The obsession of the supporters of cancel culture with J. K. Rowling stems from the fact that they can no longer comprehend—and therefore cannot accept—the darkest elements of the human experience.
The Harry Potter series shows young readers how to come to terms with some of the darkest parts of their pasts and themselves: it is a story about incorporating your shadow.
Cancel culture is rejecting Harry Potter for the same reason that they are tearing down statues of their imperfect predecessors. Harry Potter is about forgiveness, death and rebirth, willingly taking on your burden and refusing to be a victim: all concepts that J. K. Rowling’s critics cannot handle.
“I make mistakes like the next man,” proclaims Dumbledore, “In fact, being—forgive me—rather cleverer than most men, my mistakes tend to be correspondingly huger.” If there were statues of Dumbledore, they would be tearing them down right now. To an outsider, the headmaster of Hogwarts may seem very similar to Tolkien’s Gandalf: wise, powerful and astute. He is. He also blazed a trail for Harry by defeating the dark wizard Grindelwald, who was in many ways the predecessor to Voldemort, the dark wizard who killed Harry’s parents and is attempting to take over the wizarding world.
However, the seventh book reveals that, when Dumbledore was young, he was friendly with and even encouraged the young Gellert Grindelwald. Their increasing arrogance as two of the most clever and powerful young wizards of their time eventually culminates in the accidental death of Ariana, Dumbledore’s young and innocent sister.
This revelation is a painful experience for Harry and therefore for us, the readers—made all the more painful by the fact that this information is revealed not long after Dumbledore’s death. How could such a wise and caring figure have made such a horrible mistake?
Harry begins to come to terms with his hero’s flaws when he is confronted by Dumbledore’s brother, Aberforth, who describes the tragic story in gory and sorrowful detail. But, despite having been confronted by the full extent of Dumbledore’s crimes, Harry chooses to follow the path set by Dumbledore, enter the dark tunnel behind the painting and fight for his beliefs.
Why? Perhaps because Harry knows that the battle is bigger than the two of them, but perhaps also because Harry is beginning to release that it is precisely this tragic error that made Dumbledore into the man he admired. He is beginning to understand that the most important lessons are often the most painful. And perhaps he comes to this acceptance more easily because he suffered through a similar tragedy when Sirius Black, his godfather, died as a result of his own recklessness.
This lesson that we must forgive—or at least accept—the flaws of our heroes is anathema to cancel culture. But when you see people defacing and pulling down the statues of former heroes like Winston Churchill and Thomas Jefferson, remember that they are not merely attacking the imperfections of those people themselves, but the imperfections within their own hearts.
The Order of the Phoenix represents a coming of age moment for both Harry and the reader. It is the longest and perhaps the most difficult of the books. Harry is fifteen years old: angry, emotional and quick to lash out. After emerging from the maze in book four, after watching Cedric Diggory die, defeating a newly reborn Voldemort and almost dying himself, Harry finds out that his peers and, indeed, most of the magical world, instead of praising him for his bravery and sacrifice, think that he is merely a lying attention-seeker or, even worse, mentally unhinged.
Harry’s frustration stems from both the fact that he knows the truth and that he is being punished for his virtue: an injustice that is difficult to swallow. But he is also battling with his loss of popularity and celebrity. Though Harry consistently claims to hate the limelight—and though he genuinely does at times—he also secretly prizes his famous persona.
When Harry makes the reckless choice to leave Hogwarts and save Sirius after seeing a vision of Sirius captured by Voldemort, he has the following heated exchange with Hermione, the wisest of his peers.
“OK,” she said, looking frightened yet determined, “I’ve just got to say this—”
“You … this isn’t a criticism, Harry! But you do … sort of … I mean—don’t you think you’ve got a bit of a—a—saving-people thing!” she said.
He glared at her.
“And what’s that supposed to mean, a ‘saving-people thing?”
Hermione hits a nerve here. But Harry ignores her warning and charges ahead to try to save Sirius. But, consciously or not, at this moment, Harry is also trying to save his own famous heroic persona. He gets his wish. After Sirius dies and Voldemort flees from a battle with Dumbledore, the truth is revealed, and Harry is once more the apple of the magical world’s eye—but it does not make him happy, after all.
This is partly because of his grief at losing Sirius, but also because that part of Harry that secretly prized acclamation dies along with his Godfather. It is no coincidence that this book is called The Order of the Phoenix because Harry emerges from the ashes of this tragedy a better man. Sirius had to die so that Harry could sacrifice himself for the right reason and finally defeat Voldemort.
This is completely at odds with the concept of cancel culture, which seeks to bring down people for the slightest failure or even just for speaking the truth. The idea that mistakes are necessary to human growth, or that the most tragic mistakes can make you stronger, rather than defeat you, is a concept that is absolutely repugnant to the victim ideology of cancel culture—especially because, in order to make the transformation, you need to willingly pick up your cross and bear it.
Severus Snape is one of the most complex characters within the Harry Potter universe. Like Dumbledore, he made many horrific mistakes when he was young and was even a dedicated Death Eater for a period. His journey towards change begins when he discovers that Voldemort is hunting Harry and by proxy his mother Lily—Snape’s childhood love and a mudblood (a derogatory term for magical people born of non-magical parents: the class of magical people that Voldemort and his followers aim to exterminate). But Snape’s decision to change sides and rid himself of his bigotry only occurs after Lily’s sacrificial death, when she refused to stand aside and let Voldemort kill her son. In his grief, Snape reveals that he has never stopped loving Lily despite the hateful ideology that has been poisoning him:
“For him?” shouted Snape. “Expecto Patronum!” From the tip of his wand burst the silver doe: she landed on the office floor, bounded once across the office, and soared out of the window. Dumbledore watched her fly away, and as her silvery glow faded he turned back to Snape, and his eyes were full of tears.
“After all this time?”
“Always,” said Snape.
Towards the end of the final book, The Deathly Hallows, Harry discovers that the man he has hated most—even more than Voldemort—has actually been secretly helping and guiding him throughout his journey. Snape has been Harry’s constant adversary and the most direct representative of Harry’s shadow. Snape is bitter, twisted and even cruel at times. But he is also wise, observant and powerful. And most of the lessons he tries to teach Harry were necessary. Harry did have to be careful not to become arrogant like his father and he did need to learn to master his emotions in order to grow up.
Although Snape is imperfect, he dies a hero, because he is redeemed by a love more powerful than any ideology.
The redeemed individual is a powerful archetype in both religion and literature and expresses the idea that we will be defined more by our positive contributions than by our flaws—as long as we are humble enough to learn a few lessons along the way.
This is what Harry Potter is trying to teach us and this is what the followers of cancel culture can no longer accept. The current mob mentality will only end when those involved realise that the anger and vitriol they project onto historical figures and fictional representations is ultimately more about their own inadequacies than anything else.
Illustration by Renee Gorman