Warning: Major Harry Potter spoilers ahead. Proceed with caution.
As my daughter and I walked through our deserted community yesterday, my uncertainty about the present moment gave way to thoughts about Harry Potter.
In my normal life, I usually have at least one wizarding world subplot bouncing around in my head at all times. I’ve recently begun saying “mischief managed” instead of “problem solved” and am almost embarrassed to admit that at some point over the past year, I traded the normally rigid standards to which I hold my reading material for the infinitely more consumable world of Harry Potter fanfiction (in my defense, getting acquainted with a book- or series-length world with a toddler in the house is hard). It makes sense that these elements would find their way into my everyday, especially since the Potterverse has always provided a comforting, stable community to which to return when times are especially uncertain, chaotic, or novel. Now that we’re in the truly uncharted territory of pandemic-related social distancing, our fandoms are even more important: many of them are in homage to the ultimate triumph of light over dark or at least feature useful parables for how to prevail in times of extreme duress, and they all unite us as communities regardless of whether our doors are open or must, for now, stay closed.
Harry Potter and The Gifted Fan
The reasons fandom is so vital right now are, incidentally, two of the largest reasons gifted kids (and recovering gifted adults) become such voracious fans in the first place: community despite uncertainty and fantasy. Jessica DeLallo’s fascinating doctoral dissertation, Fandoms in the Lives of Gifted Individuals with Imaginational Overexcitabilities, describes a lonely scenario with which we’re all familiar: the gifted child, who experiences life fundamentally differently than her peers, consistently finds herself without friends her age. Her imaginational overexcitability means she has the capacity to construct rich fantasy worlds or inhabit those she encounters in fiction; this practice does not, however, lend itself to uncomplicated socialization. Her classmates think she’s weird, nerdy, preoccupied, and the clear disconnect between her interests and those of her peers drives her even further into the realm of the fantastical (DeLallo 8-9). And though she might not be as lucky to find a school community like Grayson, thanks to the internet, our imaginative young friend might one day find a Tumblr page dedicated to her favorite Star Wars characters or a link to a great Yu-Gi-Oh! fanfiction. She might navigate to the website of a local gamers’ group or join an area LARP group.
She might, after all her years of being uncertain of herself and where she belonged, find her community.
Raise your hand if you were this kid. I’m raising mine! I grew up with older parents and my half-brothers out of the house. I was intense, verbally precocious, and remember being an established reader in Kindergarten. And while I wasn’t a fantasy enthusiast then (actually, I’m not really one now either; I just love Harry Potter), I read voraciously, was obsessed with school and spent many, many childhood hours devising imaginary classrooms, grading imaginary papers, reprimanding imaginary students, etc. I was lucky enough to have an amazing best friend who happily engaged in my classroom games (she’s a teacher now), but I remember, especially in high school, feeling like I was on a different planet than most people. I was weird, nerdy, preoccupied, and felt like I didn’t belong. Like DeLallo, “I had friends but no community” (9). It wasn’t until I got to college and met people who were like me, who wanted to learn and could get on my level when I talked about the books I’d read and how they related to my life, that I began to find the belonging I’d so desperately needed in grade school.
Harry Potter and The Ideal Communities
Finding a sense of belonging is central to DeLallo’s thesis. She argues, “people cannot feel that they ‘belong’ unless they feel a subjective sense of reciprocal meaning within a community that they chose, and in which they feel that they are accepted” (46, emphasis in original). I think this explains some of the reasons I continued to engage with the Harry Potter community throughout my late adolescence without ever diving headlong into the fandom. I went to midnight showings of the movies and bought books on the day they came out, but I didn’t lock myself in my room so I could read them start to finish. I didn’t dress up as Luna Lovegood for Halloween or come up with a Twitter handle that cleverly nodded to my Ravenclaw affiliation. I wasn’t choosing any of it yet, in part because I’d spent so long not belonging that I was still figuring out what it looked like to fit in. Harry Potter was always there, though, its world a beacon when I needed light, its community a temporary home in times of uncertainty.
