The bland, humourless and one-dimensional boy wizard pales against his more interesting friends
In the 1990s and early noughties, virtually every child’s bedroom contained, amid squashed Furbys and clusters of Pokemon cards, well-thumbed copies of the Harry Potter books. Mine was no exception. In one particularly tattered copy, I recently found, scrawled in gel pen: “Madeline Grant, Year 3, Harry Potter’s number one fan”, along with an attempt to translate the Hogwarts motto Draco Dormiens Nunquam Tittilandus (Never Tickle a Sleeping Dragon). I loved the books so much, I even chose them as my specialist subject on Mastermind, which helped make a truly terrifying experience rather less nerve-wracking.
It is surprisingly tricky for millennials like me to take an impartial view of such a formative element of our childhoods. Yet despite my abiding affection for the books I’ve rather depressingly come to realise that as a character, “the Boy Who Lived” is simply not very interesting.
It doesn’t help that he is surrounded by the more complex and fully-realised characters that make up J.K. Rowling’s superb supporting cast. In particular, his best friend Ron’s jokes and Hermione Granger’s smarts and resolve show up his bland personality. He has little sense of humour, no hobbies or interests outside Quidditch and, despite his miserable upbringing in the “Muggle” (non-magical) world, has no apparent interest in magic or the history of wizardkind. Once at school, he spends much of his time copying homework off Hermione.
Harry is insular and even hostile to newcomers, rebuffing practically anyone outside his immediate circle. Only when the pangs of adolescence kick in does he begin to show a genuine interest in someone other than Hermione or Ron, his best friend’s little sister Ginny. Harry may laugh at others when given an excuse, but he rarely bubbles or shines. He is largely brooding, angry or sullen, his character imbued with very little joy.
Fans excuse this as the result of his traumatic childhood or else a deliberate strategy by Rowling to make the boy wizard as ordinary as possible to allow readers to identify with him.
Others argue that Harry’s status as the modest everyman (or everyboy) is what equips him to defeat Voldemort, just as Tolkien earmarked the incorruptible but utterly ordinary Hobbits to destroy Sauron’s one ring, rather than the powerful Gandalf or Galadriel. But none of this makes Harry’s character any more exciting for the reader.
The disparity between Harry’s apparent abilities and the ease with which he overcomes serious obstacles around him presents a further problem. The best children’s stories require heroic protagonists to earn their spurs, like Samwise Gamgee from The Lord of the Rings, Eustace Clarence Scrubb in C.S. Lewis’s Voyage of the Dawn Treader or Lyra and Will from Pullman’s His Dark Materials. In these tales, main characters start off as weaklings or apparent nobodies, but achieve greatness through toil and humility.
While some elements of this “hero’s journey” do take place, Harry is, for the most part, an anointed cherub — quite literally “the chosen one”. Already unique among wizards for surviving the killing curse Avada Kedavra, he is — save Voldemort — the only character able to speak the snake language Parseltongue. Having escaped the clutches of the the ludicrously dysfunctional and abusive Dursleys — Rowling’s diatribe against Daily Mail-reading, lower-middle-class conservatism — Harry is fawned over and hailed as an overachiever before he has actually done anything.
Harry is the descendent of an illustrious pure-blood family, with mounds of gold lining his vault in the wizarding bank Gringotts. Midway through the series, he inherits his godfather Sirius Black’s money and a London townhouse to boot — thus becoming one of the wealthiest characters in the magical world. (J.K. Rowling, a true Blairite, has no problem with people being “filthy rich.”) None of these qualities are innately suspect, but taken as a whole they suggest a character which does not undergo serious development, but emerges as the finished product.
Some readers have deemed Potter a “Mary Sue” — an internet trope describing suspiciously perfect, lucky or beloved characters. The label certainly fits his implausible popularity, despite his often dreadful decision-making and unfriendly behaviour towards his fellow students. Or how about when he first mounts a broom and instantly becomes the best flier in the school? While I’m at it, how did the short-sighted Harry become a Seeker — a position that requires 20/20 vision? But I digress.
It is Harry’s classmate Neville Longbottom who undergoes the real transformation. First introduced as a dreamy, forgetful boy who cannot keep hold of his pets, he ends up winning renown, and, like a mythical hero, kills Voldemort’s snake Nagini in the final battle for Hogwarts. As with the complexities of Hermione and Ron, who both overcome bracing insecurity to do their duty, Neville’s journey helps demonstrate just how one-dimensional Rowling’s “Boy Who Lived” really is.