This last week, I’ve been feeling a strange need to write letters. And not in a romantic, oh what a throwback to simpler times sort of way, but because, genuinely, I think that sometimes, writing to somebody is a much more therapeutic process than messaging them, or even talking over the phone. This is because, unlike other, more instant forms of communication, you’re not giving your interlocutor a platform through which to respond immediately. It’s impossible for them to interrupt you, or gainsay you, or cut you off midway—all things that happen far too often when we speak to one another. A letter lets you get it all out there in one go, giving you space and, importantly, the other person, time to absorb your words, and think about what you’re feeling.
It’s for this reason that I really think the written is the most powerful, and therefore, to me, meaningful form of communication. Don’t get me wrong, I love heart to hearts with my besties as much, if not more, than the average person, but in the absence of that space and time where once those heart to hearts were taken for granted, a letter can step in, and make you feel less alone in a world where we are constantly reminded, every time we log onto social media, that someone out there is probably doing life better than you.
This got me thinking, as many things inevitably do, about Harry Potter, and how the characters of that world use, so often, letters to share things that bother them. It’s amazing isn’t it, that in a universe where people can literally just pop over to each others’ houses in a blink, where they can roam through fireplaces to more magical locations, they still rely on the staple of quill and parchment to say so many important things.
And letters are hella important in Potter. Letters are what get him out of his Muggle life, for one thing, and the mystery around the ‘letters from no one’ in Philosopher’s Stone is what indicates that Harry is more than meets the eye. Later, letters from his friends are what literally keep Harry motivated, push him through the horrible summer days at the Dursleys, even, in a twisted turn of events before second year, tell him that not everything he experienced in Philosopher’s Stone, was a crazy dream. Harry’s friends reach out to him constantly all summer long, for three solid summers, giving him the support he needs to get through the days. They even send him literal nourishment and sustenance, birthday cakes and assorted other, healthier food items, coming to him in the summer before his fourth year in Goblet of Fire.
Letters are also therapeutic in the series. When Harry is very troubled, woken with an aching scar in Goblet, he writes about his worries to Sirius. Indeed, his correspondence with his godfather is one of the cementing blocks of their relationship—starting from the moment when Pigwidgeon arrives, bearing the note that allows Harry to go to Hogsmeade, to the last note he reads from Sirius, which, heartbreakingly, talks about the two way mirror. Sirius and Harry’s relationship, one of, if not the most, supportive relationships in the entire series, is constantly imperilled by the disruption of this form of communication—when it flourishes, before the start of Book 4, Sirius’s wellbeing is highlighted through the beautiful, tropical birds he uses to deliver his letters. By the end, all forms of communication out of Hogwarts have been imperilled, thanks to Umbridge’s snooping, and because of this, this fundamental breach of a channel Harry has long taken for granted, tragedy unwinds.
Another great example of literal soul baring: Ginny writes to Tom Riddle. She uses Voldemort’s first Horcrux as it was seemingly supposed to be used: as a diary, a record of her innermost feelings. She makes herself so vulnerable by spilling out her soul thus that soon, her body is no longer her own. The implication seems to be that as much as writing can help you affect someone, it can also undo you, pulls a secret, hidden and hence vulnerable part of you outside into a harsh world, where people may not be so kind to it as you hope they will be.
If you think about it, it’s really weird that anyone in the wizarding world still writes letters, even people who technically no longer have to. You’d think that only the kids (who can’t do magic outside of school) and those who are under house arrest (Lily, for instance, who writes that letter to Sirius) or in other dire, magic-less situations (Sirius on the run) would take recourse to such a, well, ‘ordinary’ form of communication. But that’s not the case. For instance, Bathilda Bagshot, in her scattered interview with Rita Skeeter, mentions that Albus and Grindelwald constantly sent letters back and forth, despite living in the same village and both (presumably) being old enough to do magic legally. Given what we find out about their relationship later, these letters have a particularly poignant quality, not just the musings of two, young ambitious wizards but, in the case of one, at least, also a means to reach out, and unburden oneself, to a fascinating crush.
In the Potterverse, people do extremely mundane things—fight over petty jealousies, go on disastrous dates, call each other horrible names in the schoolyard, write letters. These are all ways Rowling uses to humanise her characters, underline the fact that though they have magic, they are no different from us who don’t. Letters, physically sitting down and creating a message for another, are still the most magical, meaningful ways to reach out to someone, to prove that the writer, and the person being written to, are bound in a matrix of emotion that is real, made tangible by the creation of this physical message.
Nothing compares to Harry’s feelings as he looks as Lily’s old letter, drinking in the sight of her handwriting:
The letter was an incredible treasure, proof that Lily Potter had lived, really lived, that her warm hand had once moved across this parchment, tracing ink into these letters, these words, words about him, Harry, her son.
Impatiently brushing away the wetness in his eyes, he reread the letter, this time concentrating on the meaning. It was like listening to a half-remembered voice.
I think the greatest example of this, of the power of such personal writing to wrench feelings about and reduce someone to a puddle of emotion is that last image Rowling leaves us of Snape. A man we’ve always seen as cutting, mean, petty even, is memorialized for readers thus:
…Snape was kneeling in Sirius’s old bedroom. Tears were dripping from the end of his hooked nose as he read the old letter from Lily. The second page carried only a few words:
‘could ever have been friends with Gellert Grindelwald. I think her mind’s going, personally!
‘Lots of love,