As I searched, I found a few ancillary communities of which I was (and am!) happy to be a part: my undergraduate and graduate English departments; Phoenixville, where my family and I live; and The Grayson School. What I’m only starting to realize now is that the Potterverse is a perfect amalgam of all the communities I’ve loved best, and the ones that have loved me back. The books come to us from England and are full of shoutouts to their literary forebears (particularly Dickens: the orphans! The names! The accents!). The settings are both magical and accessible, especially Diagon Alley, which reminds me of Phoenixville’s main street if the weather, light, and mood are right. And the plot is essentially a series of adventures and whodunits that take place at a school far more impressive than the ones I imagined as a child. It’s a perfect place, actually (though I wouldn’t want to get on Umbridge’s bad side), and will continue to exist as a community uniquely unaffected by the uncertainty in my life when I visit.
Harry Potter and The Homebound Family
Which is why the Potterverse in particular, and fandoms in general, are such havens right now. DeLallo writes extensively about fandom’s escapist appeal, and while there are certainly cautionary tales about escapism gone horribly wrong (Lee Harvey Oswald and James Holmes come to mind), in most cases people are simply looking to fandom “to refresh themselves mentally [and] emotionally… Often, it provides hope and inspiration which they use to move forward in their lives” (51).
I’m writing this post from my house where I, along with much of the United States, will be staying for an indefinite amount of time as we attempt to slow the spread of COVID-19. Normally, I love being at home: it’s safe and peaceful, and returning to my living room couch after a long day is very much like getting a hug. But now that the boundaries between work, home, and school or daycare have dissolved and we’re doing everything in one spot and often at the same time, being home feels almost like punishment. In one of many recent New York Times articles about the effects the coronavirus quarantines have had on parents who are both working from home and caring for their young, homebound children, journalist Rebecca Kanthor “[finds herself] hiding in the bathroom sometimes just to get a moment’s peace.” To me, as much as the existential and infrastructural crises the coronavirus pandemic has set into motion, Kanthor’s all-too-relatable confession encapsulates one of the questions at the heart of this truly bizarre moment: what do we do when the place to which we normally escape becomes the only place there is?
Harry Potter and the Brightly-Colored, Irreverent Oasis
We’ve been walking a lot and thinking a lot. We’ve rekindled hobbies, shared recipes, watched livestreams of the opera and tanks at the aquarium, streamed Frozen II, and otherwise sounded our barbaric yawps across the void so we don’t all forget what it means to be part of a collective. I don’t think we will: this week alone, I’ve seen so many people extending themselves outward– even as we must remain indoors–in a beautiful, concerted effort to maintain community in uncertainty of uncertain duration.
I, for one, have been leaning hard on my fandom. In particular, I think (and am subsequently writing) about the scene in The Half Blood Prince when Harry and co visit Diagon Alley after the Death Eaters have raided the shops in search of information on the deathly hallows. Seeing Diagon Alley–which for so long was Harry’s gateway into the magic world–boarded up and glittering with broken glass is among the darkest moments in the series, but it’s not without hope. One of the only stores open is Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes, and its purple accents and stockpiled windows “hit the eye like a firework display” (116). In the midst of uncertainty, there’s a store at the end of the alley advertising a potion that makes its drinker painfully constipated. And instead of scaring people away with its indecency in times of crisis, WWW is “packed with customers; Harry [cannot] get near the shelves” (116).
Aside from having ample room for all who choose to enter, how different is fandom than this one, brightly-colored, irreverent storefront? Of course we don’t need Nosebleed Nougat or love potions or Peruvian Darkness Powder, especially only a few hundred pages away from the wizarding world being further destabilized by Dumbledore’s death, but we do need to remember a world in which these things make us laugh, a world that will eventually conquer Voldemort (or COVID-19), in which our stores will be open again, our homes will be ours again, and we’ll gradually be able to return to normal without fear of uncertainty or getting ourselves or others in our community sick. Until the day breaks on that world, you can find me in my cupboard under the stairs, awaiting its return.
DeLallo, Jessica B. Fandoms in the Lives of Gifted Individuals with Imaginational Overexcitabilities. 2017. University of Denver, PhD Dissertation.
Kanthor, Rebecca. “Under Lockdown for Coronavirus, Parents Struggle to Deal with their Kids.” New York Times. 17 March 2020.
Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. New York: Scholastic Books, 2005.
Here are additional resources for you as we are all hunkered down at home:
Our School Counselor, Josh Clemmons shares 4 Certainties for Parenting in Uncertain Times.