Recently I read the book 13th Gen which got me thinking across generational lines. One of my mother’s favorite sayings is “times change, people don’t.” As true as that may be, I do think that one’s place in time affects them in some way.
The book outlined the six generations of Americans either born in or associated with the twentieth century: Lost (Fitzgerald and his peers who came of age during the “Great War”, born prior to 1910), GI (Brokaw’s “Greatest Generation”, born 1910-1930), Silent/Beat Generation (the kids of “Grease” and social change reformers, born 1930-1944/5), Boomer (born 1945-early 1960s… American society has revolved around them and their needs for the past 50 years), X (born mid 1960s-1984… the generation everyone loves to hate), and Millennial (1985-present… the Generation of Promise).
While concerned mostly with my generation, X (although I think that we younger Xers have a lot more in common with Millennials than our cynical older brothers and sisters), the book commented on the character of social trends that shaped the general collective consciousness of the persons coming of age in these great waves.
Which got me to thinking about Harry Potter.
What generations are identifiable in the series?
A problem is that we don’t know some characters’ ages. They are not given an age in canon, nor has JKR given any indication of how old they are in chat. For instance, we have no idea of the age of Karkaroff, or Lockhart, or Narcissa Malfoy (although canon does give us clues for what is not expressly spelled out).
The fact that wizarding life spans are twice as long as ours must be figured in. I speculate that Dumbledore, at 150, is part of the current generation of senior citizens in the wizarding world, while Minerva is in the midst of midlife at 70. Lucius Malfoy’s age is questionable (for some reason, I can’t help but feel he’s a bit older than Snape and Harry’s parents), and we know that Arthur and Molly Weasley are a bit older than them as well.
We do have clear indications of two generations in this world, and we know about the events that defined or are defining their coming of age.
The year during which Voldemort began his rise to power is given as circa 1970. Since JKR in an interview (CR has given Snape an age of 34/35 during GF, this means that, by the only method of dating we have thus far, Harry’s parents and their cohorts were born sometime in the late 1950s/early 1960s.
We know that the dark wizard Grindelwald was defeated in 1945. We currently know of no other major Dark movement in this milieu between 1945 and 1970.
From this, the following could be true:
- James, Sirius, Peter, Remus, Severus, Lily, etc. spent their early childhood up in a relatively peaceful and optimistic time, whether in the Muggle or wizarding world. Both Hitler and Grindelwald had been long defeated by the year of their births.
- During this time of peace, one of the finest schools in their world was run by the person who helped create this peace in the first place, Albus Dumbledore.
- Around the time that they received their letters for Hogwarts (1970), Voldemort began his rise to power.
- The majority of their adolescence (early to mid-1970s) was spent in a time of growing uncertainty. The majority of their young adulthood (middle to late 1970s/early 1980s) was spent during a time of terror. The Animagus transformations were performed during this period, as was the (unusually?) early marriage of James and Lily.
By the early 1980s, dire tragedy had either ended or marred the lives of all six of the individuals above. And this is just one sociogram of friends/rivals/loves. At least one of two things is true:
- That this group was unusually cursed or singled out for persecution, or
- We, as readers of a book for young people, may think that Voldemort is simply a comic hero, but the denizens of the world he exists in know from bitter experience that he is not. (I think they’d know better than we would.)
Thus, you have a generation whose childhood was spent in a peaceful time, whose adolescence was spent during a time of unease and unrest, and whose young adulthood was nightmarish (perhaps paralleled by the young adult experiences of the Greatest Generation).
I think it’d be interesting to compare that generation to Harry’s. For my purposes, the boundaries of this “generation” (actually cohort-group) will be two Weasleys. Percy was born around 1975. Ginny was born around 1981—most likely before Halloween, given the presumed Hogwarts cutoff date.
These kids were babies, toddlers—none older than preschool, really —during the worst years of Voldemort’s first go-round. One speculation that I find very interesting and have no trouble buying is that Harry’s generation is a lot smaller than his parents’ in number… which means that Hogwarts enrollment during the canon years is way down.
In my fanfiction, I had the narrator (31-year old Angelina) posit that her early childhood was spent in a shadow. This is because I’m not so sure that the post-1981 “peace” in this world was anything like the post-1945 “peace.” It seems that as the centuries march on here on the Muggle side of things, with each war and each atrocity we lose a bit more of our innocence, expectation, and optimism…for some reason, I think that perhaps this could hold true in the wizarding world as well.
