All in our heads: why we need fantasy stories

‘Some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.’ – C.S Lewis

This is a post about Harry Potter, and, more specifically, why pop culture is so important to dorky teenagers (and the dorky adults they become). I’ve met a few adults who don’t ‘get’ Potter – ‘why are all these grown people obsessed with a children’s book? Shouldn’t you be reading War and Peace or something?’ – so, hopefully, this post might make them see.

I started re-reading the Potter series recently, ahead of our trip to the Warner Brother Studios. I haven’t read them for a good few years. I used to read them at least once a year, but new books are coming into my life at a rapid pace and I haven’t had time for them. What’s amazed me, in opening them again as a thirty year old, is how much they still feel like home.

Now, the context at the start of my obsession. I’d just started secondary school. An all-girls school. I’m not exaggerating when I say I hated it. Every day it felt like going to prison. A grey, blocky prison, where they made me wear a skirt and uncomfortable tights, and the hallways smelled like hairspray and Impulse and sweat. I was a loser. (I don’t particularly feel the need to sugar-coat this.) Every other girl in my year seemed prepared for Year Seven: they wore bras already, shaved their legs, read Bliss magazine, and talked a lot about snogging. I, on the other hand, was a ridiculously small, flat-chested, frizzy-ginger-haired, short-sighted, pale, freckly Mizz reader (and to be frank, I already yearned for my Girl Talk days). I also collected Pokemon cards in secret. And I still slept with Beanie Babies on my bed.

Just imagine that for a moment.

The only subject I really liked was English, because that was the only thing I was good at. We used to have free reading periods, which were my favourite: to sit in a chilly, silent classroom and read for an hour. My friend Rachel and I would sometimes swap books. One day I handed her something (probably by Jacqueline Wilson, knowing me) and she handed me a hardback copy of The Prisoner of Azkaban.

And there was no turning back.

I’m one of the lucky generation that grew up with Harry. I’d turn a year older, and so would he. I have memories of where I was at key moments. Sitting at my sunlit kitchen table in Hastings, I read in horror as Cedric Diggory was murdered in cold blood. I remember the air felt cold, even though it was a hot day. The books got darker as I got older, the themes more complex and adult.

I mean, the magic is good. The magic drew me in, back when I was eleven. The fictional world and all its systems and processes absorbed me. Imagine having your money stored in a bank run by goblins. Or being able to siphon your memories and thoughts out of your brain and into a bottle. (Side note: I WISH this was an actual thing. Writing comes close, but it’s not quite the same.)

But what kept me there – and keeps me there now – is the humanity. I related to them all as they grew up alongside me: Harry’s imposter syndrome, Ron’s lack of money and the self-conscious feelings that come with not measuring up to others, Hermione’s impatience with bullies and how she wasn’t like the other girls. My own struggles felt a little bit easier when I realised my favourite characters knew how I felt. When Snape made that comment about Hermione’s teeth? I cringed because I related.

Now, as an adult, still short-sighted, with a slightly saggier belly than I had as a skinny pre-teen and quite a few more wrinkles, I relate to different characters. I find myself thinking of Molly Weasley, bustling around in her busy house, tripping over everyone’s crap and finding herself yelling more often than she meant to. I imagine how she must have felt, sending her last child off to school, putting on a fake smile and trying not to cry. When the world seems scary I think of her, sitting in her silent house, staring at the clock, all hands pointing to Mortal Peril. And I feel her fear more significantly than I did before.

Safe spaces

Contained within these epic fantasy worlds – Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the Final Fantasy games being my other teenage obsessions, but also things like The Lord of the Rings, or Star Wars – are important lessons. About relationships, about growing older, about good and evil, about morality, about war. In these stories, I learned about sacrifice for the greater good. I learned about light and dark, how you can’t have one without the other, and how most people contain a little bit of both. I learned that people can surprise you, and that your idols are human, and they can let you down. I learned that it’s our choices, not our innate abilities, that define us.

But even with dark content, they remain safe spaces. As an introverted teenager grappling with (I realise when I look back) incredible ups and downs in my mental health and feeling constantly under pressure to fit in and to succeed – I couldn’t have had enough of those. Really, those fantasy worlds kept me sane. They gave me something to hold onto. A portal into another place, to think of and ponder about when the real world seemed a bit ridiculous or scary to me.

At times, the ups and downs of my life mirrored Harry’s. When the sixth book came out I was in a pretty crap place, on the cusp of adulthood and in a situation I felt I couldn’t ever escape from, and yet when my Dad drove me at midnight to pick up the book (my loyal, lovely Dad), I returned to my safe place once again. I sobbed when Harry stared down at Dumbledore’s broken body, but mostly because I felt a bit broken myself.

When the last book came out, my husband (then boyfriend) went with me instead, which I guess marks the shift away from my childhood and into adulthood. I remember I was asleep on his bed that night, and he shook me awake at eleven. ‘It’s time.’ We joined the queue with our friends. We discussed theories. Who would live, and who would survive? Chris waited patiently, having never read the books, quietly listening.

And we went home and we read the conclusion to the tale that spanned our adolescence. I don’t think I slept a wink that night.

I don’t know if anything else is like this – it was a unique moment in time, really. Suddenly, kids in their millions were reading. Obsessing. Over books! Something about Harry captured people all over the world, and continues to do so. Which brings me to the next big reason why fantasy stories matter.

Belonging

We went to the Harry Potter Studio Tour. (It was amazing.) I have a hit-and-miss relationship with the Potter films (they’re magical, they’re bonkers, they don’t make sense sometimes to people who haven’t read the books, they left some vital things out, they put cool new things in …) but the craftsmanship displayed by the people behind the scenes is just incredible. What got me excited – other than, you know, everything around me – was seeing the little kids there. Tiny kids in Hogwarts robes, ogling the sets, posing next to Aragog, climbing onto the Hogwarts Express, drooling over everything in the (it has to be said – eye-wateringly expensive) gift shop. Some of those kids were my daughter’s age. Only at this moment, and on a smaller scale at the book launches, had I ever truly realised how many people like this series. Something about being squashed into a giant aircraft hanger without enough room to swing a kneazle, shoulder-to-shoulder with hundreds of other fans, really brings it home.

IMG-20190308-WA0038
I’m going to Hogwarts, baby!

There was a long gap between books four and five. A long, painful gap (I should probably be thankful I’m not a Game of Thrones fan, really.) During that time I discovered thousands of other people, equally obsessed and impatient, on forums and chat rooms. I met a good friend via the AOL Harry Potter chatroom (back in the dinosaur days of the internet, you know, when your Mum used to yell up the stairs at you to ‘get off the computer’ so she could make a phone call).

As a teenager, having a community of people who all care about the same thing, who all understand your love for a story without having to defend yourself for it or play it down, is priceless. To find friendship and acceptance and comradery, without even really needing to try. I almost fell into friendships by accident because of Harry Potter.

It continues. New generations find magic, yes, but also love and friendship and joy and sorrow, and when I saw little Hufflepuffs and Gryffindors running around the studios, I couldn’t help but feel grateful, not just for me, but for them.

I wish a safe community like that for anyone – young or old – that needs one. A world in which to disappear when you need to. Characters you love and care for, places that feel like home.

‘Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?’ – J.K Rowling

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