Harry Potter and the philosopher’s touchstone

The Educational Journey / Michael McGirr
I’ve often wondered what school was like for J. K. Rowling. The series tends to focus as much on teaching as learning. Education happens in the context of a relationship. At Hogwarts, the students are treated with warmth, affection and respect. They are also significantly challenged.

Our three children are all now teenagers but I am grateful we were able to share the time when they were little with Harry Potter.

The Harry Potter stories are both innocent and sophisticated. For nights on end, when our kids shared the same room, Jenny would read from one of the steadily increasing number of Harry Potter books and the kids would urge her to keep going just for one more page, just till the end of the chapter. Sometimes Jenny could hardly stay awake but the kids, who’d been desperate for sleep an hour before, would be now wide-eyed, dreading the moment when it was time for prayers and the land of nod.

Above all, I can remember a car trip from our former home back to Melbourne, a distance of over six hundred kilometres. We were not looking forward to the journey as the kids were grumpy travellers but we had Stephen Fry on CD reading Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the third book in the series and possibly my favourite. I will never forget the last four hundred and fifty kilometres of that trip. The whole way, the kids did not want to stop for the toilet. They did not even want to stop for junk food.

When we finally reached our house, they all remained in the car until the end of the disc. They had been utterly transfixed. By now, I was thoroughly jealous of the author.

I loved those days. They were, indeed, magic. When I started working at St Kevin’s, an Edmund Rice school in Melbourne, my older son, Benedict, gave me a Lego figure of Dumbledore. My daughter, Clare, gave me one of Hagrid. Jacob, a boy of dreams, gave me a magic wand. Twelve years later, those three things are all still safely near my desk, although sometimes I wonder where the wild imagining behind the gifts has gone to hide. I hope one day it will return to free them from the dreariness of our Muggle Muddle and interminable computer games.

I was slowly being won over to the idea of Harry Potter as Literature. I was a diehard Tolkien fan and admired the way his sentences unfurled into the middle distance. J. K. Rowling’s sentences are more likely to have a scarcely perceptible smile playing about them. I was fascinated by the Tolkien story, of a musty gentleman in love with language. His translation of the Book of Jonah in The Jerusalem Bible is joyous and wise. He was an academic who volunteered as a signaller for the 11th Lancashire Fusiliers and was behind the lines on the first day of the Somme in July 1916. The weeks he spent in the inhuman catastrophe of the Western Front were the seedbed for an extraordinary epic about the contest between chaos and order, destruction and hope. He was lucky to have suffered trench fever and have been sent back to England.

He was unwell for the next three years but during that time he invented a number of Elvish languages, such as Quenya and Sindarin. It was a time in which others began to lose confidence in what language might do. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein was among their atavars. But Tolkien rowed against the cultural tide and from his faith in language came faith in a huge narrative that might explain life in all its complexity.

Rowling (born 1965) is also a writer of courageous vision. At the time she was working on Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, the first book of the series, she was a single mother. Her marriage had broken up and her bank account was notably lacking in galleons. Her mother died of multiple sclerosis as Rowling was writing. She suffered depression and a sense of disorientation. Nobody wanted to publish her book. I imagine that the daily grind was plenty for her to contend with. Yet she created a narrative that, like Tolkien’s, embraces an understanding of the whole of life, not just her corner of it. All the incidents of the stories fall under an overarching sense of right and wrong, and the significance of moral choices. There is a central character, Voldemort, who embodies evil. He is known as the one whose name may not be spoken. Rowling develops a far-reaching spirituality.

The Harry Potter books are part of a tradition of writing for younger readers in which teenagers are separated from parental protection and constraint: they must assume responsibility for their world much sooner than they might otherwise be expected to do so. Robert Muchamore’s Cherub series, John Marsden’s Tomorrow When the World Began series and even C. S. Lewis’ The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe are just a few examples. The way young readers devour such books is a reminder of how adolescent spirituality develops: a soul grows, like a muscle, when it has to carry burdens.

You could write an entire theory of education based around the rich and varied teaching at Hogwarts, the school at the heart of the Harry Potter world. Adults, with all their flaws, have a crucial role. Teaching there is both experiential and theoretical. It includes plenty of material with an ancient pedigree. It honours arcane traditions which require humility and perseverance to master. Everyone knows that what they are doing is really important; there is a complex relationship between teachers and their subject matter.

I’ve often wondered what school was like for J. K. Rowling. The series tends to focus as much on teaching as learning. Education happens in the context of a relationship. It is not about downloading material from a website and submitting assessment online. At Hogwarts, the students are treated with warmth, affection and respect. They are also significantly challenged. But the world and the expectations of their learning is not simply built around them. They are being led into the wisdom of their ancestors. It is a fantastic model of education. One of the proudest moments of my career was when some of my students started referring to me as Dumbledore. I didn’t deserve the honour and the nickname didn’t stick for long.

There is wisdom and satire in Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban. The story includes boggarts, beings that present themselves in the form of your worst fear. Professor Lupin, who teaches ‘defence against the dark arts’, explains that ‘the thing that really finished a boggart is laughter’. You imagine your fear in some hilarious outfit and then, with ‘force of mind’, say the spell to get rid of them which is the word ‘riddikulus’. The idea of getting young readers, not to mention older ones, to mock their fears is terrific. So too is Professor Lupin’s advice in dealing with dementors. A dementor resembles a kind of mental illness, such as depression: ‘They infest the darkest, filthiest places, they glory in decay and despair. They drain peace, hope and happiness out of the air around them … Get too near a dementor and every good feeling, every happy memory, will be sucked out of you’.

The prison in this world, called Azkaban, has no walls because prisoners are ‘all trapped inside their own heads, incapable of a single cheerful thought’.

We all need to learn skills in dealing with the dementors in our lives. The world of Hogwarts may be invented, but it is not escapist.

When Benedict, my son, was 13 and starting his second year of high school at St Kevin’s, we were invited to a terrific Father and Son evening where everybody was asked to bring an object they treasured and which they could chat about with each other, invoking the very happy memories that dementors can’t stand. I brought some photos. Benedict brought a paperback copy of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets that we had walked up to the local bookshop to buy together on a sunny Sunday afternoon six and a half years earlier. I had written in the book for him. It took us back to a time when I was still daddy rather than dad and our fears seemed ridiculous.