In a weekly series, staff writer Katie Majka takes a look at some of our favorite witches and wizards, and how they fit into literary and social archetypes. This week: Neville Longbottom
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The label of “conqueror” may not immediately inspire visions of a round-faced, clumsy boy who means well but can never seem to live up to what he thinks he should be, and yet Neville Longbottom’s entire character arc is accomplished by his conquests—he overcomes fear, grief, others’ suppositions of his abilities, and his own self-doubt.
When we first meet Neville in Sorcerer’s Stone, he is the picture of ineptitude, but his backstory proves that he’s been exceeding expectations from the start. As he explains to the other Gryffindor first-years:
“[T]he family thought I was all Muggle for ages. My great-uncle Algie kept trying to catch me off my guard and force some magic out of me—he pushed me off the end of Blackpool pier once, I nearly drowned—but nothing happened until I was eight. Great-uncle Algie came round for tea and he was hanging me out of an upstairs window by the ankles when my great-auntie Enid offered him a meringue and he accidentally let go. But I bounced—all the way down the garden and into the road. They were all really pleased. Gran was crying, she was so happy. And you should have seen their faces when I got in here—they thought I might not be magical enough to come, you see.”
Magical as he turns out to be, Neville continues to meet obstacles during his time at Hogwarts, usually at the hands of bullies like Malfoy and Snape. But little by little he comes to assert himself when there is more at stake than himself alone, and comes to learn that his self-worth is just as important as beating the bad guys. Although it takes years to stick, Neville begins this journey at the tender age of eleven when he stands up to Harry, Ron, and Hermione, under the impression that they’re going out to cause more trouble:
“Neville,” Ron exploded, “get away from that hole and don’t be an idiot—”
“Don’t you call me an idiot!” said Neville. “I don’t think you should be breaking any more rules! And you were the ones who told me to stand up to people!”
Dumbledore is right when he says that it takes more courage to stand up to our friends than to our enemies. We don’t generally concern ourselves with what our enemies think, but we want our friends to think the best of us, we want to be likeable in the eyes of those we like in turn, and Neville is hard-pressed to find friends when people prefer to snigger behind his back. But Neville won’t put up a front to make people like him, and that’s admirable at any age.
As the series goes on, we see Neville grow to become the man who would openly defy Voldemort (to his face, no less) and slice the head off his favorite pet. But Neville conquers more than this in his day-to-day life, as we find out in Prisoner of Azkaban that despite all the things this timid boy probably fears, it’s Snape that he fears above all else. Facing the man every day is akin to tossing Ron into a spider’s nest, to Harry battling a horde of dementors on his own, to Hermione failing at everything she works so hard to accomplish, and yet Neville never skips class, nor does he ever complain to another authority figure. He endures Snape’s public humiliation and takes the blame for his own underperformance, even though a more patient, competent teacher would have put Neville at ease instead of threatening to poison his toad should he fail the day’s assignment (POA). Snape continually shatters Neville’s resolve, but Neville keeps at it because he has to.
McGonagall herself tells Neville that “There’s nothing wrong with your work except lack of confidence,” and that is undeniably true, as we later see in his success in Dumbledore’s Army. Until then, Neville remains unconfident and relatively soft-spoken, but asserts himself when he can. He did, after all, take on a fistfight with Crabbe and Goyle in their first year, so it can’t be said that Neville chooses to go home when he could go big.
Neville’s transformation perhaps truly begins during his stint in the D.A. in Order of the Phoenix. Like the vast majority of the Wizarding population, Neville has been in awe of Harry since he heard his story, and now he’s being taught by the Boy Who Lived, who has faced Voldemort and lived to tell the tale—much like Neville’s own parents, who defied Voldemort three times before Bellatrix Lestrange hunted them down and tortured them into insanity.
While we don’t know anything of Neville’s parents aside from the fact that due to their immense talent and moral code, Frank was an Auror and both he and Alice were in the original Order, I think Neville looked to Harry as a sort of parental figure in their stead. Not in the traditional sense, or in the way Harry himself looked to people like Sirius and Dumbledore, but Harry fought against the same regime Frank and Alice did and to which they eventually lost their sanity. Harry conquered the Dark Lord, but dark forces continue to thrive, and Neville is determined to throw his wand into the ring and fight those who took his parents away from him. This is especially relevant in OOTP after the mass breakout from Azkaban, after which the D.A. is spurred to even more fierce action:
“[B]ut in nobody was this improvement more pronounced than in Neville. The news of his parents’ attacker’s escape had wrought a strange and even slightly alarming change in him…. [I]n fact, he barely spoke during D.A. meetings anymore, but worked relentlessly on every new jinx and countercurse Harry taught them, his plump face screwed up in concentration, apparently indifferent to injuries or accidents, working harder than anyone else in the room. He was improving so fast it was unnerving and when Harry taught them the Shield Charm, a means of deflecting minor jinxes so that they rebounded upon the attacker, only Hermione mastered the charm faster than Neville.”
Faced with the chance to avenge his parents, to become the man his grandmother always insists he should be, the man he aspires to be now that it will mean something, Neville is untouchable. His success at the Shield Charm is indicative of Neville’s protective nature, of how he would rather one-up his enemies not by attacking them, but by thwarting their attacks against him and his fellows. He is not blinded by fantasies of glory, but takes this challenge seriously, as he tells Harry before they head to the Ministry to save Sirius: “We were all in the D.A. together…. It was all supposed to be about fighting You-Know-Who, wasn’t it? And this is the first chance we’ve had to do something real—or was that all just a game or something?”
Mere hours later, when faced with Bellatrix’s threat that she’ll do to him what she did to his parents, Neville still demands that Harry not give up the prophecy. Neville doesn’t even know what it is or what power it holds, but he won’t give the Death Eaters what they came for; as far as Neville is concerned, the issue’s not up for debate. Like his parents, he will not bend to the Death Eaters’ will, but rather faces their torturer and refuses to give in to her.
Had Voldemort deemed him the enemy of which the prophecy foretold, Neville would have been the Chosen One. He would have had what we now know as Harry’s story, his destiny, but Neville creates a path of his own. He steps up to take the Chosen One’s reins during Harry’s absence from their seventh year at Hogwarts, without any regard to his predetermined fate because he doesn’t have one—he headlines the revolution solely because they need a leader. Harry rallied them together in their fifth year, when the Ministry’s hold on Hogwarts was threatening and dangerous, and now that that threat has multiplied tenfold under the Death Eaters’ control, Neville takes that inspiration that Harry instilled in him and recreates it for his peers. The Wizarding world never deemed Neville their symbol of hope, but that’s what he becomes in the face of the Death Eaters’ brutal command in Hogwarts, just as Harry does outside of it.
To conquer is to overcome that which would stop you. No matter how often Neville is knocked down, no matter who it is—his doubtful family and unsatisfied grandmother; his teachers, both exasperated and cruel; his friends and bullies alike; or the most powerfully Dark wizard and his not-so-hot punk rock band—Neville gets back up and keeps fighting. Time and again, Neville rises to whatever occasion would dare to challenge him.
In OOTP, he tells Luna upon their introduction, “I’m nobody,” and while he believes that for a time, he comes to conquer that self-doubt, perhaps his most prominent adversary. He becomes a man he’s proud of, and whether his victory was that extra ten points that won Gryffindor the House Cup or the destruction of Voldemort’s final Horcrux, he’s the man for whom we all stood up and cheered.
Be sure to check out our other Harry Potter and the Order of Archetypes installments.