August is having a mid-life crisis. Rather than aging gracefully, it’s reliving the golden years by dusting off some 90s crazes. Getting the original 151 pocket monsters back in Pokémon Go means we’ll never look up from our phones again, and now the Boy Who Lived has returned to bookshelves after nine years away. It’s a nostalgia overload if you’re 20-something. I think I might need a sit down.
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child isn’t an unnecessary encore, though. The play stands out because it focuses on what happens when your ‘happily-ever-after’ comes to an end. That in itself is unusual. Fantasy plots tend to lose interest once their heroes have saved the day. By contrast, the final Potter yarn is a reality check. There’s no obvious antagonist and the world isn’t coming to an end. It’s just a story about a boy who feels misunderstood.
It’s a refreshing change of pace. Too many stories get bogged down with unrealistic expectations and that’s not always healthy. The Cursed Child doesn’t fall into the same trap. Indeed, Harry now has something worse than Voldemort on his plate – the stress of everyday life. An overworked head of department who isn’t keeping on top of his paperwork, he can’t connect with his son and is struggling to adjust. What’s more, winning the war against You-Know-Who was only the beginning of his problems. This is the narrative’s greatest strength. It goes beyond the stereotype of a dashing protagonist out to save humanity and shows us what we rarely see; the uphill slog which follows.
Beating the snot out of your villain doesn’t mean there isn’t any conflict left. If anything, what comes next is harder. Following the events of a series like Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings, hundreds are dead and the kingdom’s a smoking wreck. That’s going to need more than a little cleaning up. The play deals with this brilliantly. Although Voldemort was kicked to the curb almost two decades before, Harry and co are still wading through the mess he left behind. His allies gather across Europe for reasons unknown, fear runs rampant and sympathisers are piecing together some very dodgy tech. I can’t imagine a tyrannical dictator did much good for the economy, either. Victory was clearly just the beginning.
This is true in more ways than one. What about those who supported the Dark Lord, openly or otherwise? It’s easy to slap your garden-variety Death Eater in chains (Voldemort’s henchmen were guilty of some pretty nasty stuff, after all), but you can’t arrest opinion. Dolores Umbridge was hardly alone in persecuting those with non-magical heritage during Deathly Hallows. In fact, derision of Muggle-born ‘Mudbloods’ was widespread long before He Who Must Not Be Named came anywhere near power.
According to interviews with J.K Rowling, her characters spent the last nineteen years fighting corruption and bigotry in the wizarding world. As is obvious from turning on the news, this isn’t something that can be done overnight. A good analogy would be the Civil Rights Movement. Getting basic equality for black Americans took countless months of campaigning. They couldn’t even vote until the 1960s, and this victory was only thanks to a decade-long struggle by figures such as Martin Luther King. Prejudice in Harry’s world must have been equally entrenched.
The Cursed Child also rings true in other ways. The media we consume is often preoccupied with getting the girl/guy or finding our ‘soul-mate’. You’ll know the drill by now; the protagonist’s heart does somersaults every time their beau walks in the room and they presumably spend the rest of their days gazing into each other’s eyes (the phrase ‘rose-tinted glasses’ comes to mind). Harry and his wife Ginny provide a welcome contrast. They disagree, misunderstand one another and generally struggle through married life. Yet they stick together through every challenge. Because passion isn’t what’s important – trust and dedication are what keep relationships going.
While I’m loath to climb onto a soap-box, it’s probably a good idea for younger audiences to see this. They’re barraged by love stories reality can never live up to, and the only thing it results in is heartache. I’ve fallen into that trap before. I could have done with role models like Harry and Ginny.
This is what makes The Cursed Child such a winner for me. Yes, it’s wonderful to have Harry back. I grew up reading about Hogwarts and it’s a joy to revisit that world. All the same, the story’s value isn’t solely thanks to nostalgia. Rather, it tells us something we need to hear.