Twenty years ago, Bloomsbury published J.K. Rowling’s debut novel, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, the first installment in a saga that would span seven Potter books, eight Potter movies, and numerous spinoffs and extensions, in the process becoming one of the defining stories of a generation. Since Dumbledore isn’t here to help us pull any celebratory crackers, we’re marking the occasion by toasting Rowling’s magical creation — and the two decades of euphoria that it’s brought us. We solemnly swear that we are up to no good.
The Forest Again
Mallory Rubin: There is an instant near the conclusion of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows when Harry, sitting on the floor of Dumbledore’s former office, wonders why he had never appreciated what a miracle he was. The thought doesn’t arise in reference to Harry’s prodigious magical ability, or Horcrux-hunting prowess, or Quidditch acumen. It’s about the very fact of his being: the beating heart and racing mind and bubbling fear that make him human.
Harry has just decided to die. He has learned the full truth of Dumbledore’s grand plan, and with it the true nature of his connection to Voldemort. He has come to understand, fully and finally, what defeating Voldemort will cost, and he has decided to pay the toll.
One of the Harry Potter saga’s true marvels is that it can be what each reader makes it. For some, it’s a tale of joy and discovery, of love and friendship found and loneliness lost. For others, it’s about good triumphing over evil, a balancing of the moral scales. But above all, J.K. Rowling’s masterpiece has always been about choice. In Chamber of Secrets, Dumbledore tells Harry, who’s tormented by doubts over whether he really belongs in Gryffindor House, that "it is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities." That was true when Harry told the Sorting Hat where to place him, it was true when he decided to touch the Triwizard Cup at the same second as Cedric, and it’s true when he forces himself to put on his Invisibility Cloak, walk through the castle that has become a tomb, and make his way toward the Forbidden Forest and his own demise.
He doesn’t allow himself to say goodbye to Ron and Hermione, worried that the resolve propelling his march to sacrifice would crumble under the force of their love. But he cloaks himself in companionship of another sort: Turning the Resurrection Stone three times, he calls forth the forms of his mother and father, of Sirius, of Lupin. He gives voice to his fear: "Does it hurt?" he asks them. "Dying?" Sirius replies. "Not at all. Quicker and easier than falling asleep."
But it hurts to read this passage, even all these years later — not due to the prospect of losing Harry, but due to everything that this moment, this choice, represents. "It was not, after all, so easy to die," Harry realizes as he fights to control his own trembling. But it’s easier than never having found a reason to live. Each step of Harry’s forest walk is weighed down with the heaviness of resignation, the haunting gravity of a final farewell, but also buoyed by the peculiar sort of peace that only purpose can provide. It’s achingly beautiful and deeply sad, and in a story that features as many emotions as there are pockets in Hagrid’s moleskin overcoat, it is a signature achievement. It is the magic of humanity.
"The Prince’s Tale"
Zach Kram: "The Prince’s Tale," Deathly Hallows’s 33rd chapter, is a writing masterpiece independent of its connection to the rest of the series. Young versions of Snape, Lily, and Petunia form with defined personality and motivation in mere sentences; relationships blossom and wither over the course of a concisely illustrated arc; the memory vignettes build atop one another with a clear exposition, climax, and emotional denouement.
But of course, "The Prince’s Tale" is not disconnected from the rest of the series. It solves perhaps the books’ greatest mystery and gives a richly complex character the firm definition around which he’d skirted for the previous six and a half books. The one-line callbacks to previous events — "Keep an eye on Quirrell, won’t you?", Fleur and Roger post–Yule Ball — ground the memories Harry observes in familiar territory, while the new revelations pack a fierce emotive punch. In the most compelling scene, Dumbledore displays shades of cruelty while Snape counters with a gentle, sympathetic approach — a twist that still tracks from a narrative perspective. Rowling plays every note perfectly, and any reader can’t help but cry.
Harry Gets Sorted
Michael Baumann: Imagine that you’re 11 years old and it’s your first day at a boarding school where nobody knows you, and 30 days ago a giant burst through your door to tell you that magic is real, and your dead parents were wizards, and all proper nouns sound like something concocted by an extremely laudanumed-up Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and most importantly, that you’re Luke Skywalker. Now imagine that you’ve been plopped down in front of hundreds of strangers, and they’ve placed a talking hat on your head that has the power to dictate the course of your life, but unbeknownst to you, you have the power to influence the hat (I’ll say it again, "the power to influence the hat"), raising powerful questions about determinism.
