Of all the possible ways terrorism can impact a population, the psychological ones are the most often forgotten, and the most forgotten population in terms of psychological impacts are the young. This fact was never clearer to me than it was while reading the sixth and latest installment of the J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince.
It will perhaps be noted that the books have grown progressively darker. This is due, in part, to Rowling’s response to a fan base grown more mature since Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. It is also due, it seems, to the darkening horizon for children who read them. Acknowledging the fact that there are many children living in places where acts of terror are an everyday occurrence, safety is still largely taken for granted in the United States (where a third of all Harry Potter novels are sold), and, barring the sporadic terrorist acts of the Irish Republican Army, it is expected in Great Britain (the real home of the fictional Potter) as well. 9/11 was an altogether new and frightening experience for the readership of Harry Potter (the July terror attacks in London occurred just weeks before the release of the Half-Blood Prince). At times, our response to terrorism has been equally terrifying for young children.
My sister, Katherine, a huge Harry Potter fan, was only ten when she was frisked at our own regional airport. We now have a generation of children coming of age in a nation uneasy and unsure of what to tell them about this new setting. We are, nevertheless, trying.
No coming of age story has been more popular in the last several years than that of Harry Potter. A whole group of children who first came to Harry at the age of eleven in 1997 have watched him grow, and have matured along with him. In Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, Potter comes of age, literally achieving adult status in the Wizarding world, and as Harry has wisened so have the books. Each book is a little more grown up, a little darker. The latest book, to my mind, is the darkest and most grown-up yet. Indeed, the first chapter portrays a heated discussion between a fictional British Prime Minister and the Minister of Magic about the most recent acts of terror perpetrated by Lord Voldemort.
“A grim mood has gripped the country,” the opponent had concluded, barely concealing his own broad grin.
And unfortunately, this was perfectly true. The Prime Minister felt it himself; people really did seem more miserable than usual. Even the weather was dismal; all this chilly mist in the middle of July…It wasn’t right, it wasn’t normal…
The opening chapter is not about Harry Potter; it is about the terror in Potter’s world.
I would argue that more than anything, it is about the world of its audience The fictional account of these non-fictional feelings connects the unreal events of the book to the very real emotions of its audience in response to the equally unreal events of their world. Other connections to terrorism abound as well. For instance, the Ministry of Magic’s flyer “Protecting Your Home and Family Against Dark Forces,” a flyer that lists “simple security guidelines” that “will help protect you, your family, and your home from attack,” eerily resembles similar documents produced by our own Department of Homeland Security. Throughout his sixth year at Hogwarts, Harry is forced to deal with the Dark Arts more directly. Adult supervision is less certain and less present and the safe environment that once sheltered Harry and the other students is daily made less safe and more susceptible to attack. Indeed, a major and climatic episode in Half Blood Prince is an infiltration of the school by a small band of Dark Wizards with the help of a Dark Force within the school. Terror thus pervades all levels of the wizarding world. Based on these and other connections and the maturing themes of the books, it is my contention that value of the book for children lies in places other than the magical world of Potter.
Its value lies in its all too realistic vision of the young reader’s world. In this way, much of the book can be read as an emotional survival guide that allows children and adolescents the opportunity to experience a new environment where safety no longer remains a given, but where “safety,” as an ideal, is still expected. In other words, The Half Blood Prince portrays a world were danger comes from unexpected places at unexpected times, where dark forces are capable of striking at the heart of a child’s fragile world.
Omnivorous critic at large Kenneth Burke wrote that literature serves as equipment for living, and J.K. Rowling has produced an equipment for children growing up in a world where danger is no longer a physical challenge reserved for adults, but is also an emotional one presented to them.
Scholastic Inc., 2005.