“Strong Female Characters” Aren’t Actually That Progressive

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There is nothing I love watching more than a woman kicking ass. In today’s films, however, this seems to be an entirely literal concept. While it is undeniably satisfying and empowering to watch such impressive fight scenes featuring Black Widow, Katniss, Rey, and other similar female characters, it is hard to ignore that these films equate strength entirely with the ability to fight — a very traditionally male standard. This ultimately provides an extremely reductive view of what makes a person admirable — which is limiting for all genders — and also suggests that the values of our society are still largely male-centric.

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In many popular films today, the “strong female characters” are so one-dimensional that they are barely even characters. Tauriel from The Hobbit trilogy is one such example, and so is Maria Hill from the Avengers. The only characteristics that I remember about these women is how well they can wield a weapon. Furthermore, it is worth noting that Tauriel’s addition is almost entirely to act as a love interest for Legolas and Kili. This reinforces a very old and pervasive trend of female characters existing solely for the purpose of allowing male characters to demonstrate their masculinity.

Black Widow and Scarlet Witch — the only women in the Avengers crew — are slightly more fleshed out, but still lacking the depth, backstory, and attention provided to Thor, Iron Man, Hulk, and Captain America — all of whom have had their own film series. Katniss and Rey — rare female leads in live-action films — are both more multi-dimensional, but are still principally defined by their grit, guts, and fighting ability.

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The emergence of female characters who demonstrate these traits is not a bad thing. It is definitely a sign of progress that many people, children especially, are growing used to the idea of an independent woman being able to take care of herself. Certainly, it is a huge improvement from the damsel-in-distress image of women that I was used to seeing on TV as a kid. The issue, however, is that these tough, fighting-focused traits are the only ones that are being featured.

While there are many highly developed, nuanced characters of all genders in books and films, the superhero-style fighters are typically the most popular and most publicized figures in the media. There is a simple reason for this: action films are often the highest grossing films. In fact, over the past 365 days, the top four highest grossing movies have been: Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Jurassic World, Captain America: Civil War, and Deadpool. Therefore, naturally, it makes sense that all the popular characters would be skilled fighters, above all else. As my brother said, “regardless of whether it’s a man or a woman, fight scenes are exciting.”

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This is true; obviously, not all the fans of those above-mentioned films are male. I personally enjoy a good action film very much. But, we have to keep in mind that books and movies are human constructions, and they always have been. What is exciting, valuable, or entertaining in a text is largely influenced by how its authors present it, as well as by the social context in which it is viewed. This means that if the creators of a work of fiction are at all influenced by societal values, then the works they create will be inherently biased.

As Virginia Woolf points out in A Room Of One’s Own:

Since a novel has this correspondence to real life, its values are to some extent those of real life. But it is obvious that the values of women differ very often from the values which have been made by the other sex; naturally this is so.

Yet is it the masculine values that prevail.

Speaking crudely, football and sport are “important”; the worship of fashion, the buying of clothes “trivial.” And these values are inevitably transferred from life to fiction.

This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing-room. A scene in a battlefield is more important than a scene in a shop — everywhere and much more subtly the difference of values persists.

One might argue that this is so because scenes in a battlefield are indeed more consequential than scenes in a home or a shop. However, that isn’t entirely true. Family, relationships, emotions, and parenthood — these are all crucial parts of our everyday lives and very much worth exploring. This is not to say that any one topic is more important than another, but merely that they are all equally so and should be recognized as such.

Because of these differences in values, however, traits that have been traditionally associated with men — intelligence, courage, strength, resilience — have always been presented attractively in the media that we consume. Traits that have traditionally been associated with women — kindness, compassion, sensitivity, patience — have been largely underrepresented. When these “womanly” traits are featured, they often come off as weak and unworthy of attention, despite actually being equally valuable characteristics. For example, in Disney’s Cinderella, Cinderella’s inner strength — her unwavering kindness, her resilience, her quiet courage — is never appreciated the way a modern female hero’s fighting ability is.

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What we are seeing now with these films is an attempt to elevate female characters to the same status as male ones, by granting them the same traits that made male heroes so admirable. The nature of this characterization suggests that a very prominent hierarchy still exists: physical strength is valued because it is manly, and being manly is better than being womanly.

The problems with this are plenty. Most notably, while it is now acceptable for women to be smart, strong, and kind, it is still not widely accepted for men to be teary, family-oriented, or timid. There are so few popular examples of sensitive, emotional male characters who openly cry or stay home with the kids. For instance, while Albus Dumbledore cries several times in the Harry Potter books — really meaningful scenes that make this powerful character more human — this is never shown in any of the film adaptations. It is as though women are allowed to act like men, because that is a step forward, but men are not allowed to act like women, because that would be regressing.

A quick look at male action figures, actors, and advertising will prove how great the pressure is on boys to be muscular, stoic, brave, and strong. These action films starring one-dimensional power fighters do nothing to alleviate the damaging standards. As a result, men and boys still feel afraid to cry, to show affection, or to look anything less than herculean.

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Ideally, everyone could just be portrayed as all-around good and realistic humans — strong, empathetic, intelligent, tear-shedding humans. There are definitely glimpses of this already. Finn from The Force Awakens is a very caring person, and a much less reckless, natural-born fighter than most male leads. Peeta from The Hunger Games was also a good example of a more sensitive male character. In TV shows, where there is more time to develop characters and place them in various settings, we can see more nuanced portrayals of both sexes. Particularly, Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra do a great job of portraying admirable characters with many diverse qualities, regardless of gender — skill in combat, intelligence, sense of humour, and an unquestioned willingness to embrace and display genuine emotions.

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It can be easy to look at all the strong female fighters on TV today and think that we have achieved equality. Again, we have certainly seen much progress over the past few years. However, it is important to recognize that fighting ability alone does not equate strength or depth of character. The construction of action heroes — and by extension, of laudable characters in popular culture — is still inherently based on traditionally male values. A gender hierarchy is still in place, and as long as that exists, no one will benefit.

7 Most Underrated Parts of the Harry Potter Series

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As a children’s story, a very valuable part of the Harry Potter series is its humour and lightheartedness. In both the books and films, these moments are conveyed through fun characters like Peeves, Fred, and George, as well as through the everyday moments of life at Hogwarts, which are always full of excitement. For example, one of my favourite lines in the series is “just then Neville caused a slight diversion by turning into a large canary,” which really sums up how many great, hilarious details make up the atmosphere of this universe. That being said, there are also many darker, more meaningful moments that are quite under-appreciated.

