Twitter @JonathanLack.

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