In addition to being the feast of St. Ignatius, July 31st is known around the world as Harry Potter’s birthday. He’ll be 36 this year, if you can believe it. (The last chapter of his story, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, came out in 2007, but it was set in 1997.)
This birthday is a particularly big one for Potter fans, as with it comes the arrival of a whole new story, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, based on the new London play. Set 19 years after Harry and friends defeated Voldemort and his Death Eaters—in other words, the same year as the epilogue of Deathly Hallows—the play stars not only Harry, Ron and Hermione but their children.
The synopsis: “While Harry grapples with a past that refuses to stay where it belongs, his youngest son Albus must struggle with the weight of a family legacy he never wanted. As past and present fuse ominously, both father and son learn the uncomfortable truth: sometimes, darkness comes from unexpected places.”
In the words of Scooby-Doo: Ruh-roh.
It’s an interesting time for us to return to the world of Harry Potter. In many places the West seems to be sliding into the kinds of madness J.K. Rowling attributed to the wizarding community at its worst—leaders who use fear to breed isolationism and a sense of superiority; the scapegoating of other races and/or religions as a substitute for any actual policy; and with this, a greater readiness on the part of citizens to embrace and act on their prejudices.
Donald Trump’s speech at the Republican National Convention is a case in point. Over and over he told the American people of the deep threats we find before us—the exploding crime rate, the burgeoning threat of terrorist nuclear states and the rising flow of illegal immigration—including 180,000 illegal immigrants with criminal records who currently roam our streets, raping and killing our children. It was, as John Oliver described it on Sunday night, “a symphony of bile and race-baiting.”
And like most such performances, it was also not true. President Obama has deported more immigrants than any president before him (much to the embarrassment of many of us). Crime has gone up over the last year in a number of our largest cities, but the overall crime rate in our country has gone down—and has been continually going down for 20 years.
(Even if you agree with Trump, Oliver’s segment on the speech is worth watching for its analysis of the connection that the Trump campaign seems to be making between facts and feelings. According to the Trump camp, and frankly many other politicians past and present, actual concrete, measurable facts are less important than the way you feel. If you feel unsafe, then the “fact” is, you are. And that’s what we should be acting on, even if it’s not actually true.)
Rowling’s books might also offer some valuable resources for us today. While set up as a classic good-guys-versus-bad-guys tale, in fact everyone in the Harry Potter series proves more complicated than just “good” or “bad” (except maybe for Hermione, who is just plain awesome). Harry and Ron screw up, make mistakes, sometimes big ones. Dumbledore, we learn, did some terrible things in his early life and became a professor in large part because he realized he couldn’t be trusted with real power. Harry’s father taunted young Severus Snape, as did his friends.
Meanwhile Severus has secretly sacrificed everything in his life to protect Harry, out of love for Harry’s mother. And even Voldemort himself is not able to be kept fully at a distance; learning his backstory, Harry sees the things they have in common and the challenges that young Tom Riddle faced.
And not only are people complicated; none can be written off. Neville Longbottom is a loser, but it turns out he could have easily been the Harry Potter of the story, and in the end he proves equally a hero. So, too, the weird loner Luna Lovegood turns out to be a kind and brave soul who helps Harry repeatedly.
Meanwhile wannabee Death Eater Draco Malfoy can’t bring himself to kill Dumbledore when push comes to shove. And even Harry’s cousin Dudley proves capable of conversion. As they’re parting for what could be forever, Harry’s uncle Mr. Dursley has not a word of kindness for him. His aunt comes close, almost saying something, but can’t do it.
Then out of the blue Dudley stands up for Harry. “Why isn’t he coming with us?” he asks his parents, knowing the danger Harry is in. “Where’s he going to go?” “I don’t think you’re a waste of space,” he tells Harry. A change of heart is always possible, Rowling tells us. Goodness can emerge from the most unexpected of places.
Even Voldemort gets a last chance at redemption. “Before you try to kill me,” Harry tells him, “I’d advise you to think about what you’ve done...think, and try for some remorse... It’s your last chance, it’s all you’ve got left....” In the end, Voldemort rejects that opportunity—and dies not at the hands of Harry, but his own rebounded hex. Ultimately, Rowling warns us, others do not destroy us. We destroy ourselves.
For me, one of the most striking comments from either convention came from Michelle Obama. “Make no mistake about it,” she said on Monday night, “this November, when we get to the polls, that is what we are deciding: not Democrat or Republican, not left or right. In this election and every election, it is about who will have the power to shape our children for the next four or eight years of their lives.”
Rowling’s books similarly remind us of the “how”—how will our children’s lives be shaped in the coming years; will they be taught to fear or to wonder; to isolate or to explore; to hoard or to give, even when it hurts.
For St. Ignatius, deciding on a path was about paying attention to the feelings that stir within us, trusting those experiences that lead us to hope and generosity and scrutinizing closely those others that bind us up in fear or confusion.
Cynicism and despair are a constant temptation; there is that air of inevitability. Nothing is going to change.
But the life of faith resists that. With God, we believe, all things are possible, even those that seem completely ridiculous. Against all odds Harry Potter remains at the end the Boy Who Lives (at least until this new book comes out).
And as the First Lady pointed out, after being forced to build the White House, some of the descendants of our country’s many slaves are now living in it.