Literary Learnings

Harry Potter’s Two Worlds and World War II

By Kidd Wadsworth

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the first book in the Harry Potter series, begins:

Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.

With this first sentence, Rowling informs her readers that although the Dursleys are normal, something, or someone, is not. Two paragraphs later we learn that the Dursleys have a secret. By the end of the second page, Mr. Dursley sees a cat reading a map. By the end of the first chapter a giant of a man, carrying a baby, arrives on a flying motorcycle. Yup, something’s definitely not perfectly normal here.

So, we are introduced to two worlds, the world of the Dursleys, and the wizarding world of Harry Potter, Dumbledore and Hogwarts. But here’s the catch, and it’s a big one: It is the Dursleys’ world that is false, that is a caricature of our world here on planet Earth. In the Dursleys’ world Harry is forced to sleep in a cupboard under the stairs. The Dursleys’ son is given a stick with which to whack other students at the exclusive private school he will attend. None of that is in anyway perfectly normal. In contrast, the Weasleys, especially Mrs. Weasley, are warm and welcoming. Ronald, their son, who will become Harry’s best friend, is self-conscious, a little bumbling, and in every way totally likable. Thus, from the beginning of the novel the reader gets it, there are two worlds, the one everyone sees—our world, the false world of dull houses and mean people on Privet Drive—and the wizarding world, the world of magic and dreams; and Harry belongs in the wizarding world.

But did you get it? When you read the Harry Potter books (or saw the movies), did you understand why the story of Harry Potter resonated with the British people? Like the wizarding world is our real world, the story of Harry Potter is the story of the British people’s entrance into WWII.

Let’s review. Before WWI Europe had been at war with itself for hundreds of years. England fought France, France fought Spain, etc. The Protestant revolution brought with it more war and more death. But it was not until WWI that Europe fought its first modern war: chlorine gas, hand grenades, death in a muddy trench in the ground, and men returning home shell-shocked, crippled in mind and body. Nothing in Europe’s history prepared the English people for the hell that was WWI. The Great War, they called it, or even more telling, The War to End All Wars.

Then the beaten, economically impoverished people of Germany embraced Adolf Hitler as chancellor. In 1938, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain negotiated the Munich Agreement with Hitler, declaring it, “Peace for our time.” A year later Hitler invaded Poland. France also buried its head in the sand, putting its faith in the Maginot Line. Hitler’s armies simply went around it.

In the Harry Potter books, the people of the wizarding world have fought and won a blistering war with Voldemort. (Think: WWI.) But if the wizarding world was victorious, why will no one say the name Voldemort? The reader knows, as Harry soon finds out, that no one will say Voldemort’s name because everyone is afraid the dark lord is not dead. After WWI, the British people were collectively suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome. They, like Chamberlain, the prime minister they elected, did not want another war. So, they pretended they could make peace with a monster. Voldemort is both Rowling’s personification of war and her Hitler. Dumbledore is Rowling’s Winston Churchill. Harry Potter and the students of Hogwarts are the next generation of English unbattered by the first war; they unerringly know that Voldemort must be actively opposed. Even as the Minister of Magic, like Chamberlain, refuses to acknowledge the threat, they prepare for war. One of the most gut-wrenching scenes in the Harry Potter series is the burning of the Weasleys’ home. Voldemort is back; war has returned, and the full horror of everything they have lived through and now their children must endure is written on Mr. Weasley’s face as he clutches his weeping wife and watches his home burn. Before the war is over, he will lose countless friends and one son.

Rowling adds to this “history made real in fiction” a second masterly stroke. She creates in Harry Potter a new Beowulf. Think back to this tale you were forced to learn in high school. A great warrior named Beowulf is called to fight a monster, Grendel. Since this story has been retold a thousand times in a thousand ways there are now two versions of the story. One in which Beowulf fights Grendel, Grendel dies and Beowulf lives; and one in which Beowulf fights Grendel, Grendel dies and Beowulf dies. Thus, the tension in the Harry Potter series mounts. The battle is coming. Harry and Voldemort will fight. We are confident that Voldemort will die. After all, Rowling wants to make money from these books. But will Harry die? That’s the question that keeps us turning the pages.

What I wonder as I read great authors, like Rowling, is: Did they know as they wrote their books that the stories they told were their own stories, the stories of their people?

Kidd Wadsworth

Kidd Wadsworth has people living in her head and likes to work in her pajamas. Her career choices were extremely limited: Write or commit herself to an institution.

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