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Tuesday, July 24, 2007

My Time At Hogwarts: A Eulogy

I finished Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows at approximately 7:32am Central time on July 22nd. The sun had come up and was filtering through the cracks between the closed blinds. My eyes were red and painful from being open for nearly 24 hours and there was a deep, empty feeling in my chest. As I closed the book and looked at the cover, tracing my fingers along the raised, golden letters of the title I realized the magic was over. I knew everything now; all the questions had been answered. No more would I wonder about the true fate of Sirius and Dumbledore, or whether Snape was a Death Eater or a Member of the Order of the Phoenix. No more would I debate with my friends whether Harry Potter’s wizarding world was as complex and detailed as Tolkein’s Middle Earth. The game was up, the tale was told, and I felt as if I had lost a close friend.

I realize that I should be embarrassed to be a grown man and feel so passionately about a “children’s” book. But, as I finished the last few pages of Deathly Hallows and that feeling of emptiness and loss settled in the pit of my stomach, I realized just how much these books and characters meant to me. I have spent the last 5 years of my life endlessly discussing and rereading, allowing myself to be swept into Rowling’s magical world that is so much like our own but ingeniously different. With each installment I felt like I knew the characters better, could predict how they would react to the new situations they found themselves in, as if they were friends of mine that I had known for years. As Harry, Ron, and Hermione gained more and more magical education and learned more about the world in which they lived I, too, felt like my eyes were opened to a world that was teeming with undiscovered possibilities.

In short, I felt like a kid again. Harry Potter came to me at a time in my life in which I felt lost, confused, and absolutely certain that I knew everything, and with that came a dreadful amount of jaded cynicism. One day my dad, who had recently started listening to the series on CD, forced me to accompany him and my mom to an opening day screening of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. I was utterly transfixed from the moment Dumbledore laid Harry at the Dursley’s doorstep. There was something so familiar about these characters. It was as if they had always existed, that these books and adventures had been around for years, like Peter Pan or Cinderella and yet there was something new and exciting about them.

The next day I borrowed a friend’s copy of Sorcerer’s Stone and read the whole thing in a matter of a few days, followed immediately by Chamber of Secrets. Within two months I had read the first four books and had seen the first movie three times. I was amazed at how subtly Rowling had developed the stories, only telling the reader what they had to know in order to get through that volume, each tome shedding more and more light on the world in which Harry lived. I felt like I was eleven years old all over again, when every new discovery changed the world so dramatically in my eyes it seemed as though I was the first to see it done. I found myself wishing I could go to Hogwarts, wishing I could do magic as well, and wondering which house I would be sorted into (Of course, it would be Gryffindor).

By the time Order of the Phoenix was released I was a full-fledged Potter fan (although I was too cheap to buy a copy of it, I borrowed one from a friend), and I finished it within days. Like everyone else I was horrified by Sirius’ death and was absolutely certain he wasn’t actually dead. The ambiguity of his falling into the veil is a perfect example how amazing Rowling’s storytelling is, the way she sews questions into the lining of every answer and leaves the reader constantly guessing at what everything means. I walked around in a funk for nearly two days after finishing Potter 5, feeling as though I had lost my godfather instead of Harry.

But I was to be consoled by the near constant barrage of Harry-related media events that followed the release of Order of the Phoenix; Alfonso Cuaron’s gorgeous Prisoner of Azkaban was released just 7 months later in 2003 followed by the film adaptation of Goblet of Fire and the release of Half Blood Prince both in 2005. I awaited all three of these with eager anticipation and none of them let me down, a feat that has only been matched by that other epic series, Lord of the Rings. Each time I entered Rowling’s universe I liked it more and more and I found even more to appreciate. But still I felt that I remained at the peripheral of the phenomenon; I was an adult and this was a children’s thing.

