I remember the first time I cracked open the spine of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. I was seven years old and sitting in the backseat of my mom’s car after a highly successful visit to the bookstore. I’d like to imagine that I knew I was holding something wonderful, something that would have a profound effect on my life, but I probably didn’t. It was just another book.
Sometimes I wish I could go back to that moment and exist in a time when Harry Potter was brand new to me, when I wasn’t full of thoughts and opinions that would rise up anytime someone so much as mentioned the series (I will fight people if they complain about Tonks’ depression in the sixth book). I’m always kind of jealous of people who are experiencing the series for the first time—even if I wonder how it could have possibly taken them so long. But at the same time, I love the way I’ve grown with the books and how they’ve grown with me. At age seven, I may have had the whole wizarding world still to discover but I definitely didn’t appreciate the entertainment value of Ron’s frequent swearing (usually hidden behind vague phrases meant to go over kids’ heads) or spend nearly as much time wondering about wizarding sex education (take a moment to imagine the various Heads of House giving their students The Talk).
That’s why rereading the series is as much a walk down memory lane as it is an expedition to find bits and pieces I haven’t noticed before. I know and love the parts that will make me emotional, but I never know what random new things I’ll notice or what outside references will color my view. Sure, it’s pretty devastating to realize a line indicates that one of your favorite characters has already died off-screen (off-page?) but it’s incredibly entertaining to imagine the conversation Dumbledore had with the Hogwarts faculty after hiring Gilderoy Lockhart.
Looking for these new nuggets is like a treasure hunt. A lot of times, I have realizations about characters, mostly things that I didn’t notice at 7 or 10 or even 15 but that are clear to me now. When I was younger, the Dursleys just seemed mean, but these days I can recognize that they were actually horribly abusive. (Like really really awful. Honestly, how were none of Harry’s primary school teachers ever concerned?) And then, of course, there’s Snape, who forced me through all the stages of understanding: abject loathing, adoration, and, finally, the recognition that while he is a nuanced and well-written character, he is a terrible person. So terrible that he was 13-year-old Neville Longbottom’s greatest fear. The first time I read that scene, I focused on the hilarity of Snape in drag. Now I realize it carries so much more weight than that.
And then there’s Harry himself. As a kid, I had little use for the series’ hero, especially when Order of the Phoenix rolled around and he spent most of the early pages oscillating between surliness and outrage. I wrote him off as a whiney teenager. Only recently have I come to appreciate that his shouting comes from a place of trauma, that it stems not from teenage angst but from having to face Cedric’s death and Voldemort’s return all at once. It took me a bizarrely long time to realize that the poor guy goes through a lot over the years. People want to kill him, everyone he loves seems to die, and, to make matters worse, his mentor leaves him a quest with very few instructions. File all of those under things that I 100 percent could not have handled at age 17. Hell, I probably still couldn’t handle them now.
I’ve even gone so far as to take notice of how the books are structured. Take Goblet of Fire. It’s the centerpiece of the series, the dividing line between young Harry (whose only worries are passing classes, playing quidditch, potentially being the Heir of Slytherin, and having the occasional misunderstanding with an accused mass-murderer) and mature Harry (who has to contend with the rise of Voldemort, a complicated relationship with the Ministry of Magic, and what job he wants post-Hogwarts). Between goofy Dumbledore (“Nitwit blubber oddment tweak”) and complicated Dumbledore (you know, the one who spends an entire book avoiding Harry). Between peace and war. It’s the first book that takes a truly dark turn—up until this point, people have only almost died (with the exception of Professor Quirrell, who barely counts).
Goblet of Fire is immaculately structured. It’s the lynchpin of the series, but what’s more, Rowling gives the reader—and Harry—all the knowledge they need in the beginning without making it clear that it’ll mean something later. Little Hangleton, Priori Incantatum, the disturbance at Mad-Eye’s—all these are sprinkled in quietly. In a way, she’s following the rules of mystery writing, giving the reader all the information they’ll need to solve the puzzle. I’ve only just begun to appreciate the mastery of it all.
Sometimes I bring in things from the outside that end up changing how I approach the series. It’s all thanks to the internet: through new canon posted on Pottermore or questions raised by fans on Tumblr. After all, I can only do so much pondering on my own. I probably wouldn’t have given much thought to the existence of wizarding welfare systems if someone hadn’t written a long text post about it, but now I can’t stop wondering what sorts of wider structures are in place. And, no matter how hard I try, I’ll never really be able to scrub the Ronbledore theory (an old and somewhat infamous fan theory that Dumbledore is actually a time-traveling incarnation of an older Ron Weasley) from my mind.
It’s pretty much a given that you can never approach any piece of media the same way twice. But really, it’s more fun that way. Knowing the ending of the story gives me plenty of opportunities to yell at Harry for being unobservant (he literally held the locket in his hands and didn’t realize it) or to feel significantly less bothered by Ron and Hermione’s 49th squabble (always so distressing to me as a young Romione shipper). Not having to fear for anyone’s safety (except all my dead favorite characters—thanks Jo) leaves me free to admire the architecture of the series in ways I never really have before. It’s a new adventure every time—who knows what I’ll find in my next reread?