He’s renowned in the wizard world. There, everybody knows his story, the murder of his parents and the survival of the infant. Voldemort haunts this parallel universe of magic, so much so that his name is taboo, and Harry played a crucial role in that not so distant episode of revolt. What happened to him is fateful to all.
The Daily Prophet chronicles his acts and feelings. People on the street recognize the boy with the scar on his forehead and nudge one another. Other kids at Hogwarts whisper when he enters a room. Grown-ups, too, single him out. In Book 6, the Half-Blood Prince, Rufus Scrimgeour shows up at the Weasley home because Harry is there. Now head of the Ministry of Magic, one of the most powerful posts in the land, Scrimgeour approaches him with all the deference of a sympathetic fan. Leading him outside, Scrimgeour says, “I’ve wanted to meet you for a very long time. Did you know that?”
Sometimes Harry’s unique past supplies an electric charge to routine events. In Book 4, the Goblet of Fire, a class on curses led by Mad-Eye Moody (in truth, another wizard impersonating Moody) grows tense as he applies spells to spiders in front of the students. A Crucio curse inflicts pain, the Engorgio expands the subject, the Reducio shrinks it. The kids are horrified, especially after Hermione calls for what Moody terms “the last and worst. Aveda Kadavra . . . the Killing Curse.”
Moody seizes another spider, raises his wand, and roars the words. Light flashes and sound rushes past, leaving the spider “unmistakably dead.” As the students absorb this power to kill, Moody breaks the effect with a whole other revelation.
“Not nice,” he said calmly. “Not pleasant. And there’s no countercurse. There’s no blocking it. Only one known person has ever survived it, and he’s sitting right in front of me.”
This was the curse that Harry took right in the forehead a dozen years before.
No wonder millions of teenagers forged such a deep and lasting identification with him. He’s a celebrity, and his fame is an aspiration for them. Adolescents crave it. They want to be known. Why else pile up all those selfies and updates and texts for others to see? They’ll take any space in the house of fame, anywhere close to the focus of the public eye.
When Jake Halpern, author of Fame Junkies (2007), asked middle-school students about which job they would prefer when they grow up, they chose “the personal assistant to a very famous singer or movie star” far more than the other options: head of a big company, Navy seal, U.S. senator, president of Harvard or Yale or other great school.
And Jean Twenge and W. Keith Campbell, co-authors of The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement (2009), show astounding rates of narcissism for teens today, for instance, a test showing that while in the 1950s only 12 percent answered “Yes” to the assertion “I am an important person,” by the 1980s 80 percent did so, and the number is even higher today.
No condition meets narcissistic needs better than fame. Harry Potter feeds the desire. Kids want to count, they want to matter, but they know they haven’t the equipment to impress others. In the social spheres they occupy, before worldly accomplishment has happened, the best measure of value is the notice of others. They haven’t done anything to merit celebrity, but if only people would admire, love, envy, and just plain watch and listen simply because of who they are. If only being themselves could earn them attention!
Harry gives them a vicarious version. Remember, he is noteworthy before his exploits begin. Fame happened to him, he didn’t create it. He faced the prime evil and endured. Now, he has grown up as the object of its hate and fear, merely by being who he is. He passes later tests magnificently, but there are times when he fails and displeases others. Tellingly, these disappointments garner equal notice, a sure sign of celebrity (the media loves a fallen idol).
And there is another compelling aspect of the dream. Harry hates his fame. He ignores people who stare at him, his image in the newspaper appalls him, and sometimes he just wants to be another nondescript youth. He wears his fame casually.
This is perfect for the fame-loving reader. We don’t like an attention-grubbing ego. If Harry savored his fame, if he pursued it as an end in itself, the identification would break. Not only would Harry’s character decay, but his vanity would expose the vanity of the reader, too. Instead, selfless and long-suffering, Harry resolves the conflict. To be famous but not care too much about it, to become famous unintentionallythat’s the best kind of renown.
Hence one secret of the Harry Potter marvel. It explains why we have the Christmas holidays at Hogwarts without Christ, and why Harry must sacrifice himself and die at the end . . . and yet live. Martyrdom might bring legendary status, but he wouldn’t be alive to enjoy it and his readers would be left chastened, not enthralled. The benefits of fame apply only if you can experience them in this life, when you walk down the avenue and appear on screens and heads turn. Fame is of this world. The other world dispels it altogether.
Mark Bauerlein is senior editor of First Things.