Then, about three months ago, two things happened that changed all of that forever: I was hired into a job that allowed me a bit more free time to surf the internet, and I caught wind of the impending release of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. These two events coincided at nearly the same time and so, with few websites I could check out and a lot of time on my hands I started on a quest to find out more about the new movie. It didn’t take me long to discover, a massive treasure trove of valuable information, speculation, fan art, fan stories, and editorials. It was phenomenal. I had no idea how expansive this Harry Potter craze had gone, and it made me feel less stupid for liking the stories so much myself. I spent hours upon hours in the next few weeks mining the depths of this website, reading editorials from fans who knew so much about these books it was staggering. I began to see how much thought and emotion and energy had been put into the authoring of the series and it made me appreciate it so much more. I checked the website daily in order to catch the latest clips from the new movie and read every new clipping about Rowling and the actors and her publishers, anything I could get my hands on. It was about the time I pre-ordered my copy of Deathly Hallows, checked Emma Watson’s (Hermione in the movies) website for the third time, and watched the trailer for Order of the Phoenix for the fourth time that I realized I wasn’t a casual Harry Potter reader, I was a full-fledged fan.

This realization frightened me a little at first because I still felt like I should apologize for being this into something that had a largely pre-teen fan base. Yet, the more I read on Mugglenet and as I reread the entire series in anticipation of OotP and DH releases, I saw that this was something far beyond the scope of a children’s book, this was massive, unprecedented in publishing, perhaps in all of media. I really felt like I was part of something bigger than myself, like being a fan of Star Wars or The Beatles during their heydays. And so I fully embraced it and marched into Order of the Phoenix at midnight with the rest of the Potterphiles.

It felt good to be a part of something this big, and to finally accept that I was a dork and a huge fan. Granted I didn’t go to the release of the final book at a local bookstore dressed like Dumbledore (although that had more to do with my having a show to play that night than not wanting to go), but I did clear my schedule for the 24 hours directly following the release of Book 7. So, at around 3 in the afternoon I sat down on my couch and began to read what would become one of the most satisfying entertainment experiences of my life.

I used to read a lot when I was younger, a lot more than I do now, and Stephen King was my favorite author, still is. My favorite book was It and when I was twelve years old I was rereading it for the third time in two years one night and when I got to the part when Eddie dies something snapped inside of me. I started to cry. I felt like one of the very best friends I’d ever had had perished right before me and there was nothing I could do about it. It was inevitable, after all I’d read the book twice before, I knew it was coming, and the inevitability of it was too much for me to take. It over rode my senses and so I did the only thing I could think of, I cried. It seemed for a moment that I understood certain amazing truths about love and life and friendship, about fatherhood and childhood, about life itself. But as I hugged my mom and cried, these truths seemed to just get washed away like letters scrawled in the sand. I was only twelve years old for God’s sake, I probably shouldn’t have been reading Stephen King books anyway, but that moment had a profound effect on me. I have never felt like that since…well, at least until now.

As I rushed to finish the final installment of Harry Potter I realized that the same feeling of inevitability was creeping up on me, stealing over my heart like a wispy shroud. It seemed like all the pieces were fitting so perfectly, every question answered, and as Harry sat in Dumbledore’s office, watching Snape’s life story unfold in the Penseive that same something snapped in me again, just as it had when I was twelve. Only this time I understood a little more of life. I realized that this story wasn’t simply about a boy wizard and I wasn’t simply interested into it as a form of escapist entertainment. For five years I have looked to these stories for justification, for guidance, and for support in an adult world that is increasingly devoid of solace. I realized that I no longer had a shoulder to cry on as I did when I was twelve, that the consequences of my actions were severe, that doing good or evil was a choice, but not one made easily. As Harry walked into that clearing to face Voldemort, consciously choosing death to save the lives of those he loved I realized that his choice was no different than the ones we make every day. Lily, Snape, Dumbledore, Harry, had the choice to risk their lives and it was the choices they made that determined their character. It broke my heart and it made me smile as well.

I’m sure that when I have kids something else will come along that will ignite the passions and emotions of their generation the way that Harry Potter and Star Wars and Lord of the Rings did for my generation and the generations before, but I know that as I grow I will carry this moment with me for a long time. It has been a great journey and I am proud to have taken it at all, even if all I did was turn pages and think and feel. And I hope that when I read these books to my children they will understand how I have felt this day and maybe on some level we will be able to understand each other through the varied ages. Thank you J.K. Rowling for five wonderful years, my time at Hogwarts will last me a lifetime.