Often, when people think of the Harry Potter stories, they think of a creative but morally simplistic story, while forgetting the complexities and the very mature points that the series also raises. A principal reason for this is the movie’s portrayal of the story: the films often omit or underplay very powerful scenes. Some scenes, I believe, were done very well — the Mirror of Erised, the Resurrection Stone in the forest, the lake of Inferi. Other aspects, however, were simplified for length or clarity, which really took away from the depth of the stories.

While much more can be said about how many characters and moments are ruined due to the films’s portrayal (or lack thereof) — Ginny Weasley, St. Mungo’s Hospital, S.P.E.W. — these moments below are the ones that stood out to me most when reading, and really drove home how mature a story this series is.

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The Mirror of Erised, by Jim Kay

1. Harry in Dumbledore’s office after Sirius’s death

“Harry, suffering like this proves you are still a man! This pain is part of being human —”

“THEN — I — DON’T — WANT — TO — BE — HUMAN!” Harry roared, and he seized one of the delicate silver instruments from the spindle-legged table beside him and flung it across the room. It shattered into a hundred tiny pieces against the wall. Several of the pictures let out yells of anger and fright, and the portrait of Armando Dippet said, “Really!”

“I DON’T CARE!” Harry yelled at them, snatching up a lunascope and throwing it into the fireplace. “I’VE HAD ENOUGH, I’VE SEEN ENOUGH, I WANT OUT, I WANT IT TO END, I DON’T CARE ANYMORE —”

This is one of the most powerful scenes in the series, and one of the only times we see Harry totally collapse under all the grief and pressure he has had to face. The emotions are so raw and believable — frankly, I’m surprised he doesn’t lose it more often — and it really shows how all-consuming pain can feel, especially for such a young person.

2. Mrs. Weasley’s hug following Cedric Diggory’s death

Mrs. Weasley set the potion down on the bedside cabinet, bent down, and put her arms around Harry. He had no memory of ever being hugged like this, as though by a mother. The full weight of everything he had seen that night seemed to fall in upon him as Mrs. Weasley held him to her.

Not only does this moment emphasize how much Harry has gone through, but it also shows the strength of a mother’s love. This is obviously an important theme in the books — Harry survives as a baby because of Lily’s sacrifice, and then again at the end because of Narcissa’s love for her son, Draco. This simple scene adds to those big moments and acts as reminder of how meaningful and powerful a parent’s presence can be.

3. The Complexity of Aunt Petunia

Dudley’s heartwarming transformation in Deathly Hallows is widely talked about, but Petunia is a far more interesting character in my opinion, whom almost no one ever talks about. Throughout the series, we grow to realize that she is far more than just a mean, prissy aunt:

“Back?” whispered Aunt Petunia.

She was looking at Harry as she had never looked at him before. And all of a sudden, for the very first time in his life, Harry fully appreciated that Aunt Petunia was his mother’s sister. He could not have said why this hit him so very powerfully at this moment. All he knew was that he was not the only person in the room who had an inkling of what Lord Voldemort being back might mean. Aunt Petunia had never in her life looked at him like that before. Her large, pale eyes (so unlike her sister’s) were not narrowed in dislike or anger, they were wide and fearful. The furious pretence that Aunt Petunia had maintained all Harry’s life – that there was no magic and no world other than the world she inhabited with Uncle Vernon – seemed to have fallen away.

We also learn that the root of Petunia’s hatred towards Harry and Lily, which is never explained in the movies, is simply jealousy. As a child, she wanted so badly to be part of the magical world that she actually wrote Albus Dumbledore a letter asking to be admitted to Hogwarts. Even as an adult, she still remembers every detail of the magical world:

“And what the ruddy hell are Dementors?”

“They guard the wizard prison, Azkaban,” said Aunt Petunia.

Two seconds of ringing silence followed these words before Aunt Petunia clapped her hand over her mouth as though she had let slip a disgusting swear word. Uncle Vernon was goggling at her. Harry’s brain reeled.

Because she was unable to be a part of something she so longed to, Petunia dealt with it by denying the existence of the magical world altogether. Harry and Lily were constant reminders of what she couldn’t have, but could never fully stopped wanting.

4. Dumbledore’s Past

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Albus Dumbledore, by Jim Kay

“I was gifted, I was brilliant. I wanted to escape. I wanted to shine. I wanted glory.”

“Do not misunderstand me,” he said, and pain crossed the face so that he looked ancient again. “I loved them, I loved my parents, I loved my brother and my sister, but I was selfish, Harry, more selfish than you, who are a remarkably selfless person, could possibly imagine.” . . .

“And then… you know what happened. Reality returned in the form of my rough, unlettered, and infinitely more admirable brother. I did not want to hear the truths he shouted at me. I did not want to hear that I could not set forth and seek Hallows with a fragile and unstable sister in tow.”

“The argument became a fight. Grindelwald lost control. That which I had always sensed in him, though I pretended not to, now sprang into terrible being. And Ariana… after all my mother’s care and caution… lay dead upon the floor.”

Dumbledore gave a little gasp and began to cry in earnest.

One of the reasons I love this series so much is because none of the characters are flat. They all have realistic motives and complex sides. Dumbledore is the moral compass of the story — the old, wise mentor and champion for human rights. But his backstory, revealed in Deathly Hallows, actually explains every detail of how he came to be this seemingly holistic wizard we thought we knew  — it’s explained why he has learned to not trust himself with power, how his nose came to be broken, and what his deepest desire has been for over 130 years of his life.

Another reason why this scene is so meaningful is because it shows us how vulnerable such a prodigious and powerful character really is. Even the strongest people live with terrible guilt, shame, and grief that will bring them to their knees in tears. It is so rare that we see these moments in popular books and films though — particularly involving a respectable grown man — which makes it all the more special.

5. The Everyday Struggle of Half-Breeds

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Hagrid, by Jim Kay

This series is steeped in messages of anti-discrimination — against muggles, muggle-borns, half-breeds, werewolves, house-elves, and more. While these prejudices are apparent during Voldemort’s regime in Deathly Hallows, it’s not often that smaller instances of intolerance throughout the series are discussed.

In both the wizarding world and the muggle world, everyday examples of bigotry continually make it very difficult for certain people to get a job, find a home, have children, or even face society without shame. In Harry Potter, two important characters act as examples of how their stigmatized identities have horribly affected their lives: Hagrid, a half-giant, and Remus Lupin, a werewolf:

“Don’t you understand what I’ve done to my wife and my unborn child? I should never have married her, I’ve made her an outcast!”

Lupin kicked aside the chair he had overturned.

“You have only ever seen me amongst the Order, or under Dumbledore’s protection at Hogwarts! You don’t know how most of the Wizarding world sees creatures like me! When they know of my affliction, they can barely talk to me! Don’t you see what I’ve done? Even her own family is disgusted by our marriage, what parents want their only daughter to marry a werewolf?

