Rereading Harry Potter And Stoicism

· 10 min read ·

Whether you come back by page or by the big screen, Hogwarts will always be there to welcome you home. - J.K. Rowling

As Sheila and I flew home from England at the end of August and the trip came to a close, we were presented with a veritable host of movie options as part of our in-flight entertainment. Perhaps because we’d had our chance at a Harry Potter tour while in London, or because the subject had come up several times as we rode trains through the English countryside, I gradually became aware that though my memory of the books had been sorely diminished, my desire to change that fact was burgeoning with each day — and then, shortly after we boarded the plane (including the miraculous run-in with our friend Macabee on the same flight as us!), we realized that our moment had come: both Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Pt. 1 and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince were available for us to watch. With seven hours to burn, I think it’s safe to say we easily made it through both movies. The itch to descend fully into Pottermania was held at bay, at least for a little bit, as we scuttled around for the first few weeks. We kept ourselves busy — as is our custom — but by the beginning of October, I had cracked open Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. The madcap race through J.K. Rowling’s brilliant story had begun.

Things are much different since the first time I read Harry Potter, though perhaps the most surprising difference is in how much less time I have for reading these days. While Sheila and I were at my parents’ house for Thanksgiving, we went through some old school papers my mom had left out for us to see. One piece in particular caught Sheila’s eye - a fifth grade work that ended by saying that my favorite thing about Spring was that it was the best season for reading. While I have no memory specific to authoring that poem, it serves as a keen anecdote from my childhood, as I spent vast swaths of time consumed within books.

A memory of mine (that I can credibly trace to that very same 5th grade year), is the first time that I heard somebody utter the words “Harry Potter.” As the self-identified avid reader of my grade, it was with some shock that I heard a boy who had previously shown little interest in books telling his friends excitedly about this story. Why that memory in particular has stuck with me throughout the years is hard to say; it could be that when I finally did get to read the first Harry Potter the following year, I was instantly hooked, and I must have rued not having followed up on that overheard conversation to get in on the story previously.

The difference between reading something for the first time and returning to it is all in your head

Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real? - Dumbledore

Reading a good book for the first time leaves an indelible mark on a person. Some books have that power over a generation; some books only have that power for a single person. A great story has the power to transcend generations, and to leave its mark on that many more people as a result. Music is like this, as well — where you are when you first hear a good song is often part of your feeling about a song or band; a great band appeals to people of many different ages. Some people make a habit out of never rereading books, and admittedly the experience of rereading a story is a fundamentally different experience from the special nature of reading something for the first time, and one that is not always of interest to the general public. That being said, those indelible marks, visible from within as memories from the past, are part of the experience of rereading any great story. Truth be told, some re-reads make me realize that a story I used to love no longer has any relevance or hold on me, beyond sentimentality … but Harry Potter endures.

I was a bit surprised, to be honest, that the books held up so well. The story of The Boy Who Lived continues to delight, though some of my takeaways differed substantially from the things I remembered from reading the story the first time around:

  • Harry was born in 1981, and attends Hogwarts as an 11 year old in 1992(!) - something that I bring up specifically because it hearkens back to a world where magic would have been even more alluring — pre-internet 1 and pre-cellphone. A simpler time.
  • Dumbledore is supposed to be over 100 by the time Harry starts school at Hogwarts! I don’t know why I never thought about just how old Dumbledore is supposed to be before, but there are several sections that involve him sprinting furiously — for a centennial, he’s in great shape!
  • Voldemort’s timeline is hilariously wacky, something I would never have noticed as a kid. How old is this dude?? In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, he’s a fifth-year student at Hogwarts 50 years prior to 1993. The time between him leaving school and rising to power are only vaguely covered.

Anyway. All that is to say that despite some lingering questions on chronology, the story established in the very first book is the one that ultimately stands the test of time. As somebody who’s also written a book 2 , and having spent a lot of time & thought on how to pepper the story in A Good Thing Never Stops with plot elements that end up re-surfacing satisfyingly, I think that Rowling’s genius best shines through when she’s not trying to be too clever. There are some really incredible emotional sequences in the books, and the power to connect with people emotionally is the best part about storytelling. There are also some moments that fell as flat as they did the first time around, though I mean that only as a small criticism of something that is otherwise wonderful, and mostly because I believe that readers can tell the difference between something that was intended from the get-go and something that serves more as a backfit explanation. There are only a few other narratives that have been as much a part of my coming of age experience as Harry Potter, and it was extremely gratifying to re-experience the stories — in particular, books five, six, and seven, which I had only read once previously (having lost count of how many times I had read the first four)!

