Recently I have found myself tearing through the Harry Potter books. While there is plenty that could be said about their subject matter, so controversial in certain circles, and their shortcomings in the more technical aspects of literary merit, the thing that has struck me most is the courage and leadership consistently displayed by the hero, young Harry himself.
Harry is a celebrity within his own community – a celebrity in the most trying way and to the most trying degree. Born into the highest social class, as an infant he survived the attack that killed his parents with only a small cut on his forehead. Nobody knows why or how, and speculation runs rampant until, 11 years later, he is brought out of the safe hiding place where he was raised.
He is famous for something that wasn’t his doing, and which he doesn’t remember. People stare at him when they first meet him. Some people court his favor because he’s famous, including a young schoolmate who follows him everywhere and snaps photos at the most inopportune moments. Other people assume he’s stuck-up and trying to increase his fame. In such a situation, it would be all too easy to become rude, surly and withdrawn – or to get a big head. Harry does neither. He behaves with unfeigned modesty and humility, yet does not fear accomplishing good and impressive things, even when those accomplishments will earn him more publicity.
Harry is unfailingly polite to people of all walks of life and in all situations, no matter how much the other person may be inconveniencing him. (The exception is when someone insults or harms a friend, in which case he leaps to his friend’s defense.) An example is Dobby, essentially a slave. When we first meet Dobby, his ill-advised attempts to save Harry’s life cause Harry no end of trouble. Yet Harry treats him with kindness, and at the end of the book, contrives to set Dobby free. Later, when he meets Dobby again, he graciously gives him permission to come and visit him sometime – even though the reader, and Harry, know this is likely to lead to further inconvenience. If, as one character remarks, the measure of a man is how he treats his inferiors, not his equals, Harry is a great man.
Harry’s kindness and loyalty earn him the same in return. The fourth book revolves largely around a tournament between the scholar-champions of three schools, which consists of three extremely difficult tasks. The scholars are supposed to prepare for the tasks without help, but so many people care about Harry that he keeps getting unsolicited assistance. Several times this assistance is crucial to his survival. But his kindness is not limited to those who are his friends. In the second task, he rescues the sister of one of his competitors when the competitor is unable to do so, even though this delays him and costs him points from the judges – turning the competitor from an antagonist to another friend and supporter.
But Harry is not seeking an unfair advantage; he has an acute sense of fair play. When someone shows Harry what the first task will be and Harry realizes that the champions for the two other schools also have this information, he takes it upon himself to tell the one champion, Cedric, who doesn’t know. When asked why he would do such a thing, he says, “Well, it’s just fair, isn’t it?”
In the end, Harry’s concern for others makes them believe in him in return. Cedric, who initially views Harry with suspicion, ends up helping him with the second task. In the final task, Harry saves Cedric from danger twice – even though this decreases Harry’s chance of winning. In fact, this assistance allows Cedric to reach the finish line ahead of Harry. But instead of taking the trophy, Cedric lists the reasons why Harry should be the winner, and refuses to finish the task. Harry protests, and, finally, when neither will budge, suggests they finish together and tie for first place.
The tournament, and Harry’s approach as well, is summed up in a speech by Dumbledore, the headmaster of the school, who exemplifies wise leadership. One quote in particular stands out: “We are only as strong as we are united, as weak as we are divided… We can fight [discord and enmity] only by showing an equally strong bond of friendship and trust. Differences of habit and language are nothing at all if our aims are identical and our hearts are open.”