Harry Potter and the Transformative Power of Grief

A few particularly profound excerpts from Travis Prinzi’s masterful and highly recommended book Harry Potter […]

David Zahl / 11.17.10

A few particularly profound excerpts from Travis Prinzi’s masterful and highly recommended book Harry Potter & Imagination: The Way Between Two Worlds would be appropriate (more tomorrow):

A fire-baptism can do one of two things to a person: it can consume him in judgment, or it can purify him. Harry’s willingness and ability to be purified, to be “rebuilt,” or “reborn” like a pheonix, becomes the key to his success as a hero… Harry’s suffering throughout the series has been necessary, primarily because the character it produces in Harry makes him able to confront Voldemort.

Harry’s ability to love was created by multiple phoenix-like moments, beginning with the loss of his parents, continuing through mistreatment at the Dursley house, and being re-lived year after year as he progresses through trials, losses, and the figurative death and resurrection sequence of his journey. Indeed, the grief that is so characteristic of Harry in book 5 turns out to be fundamental to his growth into a person who could face Voldemort.

The belief that both positive and negative events can shape a person’s life is held by Albus Dumbledore, who… has quite the penchant for letting people work through difficult situations on their own without intervention on his part. He seems to think it’s an important part of life, and for Harry, he was completely right. Dumbledore knew from his own experiences that grief plays a purifying role in one’s life; when he chose Matthew 6:21, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also,” he did so because his treasure had been in the wrong things (prestige, wizard dominance) and not with his family. The grief of losing his family changed all that. It is no coincidence that the two characters who best know the transformative power of grief are associated with the phoenix.

In his Unlocking Harry Potter, John Granger describes Harry’s dark-night-of-the-soul in The Order of The Phoenix this way:

Harry, literally and figuratively, is burnt up, broken down or dissolved, and bled until everything that he thought he was – Quidditch seeker, Ron and Hermione’s superior, pet of Dumbledore, lover of Hogwarts, son and spitting image of a great man, victim of the Dursleys, valiant enemy of Snape, even his being the hero and man of action in time of crisis – are taken from him or revealed as falsehoods. The boundaries of his world collapse; the Dementors come to Little Whinging and Aunt Petunia knows about them. Privet Drive is no longer a sanctuary, however miserable, and Hogwarts is no longer edifying or any joy to him. The world is no longer separated into Good Guys, Muggles, and Death Eaters – and Harry has been reduced to his formless elements.”

Prinzi again: “[Harry] loses everything, most importantly, in order to become the phoenix-like hero, his status as superhero. His heroic endeavor to save his godfather turns out to be his biggest mistake yet…”

(pgs. 136-37, 140)