My family recently finished watching through the Harry Potter movie series, and I thought I’d write a bit about my favorite character in the story, Luna Lovegood.  As far as I’m concerned, Luna steals every scene she’s in.

In case you’re not familiar with the series, Luna Lovegood is a wizarding student attending Hogwarts one year behind Harry Potter’s class.  She isn’t introduced until the fifth story in the series, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.  It’s not difficult to believe that we never saw her before year 5, though, because she mostly keeps to herself, and no one wants to talk to her because she seems very strange.

Luna’s mother died when she was nine, and her father, Xenophilius (literally “lover of strangers/strange things”), is the editor of a paper called the Daily Quibbler, which is the magical equivalent of those tabloids they used to have in supermarket checkouts with front-page stories about Bigfoot being kidnapped by flying saucers.

No one takes such things seriously, except apparently Luna, who is always talking about magical creatures that no one (not even wizards!) has ever heard of and making other observations that seem to come from nowhere.  She tends to speak in a soft monotone and stare with a distant, almost expressionless gaze.

Luna (Evanna Lynch) introduces Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) to a thestral.

Does it surprise you when I say that a lot of Harry Potter fans with Asperger’s syndrome or autism can see a bit of themselves in Luna?  She is often mentioned in discussions online about fictional characters who may be “Aspies.”

Such discussions almost always become quite tricky.  Even moreso than with a real person, a fictional character is shaped by the reader’s own perspective– he or she originally exists in the author’s imagination, but then each reader’s imagination “fills in the blanks” in its own way when picturing a character.

J.K. Rowling did not explicitly write the character of Luna Lovegood as a person with Asperger’s.  But because she is a good writer, she created a character with a distinct personality that is also familiar in many ways.  It’s an interesting balance– Luna seems like someone you might meet in real life, in large part because she is entirely different from any specific person– just as every individual is unique.  (I told you it was tricky.)

The nature of Asperger’s syndrome itself makes the prospect of “diagnosing” a fictional character even more nebulous.  Asperger’s itself is just a label for a set of traits that are often observed together– actually, not unlike a story.  It defines a rather blurry category, but the traits themselves do not describe any person exactly.  Nor does every person with Asperger’s look, think, or behave the same.

All of this is meant to explain that I’m not trying to argue that Luna Lovegood has Asperger’s syndrome.  I think that people in a lot of different situations can identify with her.  What I’m more interested in is describing the aspects of Luna’s personality and behavior in the movies that I identify with as a person with Asperger’s (and perhaps also a fairly quiet/shy person).

“Don’t worry.  You’re just as sane as I am.”
Luna Lovegood’s first scene in the movie is funny while also revealing a lot about her personality.  Harry Potter and his friends Ron, Hermione, and Neville are walking up to the carriage that will take them to school at Hogwarts.  Harry stops to look at the strange beast in front of the carriage, a huge sort of skeletal lizard-bird.  When he mentions it to his friends, they give him weird looks.  “Nothing’s pulling the carriage, Harry.  It’s pulling itself like always.”  Speechless, Harry looks up at the blonde-haired girl sitting in the carriage, reading.

Luna lowers her copy of the Quibbler, which she is holding upside-down.  With a distant look in her eyes, she assures Harry that she can see the creature too, and he is just as sane as she is.  : )

The thing is, one of the reasons Luna is my favorite character is that I find myself identifying more with her point of view than with any other character in the movies, especially when I think back to when I was in school at about the same age.  Her words and actions seem to arise from thought processes that feel very logical and transparent to me.

By comparison, the behavior of the more “normal” students, especially when it comes to their dizzying social dance, seems positively mysterious.  At the same time, seeing other characters’ reactions to Luna helps me to understand why my own behavior might be equally bewildering at times.

It’s clear from the beginning that Luna has a reputation for being a bit odd.  Hermione tries to introduce her to Harry, but is mortified when she misspeaks and calls her “Loony Lovegood,” the name that most of the other students have been using to make fun of her.

Luna doesn’t appear to react to this at all; the expression on her face doesn’t change, and she doesn’t stop participating in the conversation.  One might conclude based on this that she either isn’t aware of the teasing or that she isn’t affected by it at all.

I don’t think that either conclusion is correct, though.  Luna is definitely smart enough to understand when she’s being made fun of.  I think it has more to do with the speed of a conversation and the time it takes to mentally process what is said.

People with autism are sometimes described as spending a lot of time inside our own heads, or as having “rich inner lives.”  I like to think about something and turn it over in my head several times before I decide how to respond.  But conversations tend to flow at a pace that can be hard to keep up with.  By the time I figure out what I want to say, the topic has moved on to something else.

For most people, the signals that show they are listening and interested in a conversation come naturally, maybe even subconsciously– things like posture, facial expressions, eye contact, and vocal inflection.  There’s a constant give-and-take of these nonverbal signals, and something seems wrong if they are missing.  But for an Aspie, using a particular inflection or posture is an action that must be taken deliberately– it takes up part of our conscious attention.

I have gotten better with practice, but the more energy I devote to making my outward actions convincing, the less I have left over to concentrate on what is being said, both by others and by me.  Paradoxically, this can mean that I am actually paying the most attention when I let my face go totally blank and I seem to be the most zoned out.

This is not always a bad thing, particularly in the case of teasing like the example with Luna’s name.  What is it that parents always tell children who are upset about being teased?  “They’re only doing it to get a reaction out of you.  If you just ignore them, they’ll stop.”  I can recall a few times when odd behavior on my part prompted teasing from other children, but it took too long for me to process the fact that they were teasing me for me to respond sharply.  Instead I would just stare in a daze or silently return to what I was doing.  I think I may have bored away some potential bullies without realizing it.

Even if Luna feels hurt by the teasing about her name, she gives the impression that it doesn’t faze her one bit.  Like everything else, it seems to wash over her like so much noise.  Once she has a chance to be by herself and process the conversation, it may affect her greatly.

I think you can see this kind of non-reaction from Luna again during the final battle scene of the movie, when the children risk their lives to try to save a friend of Harry’s from some truly evil people.  There’s a moment when Luna almost collides with one of the band of criminals, and he hits her and knocks her down.  She looks up and casts a defensive spell, and in a shot that lasts barely a second, you can see that the expression on her face is virtually unchanged– it conveys wonder and innocence rather than pain, even though her lip is bleeding.  It’s such a brief moment, but it sticks in my memory.

As usual, I have more thoughts about this topic, but I think I’ll save that for another post.  One of the Harry Potter series’ strongest themes is friendship, and I think Luna’s story shows the difference that having true friends can make in a person’s life.