Harry Potter and the Value of History

For other posts on graduate student life, literature, and leisure, see this and this post about counterfactuals.

I recently finished reading the Harry Potter series for the first time. This is somewhat embarrassing to admit, both because it has taken me so long to get around to it and because now I seem a bit old to be doing so. I really enjoyed the books, though, and even found them to be a timely read. Naturally, the role of history in the novels caught my attention, and, I think there’s a case to be made that one of the primary themes of the books is historical in nature.

This may seem a strange claim to make since the importance of history is not obvious from explicit mentions of it as a discipline or subject in the books. There is the Hogwarts history teacher, Cuthbert Binns – a ghost – whose lessons  Ron and Harry while away in boredom. The story goes that Binns died while lecturing one day and, with hardly anyone noticing, kept right on teaching as if nothing had happened. There is also the venerable volume Hogwarts: A History, which Hermione often chides Ron and Harry for not having read. Although, with her always around to fill them in about occasionally useful tidbits, one can hardly blame them. This is history as people often think and speak about it: a stuffy discipline filled with lifeless professors and long, boring books.

As the series progresses, however, the past takes on greater and greater significance. By the sixth book, Harry’s insufferable history class has been replaced with a private tutorial with the headmaster of Hogwarts, Dumbledore. To Harry’s chagrin, these sessions are focused not on learning the skills that will enable him to defeat his arch-nemesis, Voldemort, but on reconstructing a past that Dumbledore is sure will enable Harry to accomplish whatever it is he will have to do. Dumbledore’s lessons are considerably more immersive than Prof. Binns’s, as he uses a special magical instrument to allow Harry and himself to re-live memories gathered from first-hand witnesses. At one point, Dumbledore even charges Harry with retrieving one of these memories himself.

Harry’s experiences with (magical) historical research and primary sources extend beyond the classroom. Throughout the novels, interactions with ghosts and various artifacts, such as a mysterious diary, provide Harry with information that is essential to his survival. His encounters with historical materials also offer some of the most emotionally potent moments in the books. In particular, his discovery of a letter written by his deceased mother evokes a mix of joy and frustration that many historians would find at least a little familiar:

Harry’s extremities seemed to have gone numb. He stood quite still, holding the miraculous paper in his nerveless fingers while inside him a kind of quiet eruption sent joy and grief thundering in equal measure through his veins. … The letter was an incredible treasure, proof that Lily Potter had lived, really lived, that her warm hand had once moved across this parchment, tracing ink into these letters … Harry got to his feet and scanned the floor: Perhaps the rest of the letter was here somewhere. … At last, lying facedown on the floor, he spotted what looked like a torn piece of paper under the chest of drawers. When he pulled it out, it proved to be most of the photograph Lily had described in her letter. … After another quarter of an hour, however, he was forced to conclude that the rest of his mother’s letter was gone. Had it simply been lost in the sixteen years that had elapsed since it had been written, or had it been taken by whoever had searched the room? Harry read the first sheet again, this time looking for clues as to what might have made the second sheet valuable (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, 73-74).


This especially visceral encounter takes us beyond the novels’ treatment of history as, in turns, useful or useless, and into the core plot of the series. While the novels are framed in terms of an overarching battle between good and evil, much of the character development revolves around two interrelated stories of trauma: the pain of Harry’s childhood as an orphan and the terror inflicted by Voldemort on the wizarding world. At the opening of the novels, these two stories are unknown to each other: Harry has grown up with his muggle (non-magical) relatives and completely ignorant of not only the magical world but even the events that culminated in the death of his parents at the hands of Voldemort. Meanwhile, Harry is famous in this world, but only because he miraculously survived the attack that killed his parents. No one has the faintest idea of or interest in his life from that night forward as an unwanted and mistreated orphan.

You would think that bridging this gap should be the most straightforward part of the plot, easily addressed in the first book. But far from it. Harry’s keen awareness of his difference and frustration with others’ expectations permeates the books. Life is difficult when you see the world differently from everyone else, especially if they seem inattentive to your pain. Friends and acquaintances also find Harry difficult to deal with, and at times he is self-centered, unsympathetic, and surprisingly unlikable. However much the books are about good versus evil, then, they never take for granted that being on the “right side” automatically makes one a “good person.” True love and sympathy are elusive, even in the face of shared crisis.

As individuals, we accumulate a great variety of experiences over the course of our lives. Of course, these experiences themselves shape who we are, but the way we understand and convey these experiences – especially traumas – to others (i.e. narratives) is a foundational element of our unique personalities. To mature as an individual is to confront one’s own personal narratives; to become part of society is to learn about others’. This is not just pop psychology mumbo jumbo; after all, it is, practically speaking, impossible to get anything done without reaching an understanding with others about the past, and realizing that you and another party share different understandings about something in the past can be devastating.

In other words, historical work – understanding what happened in the past and narratives about it – is central to not just the Harry Potter books but much of life. History, as an academic discipline, does not dare to touch on many of the more intimate and personal manifestations of this. Nevertheless, historical thinking is deeply relevant to the broad scope of our lives because it teaches us intellectual habits that we can deploy to better understand ourselves and others. Moreover, historical education directly addresses this need at the level of social groups and nations. For example, for my students to understand contemporary China, it is absolutely essential that they learn the history of its experiences with Western imperialism – as not only a set of historical facts but also an integral element of how Chinese people see themselves and their country. A lack of attentive sympathy to the pasts and pains of others will undermine cooperative relationships between individuals, social groups, and countries.

Part of what makes the Harry Potter series so compelling is that it weaves together the need for historical sympathy at the personal and social levels. And, unlike what we might expect, in the books personal relationships do not necessarily form a firm bedrock for social consciousness. Instead, the two are learned through each other.

Sometimes we hear people say that it’s not worthwhile to care about those on the other side of the world when there are people in our own neighborhoods who need more attention. There is a certain logic to this sentiment, but it ignores the possibility that our care for those near to us will be learned through our attention to those farther away. To narrow the focus of efforts to understand and care for others is ultimately self-defeating because it makes us morally smaller as people and as a society.

This is a question that comes up for discussion in the books at a point at which the danger posed by Voldemort’s followers called “Death Eaters,” who seek to eliminate wizards who are not of “pure” wizarding blood and subjugate the non-magical folk (muggles). Rowling’s writing is obviously historically informed, but that makes it no less relevant to the social and political quandaries of today:

“‘However, we continue to hear truly inspirational stories of wizards and witches risking their own safety to protect Muggle friends and neighbors, often without the Muggles’ knowledge. I’d like to appeal to all our listeners to emulate their example, perhaps by casting a protective charm over any Muggle dwellings in your street. Many lives could be saved if such simple measures are taken.’

‘And what would you say, Royal, to those listeners who reply that in these dangerous times, it should be “Wizards first”?’ asked Lee.

‘I’d say that it’s one short step from “Wizards first” to “Purebloods first,” and then to “Death Eaters,”‘ replied Kingsley. ‘We’re all human, aren’t we? Every human life is worth the same and worth saving'” (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, 182).


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