I’m not sure there is another book series like the Harry Potter novels. J.K. Rowling’s sprawling, seven-year epic captured the hearts and minds of multiple generations, spawning a series of unbelievably successful films, a theme park, and endless merchandise. Children today grow up in a world where Harry and his friends are part of the pop-culture lexicon, standing tall with other classics like Superman, Spider-Man, and Mickey Mouse. This is no small feat, and what is even more impressive, to me, is how Rowling used her characters to remind us of one of the most important lessons we can learn: no one is infallible.
In both the books and the movies, this idea comes up early. The story starts shortly after the “death” of the big bad himself, Voldemort. As we learn, his spell to kill baby Harry backfired — old Volde went and underestimated the power of a mother’s love. The Dark Lord, who thought himself perfect, done goofed.
Now, the idea of the great and powerful being just as dumb as the rest of us doesn’t get the hard push for a good while in the series, but there are more touches to it, most often shown through the Defense Against the Dark Arts professors. Professor Quirrell was an admired teacher who went looking for greatness and came back the pawn of Voldemort. Gilderoy Lockhart was one of the most famous wizards around, celebrated for his heroic adventures which turned out to be lies. Remus Lupin is a well-regarded man who hides a terrible secret. He was, as we learn later in the series, a bully in school. We’re told that Alastor “Mad-Eye” Moody is the greatest Auror of all, capturing more dark wizards than anyone before him. Then we learn that he’s been locked up in a trunk the entire time. You get the idea…
As the books and movies grow up with the characters, the more serious threads come into play, and none of them may be as serious as Severus Snape. From the start, Snape is more than happy to tell Harry that his dead daddy James Potter was an ass, but because Harry is our hero, and he refuses to accept that his father was anything other than a great man, we come to think that Snape suffers from a case of sour grapes. When Snape finds Lupin and Sirius, he’s excited to finally get revenge on them, but we don’t fully understand why. When it becomes clear, Snape goes from being a dark, angry figure to a sad, broken man.
This moment happens differently in the books than it does in the movies, but with the same outcome. Harry, able to see Snape’s memories sees for the first time who his father was: a bully and a show-off. James Potter, the father Harry turned into the very essence of greatness, was not so different from Dudley Dursley, the boy who tormented Harry for years on end. For the first time, Harry saw himself having more in common with Snape than with his own blood. For the first time, Harry saw that he didn’t really know these people he saw as heroes.
Still, for Harry and all of us, there was Dumbledore. The greatest Headmaster at Hogwarts, a powerful wizard respected by all. Nothing could tarnish the legacy of Dumbledore. Sure, Dumbledore brought Voldemort to Hogwarts back when the Dark Lord was just a kid called Tom, but how could he know the future? Dumbledore was someone we could trust without question.
Until we met his brother who put it ever so well: “That’s a boy’s answer.” Aberforth Dumbledore pulls the thread so hard, the sweater of the idols falls apart. The great and revered Dumbledore caused the death of his sister. Harry shrugs it off; there’s no time to deal with the past when Voldemort is taking presently taking over the wizarding world.
And maybe if that was all Dumbledore had done — maybe if he had learned from the death of his sister not to manipulate people’s lives — maybe we could understand and still accept him as the true hero. Sadly, that isn’t how things go. We see more of what Dumbledore has done. We see how he manipulated Snape’s life for nearly twenty years. We see how he spent the last seven years using Harry as a pawn, knowing that in the end, the boy who lived would have to die in order to stop Voldemort once and for all. For seven years, as Harry grew from boy to man, Dumbledore used him again and again to obtain what he wanted.
Granted, what Dumbledore wanted was to save the world. But when you save the world by manipulating and blackmailing others, you leave a mark on your soul. Dumbledore knew that, and he accepted the cost.
By learning of the faults and failures of those Harry looks up to, we learn what it is that truly makes Harry a hero: his ability to see past those faults and find the good in everyone. When Draco Malfoy is about to die in a fire, Harry saves him. When he comes face to face with Snape, the man who killed Dumbledore, Harry tries to stop the bleeding. It isn’t a mistake that Harry and Voldemort share such similar origins, either. Both lost their mothers when they were babies. Both grew up in places that didn’t want them. Both felt like outcasts. Where Voldemort let these things fill him with endless rage, Harry never gave up hope for a better world. Where Voldemort demands to be called Dark Lord, Harry is uneasy when people call him the Chosen One.
Voldemort cannot accept that the world is filled with imperfection. Harry revels in it.
This is a lesson that you don’t often see in fantasy movies meant for kids and teens — that everyone lives with regrets. That we all make mistakes. There is no perfect person for us to aspire to be, no Superman who will always do the right thing. Sure, some people are better than others, but dig in deep enough, and you’ll find some reason to get angry at every politician, musician, writer, director, artist, or actor you can think of. We see it more and more these days — an inability to understand the difference between a mistake and an intentional act. We turn on our idols for the most minor of offenses, demanding that every word they say, every tweet they send, be up to our standards. Steve Martin said that Carrie Fisher was beautiful before he said that she was smart? Clearly, he’s sexist and we should all scream at him. A former child actor dances funny? Better mock them as hard as we can. The candidate for president sent emails from her home server, which broke no laws and in no way compromised anything? Better vote against her.
It seems that so many of us have missed the lesson J.K. Rowling was trying to teach us through her story of a magical kid: that there is no “happily ever after,” only the hope of a better tomorrow built on all of us coming to accept who we are.
Derek Faraci lives with regrets in Farmington Hills, Mich.