Vintage Saints and Sinners by Karen Wright Marsh, Free for CAPC Members
In Vintage Saints and Sinners, Karen Wright Marsh manages to emphasize the vast goodness of spiritual giants while also humanizing them.
[su_note note_color=”#d5d5d5″ text_color=”#91201f”]The following is a reprint from Volume 4, Issue 15 of Christ and Pop Culture Magazine: “Utopian Yearnings.” You can subscribe to Christ and Pop Culture Magazine by becoming a member and you’ll receive a host of other benefits as well.[/su_note]
In the first seven Harry Potter books, sometimes I forget I’m in Harry’s head and can only see things through his perspective. Reading Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, a recently released play written by J. K. Rowling, John Tiffany, and Jack Thorne, causes me to question just how much bias colors Harry’s outlook. I find myself struggling with questions about a flawed world and my own biases about what is good, what is right, and what is perfect.
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child takes place 19 years after the Battle of Hogwarts. Harry and his friends are grown up with children, and his son, Albus, is one of the main characters. Unlike its predecessors, the play spans several years, highlighting the life of a Potter who is placed in Slytherin instead of Gryffindor. To Harry’s dismay, Albus becomes best friends with Draco Malfoy’s son, Scorpius, who—despite the fact that he’s a sweetheart—many despise simply because of his heritage.
If utopia is to be found by separating the good from the bad, we need someone with an objective view to do the sorting.As it is not told through the lens of a single character, the play provides a more objective look into the wizarding world. It addresses some of the bias I didn’t even realize was happening in the original series, reminding us that sometimes our childish opinions erroneously idealize things, just as Harry has.
Harry vs. Slytherin
Harry’s prejudice against Slytherin started to bother me when I re-read the Harry Potter books as an adult; I realized that there couldn’t possibly be a house that only churned out evil witches and wizards.
In Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Hagrid says, “There’s not a single witch or wizard who went bad that wasn’t in Slytherin.” This is an exaggeration that Harry takes to heart. As Hagrid is his first guide to the wizarding world, he has no reason to doubt the statement. He learns later on that Hagrid isn’t always the most reliable source, but by that time Harry’s opinion about Slytherin has been formed into a stark black-and-white perspective.
Similarly, we can see that Harry isn’t the most reliable source either. For example, when he discovers the Mirror of Erised, he doesn’t realize that the description of what the mirror does is found by reading its name backward (i.e., Desire). This signals to readers that they can see things Harry does not. There are many examples of Harry’s unreliability, including what happened in his second year at Hogwarts, when he speaks Parseltongue to a snake that’s about to attack a student. Harry was telling the snake to back off, but Ron tells him later that it sounded more like he was egging it on.
Harry’s misunderstandings are part of the story, of course. It makes sense to take a child’s perspective with a grain of salt, although Harry is so convinced Slytherin is evil, it is difficult to do so in this case. For one thing, we’re presented with Severus Snape, who, though he turns out to be on the “good” side, is truly a horrible person. Seriously. I know lots of people love Snape. But he treats Harry, a child, terribly, all because he didn’t like Harry’s dad when they were kids. That is behavior I’d expect from an 11-year-old, not from an intelligent adult who should understand that Harry is not the same person as his father. Snape bullies Harry constantly, not to mention refusing to teach him Occlumency after Harry accidentally accesses some buried memories. That’s right, Snape, a grown man, doesn’t help Harry protect his mind from Voldemort because Snape is reminded of how he himself was bullied during school. And that’s not even scraping the surface of the mental abuse Snape doles out to students who aren’t in Slytherin (such as sneering at Neville’s potions and, when Hermione gets attacked by a curse that elongates her teeth, saying, “I see no difference”).
As further Slytherin representatives, we have Malfoy, brainless thugs Crabbe and Goyle, and Pansy Parkinson who seems to only exist to listen to Malfoy’s bragging.