Lupin lives his entire life in poverty; it is mentioned several times that he is unable to secure a job. Hagrid too faces extreme discrimination from parents and students alike when journalist Rita Skeeter broadcasts his half-giant status. This comes in the form of people talking to him slowly, as though he is dumb, and attributing his interest in magical creatures to his “naturally vicious” instincts — subtle but powerful examples of prejudice that too many people can relate to.

6. Kreacher’s Transformation & The Treatment of House-Elves

Dobby gets all of the elf love in the series, but we actually do meet three other house-elves as well: Hokey, Winky, and Kreacher. In all of these cases, the elves are taken advantage of by wizards and even killed. Hermione is the only person who attempts to speak up for house-elf rights, but their state of enslavement is so normalized, and even internalized by the elves themselves, that no one even bats an eye.

In addition to raising important ethical questions, the inclusion of the house-elves presents a very clear message: you reap what you sow. Legalities and ethics aside, if you are kind to someone, then you will receive kindness in return. Sirius met his death in large part due to his treatment of Kreacher, and Harry’s life was saved multiple times because of his kindness towards Dobby. When Harry, Ron, and Hermione begin to show kindness to Kreacher, the change in his attitude is immediate, and he even rallies the Hogwarts elves to fight alongside Harry in the final battle:

The house-elves of Hogwarts swarmed into the entrance hall, screaming and waving carving knives and cleavers, and at their head, the locker of Regulus Black bouncing on his chest, was Kreacher, his bullfrog’s voice audible even above this din: “Fight! Fight! Fight for my Master, defender of house-elves! Fight the Dark Lord, in the name of brave Regulus! Fight!”

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7. Harry and Nearly Headless Nick’s Conversation About Ghosts after Sirius’s Death

Nick turned away from the window and looked mournfully at Harry.

“He won’t come back.”

“Who?”

“Sirius Black,” said Nick.

“But you did!” said Harry angrily. “You came back — you’re dead and you didn’t disappear – ”

“Wizards can leave an imprint of themselves upon the earth, to walk palely where their living selves once trod,” said Nick miserably. “But very few wizards choose that path.”

“Why not?” said Harry. . . .

“He will not come back,” repeated Nick quietly. “He will have… gone on.”

This conversation is little longer than the excerpt included here and it is a really meaningful scene for two reasons. Firstly, Harry’s desperate struggle to find a way to talk to Sirius after his death is one of the most heartbreaking parts of the series. It’s a very real reaction to loss. When Nick shuts down the possibility of Sirius’s coming back as a ghost, Harry feels as though he’s lost his godfather all over again.

Also, this is one of the only scenes in which the afterlife is discussed in Harry Potter, which raises some interesting questions about life, death, and our choices.

Five Moments That Make Avatar the Greatest TV Show

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One year ago, I watched all three seasons of Avatar: The Last Airbender in about four days, swiftly followed by The Legend of Korra not long after. I’m not usually one for TV shows, but needless to say, this one had me completely engrossed. I fell in love with the characters, the humour, and the world that it created, but most of all, I was shocked by how much I learned about spirituality and life from a kid’s show. There were themes of balance, environmental conservation, feminism, positivity, and so many more great messages. Among all the richness embedded in every part of the show itself, here are some especially powerful parts that stood out to me in both Avatar and The Legend of Korra.

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  1. “Pride is not the opposite of shame, but it’s source. True humility is the only antidote to shame.” (Iroh)

When Iroh and Zuko are forced to live on the streets of Ba Sing Se as beggars, Iroh embraces his new circumstances with admirable positivity. This was a man who was raised in a palace and grew up as Crown Prince of the Fire Nation, poised to become the next Fire Lord. He was a war hero of prodigious skill, nicknamed the Dragon of the West, who conquered a city and was revered by a kingdom. Yet, in Ba Sing Se, where he is anonymous and homeless, Iroh continues to make the most of his circumstances with no complaint of what he has lost. Even at the end of the story, he does not choose to go back to a life of royalty, but instead follows his humble passions of serving tea and playing Pai Sho.

  1. The Opening of the Seven Chakras in The Guru

In one of the most moving episodes of the series, Aang is taught to open his seven chakras — centres of spiritual power in the human body — in order to allow his energy to flow smoothly. This then allows him to master the Avatar state — in other words, to connect with the best version of himself. In order to gain love, Aang must let go of his grief. To attain willpower, he must confront his shame. For survival, he must face his fears, and so on. In a beautifully heart-wrenching way, the episode deals with all the struggles that we must overcome in life, and what there is to be gained by moving forward.

  1. “It’s easy to do nothing, but it’s hard to forgive.” (Aang)

In The Southern Raiders, Katara embarks on a mission to kill the man who killed her mother. Aang tries to stop her, begging her to choose forgiveness. What I loved about this episode was that Katara does not forgive the man by the end. It recognizes that some things cannot be forgiven, and that it is not so easy to let go. However, there are also better ways to move on than taking revenge.

  1. Beginnings

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Commonly lauded as the best episode in the entire Avatar universe, Beginnings is the story of how the first Avatar came to be. Told in stunning Japanese-style animation, the universe and history it sets is astounding. Throughout this episode is the overarching theme of balance — between spirits and humans, light and dark, good and evil. It recognizes that in all of these cases, one cannot exist without the other. But, as Dumbledore said, it is important “to fight, and fight again, and keep fighting, for only then could evil be kept at bay, though never quite eradicated.”

  1. “You have light and peace inside of you. If you let it out, you can change the world around you” (Iroh)

When Korra enters the Spirit World, her emotions are reflected in the landscape around her. Therefore, when she becomes upset, the sky darkens and the creatures around her similarly become dark, angry, and threatening. When she smiles, the sun comes out. This is very much the case in the real world as well, for if we are happy and positive, our surroundings will echo those emotions back to us. As Iroh explains, “even in the material world, you will find that if you look for the light, you can often find it. But if you look for the dark, that is all you will ever see.”

Why We Need Cinderella

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On April 13, the day after I’d finished my last exam of second year undergrad, the Victoria College Knitting Club decided to go see Cinderella (Branagh, 2015) as an end of year social.

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This classic “rags to riches” fairytale is familiar to everyone. I actually remember studying Cinderella in grade 2, and reading several versions of the story from various cultures, including a Vietnamese one that I had fallen asleep to multiple times as a child. There is something about this simple plot that has been captivating people for centuries. The astounding success that this most recent adaptation was met with proves that it has not lost its charm.

Going into the film, I had no expectations. I was not a fan of Disney’s animated Cinderella for many reasons, but I desperately needed a break from work and this seemed to be a promising one. I expected to leave the theatre feeling satisfied, but I did not expect the profound sense of wonder and relief that this film brought me.