Now imagine reading all that in a time before all your bourgeois, high-achieving, graduate-degree-having, brunch-consuming, 30-something friends earnestly and tenaciously held onto "I’m a Ravenclaw" as an essential part of their sense of self. Those were simpler times, in which we had such a great capacity for wonder.
When Harry Met Hagrid
Ben Lindbergh: "Someone was outside, knocking to come in."
That sentence sets up the scene that sucked me into the series. Marooned on an island too remote even for magical mail as the clock counts down to another noncelebratory birthday, Harry is rescued by a tea-drinking giant who breaks down (and politely replaces) the door, disarms Uncle Vernon, and lights a roaring fire where one previously couldn’t be kindled. In addition to dispensing some much-needed exposition about magic, Muggles, and You-Know-Who — and, with one "Yer a wizard," uttering one of the series’ most endlessly imitated lines — Hagrid demonstrates the series’ escapist appeal.
Who wouldn’t want that late-night knock? The one that would tell us that we’re world-famous; that we have a heroic origin story; that we get to go to Hogwarts instead of Stonewall High; that our Dursleys don’t have to hold us back. Much as we might pretend to be, Rowling’s readers aren’t wizards, and many of us will never have a Hagrid who shows up when we’re down. But we do have Harry Potter to pull us out of our personal Privet Drives, freeing us for a few thousand pages before fitting the door to our mundane, un-Rowling reality back into its frame.
Harry’s Office-Destroying Angst
Alison Herman: One of the joys of growing up reading Harry Potter was watching Harry grow up along with you. First hobby, first pet, first love; for readers of a certain age, Harry hit those same milestones at nearly the same pace we did. But adolescence includes as many lows as highs, and teen hormones come with a nasty helping of teen angst. Order of the Phoenix marked a definitive turning point in the franchise toward something moodier and darker, reflected through Harry’s torn, skeptical mind-set throughout the book. Everything culminates, of course, in Harry taking out his grief (about the death of his godfather) and confusion (about his entire life) on Dumbledore’s doubtless expensive and hard-to-acquire office equipment. The scene is ridiculous, overwrought, and painfully relatable; it’s every YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND ME, DAD!!!!!! argument you’ve ever had condensed into one shouting match and amped up with magical powers. Some will doubtless remember Harry’s rage with a cringe. I’d like to think I’ve grown up enough to look back on Harry’s, and my, poorly regulated emotional life with some fondness.
Snape Kills Dumbledore (and Launches a Web of Spoilers)
Victor Luckerson: The moment itself was tectonic enough: During the climactic battle of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Harry’s loathed Defense Against the Dark Arts (née Potions) professor Severus Snape casts the killing curse on Harry’s mentor/moral anchor/father figure Albus Dumbledore. Do you remember what it felt like to read this? Do you remember throwing a 652-page book across your living room, running around your house screaming, and parkouring off of various walls and furniture in an attempt to calm yourself down? (I mean, that’s what I did, at least.)
But as much as "Snape kills Dumbledore" was a moment of despair, it was also, in retrospect, a moment of victory, because anyone who managed to actually be shocked by this plot twist avoided the most virulent weaponized spoiler the internet has ever produced.
"Snape Kills Dumbledore" was a meme of the most spiteful sort before memes really had a name. It was a viral spoiler lurking on video game forums, website comment sections, and cruel YTMND image macros. One troll even went so far as to crash a Half-Blood Prince release party and bring small children to tears with the three-word, anticipation-shattering revelation. To be on the internet in July 2005 was to know that something nuts happened in Half-Blood Prince and to pray that you wouldn’t inadvertently stumble upon the fact before reading it. Dumbledore’s death was a gut punch, but only the most careful of web dwellers were able to feel its full force. I’m glad I was one of them.