Somehow whenever I think of Harry Potter and Hogwarts, I think of Christmas
Somehow whenever I think of Harry Potter and Hogwarts, I think of Christmas

Coming back to something that is both at once familiar and new is a theme that you may recall from Sheila’s last (excellent) post, “Finding Community in Concord.” There is something inside of me that is drawn to find parallels between new experiences and old ones, particularly as we gear up to leave the East Coast 3 . For sure, quiet contemplation is a part of the Stoic tradition — yet I’m sure that the comparisons that continually occur are partially because I know that I will look fondly back on this time, glad that we made the decision to delay our move in order to be around family for the holidays. And perhaps that’s another parallel between Harry Potter and the current season — the movies, in particular, have come to be associated with Christmas time! There’s something truly magical, no pun intended, about Christmas at Hogwarts — and remembering what it was like to see that on the big screen for the first time (remember Harry wishing Ron a Happy Christmas? Remember how amazed he is that he’s gotten gifts?!).

One other notable memory that surfaced during my re-read was tearing through Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire while in New York City with my dad during a “take your kid to work” day — spending the day at his then-office on Canal Street, a colorful area if my recollection serves me right. In looking back at that, I couldn’t have known that within a few years, my dad’s office would have changed locations — and that I’d be occasionally commuting into the city myself to work for Travelers Insurance! Again, the familiar mixed with the new.

These days, Harry Potter is still quite the force for making bonds. From Canada to Burlington to Bow, we’ve listened to some of the audio books, talked about the audio books with excited friends, and I’ve even read some of the chapters aloud to audiences. It’s definitely a topic that’s still ripe with enough ambiguity and appeal to inspire wild debate — and I’m available whenever to discuss!

Stoicism In Modernity

There is nothing bad in undergoing change - or good, in emerging from it. - Marcus Aurelius

Reading the Stoics, and perhaps even coming to understand some of them, was as much a part of our trip as it is an underlying part of my life. Indeed, our trip began at Špela’s apartment in Slovenia reading excerpts from a “365 days of Stoicism” quote book that had us focusing on the radical changes we were in the midst of from the very get-go.

It’s astonishing how so much of what the Stoics wrote is still relevant and an integral part of the human experience, including the above quote from that last great emperor of Rome, Marcus Aurelius. It’s fascinating to me that while so much of the writing from the Pax Romana 4 has survived,the garden-variety nature of the word “stoic” has fallen from grace. I would expect that most usages of the word hinge on one of two premises:

  • That of a person being quiet
  • That of a person being unemotional

Which is a crying shame, considering that the Stoics of old were those that seized life; that celebrated it for its simple pleasures, and taught others to do the same! When my friend Christian left Boston, he left me with Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations — a gift that just I rescued from my parents’ house at Thanksgiving, having been blind for many years to the beauty of this nearly 2000 year old text. Though I did try to read it when it was first given to me, I think that I needed the ensuing years to best appreciate the contents of the book. Now, having finished Harry Potter, I look forward to re-visiting Meditations and reconnecting with Stoicism; in finding something in common with a person who, despite his lofty station, remained grounded in the wonder of the world around him and tried to celebrate the embrace of change — still a challenge, all these years later.

Now we know for sure that we will be moving to Colorado in the coming months; probably at the beginning of February. It’s another step towards finding a little piece of the American dream for ourselves. We don’t expect to stay in Colorado forever, but it satisfies our ambitions to move west, soak in the sun, and fill our shared vistas with mountaintops. I once wrote, on the subject of mountains, that highs and lows in our life should each be cherished in their own way — that it was the rise and fall that makes mountains, after all. I was 26 (5) , and I was about to stay so close to the Matterhorn that I could see it out of our hotel’s window in the morning without my glasses on — no small feat, if you’ve ever seen my prescription! We’re off to grab hold of some of those Rocky Mountain views, with the idea that even if we don’t end up staying beyond the end of 2020, it will prove the ideal staging ground for further travel and adventures.

Yesterday, I paused here while writing to go outside and make a snowman — I can’t remember the last time I did something like that, but I would highly recommend to anybody. There is something about watching snow fall that makes me incredibly happy. Now, snow’s lightly coming down again outside as I pause here, reflecting on what I’ve written so far. Does it make sense? Is the connection clear between the old and the new? That’s up to you, the reader, to decide.

In the meantime, I’m soaking in every moment here — think I’ll go outside and make another snowman.

  1. OK, I read something yesterday that told the story of how Linus Torvalds accidentally invented Linux in 1991 while a student in Sweden, as he was looking to connect to his university’s network, but I think it’s safe to say that for most people, the internet wasn’t really a thing until the late 90s.

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  2. A good friend of mine, Francis, mentioned that he was surprised I hadn’t previously mentioned this on the blog. Now I have!

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  3. I say this knowing that my friend Lael will laugh: in his words, I’ve been introspective the whole time we’ve known each other ... he’s typically right about these things.

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  4. I swear I didn’t purposefully start talking about Roman history again ... it just sort of happened.

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  5. Hmm ... I was also with Lael when that photo was taken and posted, in Zermatt Switzerland. I’m sensing another theme here!

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Adventure travel blog by James Simone & Sheila Murray. Travel along with them on their backpacking trip(s) as they actively explore the American West, Europe and beyond:

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