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How Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone tackled bullying

We’ve all dreamed of escaping to a magical world and leaving our worries behind, but there are some problems that shouldn’t be ignored. Bullying was as real at Hogwarts as it can be in our own lives.

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To be bullied is a constant nightmare. It’s feeling cold, as though Dementors are near, because you’re dreading what certain people will say or do. It’s when laughter cuts you like the Sectumsempra curse, because you know they’re going to humiliate you. It’s wishing you could throw an Invisibility Cloak around yourself and run. Even then, you wouldn’t feel safe – there’s always the next encounter to worry about.

Bullying leaves us in a dark and lonely place. In that darkness, we often turn to fiction for solace. Books don’t judge, they’re always there for you, and sometimes you find that special story to help you through. For such readers, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone holds some powerful messages.

It’s okay to be different

Right from the beginning, we saw Harry Potter bullied by his own family. When he wasn’t locked in a cupboard, Uncle Vernon shouted at him, Aunt Petunia treated him as though he was worthless and his cousin beat him up for fun. As he had no friends or other family to turn to, Harry was completely alone.

Why did the Dursleys hate him? Because Vernon and Petunia saw their nephew as ‘different’. Yes, this was an extreme case of different – it’s not every day you find out you’re a wizard. But nonetheless, bullies can feel intimidated by people they don’t understand, so they put them down to feel better about themselves. It’s cruel, selfish and – unfortunately – common.

The Dursley family photo, Dudley is wearing his Smeltings school uniform
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

There was another layer to Petunia that is common among bullies: jealousy. We heard it when she talked about Lily, whom she described as a ‘freak’. But Petunia’s opinion shouldn’t matter. To the rest of the world, Lily was special and so was Harry, both not just for their magical powers but for their talent, bravery and kindness.

The Dursleys did whatever they could to suppress Harry’s spirit, but they couldn’t break him. Harry had a bright future ahead and wouldn’t be held back by horrible, petty people. Besides, if the Dursleys were ‘normal’, who’d want to be normal anyway?

Nobody is born better

On his first trip to Diagon Alley, Harry realised that not all wizards were nice, whimsical people.

‘I really don’t think they should let the other sort in, do you? They’re just not the same…’

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

Draco Malfoy dismissed Hagrid as a ‘savage’ and called the Weasleys ‘riff-raff’. Worse still, the Malfoys believed that pure-blood wizards were superior to Muggle-borns. For the first time, Harry noticed prejudice within the wizarding world and he was wary of Draco from here onwards.

Draco being sorted

What’s interesting is that Harry had a choice. Draco would have accepted him in a heartbeat and even extended a hand of friendship. However, Harry refused. Draco may have been a wizard but Harry saw him for what he was – a bully, like the Dursleys.

Being told he was special didn’t go to Harry’s head. He’d befriend who he likes, regardless of blood status or social class, and Draco’s foul comments wouldn’t make any difference.

Do your best, even when people are being unreasonable

Sadly, bullying isn’t always done by children. Sometimes adults can be equally guilty.

By the end of the first Potions lesson, he knew he’d been wrong. Snape didn’t dislike Harry – he hated him.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

Professor Snape was notorious for his harsh teaching style but this took on a whole new level with Harry. ‘Mister Potter’ was singled out at the start of his first Potions lesson, mocked by his teacher and sniggered at by the Slytherins. Snape’s hostility didn’t diminish over the school year, either.

Snape teaching potions from the Philosopher's Stone
© JKR/Pottermore Ltd. ™ Warner Bros.

Harry didn’t suffer in silence. He talked to his friends, who insisted he shouldn’t take it personally, and Dumbledore also shed some light on the matter. Still, this didn’t excuse Snape’s behaviour – he should have known better than to mistreat a pupil just because he looked like his father.

Though treated unfairly, Harry didn’t shout back or storm out of the classroom. Like it or not, he had to learn Potions. Harry persevered and passed his exams, showing true strength of character and mastering skills that wouuld help him in the future.

One small act of kindness can mean the world

Harry wasn’t the only one persecuted by bullies. Malfoy and his cronies were particularly cruel to Neville Longbottom, who was too terrified to do anything about it. Though Neville’s mishaps were often comical, there’s nothing funny about the pain he suffered.

Neville falls victim to Hermione's Petrificus Totalus spell
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

In one particularly bad incident, Draco trapped Neville in a Leg-Locker Curse. Hermione advised him to tell a teacher but Neville didn’t want any more trouble. Ron told Neville to stand up to Malfoy, but that was easier said than done. Harry did something different – instead of offering advice, he listened to what Neville had to say and assured him he was worth ‘twelve of Malfoy’. He also offered Neville his last Chocolate Frog — a small gesture that almost moved him to tears. Such actions have an impact, as seen later during a Quidditch match:

Neville went bright red but turned in his seat to face Malfoy. ‘I’m worth twelve of you, Malfoy,’ he stammered.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

Reaching out to someone who’s being bullied won’t make their problems disappear, but it can help undo the damage to their confidence. A few words of support and a Chocolate Frog go a long way.

You hold the greatest power of all, even if they don’t understand

‘There is no good and evil, there is only power, and those too weak to seek it ...’

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

Quirrell and Harry in front of the Mirror of Erised.
© JKR/Pottermore Ltd. ™ Warner Bros.

Quirrell’s words under Voldemort’s influence echo those of many bullies seeking to justify their actions. They view themselves as strong and successful for doing what they want at the expense of others. To them, any display of mercy or charity is a sign of weakness or stupidity. This is a terrible pity, as they’re missing the greatest magic in the world:

‘If there is one thing Voldemort cannot understand, it is love.’

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

Compassion is all too often misunderstood as weakness. It takes real strength and courage to stay true to yourself and to support those in need. Real cowards are the ones who group together to pick on others.

To celebrate the 20th anniversary of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, every Friday Pottermore will explore themes, moments, characters and much more from the very first Harry Potter story. Come back next week when we look at some important dialogue from Philosopher's Stone.