By Claire Deng
“Moody raised his wand again, pointed it at the spider, and muttered, “Crucio!” At once, the spider’s legs bent in upon its body; it rolled over and began to twitch horribly, rocking from side to side. No sound came from it, but the screams materialized at once in Neville’s mind, his mother shrieking, his father howling—sounds he knew from visiting them in the ward. The spider’s legs became their buckled knees, its twitching body became theirs, and Moody stood over them, eyes lit with a maniacal flame, his hair became black and curly, and her high-pitched laughter entwined with their screams, which came faster and louder—
“Stop it!” Hermione said shrilly.
Neville barely heard her. His hands were clenched upon the desk in front of him, his knuckles white, his eyes wide and horrified. “
~ ~ ~~
This is the version of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire that we never got to read. Neville, not as the butt of jokes, the pathetic victim stereotype, or the heroic figure of the final book, but a person dealing with real trauma. This is the Neville that JK Rowling never gave us.
Neville is by far the unluckiest character in the entire Harry Potter series, but it’s difficult to grasp the magnitude of his hardships until they’re listed one after another: his parents were magically tortured into insanity when he was a baby, his grandmother constantly criticized him and belittled his interests, his great-uncle pushed him off a pier and hung him out a window to get him to produce magic, he was constantly bullied, he didn’t have any close friends for at least the first four books, his professors were, at best, exasperated with him (McGonagall) or downright cruel to him (Snape), and he saw his grandfather die (as evidenced by the fact that he can see Thestrals), among other things. Most of these horrifying details appear in short, offhand comments made by other characters and sometimes even Neville himself throughout the series.
The characters’ nonchalant attitude towards Neville’s dark past is but a symptom of the larger problem: JK Rowling’s trivialization and omittance of Neville’s trauma in the narrative. Neville’s boggart, which is supposed to embody his worst fear, is Professor Snape, despite all of the other more frightening experiences he’s had, and he only turns pale in the presence of dementors, even though he probably should have fainted like Harry did. Most of the time Neville is bullied, he ends up in ridiculous situations that are played for laughs. Even more discouraging is the fact that Rowling never shows Neville expressing his feelings or telling anyone about his trauma, which not only makes it difficult for readers to extrapolate sympathy for him, but also shows tacit approval of an unhealthy way of processing trauma.
As a third-grader reading the Harry Potter series for the first time, I barely registered Neville’s presence. He was never an interesting character—he never went on all the cool adventures or solved any mysteries. Neville wasn’t funny; he was laughable—his mishaps serving as comedic interruptions in Harry’s serious ruminations—to the point that he became a running joke for readers. In a series about the battle between good and evil, we could always count on Neville to get stuck on the trick staircase, panic in potions, or lose his toad.
Of course, Neville had his moments of heroism: standing up to Harry, Ron, and Hermione in the first book, and slaying the snake Nagini, allowing Harry to finish off Voldemort, at the end of the seventh. It didn’t hurt that Matthew Lewis, who plays Neville in the movies, had a very conveniently speedy glow-up in the seventh movie. As much as I liked this heroic version of Neville, I had a hard time believing in his sudden redemption. There was either the rebellion-leading, snake-slaying, Horcrux-killing Neville, or the pathetic, ridiculous Neville, someone you either idolized or pitied, and not much else in between.
In underwriting Neville, Rowling robs us of the hero we all need: not a second Harry, but an anti-Harry, not a martyr but a hero of ordinary people. After all, most of us are more like Neville than Harry. Our scars are Neville’s scars—scars we carry on the inside instead of on our foreheads. Our problems are Neville’s problems—making friends, peer pressure, unsupportive families, bullying, and low self-esteem. Our flaws are his flaws—we, too, are clumsy, forgetful, shy, or awkward by turns. Sure, we might not have Neville’s extensive list of problems, but we’ve all been that kid, in one way or another. I know I have.
We know Neville because we are him. In fact, we’ve been quoting him for years. Sure, we may have Dumbledore’s wise words painted on our bedroom walls, Hermione’s love for books printed on our tote bags, and Snape’s “Always” carved into our jewelry, but when it comes to the disappointing, frustrating reality of everyday life, Neville’s question is the one we ask: “Why is it always me?”
Because it was always you, Neville. We just couldn’t see it.