This has not been the best year for the Harry Potter franchise, assailed as it has been by the fallout from transphobic comments by J.K. Rowling and an abuse scandal surrounding Johnny Depp, star of the Fantastic Beasts spin-off franchise.
Of course, this hasn’t been the best year for a lot of things as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent isolation protocols. It is curious, then, that this beleaguered franchise — so dear to the hearts of a generation of readers — and the lockdown of the global population might combine to create something with resonance, entirely by accident.
The first six books of the Harry Potter series took place at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, an enchanted boarding school filled with danger, mystery and magic. But for the seventh book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Rowling chose to deviate from her established practice by setting it in isolation. Harry, Hermione and (sometimes) Ron were cut off from their familiar routines and lives, suffering through loneliness, resource shortages, cabin fever, frustration and a terrifying new world order.
For a lot of people looking back on this story, it screams 2020 — it has everything but the surgical masks.
We can write this off to an accident of history, but it also connects us to a number of compelling developments in literary theory, including French philosopher Michel Foucault’s theory of the episteme, American literary historian Stephen Greenblatt’s New Historicism and British semiotician Gunther Kress’s theory of semiotic resources, all of which point (in one way or another) to the simple fact that the meaning of a text is dependent on the cultural circumstances surrounding it.
As our world changed, the cultural significance of Harry Potter changed with it.
In a pandemic society, reading lines like “the pure, colourless vastness of the sky stretched over him, indifferent to him and his suffering” takes on a new capacity for immersion. Harry’s experiences of isolation and anxiety now bring him closer to us, make him more relatable and identifiable, just as a pandemic-addled society can now, in turn, grow closer to Harry and understand in greater depth the heavy psychological toll that being cut off from his life at Hogwarts must be taking on him.
This is especially true for high school students in 2020. The interruption of Harry’s education, adolescence and general pathway to the adult world is again all too familiar to the average 12th grader, who could not possibly have expected their steady progression through the curriculum to be waylaid by a virus any more than Harry could have expected to lose his final year at Hogwarts to a Death Eater coup.
We can reach further too, and allow that deepened understanding of Harry’s isolation to ripple through the narrative, enhancing things like the joy of his return to Hogwarts and overthrow of Voldemort, or the depth of his friendship to Hermione for standing by him through the worst of it. Our familiarity with his isolation makes his victories all the sweeter.
This phenomenon is nothing new. Consider, for example, George Orwell’s Animal Farm, a treatise on the dangers of communism, and Nineteen Eighty-Four: A Novel, a dire warning about government surveillance and totalitarianism. At the height of the Cold War, Animal Farm provided sharp criticism of the hypocrisy of Communist regimes, one that resonated with a western audience affronted by the so-called “red scare.”
As the Cold War diminished, so too did the immersive potential of Animal Farm as a novel, which reads as more of a barnyard fable to an audience unfamiliar with the U.S.S.R. As for Nineteen Eighty-Four, it saw a renaissance during the George W. Bush era with the passing of the Patriot Act and the surveillance initiatives it contained.
The point is simple: a story’s longevity and the legacy of its author are deeply dependent upon historical context, and since the author can’t see into the future, we have to acknowledge the role of chance as a co-author of some our most beloved texts. Even the Bard himself has had his fair share of happy accidents.
So where does this leave Harry Potter, our most recent literary phenomenon? Adrift, perhaps, but not entirely. Both Shakespeare and Orwell’s works acquire new meanings as the times change, and so too does Rowling’s series, which is a dynamic and engaging fictional world that has the potential to stand outside of time itself, to some degree, if it needs to.
How Harry’s journey is met by each subsequent generation of enthusiasts is changing, and will continue to change with the world that surrounds us. The perception that texts are stable entities is an illusion.
When COVID-19 went viral, Harry Potter caught it and was changed by it, just as we all were. Having a new excuse to read an old favourite in the light of a new world is by no means the worst thing in these trying times, especially when we’re all stuck at home anyway.
J. Andrew Deman is professor of English at the University of Waterloo