Lily James is Cinderella in Disney's live-action feature inspired by the classic fairy tale, CINDERELLA, which brings to life the timeless images from Disney's 1950 animated masterpiece as fully-realized characters in a visually dazzling spectacle for a whole new generation.

Firstly, it was a visually stunning film. The costume design was divine and the sets were elegantly elaborate. The film took itself seriously, and as a result, the tone was incredibly mature, poised, and dignified, with just the right amount of humour. I felt entirely captured in its grandeur.

The fairytale was told with very few alterations, but it still managed to make a very old — and, in some respects, outdated — story fresh for a modern audience. For example, in just a few short scenes, the superficial romance between Cinderella and the Prince is transformed into a relationship in which both are learning from each other, and becoming better people because of each other — not in a way that takes over the story, but just so that the film is more digestible to modern viewers.

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Most importantly, however, after months of dense analyses and complicated interpretations, it was inexpressibly refreshing for me to see a such simple story with a good, clear meaning: good things happen to good people. I found that I didn’t want depth, hidden meanings, or plot twists. Almost every part of my life now is already immensely complex, from the stories that I must analyze in class to the choices that will decide my future. Obviously, life is complicated, and that is why I love to read Chekhov or Carver; their stories are a slice of the intricate reality we live in. However, it is good — and indeed, very important — to be occasionally reminded of the simplest things in life.

Last week, as I neared my last exam of the year, I suddenly felt a powerful urge to watch Cinderella again. I needed that escape to a world of fairy godmothers and ballgowns, where one might be able to ride into the forest  and meet a handsome prince. I needed that simplicity, that reminder it could all work out in the end.

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It did not disappoint. Like before, I finished the film and was filled with a sense of contentment, as though all was well with the world. It managed to comfort me in a way that other light movies — such as romantic comedies — could not. Perhaps it was the element of magic and theatricality that allowed me to detach so completely.

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One of the worries I had had going into the film was the inherently sexist plot: damsel in distress is saved by Prince Charming. As a hardcore feminist, I could not bring myself to enjoy the earliest Disney princess movies (Snow White (1937), Cinderella (1950), and Sleeping Beauty (1959)), because I did not feel that these heroines did anything noteworthy.

To my surprise, however, I found that I was not cursing this Cinderella throughout the film at all. I did not find her tears to be out of place. In fact, I found her resilience admirable.

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Unlike in many other adaptations, this film managed to capture the inner strength of this woman that had so often been overlooked. It is a quiet strength of character that isn’t always valued today. I love Mulan’s toughness and courage to go fight for her father, and Pocahontas’s bravery when she throws herself between two warring opponents. I love Jasmine’s sense of adventure and Rapunzel’s wit and curiosity. But, I also greatly admire Cinderella’s ability to stay positive and be kind to others even when she has nothing to give. It is a much more realistic type of heroism than most other story characters are lauded for, and yet, how many people in our world can truly exemplify this wonderful value? There is such strength in staying good in the face of evil, such courage in staying true to ourselves when confronted with so much hardship. This is a remarkable quality that is often passed by in favour of more exciting, noteworthy heroics.

At the core of this story is this message: have courage and be kind. It is one that I strongly believe in, but sometimes have to remind myself still. Amidst such busy schedules and deadlines, such complex analyses, judgements, and choices, courage and kindness can easily be the last things on our minds. Stories like this one not only provide an escape into the impossible, but also a reminder of what is perfectly possible, and right before us.

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Cinderella does not represent the reality of the world we live in, but it represents the dreams of many. I believe that is what C. S. Lewis meant when he said, “some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.” Reliving this fairytale made me believe in magic again — whatever form magic might take in our world — and I think, occasionally, everyone needs to be reminded of a reason to believe.

Kindness and Other Lessons: Why I Love Victoria College

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Earlier this year, I was reading Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor, and came to a scene near the end in which the main character, Madrigal, was about to be beheaded for the crime of love, having been betrayed by a close friend.

“To think I wasted diamonds on her,” Madrigal said as she waited for death in her jail cell, to which her father figure, Brimstone, replied, “Never repent your own goodness, child. To stay true in the face of evil is a feat of strength.”

The line stood out to me immediately. I couldn’t quite place why, but I felt that it had summed up something important for me, some personal experience or lesson that had meant a lot. Five months later, during Frosh week, I finally made the connection.

It was the parade, and a group of us were off to the sidelines, shouting “Vic loves (insert name of college or faculty)!” as they passed us. Most would respond similarly, reciprocating our love, but not all. One group in particular upheld their tradition of shouting back insults and arrogant self-praise. We valiantly continued to keep up our loving and supportive chant as they passed.

Had I been on my own, I would have never reacted in that way. I have always been a highly competitive person, not to mention impatient and impulsive when upset. In kindergarten, I would punch kids who butted me in line. While Brimstone’s words might seem obvious to many, their meaning did not come naturally to me.

I was so proud of being a Victorian that day, and as far-fetched as it might sound, I felt I had made a monumental personal breakthrough. In the highly competitive world we live in — in which millions compete for a handful of jobs — it is very easy to adopt a “survival of the fittest” mindset. Nowhere has this been more clear to me that at the University of Toronto, where I have been driven to unprecedented levels of anxiety and inadequacy when I consider all the fantastic things that fellow students are doing around me.

Vic taught me that it is possible to be intelligent, driven, and kind, all at once. It is possible to be genuinely happy for another person’s achievements, even at the expense of your own, because there is no pride in being successful if you are not equally supportive of those around you, and equally cognizant of the privileges that enabled your success and the struggles that impeded others’.

More importantly, Vic taught me that we should never be nice in the hopes of gaining something for ourselves. Before coming to university, I would have thought it weak to not stand up to someone who had wronged me. I would have cursed myself had my kindness led to my own loss. I could not be more fortunate to have landed in a community that has shown me otherwise — fighting malice with malice is not an act of strength. Kindness is its own reward, and as such, everything that stems from it, regardless of the outcome, is something to be proud of.

“I have a better taste in books than you”

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In grade 2, I began reading at an average of about 200 books a year. I read everything — Roald Dahl, Laura Ingalls, the Boxcar children, Shel Silverstein, Eyewitness encyclopedias, and pretty much everything in between. Reading was my escape, my favourite way of learning, and my best source of comfort. Now, in my third year of undergrad, majoring in English, little has changed. I no longer read 200 books a year — that number began dropping steadily after grade 7 — but I still enjoy a very diverse range of literature, from Malcolm Gladwell, to Dante, to A.A. Milne.

