Living Through Death With Harry Potter

Trauma and tragedy play a role in a lot of children’s literature. But it was J.K. Rowling’s series that helped me cope with almost dying.

An illustration of 'Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix' with a beam of light shining on a reader
PhotoMediaGroup / Shutterstock / Scholastic / Zak Bickel / The Atlantic

Like many people who grew up in the ’90s and early aughts, my youth was indelibly shaped by J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series—by attending midnight-release parties, getting my hands on the latest books, and lining up to watch the new films. To a generation of fans, Harry can sometimes feel more like a childhood companion than a fictional character. Starting in 1997, Rowling followed the boy wizard and his friends through their teenage years, paying as close attention to the mundane (crushes, school dances, exams) as to the magical (potion-making, Quidditch, house elves). But, crucially, the series was unafraid to grow darker and more serious as it wore on. The later books, especially from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix onward, show what it’s like to carry the weight of awful things; they go further than most children’s literature, doubling down on the guilt, fear, violence, and, ultimately, death that the young heroes face.

Revisiting the series is always a joy, but although I tend to speed through the first three books, I instinctively start slowing down at Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. I feel a bit of apprehension, knowing what lies ahead. As someone who suffered a traumatic event at a young age it hurts even 10 years later to read the inner thoughts of a teenaged Harry as he starts losing more of his friends and loved ones.

I almost died once. At age 16, I was sitting in the hallway of my high school in southern Alabama when a tornado tore through the structure, killing eight students, classmates I’d known since I was a child. I could have been one of them, which feels dramatic to say, but when I look at photographs of what used to be my school after it was reduced to a pile of rubble, I know it’s true. I’ve been grappling with post-traumatic stress disorder since that day.

Years before my own brush with death, I read about Harry’s. I watched him struggle with grief and rage as he sought to gain control of his life and to do what he believed to be right. Because of Harry—who saw people his age die, who learned that mortality is not something to fear, and who worked through his anger to find strength even when it was hard—I eventually had something to map my own experience onto. As a result, Harry Potter tends to mean something different to me, as it might to others who’ve endured trauma. In many ways, the books have always been an echo.

* * *

The Harry Potter series is, of course, about an orphan who happens to be a wizard. It is about mythical creatures, and magical castles, and found family. It is also a story absolutely filled with images of death. The seven-part series is bookended by loss, beginning with the murder of Harry’s parents by the evil Lord Voldemort when the boy is a year old, and culminating in Harry’s own (brief) death at age 17. He grows up in an abusive household with his aunt, uncle, and cousin, but starting when he’s 11, Harry spends most of the year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, a place where violence abounds, ranging from spells gone awry to wizard duels to all-out war.

Perhaps the most important moment in the series comes at the end of the fourth book, The Goblet of Fire. Harry has just fought his way through a labyrinth, the final task of the Triwizard Tournament. He reaches the end only to find it’s all been a ploy by a newly resurrected Voldemort. Harry is tied to a gravestone as the wizard who killed his parents coldly orders the death of his classmate, Cedric Diggory—who is then murdered in front of him.

When The Order of the Phoenix, the fifth installment, was released in 2003, the reader responses to the book departed slightly from the usual revelatory praise. There were mixed emotions—happiness about having a new book, and also outrage that a favorite character, Sirius Black, had been killed. But another sentiment reverberated through both the fandom and the critical community: frustration over Harry’s new personality.

Indeed, the Harry Potter of The Order of the Phoenix is not the Harry Potter of the earlier books. The novel introduced a 15-year-old wizard who was tortured, emotional, and much less relatable to many readers. I can recall fan forums at the time nicknaming him “emo-Harry” or “CAPSLOCK-Harry” (referring to Rowling’s copious use of all-caps during Harry’s dialogue in the book). A few weeks after The Order of the Phoenix was released, the English novelist A.S. Byatt wrote for The New York Times a critical essay  in which she explained Harry’s personality change the way many people have—by blaming the unpredictable seesaw of teenage emotion:

In Order of the Phoenix, Harry, now 15, is meant to be adolescent. He spends a lot of the book becoming excessively angry with his protectors and tormentors alike … Harry now experiences that rage as capable of spilling outward, imperiling his friends. But does this mean Harry is growing up? Not really.

Even Stephen King, a writer who understands the complexities of childhood trauma, seemed to misattribute Harry’s temper in an otherwise glowing review of the novel: “As for Harry himself, he speaks quietly, automatically, nervously, slowly, and often—given his current case of raving adolescence—ANGRILY.”