Harry Discovers the Mirror of Erised
Megan Schuster: Harry Potter visits the Mirror of Erised twice in The Sorcerer’s Stone before he gets an explanation of what it really is. He discovers it alone — after ducking into a seemingly abandoned classroom to avoid Filch — and then he drags Ron along on his next excursion, eager to show his friend what he’s found. By Harry’s third visit, Albus Dumbledore is waiting for him. Dumbledore asks Harry if he knows what the mirror does, and upon seeing Harry’s confusion, he explains that the mirror "shows us nothing more or less than the deepest, most desperate desire of our hearts." Read backward, the inscription on the mirror states: "I show not your face but your heart’s desire."
That explanation makes Harry’s vision all the more beautiful, and all the more heartbreaking. When Harry stares into the mirror, he sees the parents he hasn’t known since he was a baby reflected back at him, smiling, flanking him on either side.
The Mirror of Erised is, essentially, a judge of character. It isn’t fooled by cheap tricks or passing fads — it strips people down to their most basic selves. J.K. Rowling has said that if Lord Voldemort stared into the mirror, he would see "himself, all-powerful and eternal." Ron looks at it and sees himself as a Quidditch captain and head boy — finally moving out of the shadow cast by his older brothers. Harry just wants his mom and dad. It’s one of the purest images we get in the series, and it sets an early tone for the ideals we expect Harry to uphold for the remainder of the books. Even his deepest desires are the antithesis of Voldemort’s: good vs. evil; selflessness vs. power; family vs. isolation.
Shopping in Diagon Alley
Kate Knibbs: As a middle schooler discovering Harry Potter, I cherished the scenes in Diagon Alley where Harry, flush with magical orphan gold, has his pick of the finest broomsticks, robes, and assorted wizard paraphernalia. Going on a school-supply shopping spree with unlimited funds in an enchanted British alley sounded like heaven, and the gulf between my reality (rifling through college-ruled notebooks) and the "barrels of bat spleens and eels’ eyes, tottering piles of spell books, quills, and rolls of parchment, potion bottles, globes of the moon" that Harry encounters sums up the wish-fulfilling appeal of the franchise, which offers a more exciting, dangerous parallel school life tucked just beyond Muggle sight.
Professor Trelawney’s Prediction
Alyssa Bereznak: As far as Seers go, Professor Trelawney is kind of a bullshit artist. Despite being the great-granddaughter of Cassandra Trelawney — a witch who was famous for her sharp vision into the future — Sybill seemingly possesses no natural divination skills that allow her to do the same. For most of the Potter series, she leans on her whimsical, boho 1970s outfits and oversized glasses to convince people she’s magical. But despite all of her false warnings about student deaths, redheaded men, and the school-wide spread of the flu, Trelawney was always able to step it up and spit some truths when it mattered most.
The first time it happened was during a job interview with Dumbledore that she needed to ace. As the story goes, our intuitive master wizard smelled a fake. But just as he was about to wrap things up, she conveniently slipped into a trance, predicted that the chosen one would rise and defeat Voldemort, and landed a cushy teacher job. Nice save!
Then, in the third book, she does it again, this time to Harry in the Divination classroom. Out of nowhere, she adopts a demon-possessed demeanor and warns that: "The Dark Lord will rise again with his servant’s aid, greater and more terrible than he ever was." Despite being creepy, it’s a helpful heads up for the dude who will later need to defeat Voldemort. When you think about it, the talentless Professor Trelawney kind of predicts the arc of the whole book series without even remembering that she does so. When Harry later tells her about her prophecy, she derides the notion of Voldemort’s return as "far-fetched."
Alfonso Cuarón’s Freeze Frame
Andrew Gruttadaro: After Chris Columbus (the Home Alone movies director) helmed Sorcerer’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets, Alfonso Cuarón (who’d go on to win Oscars for directing Gravity) came in and flipped the HP universe on its head. In a good way — Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is the best movie in the series, don’t @ me. But Cuarón showed no concern for maintaining continuity within the series, instilling a darker color palette that David Yates would adopt in the later films and straight-up changing the geography and structures of Hogwarts — moving the location of Hagrid’s hut and adding a clock tower to the school (because time is such an important theme in Azkaban). All respect to Columbus — his first two films are admirable kiddie flicks — but Cuarón is responsible for ushering Harry Potter into adolescence and showing how the series could be injected with auteurist flares.