As much as I’ve been a voracious reader all my life, I have also had to put up with a fairly constant stream of criticism about my reading choices since grade 2. These would stem mainly from my parents, but also indirectly from peers, teachers, and other adults in my life. I was criticized for my attachments to children’s literature, young adult fiction, and flashy new releases; classics were shoved relentlessly into my hands, most often accompanied by an opinion boldly masquerading as fact.

The Kite Runner is not good literature.”

Harry Potter is not good literature.”

Dan Brown is not good literature.”

The core problem with these types of statements is that they assume that there is such thing as one definition of “good literature” and that it’s the same for everyone. How can there ever be a simplistic or narrow definition for something as open and subjective as “good”? After all, there is not just one reason for why we read. Depending on our mood, our stage in life, or our personal tastes, we may read to learn, to escape, to find comfort, or enjoyment, or adventure. Shouldn’t it follow that there would be vastly different books to suit all of these needs, for all types of people? Why should some be considered better than others, and why should any one person have the right to define the concept of “good” for anyone else?

I have never been able to accept why some of my favourite books were deemed worthy enough to be considered in this ridiculously exclusive category while other equally cherished ones were not. Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind (which I’ve been told is indeed “good literature”) was as enjoyable to read as Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone (which is classified in the notoriously scorned section of YA). I grew deeply attached to the characters of both stories, and couldn’t put either book down. For this reason, I have always given every book a fair chance, and read everything that’s interested me, regardless of its age, fame, reputation, or lack thereof. Each story that I’ve completed has made me feel something, and all of them left me with something. That is all the criteria I need.

This is not to say that there is no such thing as good literature; there are certainly some loosely universal characteristics of a good story that more people typically respond to. Classics and bestsellers achieve their status because of meaningful plots, memorable characters, beautiful prose, and all those generic elements that I pay thousands every year to study. Within those vague elements, however, are a myriad of possibilities that fall into every genre and every reading level.

I have had far too many people scoff derisively when I show them the book in my hand, and tell me that it’s not “good literature,” or even that it’s not “real literature.” As someone who has never discriminated against any book, I have never been able to understand this mindset; I think we all need to step off our high horses and recognize that a good book does not necessarily have to be one that was published at least 30 years ago (as my father believes), or one that all the top academics recommend. Many of them are, but in disregarding those that aren’t, a lot of valuable experiences can be lost.

Follow Your Dreams, But More Importantly, Follow Your Distractions

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“What was the most important thing you learned this year?”

It was my 20th birthday and I was taking a leisurely stroll with a friend in the garden behind our residence in Telc, Czech Republic. We treaded past overgrown willows, gnarled tree stumps, and grassy clearings dotted with flowers while reflecting back on the past year of my life. To my surprise, I found that I knew the answer to her question as soon as it was asked.

“I think that it’s to not blindly accept what we’re told, but to constantly examine and evaluate our priorities, which can be different for everyone.”

The moment that had brought me to that epiphany had taken place months prior, towards the end of the second semester of university. Like millions of students around the world at that time, I was struggling to keep up with the exorbitant amount of assignments, not only for academics but for my extracurricular involvements as well, most notably concerning the coffee shop that I co-managed. At any point of the year, the task of running a café with a team of 140 volunteers is daunting enough. This was not helped by the fact that I was now in regular meetings with the college administration discussing a pressing matter that would greatly impact the near future of its operations. More than once, the timing of these meetings coincided with my class times, however, I found that when presented with the choice, I would choose the meetings over class without a second’s hesitation.

This was in part due to the fact that I was one of only three students who had a direct say in the matter, and as a result, I could clearly see the impact of my actions. I had also been landed with a couple of rather poor professors that term, one of whom was an avid J.F.K. conspiracy theorist who used his course as a way of propagating books and videos about the issue. It was whilst labouring through one of the essays for this particular course that the absurdity of my situation hit me. I was writing J.F.K. conspiracy theories for class and managing a business in my spare time. Something about that seemed slightly backwards.

I knew that academics were meant to take priority, however, I couldn’t always bring myself to abide by that. I considered Caffiends to be more important than half of my classes, because in many ways, it was. Not only was the fate of the café affecting hundreds of people, but I was also learning far more from the experience than I could have ever learned in any class. I was growing as a person, and as a leader. Personally, that was much more valuable to me than the percents I lost from my grades.

While someone else in my position could very likely have decided otherwise, I prioritized what mattered more to me in that moment, and have no regrets looking back now. At this stage in life, it can be so easy to narrowly focus on the path we’ve laid out for ourselves and refrain from getting distracted, when those distractions might be the things that make us happiest. When I look back on the best, most valuable parts of my university experience thus far, I don’t see lectures or readings. I see the little student-run café tucked in the old janitor’s closet of Old Vic. I see the 6AM wakeup calls for Orientation, the late nights watching Pixar films during Don training, and the faces of the community I’ve built on the way. Not one of those were originally part of my plan, but I’m so infinitely happier to have stumbled across them along the way.

This is not to say that we should disregard academics altogether, but merely that our priorities should not mimic the ones of the people around us, or be internalized mindlessly. They should be evaluated and re-evaluated constantly, and our decisions adjusted to suit those personal needs. After all, the point of university — and of life — is to learn and to grow, wherever that learning presents itself.

The “Guilt” in Guilty Pleasures

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“I’m writing an essay on Harry Potter for school,” I told my mother.

“Are you ever going to grow up?” she replied.

There was a time — namely all of middle school and most of high school — when I would have ducked my head at those words, and felt prickles of shame and embarrassment. She was far from the only person who had said that to me. Like most teenagers, I was very much preoccupied with the concept of “cool.” It wasn’t cool to write Harry Potter essays in my spare time; I’d only publish them on a blog far away from the eyes of my classmates. It was also not cool to know all the words to practically every Disney soundtrack, cry at Taylor Swift music videos, or to dress up for film premieres. As a super emotional person who often gets overwhelmingly excited about things like fictional books, musicals, and movies, this was rather hard. For years, I would tone down the parts of me that I loved most — my belief in the extraordinary, my love for fairytales and fantasy worlds, and also my fervent (sometimes naïve) faith in the power of love.

The only moments when I let my true nerdiness burst forth were in moments of need. I’d always turned to fiction to help me heal, to seek solace, to find company and strength. Just a few weeks following my first heartbreak, I founded my high school Harry Potter club, which had over 40 people attend the first meeting. Clearly, I was not the only one with guilty pleasures. Still, it took years after that point before I could fully embrace those parts of myself.

I’ve noticed that when people speak about their guilty pleasures, most often a certain artist or a fandom, many accompany it with an apology, or try to tone it down or brush it off. However, in doing so, we can disregard some of the best parts of ourselves.

