As I hunker down in these strange days both filled and emptied by Covid-19, I find myself thinking often of one of my most deeply held beliefs about reading: we learn from books how to face challenges in our lives. Sometimes those challenges are real, like facing a bully at school; sometimes they take real issues and put them in fantastical garb, like facing a dragon on a mountaintop. In all cases, reading about how characters overcome obstacles prepares us to overcome the same or similar obstacles in our own lives. C. S. Lewis affirms this in his essay “On Three Ways of Writing for Children,” where he writes, “Since it is so likely that [children] will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage” (216).
The cruel enemy we meet now is a virus and the world-wide disruption it’s causing, as well as the sensible disruption we bring on ourselves in the form of social distancing as we attempt to curb the effects of the virus. So what have I learned from books about how to face this challenge? I could mention the scrappy resourcefulness of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s The Long Winter or Gertrude Chandler Warner’s The Boxcar Children, but it’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows I can’t get out of my mind.
In this final installment of J. K. Rowling’s series, there is a long, lovely section when Harry, Ron, and Hermione are apparating from remote location to remote location, ostensibly seeking horcruxes but not knowing where to look. Not everyone loves this part of the final book in the series, but I’ve always felt Rowling perfectly captures the quiet desperation of striving daily to protect yourself from a powerful enemy while also working out what to eat and how to get along with the people in your tent.
In my tent, we are not literally burdened by lockets of evil hanging around our necks, but we carry novel anxieties which sometimes feel insidious and damaging. We must give ourselves permission to set these aside, and we must be patient with each other. We must hang on to the knowledge that when the time comes any one of us would jump into an icy pool to save the others.
Of course, it’s the saving ourselves and others that offers the greatest connection to this portion of Deathly Hallows. We’ve thrown up shield charms in the form of closed schools and cancelled events. We spend our days casting protective spells in the form of hand washing—for a full twenty seconds, or the spell doesn’t work. We do our best to keep informed, seeking out and soaking up reliable information from our real-world equivalents of Potterwatch. And we wait, trying hard to be our best selves.
So, I sigh and steal myself and go to cast today’s shield charms and protective spells, knowing my magic is strengthened by what I’ve read.