My favorite of those is the ending shot of The Prisoner of Azkaban. The denouement of HP movies are always a magical time, a brief spell of relaxation and fun in between Harry conquering one challenge and moving on to the next. In Azkaban’s closing scene, after Harry has saved his godparent Sirius Black from false imprisonment, he receives a package. His friends have already opened it for him (which, rude), and it’s a Firebolt, the fastest broom in the world, a gift from Sirius. Of course Harry is going to blast off into the clouds on his awesome new toy, and that’s exactly how the movie ends: With Harry on his Firebolt. Screaming like a madman. Right before a freeze frame.
Of all of Cuarón’s quirks, this closing shot is the quirkiest. Just look at it. On an almost-daily basis, I vacillate between loving and hating this directorial choice, which manages to elicit as much joy as it does head-scratching confoundment. Above all, though, it perfectly encapsulates the line between childlike high jinks and "No, people are actually going to die" seriousness that Harry Potter — the character and the series — is toeing at the end of Azkaban. It may not be the "best" moment from these movies, but to me at least, it’s the most memorable.
Hermione’s Emotional Intelligence
Hannah Giorgis: In Order of the Phoenix, the ever-awkward Harry finally gets to kiss longtime crush Cho Chang. The moment is fraught with emotion, and Cho cries over Harry afterward. Her reaction is perplexing to 15-year-old Harry, despite the complicated nature of the relationship between the two (hello, does anyone remember Cedric Diggory?!). The kiss itself is memorable, sure, but it’s the scene immediately afterward that’s far more important to the HP canon: As Harry and Ron fret over the seeming incongruity of Cho’s responses to Harry’s affections, Hermione snaps the two of them out of it.
Hermione is often praised for her braininess; her depth of magical knowledge gets the three friends out of trouble — and, you know, death — untold times throughout the series. It’s perhaps her most defining trait, the thing longtime readers and casual fans both remember about her long after the series’ (first) ending. But this moment was a reminder that it’s not just her book smarts that distinguish Hermione from the lovable and sometimes useless schmucks she calls her friends. Hermione’s emotional intelligence is just as important as her ability to memorize spells, and it saves them all more times than Harry and Ron will ever know.
The Yule Ball
Nicole Bae: Goblet of Fire is both my favorite book and movie in the series because (1) I love a good tourney, (2) the crew attends their first Yule Ball, and (3) I still can’t believe that Robert Pattinson played Cedric Diggory.
Let’s talk about the ball, though. It’s this decked-out holiday party where Harry presumably dances with a girl for the first time, and it’s a wholesome moment.
But most important is Ron seething with jealously when he sees Hermione — jaw-droppingly dolled up and with normal-sized teeth! — with the stoic Viktor Krum. (Hermione’s a smart girl, keeping Ron on his toes.) During the ball everyone is having fun, with the stresses of the Triwizard Tournament occupying only the edges of their minds. For a while everyone was happy — everyone except Ron and Padma. Petty, petty Ron.
George Weasley’s Verbal Caffeine
Shaker Samman: The best part of Harry Potter is the ultimate fight between good and evil. But the second best part of Harry Potter is the underlying adolescent hormones that drive tension in otherwise boring scenes. Harry and Ron are dressed like clowns? Hermione shows up wearing a gown that leaves them floored. The weird rivalry/non-rivalry between Harry and Cedric Diggory isn’t spicy enough? Here’s Cho Chang for them to moodily pine after. The Harry Potter franchise is the quintessential pubescent teenager series. It’s only right that we talk about the one-liner that sets off its angstiest moment.
It’s morning at the Burrow, and the Weasleys and Weasley-adjacent are preparing for Bill and Fleur’s wedding. In the kitchen, Ginny asks a noticeably broody Harry to zip up her dress. They turn — tension building — and kiss with as much tongue as a PG-13 movie allows (not much). Unbeknownst to them, during their snog-fest, George sneaks down and finds himself a cup of tea. He shifts it just loud enough to break their affair, and drops the most quotable mood killer known to the British Isles.
"Avada kedavra" kills people. George Weasley kills moments.
Harry’s Prefects’ Bathroom Swim
Charlotte Goddu: Harry Potter ruined bathrooms for me. The books more generally made my life feel dull and insufficient (I was wandless; my school was not a castle, and its course offerings included neither Potions nor Divination). In time, that perceived lack mostly dulled … save an acute awareness of the imperfection of every bathroom I’ve ever seen, thanks to one particular scene of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.