So I can see why Slytherin gets a bad reputation, especially from Harry’s perspective. But to be fair, those later examples are all children, whose actions are not yet tempered by wisdom. Not that their behavior is to be excused, but sometimes children are mean and petty. Sometimes they turn out to be very different adults. Besides, there are quite a few examples of Slytherins who are not evil, including Horace Slughorn, Andromeda Black Tonks, Regulus Black, Phineas Nigellus, and, yes, Merlin himself. Merlin was a Slytherin. True story. Not all Slytherins fit Harry’s assessment.
As it turns out, Malfoy and his son, Scorpius, are my favorite characters in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. It gives me great delight that the play addresses the bias Harry feels against Slytherin during the entire original series, and it does so by putting Harry’s own son in Slytherin. Though Harry tells Albus that there wouldn’t be anything wrong with him being sorted into Slytherin, that one of the headmasters he was named for “was a Slytherin and he was probably the bravest man I ever knew,” I think he is still surprised when Albus gets sorted there. Both Albus and Scorpius experience unfair treatment because of who their parents are; Albus because everyone thinks he is a failure for not being in Gryffindor, and Scorpius for being Malfoy’s (or, as rumors would have it, Voldemort’s) son.
Ultimately, Harry is a competitive kid who simply places too much weight on the Gryffindor vs. Slytherin rivalry. His ideal life is getting all the “good” people together and protecting them from the “bad.” The difficulty therein lies in identifying the good ones before labeling them as evil.
Sometimes I’m tempted to jump to conclusions about other people based on outward appearance, status, or what I’ve heard about them. Good people are what make up a perfect world, so if I want my world to be perfect, I should surround myself with them and reject all others, right?
The problem with that is my definition of good isn’t always accurate. The problem with that is people make mistakes. The problem with that is I can’t even define myself as a “good” person because I make bad decisions and let people down sometimes too. I’m human and so is everyone else around me. If utopia is to be found by separating the good from the bad, we need someone with an objective view to do the sorting.
Albus vs. Hogwarts
To Harry, Hogwarts is a paradise. To Albus, not so much.
Hogwarts was an escape from a childhood of misery and abuse for Harry. It was a magical place for someone who had a very unmagical upbringing. Harry loved his teachers (most of them), loved his friends (usually), and he loved being a celebrity (sometimes). Occasionally his fame bothered him, sure, but to a boy who had been ignored for 11 years, it must have been pretty great to learn that people knew him for doing something wonderful: banishing Voldemort.
It’s no surprise that adult Harry assumes Hogwarts will be a similar positive experience for everyone, including his own son. He says, “Hogwarts will be the making of you, Albus. I promise you, there is nothing to be frightened of there.”
When Albus and his cousin Rose first board the Hogwarts Express, Rose is very aware of their prestige. “I’m a Granger-Weasley, you’re a Potter—everyone will want to be friends with us, we’ve got the pick of anyone we want,” she says. “We rate them all and then we make a decision.”
Apparently humility isn’t a Granger-Weasley characteristic.
Then everything goes south when Albus is sorted into Slytherin. Students who had been whispering how much he looked like his father suddenly changed their tune (“I suppose his hair isn’t that similar.”). Rose tells him he’s made a mistake. And then Albus isn’t the Quidditch prodigy that his dad was. This isn’t the Hogwarts idealized in Harry’s mind.
Time passes, and Harry discovers just how different of an experience his son is having when Albus tells him at the train station that he hates the idea of visiting Hogsmeade.
HARRY: How can you hate a place you haven’t actually visited yet?
ALBUS: Because I know it’ll be full of Hogwarts students.
Harry doesn’t understand why Albus doesn’t see Hogwarts as the utopia that he does. Though Harry might have seen it as the ideal place to grow up and become who you were meant to be, Hogwarts definitely isn’t perfect. There are teachers who don’t know how to teach, bullies, muggle-haters, boring classes, a sport that not everyone is into. Of course, there are also many positive aspects that Albus seems to miss due to being raised in a privileged home as well as his teenaged angst about being Harry Potter’s son.
In an attempt to fix the problem of his derelict son—and under the influence of the words of a centaur that he “sensed darkness” around Albus—adult Harry does exactly what childhood Harry does—points the finger at the most obvious suspect. He forbids Albus from being best friends with Scorpius, certain that the friendship with Malfoy’s son is the source of the problem.
