Every summer, I reread the Harry Potter series. I started the tradition back in 2005 in anticipation for(of?) the release of Half-Blood Prince, and I believe I actually read the series at least twice back-to-back in those earlier years, so this is approximately the ninth time I’ve read the first five books. Now that I know the story itself so well, I try to focus on different aspects of the novels and the entire wizarding world each time.
What I’m finding most notable about this readthrough and about Rowling’s writing in general is that every character on the B-Team* is genuinely complex and, well, human. I’m nearly done with Chamber of Secrets and the two who stood out for me were Filch and Justin Finch-Fletchley.
Filch may be a bit crazy and kind of an asshole in the books, yes, but as I sat in Starbucks reading today, I found myself assembling an entire past for him based on what we learn about his relationship with magic. In my mind, Filch came from a proudly magical family. Not well off like the Blacks or the Malfoys, not quite as scummy as the Gaunts, but just as arrogant about their wizarding lineage. Then here comes Argus: not just a little slow, but entirely un-magical. Tired of hiding him, they opt to abandon him somewhere in his late teens, denying they ever even knew a Squib, much less parented one. However, having come from such an exclusive magic family, Argus is unable to assimilate into Muggle culture. He barely ekes out a meager living for himself in the wizarding world until Dumbledore finds him a place at Hogwarts, just like Dumbledore does with so many other outcasts–the freed house elf, the wrongly expelled half-giant, the dotty Seer who made the most important prediction of the 20th century–and Argus has hope for his future.
Unfortunately, he can’t get over how embarrassed and rejected he was as a youth and cannot handle seeing so many kids taking for granted the ability he was denied. He’s lonely. He’s angry and lonely and he finds Mrs. Norris and finds more friendship in this cat than he ever allowed himself to have with any wizard or Muggle. Instead of this softening him, Argus takes Mrs. Norris as a sidekick in fighting the students he could never be. Even these days, he constantly tries to find at least a little bit of magic in him because he is so unable to accept that it is okay not to be magic. This inner struggle keeps him edgy, bitter, and outright angry whenever he’s around others. When Mrs. Norris is attacked, he feels abandoned all over again.
I’m not saying it’s okay for him to be a jerk, but it’s easier to let him be that way knowing what he has been through.
Before Justin Finch-Fletchley found out he was a wizard, he had grown up being very arrogant about his future. He was poised to go to an extremely prestigious muggle school and, as far as he was concerned, he was destined to be very, very important. Then he finds out he’s a wizard and though he first things this makes him practically a superhero, he soon gets put in his place when he’s sorted into Hufflepuff (sorry Hufflepuff). He went from the prestige of Eton to the stigma of Hufflepuff in a matter of months.
Unlike Cedric Diggory(who was an exception to the Hufflepuff stereotype as he accepted the assertion that he was kind and humble and he continued to be extremely impressive in both sports and academics), Justin doesn’t cope well with being told that a hat thinks he is patient and nice. He considers things like kindness and diligence, the characteristics Hufflepuffs are proud to possess, to be weaknesses, so he fights them. He continues to display his old annoyingly boastful persona, but he inwardly struggles with the idea that, even though magic is great, he was plucked off the top of the muggle child hierarchy and placed much lower down in the young wizard hierarchy at Hogwarts. While he is the hard worker the Sorting Hat predicted him to be, he is doing so in an attempt to be “on top” again, a highly un-Hufflepuff attitude. Though others in his house are accepting of his superiority complex, other houses see his conceit as abrasiveness and are unwilling to become close with him, often just barely putting up with his ego.
Even after all these years, it’s still incredible to me that I can create such vivid lives for characters who so rarely appear in the plot. I feel so grateful to have had the opportunity to genuinely grow up with Harry Potter and to build these relationships with the characters. I honestly don’t think that anyone outside of my age range will ever be able to experience these books in as perfect of a way as we were able to–from being kids who wanted more than anything to have one of Mr. Ollivander’s wands choose us, to getting our first sensation butterflies in the stomach and having our first awkward kiss, to that fateful day when, as teens ourselves, we walked into the forest alongside the boy wizard we had come to know so well.
I think I’m going to be having a lot of these wonderfully, tragically nostalgic moments in the upcoming few weeks.
* B-Team: term I stole from the Scrubs commentary to refer to named characters who appear frequently and are well known, but not so much as to have them be key players in broad story arcs or to place them on promotional material for the show/movie.