Neville Longbottom doesn’t have Ron’s loving family, Hermione’s brains and talent, or Harry’s prophecy, lightning bolt scar, money, athleticism or celebrity status. He’s not the center of the story. There will never be a book called Neville Longbottom and the Misplaced Toad. But none of that changes the fact that Neville, the Not-Quite-Chosen One, is the bravest and best hero of the Harry Potter series.
Who’s the cat that won’t cop out when there’s danger all about?
Neville is second fiddle to no one. Oh, and if you haven’t read all the books, stop here. There are spoilers below. Also, bad words.
A while back I read Beowulf for the first time and decided that though I enjoyed the language and the epic epicness of it, I thought that Beowulf himself was pretty much a dick. He had power and might and majesty and beauty but—to paraphrase The Streets—he really is fit but, my gosh, don’t he just know it. Neville is not the opposite of Harry, but he is, in a way, the anti-Beowulf. He’s not innately powerful, nor is he boastful, and no one fears him. Few enough take him seriously at all. He’s clumsy, accident prone, and kind of crap in magic—his grandmother feared he was a squib until he was eight—nor is he particularly witty.
But you know what Neville’s got? Brass ones. He’s consistently brave, even in the face of self-doubt. He tells it like it is. He has a wonderful sense of justice, as is made clear when he tries to stop Harry, Ron and Hermione at the end of book one.
“I won’t let you do it,” he said, hurrying to stand in front of the portrait hole. “I’ll I’ll fight you!”
“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 one who told me to stand up to people!”
“Yes, but not to us,” said Ron in exasperation. “Neville, you don’t know what you’re doing.”
He took a step forward and Neville dropped Trevor the toad, who leapt out of sight.
“Go on then, try and hit me!” said Neville, raising his fists. “I’m ready!”
And then? Hermione petrifies him. But does Neville go, “Well, fuck you, then!”? No. I would have, but he didn’t. He goes to Dumbledore, and if not for that, the trio could have been stuck for a long time. And let’s not forget who took Ginny to the Yule Ball, eh?
It’s due to Neville, incidentally, that I warmed up to Harry as a hero. Early on, I thought Harry was just okay. I enjoyed the story but wasn’t particularly sold on Harry himself. But when Draco bullied Neville, and Harry told Neville, “You’re worth twelve of Malfoy,” Harry went way, way up in my estimation. And of course I cheered when Neville told Draco, “I’m worth twelve of you.” And it’s too generous, really. Draco is far less than 1/12th of Neville.
As far as the reader knows, Neville doesn’t spend anywhere near the time Harry does feeling sorry for himself. No offense to Harry, of course. He’s a hero too, beyond a shadow of a doubt. He faced real pain and loss and responded bravely to peril. But with Harry we know of his pain pretty much from the get-go. We don’t find out about what happened to Neville’s parents until Order of the Phoenix. When we learn about his parents, Neville ceased to be just the goofy klutz; we see a boy who has endured something horrible.
Think of what happened to him. A strange infant defeats Voldemort. Everyone in the wizarding world is celebrating, more or less singing “Ding-dong the Dark Lord’s Dead.” Mr. And Mrs. Bad-Ass Auror, AKA Frank and Alice Longbottom, are out cleaning up the garbage—Voldemort’s various left-over Death Eaters—when four Death Eaters, including Draco’s Aunt Bellatrix, capture and torture the Longbottoms with the Cruciatus Curse. Their minds are just about destroyed. Baby Neville is raised by his stern, unpleasant grandmother while his parents spend the rest of their lives in an institution.
Neville, in other words, has every bit as much a reason to want to destroy Death Eaters, to protect the wizarding world, and all that, as Harry does. And he has just as much reason to get all moody about it, like Harry does so often.
But instead of giving you Emo Neville, the story punches a hole through your heart when Neville visits his parents for the holidays and his mother gives him a chewing gum wrapper for Christmas. And we cry our eyes out, because he keeps the gum wrapper. Of course he does, because he’s lovely and true and he’s Neville Fucking Longbottom and don’t you forget it. (Have I mentioned that J.K. Rowling is particularly talented at making me cry?)
In the movies, Matthew Lewis has done a commendable job playing Neville, but otherwise the screen adaptations have consistently fallen short where this character is concerned. Neville’s value as a character, as a hero, subtly but surely builds as the story goes on, seriously taking off after he learns of Bellatrix Lestrange’s escape from Azkaban. The movies skip almost all of his subtle heroic development.
The movies have one last chance to get it right, though. It’s in the very last book that he is shown to be pure hardcore. While Harry, Ron and Hermione are out horcrux-hunting and sleeping in tents and—in the movie—inexplicably dancing to Nick Cave, Neville is at Hogwarts, straight up running shit for the good guys. At Howarts, it should be remembered, Severus Snape—who bullied Neville for years—had become headmaster. But Neville becomes Guerrilla Generalissimo of the Dumbledarmy and Bad Motherfucker in Residence. He stands up to cruel teachers, helps defeat Fenrir Greyback, tells Voldemort to get bent, holds the sword of Godric Gryffindor at the final battle, and kills Nagini with it.
And if the film messes this up, I will fly to England with the intent to break my foot off in many an ass. Because Neville is worth twelve movies.
Despite being popular, gorgeous, and talented at everything, Jason Henninger identifies with Neville more than a little.