Monday, August 18, 2014

The Wisdom of Harry Potter in Dark Times

Last month at their home in Texas, Stephen and Katie Stay and four of their five young children were executed in an h0rrific massacre at the hands of the ex-husband of Katie’s sister. The sole survivor of the family was 15-year-old Cassidy; incredibly, she not only survived being shot in the head by playing dead, but managed to call 911 after the incident and give details of the attack to the authorities. That led to the suspect’s capture later that day and also saved the lives of her grandparents, whom the murderer intended to target next. Cassidy is expected to make a full recovery.

During a press conference a few days afterward, the remarkable Cassidy quoted the wizard Dumbledore from the wildly popular fantasy series of Harry Potter books by author J.K. Rowling: “Happiness can be found, even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.” That’s an extraordinary attitude to find in a teen who has lost her whole family.

The Dumbledore reference led to a woman named Michelle Boyer setting up a Facebook page in Cassidy’s honor, urging Rowling to meet with the teen. Though they didn’t meet, the author did indeed reach out to Cassidy. A representative for Rowling confirmed that she sent Cassidy a letter and package, but “the contents of the letter and how it came about are between her and Cassidy and will remain private.” Boyer’s Facebook page confirmed that the letter included a wand, an acceptance letter to the wizards’ school Hogwarts, and an autographed copy of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

A thoughtful gesture, but what really made the letter interesting is that Rowling apparently wrote it in the voice of Dumbledore. I think this demonstrates that the author either consciously or instinctively understood an important insight about fantasy. In a recent Atlantic article, novelist Lev Grossman, himself the author of a fantasy trilogy, wrote about an underappreciated aspect of that genre:

I bristle whenever fantasy is characterized as escapism. It’s not a very accurate way to describe it; in fact, I think fantasy is a powerful tool for coming to an understanding of oneself. The magic trick here, the sleight of hand, is that when you pass through the portal, you re-encounter in the fantasy world the problems you thought you left behind in the real world.

Grossman goes on to cite the C.S. Lewis novel The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe as “a powerful illustration of why fantasy matters in the first place.” In that beloved children’s classic, the young Lucy and her three siblings are evacuated to the countryside from London during World War II to escape the bombing. Lucy discovers in the wardrobe a mystical entrance to a realm called Narnia. Of the wartime horrors that loom outside in the real world, Grossman says, “You can feel [Lewis] telling you—I know it’s awful, truly terrible, but that’s not all there is. There’s another option. Lucy, as she enters the wardrobe, takes the other option.”

That other option isn’t escapism or denial. “When you go to Narnia your worries come with you,” Grossman writes. “Narnia just becomes the place where you work them out and try to resolve them”:

In fantasy… the landscape you inhabit is a mirror of what’s inside you. The stuff inside can get out, and walk around, and take the form of places and people and things and magic. And once it’s outside, then you can get at it. You can wrestle it, make friends with it, kill it, seduce it. Fantasy takes all those things from deep inside and puts them where you can see them, and then deal with them. 

When Rowling wrote her a letter in Dumbledore’s voice, she may have been telling Cassidy that I know it’s awful, truly terrible, but that’s not all there is. There’s another option. She may have been reminding Cassidy that there is a place in which she can more easily come to grips with her awful, truly terrible reality. That’s a message Rowling could deliver more effectively in Dumbledore’s voice than her own.

People find many different ways to cope with terrible loss, and I can’t even imagine the loss that Cassidy Stay has suffered. But I hope it’s true what Michelle Boyer states on her Facebook page dedicated to Cassidy: “In my opinion, a letter from Dumbledore is better than an actual visit from J.K. This is something that she will be able to find comfort in forever.”

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 8/13/14)