Harry heads to the prefects’ bathroom at the urging of Cedric Diggory in order to try to crack the code of a golden egg that screeches every time he opens it up. This scene is narratively relevant, I guess; Harry dunks the egg in the bathtub, and, when he dives underwater with it, the screeching transforms into mellifluous instructions on his next Triwizard Tournament task. But when I read it I barely paid attention to the plot. I was too busy envisioning the lavish bathroom Rowling described: a hundred golden taps that spat out an array of magical bubbles! A bathtub so big you could swim in it! A candle-filled chandelier — imagine the lighting! It was a description so detailed and so convinced of its own reality that it made me believe I would one day float in a prefects’ bathtub — a fantasy that’s ebbed and flowed over the years, becoming particularly transfixing my first year of college as, shower-shoe-clad, I toted my toiletries daily to a communal bathroom opposite the one Rowling described. I’m still waiting.
"Not My Daughter, You Bitch!"
Danny Heifetz: There are more than 1 million words in the Harry Potter series. Only one is a swear word. It comes at the climax of the story, in all caps, from the closest mother figure Harry has, Mrs. Weasley. You know where we’re going, but let me set the scene anyway. The Battle of Hogwarts has reached a scorched-earth crescendo in the Great Hall. Lupin and Tonks are dead, leaving their 2-week-old son an orphan. Fred Weasley has just been killed in an explosion. Our beloved matriarch Molly, who has for so long tried and failed to shield her children and their friends from danger, witnesses Bellatrix Lestrange trying to kill Ginny. At this sight, Mrs. Weasley casts off her cloak (metaphors!), and unleashes the strongest curse in the Harry Potter universe.
"NOT MY DAUGHTER, YOU BITCH!"
If the magic of Harry Potter is growing up with the books, then hearing Bellatrix Lestrange called "BITCH!" at the climax of the series was my rite of passage that cursing, like other things you begin to learn about at 12 years old, is most satisfying when gratification is delayed. Mrs. Weasley promptly kills Bellatrix with a spell to the heart, which both foreshadows and triggers Harry and Voldemort’s showdown by not-so-subtly reinforcing the grand theme of the series: Love can defeat evil, there is no love like a mother’s love, and there’s no swear like a swear a decade in the making.
The Quidditch World Cup
Jordan Coley: The fun of Harry Potter is that through the fantastic adventures/misadventures of this small, scarred British boy we — the distinctly unmagical masses — are able to experience a world where tragedy and adversity can be overcome in fantastical, even transcendent ways. This is a world where in order to catch the train you must first literally run through a brick wall. This is a place where a weakened Dark Lord can take refuge on the back of a professor’s turban-covered domepiece. A place where — if you a play a game of chess with giant, semi-animate, stone pieces — you can stop said Dark Lord from gaining enough power to escape said domepiece.
In Harry Potter, the weird, terrific, and unimaginable happens regularly. It’s what I love about it, what we all love about it. It’s also what makes moments like the one that comes at the beginning of the fourth book, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, all the more ridiculous and precious. Harry is attending the Quidditch World Cup with Hermione and an assortment of the Weasley progeny. They’ve just arrived and are walking to where camp has been set up for them on the grounds. When they reach their destination, Mr. Weasley gestures to a rather small and ragged-looking tent and says, "Home sweet home!" Harry watches in utter bemusement as Mr. Weasley, Fred, George, Ron, Ginny, and Hermione all pile into the tiny space. A perplexed "What?" is all Harry can muster. He recovers from his astonishment long enough to follow them inside. There, he discovers that the tent’s humble-looking exterior belies an imperceptibly large dwelling space (that is reminiscent of a Pier 1 Imports living room display) hiding within. Harry is floored. Mouth agape, specs a glint, he blurts, "I love magic." This guy’s first car was a giant bird, yet he’s losing his shit over a larger-than-expected room. Ridiculous, I know … but also kind of cute!
These "Woah! Magic! Cool!" moments are what give the series its enduring charm. They’re welcome diversions from what is the rather macabre tale of an orphan stumbling through his teen years while trying to not get murdered by an evil serpent-man. A story like that needs some rogue chocolate-frog action. It needs a car with an unusually powerful motor. It needs a little-big tent.