A very respected high school teacher once told me that the best relationship is one in which you help each other grow. I believe that this is not only applicable in romantic relationships, but also in every aspect of our lives — friendships, jobs, interests, etc. As long as our guilty pleasures contribute to our happiness and growth, they are worthwhile and worth celebrating, not hiding.

All of my “guilty pleasures,” and Harry Potter above all, have brought me more joy, meaning, and comfort than the majority of “real” people in my life. It has taught me to be kind, to love selflessly, to be confident, brave, and independent. It has led me to friendships, relationships, and even a job. Thus, I will never again apologize for, or be ashamed of the things that make me a better person.

What Hufflepuff Hate Says About Our Society

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In almost every single instance that I’ve told someone they’re a Hufflepuff, the reaction has been one of great denial and indignance. Most act as if I’ve mortally offended them. This attitude seems to be very prevalent worldwide, as waves of people took to social media when Pottermore was released, lamenting that they were placed in Hufflepuff house. I, as a Ravenclaw with strong Slytherin tendencies, must admit that I did once share this disregard for Hufflepuffs. Like many, I regarded them as a bit of a joke, not to be taken seriously.

As I’ve matured, however, I’ve not only grown to respect Hufflepuff above all other houses, but have also made every effort to be more like them in every aspect of my life.

The first we really hear of Hufflepuff is in PS, during the sorting hat’s song.

You might belong in Hufflepuff,
Where they are just and loyal,
Those patient Hufflepuffs are true
And unafraid of toil.

Fair, loyal, honest, and hardworking. All of these attributes are extremely positive. This is exemplified again and again by the admirable Hufflepuff characters in the Harry Potter series: Ernie Macmillan, Nymphadora Tonks, Cedric Diggory, and more. When Harry fell off his broom playing Quidditch against Hufflepuff in POA, Cedric called for a rematch, even though Hufflepuff had won fairly. When the school suspected Harry of being Slytherin’s heir in COS, Ernie was the one to issue a public apology to him at the end. He also openly declared support for Harry when the entire Wizarding World was against him in OOTP. The qualities of Hufflepuff house are reinforced throughout the series, such as in the sorting hat’s song in fourth year:

For Hufflepuff, hard workers were
Most worthy of admission

And also in Dumbledore’s speech following Cedric’s death:

Cedric was a person who exemplified many of the qualities which distinguish Hufflepuff house. He was a good and loyal friend, a hard worker, he valued fair play.

So what is it about Hufflepuff that turns people off? Is it the fact they always came in last in the house cup standings? Last in the Quidditch cup standings? Is that really more important to us than being loyal, honest, and kind?

Unfortunately, I fear that society has indeed programmed us to prioritize different values. People want to be known as intelligent, brave, or strong. They don’t want to be known as kind, and yet, true kindness is the most difficult quality to embrace.

The sorting hat’s song in the OOTP says the following about Hufflepuff house:

Said Hufflepuff, “I’ll teach the lot
And treat them just the same.”

While Slytherin, Gryffindor, and Ravenclaw were all selective about their students, Hufflepuff embraced everyone equally. This does not mean, however, that Hufflepuffs are not intelligent, brave, or ambitious. It merely means that they do not feel the need to boast about it. Those are not the traits that define them. They do not act in the hopes of being recognized or praised, but merely because it is the right thing to do. Nowhere more is this exemplified than in the final battle of Hogwarts, when almost all of the eligible Hufflepuffs chose to fight, as J.K. Rowling herself states.

In many, many ways, Hufflepuff is my favourite house. There comes a point in the final book where each house has the choice whether or not to rise to a certain challenge. The Slytherins, for reasons that are understandable, decide they’d rather not play. The Ravenclaws, some decide they will and some decide they won’t. The Hufflepuffs, virtually to a person, stay, as do the Gryffindors. Now the Gryffindors comprise a lot of foolhardy and show-offy people. The Hufflepuffs stayed for a different reason. They weren’t trying to show off. They weren’t being reckless. That’s the essence of Hufflepuff house.

The fact that so many people have said they would rather die than be in Hufflepuff is a very disappointing indicator of the priorities of our world. Even more disturbingly, so many have expressed that they would rather be in Slytherin than in Hufflepuff. Slytherin house is defined by strength, ambition, and cunning, and Slytherins tend to act out of their own self-interest or the interests of loved ones. Although by no means inherently bad either, it is responsible for producing the most dark wizards as a consequence. Hufflepuff has produced the least. Yet, I’ve almost never heard anyone complain about being sorted into Slytherin.

J.K. Rowling once said that everyone should want to be a Hufflepuff. Imagine how much better off we’d be if our world was run by Hufflepuffs — people who made decisions based on kindness, patience, and honesty. Unfortunately, it is usually the Slytherins, Ravenclaws, and Gryffindors who rise to the top, because we often act in our own self-interest, and all possess a great deal of pride and faith in our own abilities. We live in a world that rewards those characteristics. Since grade school, awards are given, not for kindness, but for excellency, all while disregarding that the real traits we should all try to embody cannot be measured.

The true magic of Harry Potter

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In 2005, Dr. Stephen Gwilym of John Radcliffe Hospital conducted a study to examine the number of visits that children ages seven to 15 took to the E.R. after the release of the fifth and sixth Harry Potter novels. When compared to the average over a three-year period, he discovered that on the weekends when the books were released, the rates went down by almost half. [1] J.K. Rowling created a story that defined a generation, captivated all ages, and brought millions of children a love for reading. As Professor McGonagall so accurately predicted right from the very start, “this boy will be famous, a legend. I wouldn’t be surprised if today was known as Harry Potter day in future. There will be books written about Harry, every child in our world will know his name.” (PS, 15). The success of Harry Potter can be narrowed down to three qualities intrinsic to the text: the progression in maturity throughout the series, the perfect combination of realism and wonder, and the universal and ageless themes that lie at the heart of the story.

Most teenagers and young adults today would readily admit that Harry Potter made up a great part of their childhood. Many will report that they attended the book launches with their parents, listened to the audio book during car rides to school, or stayed up well past midnight reading as a family. J.K. Rowling once said that a woman in her twenties came up to Rowling on the street and told her “you were my childhood.” [2] Harry Potter is a bildungsroman — a coming-of-age story — that is spread out just long enough for fans to experience their own growth at the same time.

When Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was released in 1997, many of the kids who picked up the book would have been fairly close to Harry’s age, 11. As the young wizard ages with every new book, so do the readers. We can relate to him for the span of a decade. More importantly, the plot and style of the series mature just as the main characters do. While the first three books are relatively short in length, simple, and positive, book four turns extremely dark towards the end and the plot continues to complicate and thicken from there. Themes of death, loss, and power are introduced after the readers have gotten to know the characters, and can understand the new layers that the story presents. The characters are also very accurately representative of their age, which allows for readers to empathize with them. Rowling doesn’t overlook the common issues of relationship drama and moodiness that plague teenagers as her characters grow, despite their lives being drastically different from ours in many respects.

