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No series of books has impacted me more as a writer than the Harry Potter series. From the moment I first immersed myself in J.K. Rowling’s world of magic at eight years old, I’ve been captivated by it. By the end of my junior year of high school, I’d read the series six times—forwards, backwards, and out of order; within anywhere from the duration of a week to the duration of a year. I can therefore firmly say, as I look back wistfully but realistically on my nine-year obsession with the series, that I am unbiased—or at least as unbiased as a Slytherin whose Hogwarts letter is nearly nine years late can be.
In fiction, two types of stories exist: character-driven stories and plot-driven stories. The Catcher in the Rye is the quintessential example of a character-driven story, while Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, another favorite of my youth, is primarily plot-driven. While one might argue that any sufficiently-developed narrative has elements of both, I would counter with the assertion that in almost every so-called “balanced” tale, one element still takes the backseat to another. So it is with Harry Potter, a series I believe to be character-driven.
The reasoning for my assertion is the fact that even now, nine years after the release of Rowling’s final installment, people are still debating the motives and morals of her characters. Rowling’s characters are so three-dimensional—so complex—that they are often impossible to classify. Even Albus Dumbledore, someone who has become as famous a symbol of wisdom and good-conscience as Yoda and Gandalf, reveals his own fair share of dark secrets in the series' final installment. Whatever shortcomings the Harry Potter series has, its bland and often stilted prose being one, Rowling has succeeded wholeheartedly in creating characters who act truly human.
Both Snape and Dumbledore have been analyzed extensively, mainly by critics who have either defended their status as heroes or tried to destroy it, and to contribute another argument to the growing mound of pro- and anti-Dumbledore-and-Snape rhetoric would be to contribute nothing new to the subject. However, a character who has been largely overlooked as an interesting case of imperfection and humanity is Sirius Black.
Sirius, an assertive, often arrogant, caring yet reckless, good-intentioned yet hypocritical figure has been absent from many of the discussions around heroism and morality in Harry Potter, and the only reason I can come up with for this obvious omission is Harry’s inflated opinion of his godfather. After all, every character in Harry Potter is shown through the biased lens of the series’ protagonist. Harry loathes Snape right up until his death, and though Dumbledore lives and dies as Harry’s idol, with the release of some posthumous details about his hero’s darker side, Harry grapples with the idea that Albus may not have been as saintly as he had seemed. In other words, Harry is able to see the glaring imperfections in both of those figures, but for some reason—either because of Harry's desperate longing for a father figure or because of his godfather’s sudden, untimely death, Sirius is never knocked down from that transcendent pedestal. Much like we can’t be sure if any of the auxiliary characters in The Catcher in the Rye are truly as phony as Holden makes them out to be, we cannot know for certain whether or not Sirius was someone worth idolizing. Ah, the curse of the unreliable narrator.
But we can make some educated assumptions. In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Sirius gives Hermione a touching piece of advice: “If you want to know what a man’s like, take a good look at how he treats his inferiors, not his equals.” Coming from anyone else, this statement would be wise and noble, but coming from Sirius, the same man who spends a significant portion of time viciously lashing out against Kreacher, his house elf servant, the line is at best laughable and at worst sinister. One can note that Sirius’ reasoning for his dislike of the house elf is that Kreacher acts as a reminder of Sirius’ estranged family, but it is impossible not to notice the incongruence between his words and actions. After all, this is the same man who bullied Snape as a teenager, and his cruelty as an adult shows that age didn’t change him.
Another observation that one can make, though admittedly more far-fetched than the last, is that Sirius’ love for Harry is contingent upon Harry’s likeness to his father, James. While Harry wants more than anything for Sirius to be a guardian figure to him, Sirius longs only for a companion and sees Harry as a figurative reincarnation of James. In a sense, Sirius wants his godson to become indistinguishable from James to the point that Sirius forgets that Harry’s father is even gone, but here’s the problem: James is gone, and more importantly, Harry isn’t James. A scene where this flaw in Sirius’ character becomes painfully evident is in The Order of the Phoenix, during which Sirius proposes that he and Harry meet in Hogsmeade Village. Harry, well aware of Sirius’ “wanted” status and having his godfather’s best intentions in mind, refuses. Sirius then remarks, “You’re less like your father than I thought. The risk would’ve been what made it fun for James.” In this scene, Harry exemplifies more caring, fatherly qualities than Sirius demonstrates throughout the duration of the series, but the painful irony of the situation is that it’s really Harry who wants to be looked after. As much as Harry longs for his godfather to care for him him, Sirius would make a lousy guardian.
Nonetheless, I like Sirius. Not only as a character, but I feel like I would have genuinely liked him as a person too. He was a rebellious child and a bright, witty teenager. He ran away from home and spent thirteen years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. In spite of all of this, he still seemed like he sought, more than anything, true happiness. Whether or not he unfairly used Harry in the pursuit of that happiness is up for debate, but it’s hard to argue against the plain reality that Harry still loved Sirius more than anything (which is exemplified in the infamous “office” scene at the end of The Order of the Phoenix, during which Harry, the death of his godfather still raw on his conscience, smashes many of Dumbledore’s belongings). Harry saw something in Sirius that he was unable to see in even Dumbledore—in Sirius, he found someone who, at least on the surface, cared about his well being yet still treated him like an equal.
To call Sirius Black a hero is mistaken, even if Harry is unable to see his flaws. I wish not to portray him as a villain, but as a complex man—a man whose complexities are often overshadowed by Harry’s starry-eyed idealism and inflated view of his last remaining connection to his family. Sirius both lived and died recklessly, and his life was cut off tragically and prematurely, leaving one to wonder whether he ever truly found the peace and contentment he desired. I believe, at risk of sounding as biased and idealistic as Harry himself, that sometime between his exposure as an innocent man and his passing, Sirius realized that true happiness is only attainable within oneself, and that while being bitter and nostalgic may delay his deeply buried knowledge that he hates the person he’s become, it won't erase that wound completely. One can only dream.