Haven’t you learned anything from the whole Snape debacle, Harry? Haven’t you??
Draco Malfoy is actually the voice of reason in the play. “Maybe the black cloud Bane saw was Albus’s loneliness,” he says to Harry. “His pain. His hatred. Don’t lose the boy. You’ll regret it. And so will he. Because he needs you, and Scorpius, whether or not he now knows it.”
When I let bias cloud my judgment I may be missing out on important relationships. The world isn’t black and white; it’s a whole lot of grey that can be difficult to navigate, and jumping to conclusions can make it all the more difficult.
Boys vs. the Time-Turner
It’s no surprise that when Albus hears the ministry has confiscated a Time-Turner that he wants to use it in an attempt to make his world better. He wants to right a wrong that his father seems too busy to care about.
ALBUS: When Amos Diggory asked for the Time-Turner, my father denied they even existed. He lied to an old man who just wanted his son back—who just loved his son. And he did it because he didn’t care—because he doesn’t care. Everyone talks about all the brave things Dad did. But he made some mistakes too. Some big mistakes, in fact. I want to set one of those mistakes right. I want us to save Cedric.
Would I go back in time to right a horrible mistake? To take back an action I regret? To bring back a loved one? If I had the ability, it would sure be difficult not to try.
Albus sees the world in black and white, just like his father did at that age. In his mind, Cedric Diggory died for no good reason. That is a bad thing that happened, and it should be fixed. To Azkaban with the consequences, this is happening!
What Albus does not know is that Cedric’s death haunts Harry to this day. It isn’t just a trifling event that happened in the past, a memory he rarely thinks about any more. Cedric’s death marked the beginning of a raging battle between good and evil. His death scarred Harry, who saw a friend die before his eyes, die because he had bravely fought through three tasks, die because Harry had been generous, had held his hand out in friendship and been willing to share the Triwizard Cup and the victory.
If anyone wanted to bring Cedric back, it was Harry. But Harry knew the consequences. He knew Cedric himself wouldn’t want that.
So Albus and Scorpius make several attempts to change history, and change it they do, though not in the way that they imagined.
When all goes wrong and another evil comes to light, both Albus and Harry have to face the fact that they were both wrong about some things. Attempting to make the world better by changing something that happened in the past isn’t a solution. Changing your actions in the future is.
Ideals vs. Reality
Harry Potter’s childish perspective was bent on making Hogwarts the ideal that his heart longed for, but in the process, he had to paint others with a dark brush to fit his black-and-white mentality. He failed to see that his son was struggling under that utopian fantasy—until Albus’s suffering encouraged him to rethink his bias.
So too must we deal with the negative idealism in our own lives. We have to first acknowledge that we are biased, but we can still strive to live differently—not by judging others, but by giving them the benefit of the doubt and treating them with respect. Such behavior has been detailed to us in the New Testament. James, for example, had a thing or two to say about judging others and refusing to let go of our presuppositions:
“Do not hold your faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ with an attitude of personal favoritism. For if a man comes into your assembly with a gold ring and dressed in fine clothes, and there also comes in a poor man in dirty clothes, and you pay special attention to the one who is wearing fine clothes, and say, ‘You sit here in a good place,’ and you say to the poor man, ‘You stand over there, or sit down by my footstool,’ have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil motives?” (James 2:1-4)
Paying special attention to some people while pushing others aside is what we see in Harry—and ourselves—as we try to craft a utopia by our own hands. Jesus calls us to make choices with our eyes wide open to the world’s imperfections. Instead, we can act out his love intentionally; in a sense, we can make his kingdom come to Earth in small ways—through acts of service, through kindness, through love and relationship. Then, when we live in reality—not utopia—we have glimpses of Heaven in our midst, and we do not need to force others into our false utopian ideals.
We may have our own biases about what is good, what is perfect, and what is right, but the reality is our lives in this world never will be perfect. We can’t change that. What we can do is open up to understanding each other, be willing to admit our mistakes, and attempt to make loving choices in a world of grey.
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