I was ten years old when I first read Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. It’s been more than two decades since, and I remain a Potterhead even today. Even people who have never been able to understand the charm of the books (and I’d be lying if I said that a part of me doesn’t feel sorry for the magic they’re missing) cannot ignore the cult status that Harry Potter enjoys in today’s day and age. The field of Psychology has also been inspired tremendously by the series – Dobby, the house-elf we meet, first, in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets – inspired the definition of a phenomenon named after him (The Dobby Effect) on the cycle of guilt and self-punishment. So, what is it about the Harry Potter series that makes people from so many different communities and corners of the world fall in love with the books or movies in a heartbeat? What spell has J.K. Rowling managed to cast on all of us – children and grownups alike? Is it simply the fact that just like J.R.R. Tolkien did with Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, and C.S. Lewis did with Narnia, J.K. Rowling was able to offer her readers with a completely different world system – an alternate reality conjured up with maps, vivid descriptions that is inhabitable and familiar to such an extent that it all feels real with its own inner logic? Or is it the fact that J.K. Rowling was able to create an identifiable protagonist – an exceedingly complex task to do with regards to children’s literature where it’s usual for boys to relate only with the male characters and girls with other girls – and develop the plot in such a manner that the series had a near universal identification process with aspects to relate with for everyone?
As a student of Psychology, if there is a topic that was my personal favourite, it would be the theory of transactional analysis. Transactional analysis has many interesting concepts, one of my favourites being script analysis. Eric Berne developed the idea of life-scripts. According to him, every person has a favourite fairy-tale or literary story which later corresponds with the development of the person’s life-script. As scary or astonishing as it may sound, we all determine the story of our life by the time we are as young as eight years of age! As young children, we pick a favourite story and ask it have it told or read, and reread, retold over and over again. As we grow up, we may push the story into the depths of our unconsciousness, but without even our total awareness, that story has now formed an important basis for our life-script. According to Berne’s theory, fairy tales are extremely significant at a psychological level because they form important frameworks for our adult life. Harry Potter returns us to the beloved fairy-tales of our childhood and transforms our lives into the most beautiful script of the universal victor. The entire series gives us yet another chance to transform ourselves and our life-script, at least (but not limited to) in our imagination.
How does J.K. Rowling achieve this? Let us begin from the beginning itself – Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. When we meet Harry, he is ten years old living in the tiny cupboard under the stairs. He is despised and mistreated by his aunt, uncle and cousin. He is an orphan boy fitting into the tragic archetype of the vulnerable child with no protection. He has to do all the unpleasant household chores and still is met with no appreciation. Dudley is good-for-nothing yet he is pampered and has it all. Does this introduction not remind you of another familiar fairy-tale from childhood? Cinderella, perhaps? The orphan archetype in most fairy-tales are destined to become the hero (or in Cinderella’s case the “princess”), and just like in our childhood we laughed with glee when the shoe fit, we can’t help feeling that huge sense of relief when Hagrid arrives and lets Harry know he is a wizard and he does not belong in the Muggle world. The moment Harry learns this truth, he is immediately transformed with that bit of knowledge – suddenly things make sense to him – like the Ugly Duckling who finally realized that the only reason he’d had a miserable childhood was because he was actually a cygnet living amidst cute, adorable ducklings, and when he grew up, he did become a beautiful swan – once Harry settles in Hogwarts, he is no more just a poor, oppressed creature – he is “The Boy Who Lived” and while at Hogwarts, he discovers his talent in Quidditch among other things.
In many ways, Harry’s imperfections that J.K. Rowling juxtaposes with his admirable moral qualities makes him a protagonist who has universal appeal – he is not the perfect student often banking on copying from Hermione to get decent grades. He makes mistakes, and in many ways, the entire Harry Potter series is actually the modern fairy-tale we need in today’s day and age. Surprised? Think about it…
What comes to mind when you think of fairy-tales? An image of some old, dusty book with gilded letters and hard binding? Or did the Grimm Brothers just pop in your mind with their slightly disturbing endings and old-fashioned language? Fairy-tales play a significant role in the coming-of-age period and pass on important lessons and there’s more to them than just being mere stories. The Harry Potter series fits in well with these tales as old as time.