Rowling is careful to keep the familiar aspects of everyday life in the foreground of her story, while also painting a marvellously detailed world. Harry Potter is among the most skilfully constructed low-fantasy universes. The detail involved is striking, with exquisite page-long descriptions of Hogsmeade village, Diagon Alley, the Ministry of Magic, not to mention the centuries of wizard history and politics behind her series. Harry’s world is on par with the greatest alternate universes of Tolkien, Baum, Lewis, and Carroll. Every reading brings a new detail to light. Unlike in high-fantasy stories however, there is a lot that readers can still relate to.

While most teenagers do not have to worry about battling an evil dark lord in order to save the planet, they do worry about homework, sports, and how to ask out a crush. Some of the most critical parts of the series — though unfortunately, parts often excluded from the films — are the regular days at Hogwarts. Daily life at Hogwarts actually looks very similar to the daily life of an average student — classes, homework in the library or common room, meals in the dining hall, then sleep in the dorms. However, reading about our regular lives would be boring; Rowling adds a twist to all of these activities — classes about potions and charms, magic homework written with quills on parchment, meals levitated to your plate by house elves, and sleep in dorms guarded by a talking painting. It is familiar enough to be recognizable, but fantastic enough to be wondrous.

A good example of this balance is shown in Rowling’s description of the sweet shop, Honeydukes:

There were shelves upon shelves of the most succulent-looking sweets imaginable. Creamy chunks of nougat, shimmering pink squares of coconut ice, fat, honey-coloured toffees; hundreds of different kinds of chocolate in neat rows; there was a large barrel of Every Flavour Beans, and another of Fizzing Whizzbees, the levitating sherbet balls that Ron had mentioned; along yet another wall were ‘Special Effects’ sweets: Drooble’s Best Blowing Gum (which filled a room with bluebell-coloured bubbles that refused to pop for days), the strange, splintery Toothflossing Stringmints, tiny black Pepper Imps (‘breathe fire for your friends!’), Ice Mice (‘hear your teeth chatter and squeak!’), peppermint creams shaped like toads (‘hop realistically in the stomach!’), fragile sugar-spun quills and exploding bonbons. (POA, 147)

Every child can relate to the wonder of walking into a candy store and marvelling at colourful chocolates and jelly beans, but Rowling’s vivid description of Honeydukes is that of a paradise beyond any child’s wildest dreams. The universe she creates is so vibrant and detailed, just a step away from reality, which makes it very easy for young readers to take magical elements and insert it into their own lives. Sticks as wands, mud pies as potions — for a generation of children not yet lost in iPad screens, make-believe games were enough to captivate thousands of minds for recess after recess. As the series gained popularity, it was even more rewarding to be a part of the Harry Potter community, to be able to join in lunchtime conversations, discuss predictions for the next instalment, and dress up as the characters for Halloween. While Rowling’s world is extremely intricate and complex in detail, it is also remarkably easy to picture. For children, who have unlimited imagination, it was easy to rebuild Harry’s experience and the wizard community in our own reality. While many other children’s books have well-constructed worlds and intelligent writing, Rowling struck the perfect balance between the magical and the mundane, launching a phenomenon unlike any other.

The lessons and conflicts that appear in the series are also easily applicable to the issues we often see in our world. For example, a recurring theme of the series is prejudice and equality. We see clear prejudice against “muggles” (non-magic folk), “muggle-born” wizards, and “half-blood” races, such as half-giants or werewolves. In fact, the villains of the story are those who believe that “pure-blood wizards” are superior, and should therefore have the right to oppress all beings of lesser magical blood. This draws a clear parallel to the discrimination seen in the Holocaust, when Jews were believed to be biologically inferior to the “white race.” The rise to power of both these dictators can also be paralleled; Hitler fought for white supremacy when he wasn’t Aryan, and Voldemort fought for pure-blood supremacy when he was a half-blood — they both employed Social Darwinism to gain power. In a recent study released this year, research found that secondary and post-secondary students who had read the Harry Potter series were less prejudiced against immigrants, homosexuals, and refugees.[3] These students were able to connect the prejudice against “muggle-borns” in the series to the prejudice shown against these stigmatized groups.

Another example of prejudice that Rowling draws attention to is the treatment of house-elves. Sirius Black met his death in large part due to his treatment of Kreacher, the house-elf. As Dumbledore explains, “he regarded him as a servant unworthy of much interest or notice. Indifference and neglect often do much more damage than outright dislike… (…) We wizards have mistreated and abused our fellows for too long, and we are now reaping our reward.” (OOTP, 735). Harry, by contrast, was saved multiple times by his kindness to Dobby the house-elf, culminating in Dobby taking a knife for him. A huge part of the story emphasizes kindness to everyone, regardless of their species or status in society. As Sirius himself said, “if you want to know what a man’s like, look at how he treats his inferiors, not his equals.” (GOF, 456).

Binding all of this together are the remarkably mature themes embedded at the heart of the series. The great messages that these books promote play a big role in attracting older audiences, who then encourage their children or students to read Harry Potter, thereby contributing to its popularity. Predominantly, the theme of selfless love as the ultimate weapon is one that every reader, regardless of class, race, or age, can connect deeply with.

The story itself starts off with an act of love. Upon Voldemort’s first attempt on Harry’s life, his mother, Lily, gave her life selflessly to protect his, which cast a shield and saved him. Dumbledore explains to Harry: “your mother died to save you. If there is one thing Voldemort cannot understand, it is love. He didn’t realize that love as powerful as your mother’s for you leaves its own mark. Not a scar, no visible sign… to have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection forever.” (PS, 216). Harry becomes the Boy who Lived thanks to his mother’s sacrifice. This protection was what was described as “old magic,” a powerful act rooted in the most basic instincts of human nature. The last time that Harry was saved, almost seventeen years later, was also by a mother’s love — Narcissa Malfoy’s love for her son, Draco. Ordered to make sure that Harry was dead, Narcissa lied to Voldemort in order to cease the fighting, just so that she could be reunited safely with her son. The villain of the series is one who cannot understand this power, one who constantly undermines it, and who ultimately meets his downfall for this mistake:

That which Voldemort does not value, he takes no trouble to comprehend. Of house-elves and children’s tales, of love, loyalty, and innocence, Voldemort knows and understands nothing. Nothing. That they all have a power beyond his own, a power beyond the reach of any magic is a truth he has never grasped. (DH, 568).

