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Pietas, Part 3: Bravery (feat. Harry Potter)

Before we get started, let’s state the obvious: J.K. Rowling is a TERF, and that sucks. Trans rights!

Still, I like to believe that Harry Potter is bigger than Rowling. These books were formative influences on a generation of readers. The irony is that the Harry Potter books taught many of us to be more empathetic, more justice-oriented, more wildly creative, more fundamentally ourselves. 

The Potter fandom is vibrant and variegated. It contains every kind of person. Including me, the person writing this right now, here to tell you that Harry Potter is my favorite Harry Potter character.

Let me tell you about Harry, a wonderful boy, a brave, brave man. 

(Spoilers follow.)

It’s easy to lose track of Harry as a character in favor of Harry as a plot point. He’s an archetypal protagonist through-and-through. He’s every inch the reluctant hero Joseph Campbell described. He often serves as a tool in a global conflict: his blood that repels Voldemort, his scar that reveals Voldemort’s secrets, his body that stores part of Voldemort’s soul. Harry is your Chosen One, your sacrificial lamb, your scrappy leader.

He’s also a kid who didn’t have any friends or loving family until he was 11. He’s an absolutely unbearable teenager with terrible judgment. He’s a stubborn dipshit who gets a man killed because he walks into an obvious trap. He’s a jock who shows off. He’s a mediocre student. He’s a dad who doesn’t know what he’s doing. He’s arrogant and annoying. And, he’s resilient and kind.

Harry, the 11-year-old, gets a raw deal. He grows up without affection, cut off from the truth of his identity. Then he gets asked to swap that miserable life for a terrifying one. He’s a pawn in a war he didn’t know existed. He has fame he didn’t earn. He’s asked to be a political figure, a social leader, a celebrity. Ultimately, he’s asked to die, all because of the accident of who he is, because of a prophecy from a washed-up fortune-teller and an event that happened when he was a toddler. 

And here’s what fascinates me about Harry: this pretty unextraordinary guy does it all, and stays human the whole time. Harry is human in his flaws, human in his empathy, human in his persistence. Still, he lives up to his enormous destiny. At the climactic moment when he chooses to die, he understands how little control he had over his fate. And still, he wields the control he has left to walk towards his death, rather than to bristle against the task assigned to him.

That grim acceptance of duty – what do we call that but pietas?

I’m not saying that Harry’s pietas is his ultimate gesture of self-sacrifice. I’m saying his pietas is the tapestry of all the moments leading up to that decision, all the dozens of times across seven books when Harry is confronted with fear and injustice. Harry, our true Gryffindor, lives a life of bravery as defined by living with fear, by embracing it. 

Harry is never invulnerable. His signature spell is a basic defensive charm. He struggles in school and he’s terrible at asking out girls on dates. He spends lots of time in the school hospital. Even in Deathly Hallows, even after everything Harry’s been through, he has moments when you can’t escape that he’s still a teenager being asked to do too much. When his wand breaks, he shows it to Hermione and says, “Mend it. Please,” a child who wants to believe that not all broken things are broken forever. When he walks to his death, joined by apparitions of his deceased parents and guardians, he simply asks: “You’ll stay with me?”

Harry endures, and endures. That 11-year-old kid fights his way to adulthood, and keeps fighting. Harry never gives up when he knows he’s in the right. And he stays, somehow, kind, uncynical. Through sickening losses and horrifying revelations, he remains uncomplicated. He doesn’t know how to chart a new world order; he just knows how to do the next right thing.

“Try for some remorse,” Harry tells Voldemort in the latter’s final moments. He’s not gloating or threatening. He’s giving advice. 

Your mistakes and your flaws are the fabric of who you are. Your fuck-ups are the preludes to your greatest triumphs. We are all brute forcing our way through this life. We are awkwardly knocking elbows against furniture, landing airplanes in skidding showers of sparks. We are doing this thing by the skin of our teeth. 

Life is the dents and bruises and lightning-shaped scars you get on the way. Bravery is looking your trauma in the face and carrying it with you into a better future.

Featured photo by Rap Dela Rea on Unsplash.

Published inCulture

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© Mary Gaulke 2023