Movie still showing frightened Harry Potter casting a spell. The tip of his wand is engulfed in a swirling white light.

The Muggle's Guide to Courage: Lessons in resiliency from children's literature

Friday, March 27, 2020 - 11:46am
Blake Eligh

A U of T Mississauga lecturer is turning to fictional wizard Harry Potter for guidance on persevering in an uncertain future.

Lecturer and digital humanities scholar Siobhan O’Flynn teaches a second-year undergraduate course in children’s literature through UTM’s Department of English & Drama Studies.

According to O’Flynn, children’s literature can teach everyone—even adults—how to cope in a time of crisis. She addressed this in a recent lecture on “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” the third novel in J.K. Rowling’s beloved fantasy book series.

Fans of the story will recognize the scene where Harry Potter learns to defend himself from Dementors, spectral figures that are the embodiment of deep depression. The Dementors feed on human happiness, and conjure traumatic memories from Harry’s past, including the violent deaths of his parents.

“In those moments, Harry feels loss and sadness, but he also feels shame and guilt because he couldn’t help,” O’Flynn says. “This is the novel where Harry is 13, and the emotional landscape he moves in expands with the complexity of social emotions like shame and guilt. We can relate with our own feelings of inadequacy and anxiety.”

To protect himself, Harry must learn Expecto Patronum, a complicated defensive charm that requires him to draw upon a happy memory to fend off the effects of the Dementors. The stronger the memory, the more effective the charm will be.

In the scene, Harry practices the spell with his Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher, Remus Lupin. “Harry recalls the first time he rode a broomstick, and then winning a Quidditch game, but those memories don’t work because they are event-based memories of happiness in the moment," O'Flynn says.

But the third time’s a charm. When Harry remembers the moment he receives his acceptance to Hogwarts and learns he will become a wizard, he finds the power to defeat the Dementor attack.

“What’s different is this a memory about when Harry’s sense of the future shifted,” O’Flynn says. “He knows he is going to be moving into a different future, and that change is possible. He doesn’t know what that future is but, all of a sudden, there is an opening of a future he hasn’t imagined.”

O’Flynn says the passage is meaningful because the memory connects Harry’s past and future. “Because he has a sense of the future and the place he has in it, he has new possibilities that allow him to cast that spell.
“That resonates right now, when we need to have a sense of the future as something we can look forward to,” she says.

“We can think about this as we create a sense of protection for ourselves against the emotions that can cripple us."

O'Flynn says the young protagonists of children's literature can play a role in guiding our responses to moral conundrums, too. “There is an assumption of superiority that adults are more knowledgeable and more experienced, which somehow means the conclusions of adult knowledge are somehow more valid than what children can understand.

“All the best children’s literature has a constant—the young protagonist who never, ever engages in arguments of sacrificing the one or the vulnerable for the greater good,” she says.

“That idea is there in Huck Finn, when Huck goes against his own conscience and beliefs to help Jim. It’s there in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, and in The Hunger Games (by Suzanne Collins)."

“Children’s literature is here to remind us what adults have forgotten.”

From "Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban" by J.K Rowling:

He racked his brains. A really, really happy memory...one that he could turn into a good, strong Patronus…. The moment when he'd first found out he was a wizard and would be leaving the Dursleys for Hogwarts! If that wasn't a happy memory, he didn't know what was....

Concentrating very hard on how he had felt when he'd realized he'd be leaving Privet Drive, Harry got to his feet and faced the packing case once more.

"Ready?" said Lupin, who looked as though he were doing this against his better judgment. "Concentrating hard? All rightgo!"

He pulled off the lid of the case for the third time, and the Dementor rose out of it; the room fell cold and dark.

"EXPECTO PATRONUM!" Harry bellowed. "EXPECTO PATRONUM! EXPECTO PATRONUM!"

The screaming inside Harry's head had started againexcept this time, it sounded as though it were coming from a badly tuned radio -- softer and louder and softer again...and he could still see the Dementor...it had halted...and then a huge, silver shadow came bursting out of the end of Harry's wand, to hover between him and the Dementor, and though Harry's legs felt like water, he was still on his feetthough for how much longer, he wasn't sure...

"Riddikulus!" roared Lupin, springing forward. There was a loud crack, and Harry's cloudy Patronus vanished along with the Dementor; he sank into a chair, feeling as exhausted as if he'd just run a mile, and felt his legs shaking. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Professor Lupin forcing the Boggart back into the packing case with his wand; it had turned into a silvery orb again.

"Excellent!" Lupin said, striding over to where Harry sat. "Excellent, Harry! That was definitely a start!"