The true bad guy in real life, therefore, is not necessarily a wand-wielding sorcerer in a dark cloak, but simply one who cannot understand the value of selflessness and love.

The central claim of the Harry Potter series is simple: our greatest ability is our ability to love. The greatest magic that we have is love, despite the suffering it causes. Love is the weapon that Harry uses to defeat Voldemort; it is the “power the Dark Lord knows not” (OOTP, 741) that the prophecy foretold. Dumbledore describes it as the most powerful force on earth:

There is a room in the Department of Mysteries that is kept locked at all times. It contains a force that is at once more wonderful and more terrible than death, than human intelligence, than the forces of nature. It is also, perhaps, the most mysterious of the many subjects for study that reside there. It is the power held within that room that you possess in such quantities and which Voldemort has not at all. That power took you to save Sirius tonight. That power also saved you from possession by Voldemort, because he could not bear to reside in a body so full of the force he detests. In the end, it mattered not that you could not close your mind. It was your heart that saved you. (OOTP, 743)

When Harry was possessed, he drove Voldemort out the moment he thought of being reunited with Sirius in death: “as Harry’s heart filled with emotion, the creature’s coils loosened, the pain was gone. (OOTP, 720). Similarly, Harry was protected as he grieved over Dobby: “Just as Voldemort had not been able to possess Harry while Harry was consumed with grief for Sirius, so his thoughts could not penetrate Harry now, while he mourned Dobby.” (DH, 387). It is in his moments of selfless love, despite the accompanying grief, that Voldemort cannot touch him. As Dumbledore explains: “you are protected, in short, by your ability to love! The only protection that can possibly work against the lure of power like Voldemort’s! In spite of all the temptation you have endured, all the suffering, you remain pure of heart, as pure as you were five years ago, when you looked into a mirror that reflected your heart’s desire, and it showed you only the way to thwart Lord Voldemort, and not immortality or riches.” (HBP, 477-478).

Similarly, despite all of Severus Snape’s mistakes and wrongdoings, it is his love for Lily Evans that governs his path, and turns him into a good man. This is the one instance of romantic love that stands out in the series because of its selflessness. Snape does not gain anything by protecting Harry, since Lily was married and is dead. His love and loyalty to her demand nothing in return, but instead help him to become a better person. While love, particularly romantic love, is often discussed and explored in literature, it rarely comes in such a selfless form. We read a lot of stories about overcoming obstacles and risking everything in order to save a loved one, or be with a loved one, but the kind of love that Rowling equates with magic is the love that overcomes obstacles for no apparent reward.

Dumbledore said: “do not pity the dead, Harry. Pity the living, and, above all, those who live without love.” (DH, 578). Contrary to what Voldemort believed, death is not the worst thing that can happen. Harry embraced death in order to save those he loved, and in doing so, vanquished Voldemort and lived on. Voldemort, in not understanding the power of sacrifice, died relatively young in pursuit of immortality. Being able to stay true, to love selflessly despite all hardship, is the true magic of the series, and the power that wins in the end. This timeless message is one that resonates with people of all ages and all races because it comes from a very pure and deep-rooted place in our nature. At the same time, it is presented in a fantastic and extraordinary way, again combining an element we can all relate to with an element of wonder that we are all captivated by.

Throughout the story, the importance of good-heartedness is considered more important than all else. This connects to the theme of power, most prominent in the final novel. The Deathly Hallows, magical objects that would make one “master of death,” are only suited to those who do not want them, just as the best leaders are those who do not seek out power. As Dumbledore says: “it is a curious thing, Harry, but perhaps those who are best suited to power are those who have never sought it. Those who, like you, have leadership thrust upon them, and take up the mantle because they must, and find to their own surprise that they wear it well.” (DH, 575). Dumbledore himself, as a young man, tried to attain power through the Deathly Hallows in order to dominate others, and failed. It was only when he realized that true power should only ever be used to benefit others, that he was able to acquire it. As he explains to Harry: “maybe a man in a million could unite the Hallows, Harry. I was fit only to possess the meanest of them, the least extraordinary. I was fit to own the Elder Wand, and not to boast of it, and not to kill with it. I was permitted to tame and to use it, because I took it, not for gain, but to save others from it. (DH, 576-577). Such is the mark of true leadership, a universal theme that readers can apply to every aspect of their lives.

Of the many themes in this story, a prominent one is also the power of words and the imagination, and by consequence, the power of stories themselves. Northrop Frye once said that while “science begins with the world we have to live in (…) [and] moves towards the imagination, (…) art (…) begins with the world we construct, not with the world we see. It starts with the imagination, and then works towards ordinary experience.” [4] The series does a remarkable job of taking readers away from reality, but more importantly, of also bringing readers back to their own lives, so that they can come back with a better understanding of this world. In the first book of the series, Dumbledore tells Harry that “it does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live” (PS, 157) and yet in the last book, he tells him that “of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?” (DH, 579). For a long time, I couldn’t reconcile how these two statements could exist simultaneously. It was only recently that I understood. In the first instance, Harry is lost in the vision of his family that he sees in the Mirror of Erised, and while he is hung up on it, he cannot move on with his life. In the second case, Harry is about to wake up from his vision of Dumbledore in King’s Cross. He is about to come back to life and keep fighting, armed with the knowledge that the conversation with Dumbledore brought him. It does not matter whether or not it was “real,” because it made him a better person and allowed him to lead a better life thereafter. Similarly, it is irrelevant whether or not the stories we read are “real,” as long as they make a difference to our perspectives and choices. If they matter to the reader, then they are real regardless of their physical existence.

As an 11 year-old reading these books for the first time, Harry’s world felt like an escape, a wonderful daydream just out of reach — one where I would actually look forward to homework. As a teenager, Harry Potter was a community of enthusiastic fans, avid readers to dress up and attend movie premieres with. In reading them again as I further aged, I realized that there was so much more to the story than transforming rats and owls carrying letters. The story, spells and potions aside, was simply about the goodness of humankind.

Readers stick with Harry Potter because there are so many aspects to the series that go far beyond a designated age group. Younger audiences will latch onto the adventure, the characters, and the wonderful elements that make up this marvellously constructed universe; older audiences will understand what the battle between good and evil really means, while still appreciating the innocent, whimsical components. There’s something there for everyone, and new things to pick up on with every reading.

[1] Nagourney, Eric. “With Harry Potter, Injuries Dip Like Magic.”

[2] SPIEGEL Interview with J.K. Rowling: ‘I’ve Really Exhausted the Magical’

[3] Gale, Hannah. “Reading Harry Potter Lowers Prejudice against Immigrants, Homosexuals and Refugees, Study Shows.”

[4] Frye, Northrop. “The Motive for Metaphor.” The Educated Imagination, pp. 8-9.