For starters, all fairy-tales are instructional. While they may be set in a world filled with whimsy and enchantments, they do contain hard truths and accepted norms or guidelines that need to be passed on to the next generation. If The Ugly Duckling or Beauty and the Beast have taught us anything, it is to never judge a book by its covers. The Potterverse is infused with this lesson through its various characters – Gilderoy Lockhart, Sirius Black, Severus Snape – there is more to people than what appears on the surface, and people are complex. Through its plot and story-line, the Harry Potter series actually cautions us against forming prejudices and helps us escape the trap of black-and-white thinking by realizing that all of us – from the ones we believe to be the very best (Dumbledore) to the worst (Severus Snape) – have shades of grey.
Most fairy-tales are rooted in the idea of justice (often rather graphically described!). The stepsisters in the original story of Cinderella are blinded for their cruelty, while the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood collapses to death due to the weight of the stones. The fight between good and evil is rampant everywhere in the Harry Potter series with evil being defeated for good as the series draws to a close. However, in the classics, while the punishment of unacceptable behaviours is largely gendered – in Jack and the Beanstalk, Jack escapes punishment despite stealing from the giant’s palace, but Red Riding Hood is punished for her “disobedience” – J.K. Rowling updates and reimagines many of the archaic elements. The women in the Harry Potter series – Hermione Granger, Ginny Weasley, Molly Weasley, Nymphadora Tonks, Luna Lovegood – are strong, independent leaders in their own right, and all characters- male and female – face trials, tribulations and suffering.
It is no secret that many of the original fairy-tales are extremely dark. From stories of children freezing to death (“The Little Match Girl”) to The Little Mermaid dying by suicide and disintegrating into sea-foam, the original fairy-tales do not hesitate from letting children know that darkness and death are aspects of life and not everything about life is as pleasant as a walk in the park. The world of Harry Potter has its dark moments with the presence of Dementors (creatures that serve to be apt metaphors for clinical depression); Harry exhibiting signs of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) in the fourth and fifth book; the death of loved ones from Sirius Black to Albus Dumbledore, Dobby, Fred Weasley (this one broke whatever remained of my shattered heart after Dobby’s death), and so many more.
Fairy-tales introduce children to real-world issues. If Cinderella subtly spoke about the rich-poor divide and gently broke the nature and rules of the wider world to help facilitate a child’s awareness through their years about class divide, Harry Potter brings to light not just mental health conditions like trauma, anxiety and depression, it also introduces concepts from social psychology around stereotypes, biases and prejudices that exist through the treatment meted towards giants, werewolves, centaurs, house-elves and Half-Bloods or Muggle-born witches and wizards.
The one reason why fairy-tales are such an effective tool for communicating and imparting all these life-lessons to children is because, as the name suggests, they are filled with magic. It’s not just about the magic contained within these stories, but that magic is an undeniable, unquestionable part of these worlds. The most beautiful thing about the Harry Potter series is that it embraces the idea of intrinsic magic – Harry could use magic even before he found out that he was a wizard. In fact, the most powerful magic was not any spell that was cast: Lily Potter’s love was that magical imprint that stopped Lord Voldemort from harming her little boy, and it’s stories like these that show us that the idea of magic does not need to be proven or explained – it’s a simple fact of our world.
With so many lessons contained within, for the coming generations, the Harry Potter series has the potential of becoming the primary fairy-tale; and, thankfully, it will be a more modernized one, full of nuanced lessons and striking the right balance between the dark and the light. In the meantime, has this post got you thinking of the fairy-tales you enjoyed as a child? Was there a particular tale that always caught your fancy and you loved having it read or told to you time and again? Are you curious to know more about your life-script? Drop a line at firstname.lastname@example.org to know more about life-scripts and your personal one in particular.