The Potter studies at UNC

Video by Alice Lee and Anna Bobrow and Brittany Bellamy and Marria Rahim and Rachel Scall / The Daily Tar Heel

UNC students and professors talk about why they love and hate the Harry Potter series.

The release of the anxiously awaited first part of the seventh Harry Potter movie has piqued the interest of millions around the globe.

UNC students are no exception.

And given Harry Potter’s presence in popular culture for the past 14 years, many students have brought magic to their muggle classrooms, through dissertations or research.

At the University, students have pursued a character who they say exudes bravery, defiance and, above all else, hope.

“This is a kid who appeals to people all over the world,” said Sarah Cantrell, PhD candidate in comparative literature whose dissertation focused on the worldwide appeal of Harry Potter.

“He dares to defy authority and that kind of rebellion gives children lots of hope.

“Characters like Neville Longbottom and Luna Lovegood are able to foster their own sense of agency. It’s amazing to see the connections people make with this book.”

Cantrell’s work also focused more specifically on the effect of modern British young adult fantasy fiction on French literature.

After the translation of Harry Potter into French, the fantasy genre in France has become more accepted, she said.

“There is no way of talking about fantasy without talking about the effect that Harry Potter has had on the current generation and on the publishing market,” she said. “There are very few languages that Harry Potter isn’t published in.”

Cantrell’s research concluded that youth need hope, and Harry Potter offers a way to escape from the real world.

“Young people are on the bottom of the totem people,” she said. “They don’t have a voice in Congress, can’t vote, and can’t drive. There are lots of rules and regulations that govern them. They are inspired by Harry who acts in spite of and because of the circumstances presented to him.”

Another comparative literature PhD student, Jennifer Flaherty, published a paper in 2008 in the Washington and Jefferson College Review about Harry Potter in which she talked about knowledge, control and freedom of information in “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” the fifth book in the series.

“Dumbledore keeps the prophecy from Harry for most of the book, and this clearly has disastrous consequences during the scene at the Department of Mysteries,” she said.

Flaherty also established the ironic relationship between the censoring of knowledge and the exponential growth of curiosity that resulted from it.

When new Hogwarts professor Dolores Umbridge banned information regarding the Defense Against the Dark Arts, the students of Hogwarts were driven to explore the mechanics of it.

“The students developed an underground system of knowledge and ironically spent their free time studying instead of playing,” Flaherty said.

When talking to students in her “Popular Genres” English class this fall, Flaherty said she noticed the deep connection and positive impact the books have had on this generation.

“Many students at UNC feel like they grew up with Harry Potter,” she said. “The books do a very good job teaching students about good and evil and all the things kids need to learn about.”

In her religious studies course “Heaven and Hell,” junior religious studies major Sakire Dogan said she explored the concept of afterlife in pop culture.

She asserted that Harry Potter is a book premised on death and the afterlife.

Though the use of witchcraft and wizardry seems anti-Christian, there are spiritual overtones in the books, she said, noting it often goes unnoticed since it’s not taken in a very academic context.

“As I was reading the book for the second time, things that wouldn’t stand out to me as being related to Christianity became apparent,” said Dogan.

Her research states that J.K. Rowling takes a lot of her ideas for “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” from the philosophies of Saint Thomas Aquinas and Saint Augustine of Hippo.

“The part when Harry Potter appears naked in limbo between life and death in the last book comes from a scene taken from St. Augustine’s book, “City of God,” she said.

Dogan also argued that the books’ concept of the incorruptibility of the soul is one that resonates with Saint Thomas’ philosophy.

The pureness of the soul was central to natural life. Since Voldemort shattered his soul several times, he corrupted his soul and returned to the books in an evil and savage state, Dogan said.

Furthermore, she said, there are a lot of examples of the duality of the soul taken from the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle.

“Rowling clearly defines the body as separate from the soul when Harry is ‘dead,’” she said. “His body is damaged but his soul isn’t.”

But there is seemingly little separation between many students’ experiences with Harry Potter and their decisions later in life to read the books in an academic context.

“A lot of the beliefs that people have are based on early encounters they have with the books and arts growing up,” Dogan said. “Harry Potter has had a huge influence on what we think and how we see the world.”

Contact the University Editor at udesk@unc.edu.

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