Many readers agreed that Harry had gotten whiny, unpredictable, and irritating, seemingly discounting the fact that mere months before the fifth book takes place, he had watched the execution of his friend. They, like some reviewers, didn’t appear to sufficiently see Harry’s anger as a normal and transformational response to deep grief. When I reread The Order of the Phoenix, I see Harry as a teenager who, like most children exposed to tragedy, finds himself caught between growing up incredibly quickly and wanting desperately to remain the boy he was before. But his friends and family are just as annoyed and confused as Byatt. Why is Harry losing his temper with everyone? Why is he acting so oddly?

One particularly distressing moment comes toward the end of The Order of the Phoenix, in a conversation between Harry and Albus Dumbledore, the headmaster of Hogwarts and Harry’s mentor. Knowing that Harry has just lost his godfather, Sirius, Dumbledore tells him that his ability to withstand great hardship is his biggest strength. The boy snaps. “I DON’T CARE!” Harry yells, throwing one of Dumbledore’s belongings into a fireplace. “I’VE HAD ENOUGH, I’VE SEEN ENOUGH, I WANT OUT, I WANT IT TO END, I DON’T CARE ANYMORE!” Dumbledore’s response is calm and detached, though he seems to empathize: “You care so much you feel as though you will bleed to death with the pain of it.” His words incite a panic in Harry. “I—DON’T!” Harry screams. Reading this exchange now, even plucked from its context, my heart hurts.

It’s difficult when the people you love can’t understand your sudden outbursts, your mood swings. When I started college, I was a different person. I had been a different person since 2 p.m. on a March afternoon in 2007, when I was 16 and picking myself up off the floor of my high-school hallway covered in debris. It was hard, for a long time, for people to realize this. My parents would stand bewildered when, at the first sign of thunderstorms, I would run around the house collecting my most valuable things, screaming at them to barricade themselves in our bathroom. Harry, too, was haunted by his memories—flashes of the green light he associates with his parents’ deaths, nightmares of things he had seen. In college, friends who had known me for years felt I wasn’t as confident as I had once been. I couldn’t explain that I felt as though the personality I had when I was 16 had been zapped out of me, or had simply melted away. I was busy trying to make sense of what was going on inside my head. It felt like Harry’s outbursts on the page, as though my thoughts were in capslock.

* * *

The last three books of the series are a lesson in resisting, and in healing, which is just as important as facing the trauma itself. In Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, the sixth novel, the tantrums are largely gone—but Harry’s focus on rooting out evil in the school seems at times unhinged and his methods unreliable, which causes his friends to worry. In the final book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Harry and his friends must navigate a world ravaged by war, without the aid of adults for the first time. Hogwarts has fallen to Voldemort’s allies and the professors who had guided them for the last six years are no longer there. All the students are now fighting to survive, but Harry has been fighting since he was 11, if not earlier.

The Harry of The Deathly Hallows is shouting much less. The emotional scars are still there, but they haven’t destroyed him. This, more than anything else, is what makes the series so important: It shows a young man who locates strength in the terrible things that have happened to him. It’s what all survivors strive for. The final book shows our hero battling evil, losing more people he loves, and facing Lord Voldemort—once and for all. Near the end of the novel, he willingly walks to his death; at no point does the series pretend that children can ever be protected from heartache, or that they can’t grow from it.

The books also teach readers that finding people who understand us, and searching out shared experiences, helps. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it’s in The Order of the Phoenix, when things turn especially dark, that Harry meets Luna Lovegood, an eccentric fellow Hogwarts classmate mocked by some other students as “Loony” Lovegood. They meet at the start of their fifth year, when Harry is ostracized from his closest friends. He’s just spent the summer tortured with flashbacks and nightmares, and he’s feeling disoriented because the one place that’s always been a refuge—Hogwarts—feels unwelcoming.

For the last four years, Harry has believed that incoming Hogwarts students were transported from the train station to the doors of the school by magical horseless carriages. In his fifth year, he learns this isn’t the case. The carriages are in fact pulled by skeletal-looking, winged black horses called thestrals, which can only be seen by those who have witnessed death. Luna is one of the only other students able to see them. Harry is frightened by their appearance, but Luna reassures him, “You’re not going mad or anything. I can see them, too.” Harry’s relief is palpable. “Can you?” he says. It’s no surprise that for a while, Luna—who becomes one of Harry’s most loyal friends—seems to be the only person in his orbit who doesn’t question his strange new behavior.

This moment with the thestrals, though a small one, captures what reading Harry Potter has felt like to me. The novels reminded me that I’m not going mad, or that if I am, someone else probably is, too. The pain in those middle books is so visceral and familiar, but as I keep reading I remember that the last moments we spend with Harry in those final books are all about fighting on and holding tightly to hope—together.