Also the fact that Voldemort’s body was never recovered was significant:
“Some say he died. Codswallop, in my opinion. Dunno if he had enough human in him left to die. Some say he’s still out there, bidin’ his time, like, but I don’ believe it… (m)ost of us reckon he’s still out there somewhere but lost his powers. Too weak to carry on.”
That is what I call a shadow. People are afraid to say the name “Voldemort” for fear that they might invoke him… there’s near-universal folkloric/magical precedent for that phenomenon. (Even in our Muggle, mundane reality we’ll say “hush, girl, before you speak him/her up!” in a half-teasing, half-serious way if the speaker is talking about a particularly unpleasant person.) I can imagine a few foolish wizarding mothers of children Harry’s age and younger threatening bad children with “If you are not good, You-Know-Who will get you.” The reluctance of the wizarding-born children in canon to say Voldemort’s name is telling… if it’s all over, where’s the fear coming from?
The Muggle-born kids, on the other hand, didn’t grow up with this shadow as far as we know… and as I know nothing about politics in the UK, I can’t give the British equivalent of “but they grew up with Reaganomics!” However, I’m sure once Dean, Justin, Hermione, and others crossed the threshold into the wizarding world, they learned quickly enough.
These kids’ adolescence is being and will be defined by what I always think of as “Voldemort, Again.” Because such things go in cycles, and I can’t see JKR destroying the entire magical world at the end of this series (consistency of theme issue—this is not apocalyptic literature), I have a feeling that at least their young adulthood will be spent during a time of peace.
So for Harry’s generation, you have an inversion of terms. They were born into a terrible time, spent early childhood during an uncertain time, and had adolescence much like their wizarding parents.
Every school has this poster somewhere: “Children Learn What They Live.” There is a difference between these two generations… and that difference may help history not repeat itself any more than it already has.
The Marauders’ generation (the Marauders being a fan nickname for the group which includes James, Lily, and their friends) spent their formative years in a time of peace and optimism. I’m almost certain that no one saw Voldemort coming—and judging from the time span involved, even when they saw him coming at first they didn’t think it was going to be that bad. Our history shows that human beings tend to take comfort in denial. (There are so many parallels between the HP scenario and WWII that it’s scary.) That’s why Fudge, at the end of GF, has no excuse… I am certain there was a Fudge in 1970 or 1971. There always is.
The generation of the Trio (Harry, Ron, and Hermione) never had this sort of collective stability. Framing their earliest memories is the irrefutable evidence that something terrible happened in the time Before. There are probably plenty of heartbreaking stories similar to that of Neville’s parents. People did things and experienced things they are trying to forget, such as the as-yet unknown activities of Severus Snape. Families were decimated and even destroyed, as happened to the Potters. There are tremendous collective memories of horror. And I’m sure we don’t know a fraction of it.
I think that these kids will be a lot more vigilant than their parents were. They have Dumbledore on their side—I’m wildly curious about his role in the 1970s during Voldemort’s first rise to power. They also have a healthy dose of kid/teen cynicism that packs the pages of canon with their wit… and I may not be able to recite chapter and verse, but I’m sure that the Trio aren’t the only kids walking around Hogwarts who have a healthy distrust of authority.
Good. They’ll need it.
There are also a few other HP series generations I’m interested in that we have no information about yet. First is the generation between the Marauders and the Trio—Bill and Charlie’s, who spent their entire childhood during Voldemort’s first reign of terror and began Hogwarts either during the peak years of it or shortly thereafter. They spent their teen years during the “shadow time” that marked the current Hogwarts kids’ childhoods. Their collective formative and coming-of-age experiences are a lot different than those of their older counterparts (Snape and the Marauders) and their younger sibs (Ron and company).
The next generation who interests me is the one who had not one, but two Dark risings affect their lives—I’m thinking about Hagrid, Tom Riddle, perhaps the Weasleys on the younger edge of this generation. (I always associate Lucius with this group too—he just doesn’t seem like he’s a cohort of the Marauders.) One wonders what it was like growing up (or at least being born) during both the Muggle war and dealing with Grindelwald at the same time. Did Voldemort, as a young Tom Riddle, ever meet Grindelwald? What was Grindelwald like and how did his version of the Standard Diabolical Plan work?
The final generation I’m interested in is the one that we will never see from JKR’s pen, but who will be utterly fascinating… the Hogwarts kids’ children, especially if they grow up during a relatively peaceful time. The potential for generational battles there will be rife.
What do you think? How do the generations vary as we’ve seen them in Harry Potter? Is there any variance, or am I just indulging in another blissful session of reading into canon what many would say isn’t there?
The Lexicon has calculated Percy Weasley's birth year as 1976.