Slate’s “Assessment” columns dissect the conventional wisdom about real people ( L. Ron Hubbard), fictional characters ( Scooby-Doo), companies ( Whole Foods), body parts ( the prostate), and even weather patterns ( El Nino). This week, Slate is resurrecting a handful of classic Assessments, all collected in a new book, Backstabbers, Crazed Geniuses, and Animals We Hate. The following piece was originally published in Slate on Nov. 8, 2002.
Warning: This article contains a few spoilers about the Harry Potter books and movies. Like most heroes, Harry Potter possesses the requisite Boy Scout virtues: trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent. But so do lots of boys and girls, and they don’t get books and movies named after them. Why isn’t the movie that comes out next week titled Ron Weasley and the Chamber of Secrets? Why isn’t its sequel dubbed Hermione Granger and the Prisoner of Azkaban? Why Harry? What makes him so special?
Simple: He’s a glory hog who unfairly receives credit for the accomplishments of others and who skates through school by taking advantage of his inherited wealth and his establishment connections. Harry Potter is no braver than his best friend, Ron Weasley, just richer and better-connected. Harry’s other good friend, Hermione Granger, is smarter and a better student. The one thing Harry excels at is the sport of Quidditch, and his pampered-jock status allows him to slide in his studies, as long as he brings the school glory on the playing field. But as Charles Barkley long ago noted, being a good athlete doesn’t make you a role model.
Harry Potter is a fraud, and the cult that has risen around him is based on a lie. Potter’s claim to fame, his central accomplishment in life, is surviving a curse placed on him as an infant by the evil wizard Voldemort. As a result, the wizarding world celebrates the young Harry as “The Boy Who Lived.” It’s a curiously passive accomplishment, akin to “The Boy Who Showed Up,” or “The Boy Who Never Took a Sick Day.” And sure enough, just as none of us do anything special by slogging through yet another day, the infant Harry didn’t do anything special by living. It was his mother who saved him, sacrificing her life for his.
Did your mom love you? Good, maybe you deserve to be a hero, too. The love of Harry’s mother saves his life not once but twice in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Not only that, but her love for Harry sends Voldemort into hiding for 13 years, saving countless other lives in the process. The book and the movie should be named after Lily Potter. But thanks to the revisionist histories of J.K. Rowling, Lily’s son is remembered as the world’s savior.
What Harry has achieved on his own, without his mother, stems mostly from luck and, more often, inheritance. He’s a trust-fund kid whose success at his school, Hogwarts, is largely attributable to the gifts his friends and relatives lavish upon him. (Coming soon: Frank Bruni’s book, Ambling Into Hogwarts: The Unlikely Odyssey of Harry Potter.) A few examples: an enchanted map (made in part by his father), an invisibility cloak (his father’s), and a state-of-the art magical broom (a gift from his godfather) that is the equivalent of a Lexus in a high-school parking lot.
Harry’s other achievements can generally be chalked up to the fact that he regularly plays the role of someone’s patsy. Almost all Harry’s deeds in the first book take place under the watchful eye of Hogwartsheadmaster Dumbledore, who saves Harry from certain death at the end of the book. In Chamber of Secrets, the evil Voldemort successfully manipulates the unsuspecting Harry, who must once again be rescued. In Goblet of Fire, everything Harry accomplishes—including winning the Triwizard Tournament—takes place because he is the unwitting pawn of one of Voldemort’s minions.
Even Harry’s greatest moment—his climactic face-off with Voldemort in Goblet of Fire—isn’t much to crow about. Pure happenstance is the only reason Voldemort is unable to kill Harry: Both their magic wands were made with feathers from the same bird. And even with his lucky wand, Harry still needs his mom’s ghost to bail him out by telling him what to do. Once again, Lily Potter proves to be twice the man her son is.
Harry’s one undisputed talent is his skill with a broom, which makes him one of the most successful Quidditch players in Hogwarts history. As Rowling puts it the first time Harry takes off on a broom, “in a rush of fierce joy he realized he’d found something he could do without being taught.” Harry’s talent is so natural as to be virtually involuntary. Admiring Harry for his flying skill is like admiring a cheetah for running fast. It’s beautiful, but it’s not an accomplishment.
In fact, Harry rarely puts hard work or effort into anything. He is a “natural.” Time and again, Harry is celebrated for his instinctual gifts. When he learns that he is a Parselmouth, or someone who can speak the language of snakes, Rowling writes, “He wasn’t even aware of deciding to do it.” (In fact, when Harry tries to speak this language, he can’t do it. He can only do it instinctively.) When Harry stabs a basilisk in Chamber of Secrets, Rowling writes that he did it “without thinking, without considering, as though he had meant to do it all along.” In Goblet of Fire, during Harry’s battle with Voldemort, Rowling writes that “Harry didn’t understand why he was doing it, didn’t know what it might achieve. …”
Being a wizard is something innate, something you are born to, not something you can achieve. As a result, Harry lives an effortless life. Although Dumbledore insists, “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities,” the school that Dumbledore runs values native gifts above all else. That’s why Harry is such a hero in wizard culture—he has the most talent, even if he hasn’t done much with it. Hogwarts is nothing more than a magical Mensa meeting.