I willingly confess to being a fan of Harry Potter and you can bet I’ll be at the movies at midnight tonight to see the final episode. Even more than the last book, this last movie seems to mark the end of an era. As a tribute to that era, I thought I’d think about what we might learn from Harry Potter about the subjects I focus on here. (I’m going to assume that everyone knows the stories by now and there are no “spoilers” in the same way as you cannot very well ruin the end of Hansel and Gretel.)
First off, Harry demonstrates the importance of DNA. There are countless references to the genetic legacy he carries from both Lily and James Potter: Lily’s eyes and compassion and James’ hair and propsensity to break rules come to mind. (I pick these because it seems to me clear that the first in each pair are well-understood to be the product of fairly simple genetics while the second in each is far more complicated.) You can see this, too, when Harry sees his extended family (who as I recall share a tendency towards knobby knees) in the Mirror of Erised. (Book 1, for those who care about those things.)
It’s also clear that Harry experiences a tremendous longing for his murdered parents. Part of that is also due to genetic connection, but it is more complicated than that. James and Lily raised Harry for the first year of his life and though he has little memory of that time, he is well aware of their performance as parents–particular given the ultimate sacrifice made by his mother. (For those not familiar with the books, she gave her life to protect him.)
Second, the people who raised Harry (the Dursleys) are definitely not his parents. The relationship the Dursley’s have with Harry is hardly admirable. I’d say that this shows a couple of different things.
You can see that genetics doesn’t bring with it care or concern or capacity to parent (for Petunia Dursley is genetically related to Harry, as is Dudley.) You can also see that being a parent is actually more than just providing (minimal) food and shelter. It’s also about a mental/emotional commitment, one which Vernon and Petunia Dursley never make. So it’s possible to raise a child without becoming a parent.
Third, the entire saga also tells a story that runs counter to the genetic legacy one. Sirius Black does not have much in common with Bellatrix LeStrange, though they share a genetic link. And Harry’s destiny is determined not by his genetic makeup or inherited talents, but by the choices he makes. This is most explicit in his conversations with Professor Dumbledore about whether he belonged in Slytherin. Nothing suggests the choices he makes are predetermined–in some ways the core message of the book is about free will and agency.
In the final scenes of the book, Harry offers the same sacrifice his mother made–he is prepared to die to protect his friends. And that willingness does offer them protection (as I read the final scenes) even though there is no genetic linkage between Harry and those who he protects. What matters most is love and caring, compassion and sacrifice–the real things that comprise our relationships.
I’m sure there’s more to say, but that’s enough for now. It’s off to the movies we go tonight. Can’t wait!