Knowledge of Harry Potter has long been simply assumed among millennials. I was reminded of this as I made my way through the final tome of J.K. Rowling’s seven-volume boy-wizard Bildungsroman at a café the other day.
“Rereading the Deathly Hallows, I see,” the server said to me with a smile, as she brought over my cortado.
I felt a familiar flash of shame and panic over whether to fake knowledge or admit the truth. Because, in fact, I was sitting there reading the Potter series for the very first time despite being, ostensibly, part of that demographic that sometimes uses a question about which Hogwarts house one would be sorted into as an ice breaker.
As a 1981-born “geriatric” millennial, my reading habits were in fact at their snootiest when the first Potter books came out in my teens and early 20s. By the time I grew out of being a snob, I decided to just wait and read them to a future child one day.
My reason for cracking them now and perhaps finally cracking the code to my generation, however, is Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, the theatre event of the Toronto season, which opens in previews at the CAA Ed Mirvish Theatre on May 31.
The Tony and Olivier-winning play, already the most commercially successful nonmusical play of all time, was written by Jack Thorne based on a story conjured by him, Rowling and the director John Tiffany. It was specifically framed as a stage-only sequel. It begins where the last chapter of the Deathly Hallows leaves off – “Nineteen years later” with Harry and Ginny Potter’s son Albus heading off to Hogwarts by train from platform 9 3/4 with Scorpius Malfoy, who comes from a clan of bad guys with whom the Potter family has a history.
While I’d like to say I emerged from my crash course a huge Potterhead, these books simply came into my life too late to entirely enchant. But they did make me eager to see Cursed Child – and helped me put away my lifelong prejudice about stories involving wizards and witches.
My experience of making my way through thousands of pages of Potter (see endnote) for the first time in my 40s was, at first, like revisiting half-remembered books from my youth – or, perhaps, watching my own memories in Dumbledore’s Pensieve. Most of the plot about an orphaned wizard raised by Muggles who hones his powers at the Hogwarts school alongside his friends Hermione and Ron, under the guidance of the wise Albus Dumbledore and slippery Severus Snape, had apparently already entered me through osmosis.
It was only as Potter’s world expanded in the fourth book and beyond to include dozens of members of the Order of Phoenix (who fight against Lord Voldemort), and a less clearly defined mass of Death Eaters (who follow He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named) that I was in unfamiliar territory. I enjoyed discovering there was more moral murkiness to the wizarding world than I thought – those poor, albeit annoying, elves! – and that each of Ron Weasley’s many brothers actually have distinct personalities. (Well, aside from the twins.)
It’s often been contended that the writing in Rowling’s books gets better in book four, but while the world-building is indeed rich, sometimes it was too rich for my taste. I wished for the streamlined narratives of the first books and swiftness of the denouement of, say, Philosopher’s Stone as I made my way through page after page of wizards shouting “Stupefy!” at each other in various climatic battles.
My pre-Potter avoidance of magic-related stories was due to a conviction that they were, well, stupefyingly dull – because there is always a spell or an enchanted object or fantastic beast that will arrive to save the day.
Rowling certainly has no aversion to painting Harry into corners and then having him escape death at the last second with outside help, magical or otherwise. In the Deathly Hallows, almost every single chapter ends with an elf showing up or a Patronus (a trauma-fighting spirit animal?) appearing, or simply a door opening and some relative of Dumbledore shouting something like: “In here, quick!”
But these dei ex machina are so blatant, they become cheekily endearing – and I came to find a certain theatricality in them, as if Rowling was breaking the fourth wall every time she opened up the Room of Requirement in Hogwarts castle. (This is a room that literally appears when “required” with whatever is “required” in it; so shameless, you kinda have to love it.)
Ultimately, one of the biggest surprises I had while putting aside my assumptions about Harry Potter and actually reading the series, was discovering that the books all take place in the 1990s – that time when the internet was still in ascendance and hadn’t yet swallowed up and semi-ruined everything. Even in the magic world, print reigns (pick the mainstream broadsheet The Daily Prophet or the alt-weekly The Quibbler).
It had never occurred to me that the books had a real-world timeline – but then, in The Chamber of Secrets, Nearly Headless Nick, the resident ghost of Gryffindor Tower at Hogwarts, celebrates his 500th Deathday and notes that he got his head nearly chopped off back in 1492. It’s again made clear in the final book by the dates on Harry’s parents’ gravestone in Godric’s Hollow: Oct. 31, 1981.
Do the math and that means Harry Potter, who was a little over a year old when his parents were killed by Voldemort, was born in the summer of 1980 – which makes him the last of Generation X!
The label of Gen X seems to fit Harry about as well as that of millennial fits me, however. We are both in fact, for the next couple of months, 41 years old.
There’s been a move lately to give those of us born in the late 1970s and early 1980s a new label: Xennials. Harry and I are part of that bridge generation, which is supposedly useful in workplaces in this way: explaining the younger generations, which entirely grew up immersed in the internet, to the older ones, which didn’t, and vice versa.
When I initially set out to belatedly catch up on Pottermania, I thought it might help me to become the millennial I’ve been told I am. But now I realize it’s, instead, helped me to fully assume my role as Xennial.
I can now go to Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and write a review that does it justice for the millennial fan base, but also explain what it’s all about to the uninitiated Gen X and boomers. To paraphrase Hannah Horvath from another millennial touchstone (Girls), I’m not the Chosen One, but I’m a Chosen One – and my ignorance of the wizarding world was the last Horcrux I had to destroy to assume my destiny!
Uh, or maybe I’ve just been reading too much Harry Potter.
Endnote: I should confess that not just pages but audiobooks were involved – the Jim Dale-narrated versions, at 2x speed – and that I switched to the movies for two books when I had COVID-19 and terrible headaches. But I later filled in what the internet told me were the films’ glaring narrative gaps by flipping through the books and reading any crucial chapters involving, for instance, the mistreatment of house elves.
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