The Literary Art of Drunken Secret-Telling

Two years ago, I reread the entire Harry Potter series from start to finish over the course of about a month. This was a reread for comfort: I’d already read and listened to the series at least half a dozen times. It had been a few years, though—a rough few years—and I wanted to return to a fondly-remembered favorite series. I started reading, and almost immediately, I noticed something that had never struck me before.

Hagrid has a drinking problem.

This can be easy to miss if you’ve never assessed yourself or someone else for problematic drinking patterns. It’s perhaps most evident in book one, where Hagrid is a very prominent figure in young Harry Potter’s Hogwarts-onboarding experience. Whenever Hagrid exposes Harry to some new and exciting part of the wizarding world the boy is poised to join, he drinks. He has a flask handy when he hand-delivers Harry’s invitation to Hogwarts, and asks Uncle Vernon if there’s anything stronger than tea available. At Diagon Alley, he leaves Harry to get fitted for school robes, heading over to the Leaky Cauldron for a pick-me-up. As the first-year students sing the school song for the first time at the welcome feast, Hagrid drains his goblet.

Rowling’s portrayal of Hagrid is, upon a reread of the series, incredibly poignant. This is a man who has never felt he fit in, who was cast out of a world he hoped to join and who was forbidden from accessing magic or learning alongside his peers as the result of a juvenile mistake and misunderstanding. Although Hagrid is still allowed to be a part of the world of wizards, he’s an outcast—and he watches, every year, as children young enough to be his sons and daughters surpass his magical knowledge. While he loves their wonder and discovery, it still hurts to watch. In those moments, he drinks.

Hagrid’s consumption of alcohol gets him into trouble so often, it’s a reliable character trait. The films turned him into a relatively sober buffoon—a man who says “I shouldn’t have told you that” frequently enough that one can tell it was intended to be a catchphrase. [Editor’s note: Sigh.]

But the books’ version of Hagrid is something a bit sadder. He’s not just loose-lipped, not just forgetful. He’s lonely, and desperate for someone who will listen to him as a friend would. He drinks, and the friends he makes while he’s drunk turn into the people who understand him, the people he can trust. And when you trust someone, you tell them things, right? Anyone who has gone through a phase of problematic drinking will understand this, and many who have spent their lives stone-cold sober will too. Most of us have been on one side of drunken secret-telling or the other. Hagrid’s problem is that he’s always on the side that tells, and he’s almost never talking to someone who is listening for friendly reasons.

Hagrid isn’t the only sodden character to whom many of us can relate. Adult protagonists frequently turn to the bottle to help them cope with emotional realities too hard to face. Consider the Private Investigator with his drawer full of whiskey bottles, or the stay-at-home mother who pours herself two glasses of wine with lunch. Consider the pub where all the protagonists order a bourbon, neat, and then another, and then another, before stumbling off with an arm looped over the shoulder of a conveniently-nearby friend. Consider the many binges you’ve read—the unexamined benders that end with a headache and a dry mouth and maybe a few regrets. Consider the weight of the emotions characters are feeling, and how frequently they cope with their struggles by heading to a sticky, dimly-lit bar and staying until they’re forced to stagger home, alone, with the weight of their pain trailing along behind them.

Why is this such a theme? Perhaps it’s because we as writers have a hard time writing about certain emotions. When things hit too close to home, it can be easiest to tell a character to head to the bar and tie one on, and let things solve themselves in the next chapter. It puts a soft lens on hard emotions; instead of writing about those emotions, I get to write about being drunk. It puts a layer of remove between the prose and the experience, like alcohol puts a layer of remove between a person and their feelings.

Or perhaps we writers get our characters tipsy because it reflects our lived experiences. After all, many turn to substances to help get through hard times. About thirty percent of Americans reportedly struggle with alcohol abuse at some point during their lives, and using booze to cope with emotional struggles is a major risk factor for abuse. Or maybe it’s all one big homage to Hemingway?

Whatever the reason, one thing is evident: Hagrid isn’t alone in relying on alcohol to get him through the day, and he’s not the only character whose problematic relationship to booze can help readers identify his struggles. In the next book you read, take a close look at what emotions the protagonist is hiding from when they drink, and ask yourself: what is it this character can’t deal with sober? Before you judge them for going on a bender, ask yourself: would I deal with it any better?

If you or someone you love is struggling with substance abuse, SAMHSA’s National Helpline is a free, confidential, 24/7, 365-day-a-year treatment referral and information service (in English and Spanish) for individuals and families facing mental and/or substance use disorders.

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