Beware! This article contains spoilers for the entire Harry Potter series, so we wouldn’t advise reading it until you’ve read all seven books...
What does Harry see in the Mirror of Erised? Unlike his friend Ron, he doesn’t see a successful future, but an unreachable past. In the mirror, Harry encounters the Potter family for the first time in his life. Most prominently he sees his mother and father smiling down at him and it is this that is ‘nothing more or less than the deepest, most desperate desire’ of young Harry’s heart.
This fundamental part of Harry Potter – this longing for a real family – reveals a lot about his experiences up until this point. Though, as readers, we’ve met the Dursleys, perhaps we don’t truly understand the extent of what they haven’t given Harry until he stands in front of the mirror. He’s never seen a photograph of a single member of his family before – not even his parents’ faces. Their smiles remind us how Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon have treated him with utter contempt and pure dislike. The juxtaposition between the family Harry wishes he has, and the one he ended up with in Privet Drive is stark, and shines a light on the lonely and loveless childhood Harry has endured before arriving at Hogwarts. Harry has never pined for material things – he was never going to get them living with the Dursleys anyway – what he wants, most desperately, is a family that loves him. Something that his aunt, uncle and cousin could have given him, but chose not to.
We also see this desire for family reflected in Harry’s actions in the future. Once Harry finds out the truth about Sirius Black – particularly that he was his godfather and his father’s friend – he can do nothing wrong in Harry’s eyes. The affection between them is almost instantaneous, and by the summer holidays after Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, it is Sirius that Harry chooses to write to about his scar hurting, rather than Ron or Hermione. And when Harry loses Sirius… the renewed grief is unbearable. The importance of family to Harry is also perhaps why he loves his summers at the Burrow so much. Molly and Arthur love Harry like a son – indeed when Sirius reminds Molly during an argument that Harry is not, in fact, one of her own, she replies: 'He’s as good as’. No doubt Harry feels a closeness to Mr and Mrs Weasley that fills the family-shaped hole that the vision in the Mirror of Erised revealed.
After Harry first discovers the mirror in Chapter Twelve of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s/Sorcerer’s Stone, he becomes obsessed with going back to it night after night. And this obsession – though we can hardly blame him for wanting to spend time with the family he never knew – becomes all-consuming. He won’t play chess; he won’t visit Hagrid; and he certainly won’t listen to Ron trying to stop him getting back in front of the mirror. This early sign that Harry is prone to obsessive behaviour is important to note.
As Harry gets older this part of his nature shows itself time and time again – with varying consequences. His hunches, which often turn into obsessions, can be vital in the fight against Lord Voldemort, but can also be a hinderance. In Philosopher’s Stone itself, Harry is preoccupied with the idea that it is Snape who is trying to steal the stone, which leads to a kind of blindness only being face to face with the truth can dispel. In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, he becomes fixated with finding out about Riddle’s diary: ‘even though he knew the diary was blank, he kept absent-mindedly picking it up and turning the pages, as though it was a story he wanted to finish’. In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the door to the Department of Mysteries haunts his dreams over and over again. In Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, his obsession with Draco Malfoy means that his friends are protected with Felix Felicis the night Draco finally succeeds in his plan. But it also alienates Harry from his friends for much of the school year and leaves him brooding and pawing over the Marauder’s Map alone.
Harry’s episode with the Mirror of Erised also reveals a tendency to seek out solitude. This is the first time Harry pushes Ron – his best friend – away. He finds the mirror alone because he wants to adventure wearing his father’s cloak on his own. Harry sometimes finds it difficult to share or even express the burdens he feels – the burdens that come with being orphaned by Lord Voldemort. When he is determined to save the Philosopher’s Stone, Harry initially assumes he’s going alone. And still, even after six years of adventures together, Harry tries to separate himself from Ron and Hermione when it comes to hunting down Horcruxes: ‘No –’ said Harry quickly; he had not counted on this, he had meant them to understand that he was undertaking this most dangerous journey alone’. Luckily Ron and Hermione know him well enough by this point that they understand – and then as good friends often do – tell him he’s being ridiculous.
The final and most important aspect of Harry’s character that his second encounter with the Mirror of Erised tells us, is that he lacks a thirst for power. Faced with his reflection with the Philosopher’s Stone, it enters his pocket – as Dumbledore tells us – because he ‘wanted to find the Stone – find it, but not use it’.
It is, we are led to believe, a rare witch or wizard who could ignore the powerful attraction of the Elixir of Life. And this part of Harry plays an enormously important role in his eventual vanquishing of Lord Voldemort. Harry unites the Deathly Hallows but not so as to use them – no – but to defeat one of the darkest wizards of all time. And when he’s done, what does he do? He ends the cycle. He puts the Elder Wand to rest. ‘Maybe a man in a million could unite the Hallows, Harry’, Dumbledore tells him. Perhaps that is what the Mirror of Erised tells us about the Boy Who Lived – he is one unique wizard with a Gryffindor heart of gold.
And remember you can watch Matthew Lewis, Helen Howard and Imelda Staunton reading Chapter Twelve of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, where you can revisit Harry’s first encounter with the Mirror of Erised here.