Twenty years after his first appearance, readers (and viewers) are reflecting on Harry Potter. How did a pale, scrawny, magical orphan with a lightning-bolt scar and an unruly mop of black hair rise from the cupboard under the stairs to the top of the bestseller lists, acquiring millions of fans, both child and adult, along the way? Imogen Russell Williams considers.
In 1997, when Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone first came out, I was fifteen. Believing myself long past the age of children’s books, I read only the most grown-up, ostentatiously canonical texts, cracking open Tolstoy on the tube to demonstrate my unimpeachable maturity and the fact that I was probably in college. It wasn’t till years later, as an actual student, that I began to yearn again for the complex, vivid, transporting books of my childhood, and to read newer children’s literature alongside the ancient texts I studied.
The first inklings of Potter fever, however, completely passed me by. Despite the increasing murmurs of excitement and the haul of awards, I took an unreasoning dislike to the boy wizard’s down-to-earth surname, and refused to read any, irritably confident that Jill Murphy had already done all that was necessary by way of magical academies. Then a friend bought me the first book as a Christmas present. I opened it early on the morning of December 25th 2001, and read it, cover to cover, before coming downstairs for breakfast.
I still remember the colossal pleasure of that first reading – the sense of settling into the assured hands of a storyteller and worldbuilder par excellence. The plotting all but snicked together, like magnets meeting metal; the characters were boldly drawn, with the heft of archetypes, inspiring deep loyalty or disgust. I loved the fact that the often tired dead-parents trope was invigorated by grief that dogged the hero’s footsteps, rather than being instantly shunted into a plastic-wrapped past; I loved the never-land nostalgia of four-poster beds, steam trains, and Regency-scale feasts; and I loved the balance of escapist wish-fulfilment and innate magical destiny with painful, personal choice – which House to wish for, which rules to break, which hills to die on. I also loved the horror and cruelty of Voldemort, finding him, despite his magic, a truly satisfying because truly human villain; unscrupulous enough to murder, torture and make use of anything in his quest for power.
As many other commenters have pointed out, the Potter books are far from perfect. There are plot-holes; the Latin of the spells is doggy; the representation of minorities is threadbare and under-researched, and the books become steadily more monumental and sprawling as the series progresses, with more and more adverb-stuffed prose, unwilling to let the reader do their share of work. When Rowling stated in 2007, after the publication of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, that Dumbledore was gay, she was criticised in some quarters for not making this apparent – or even hinting at it – in the series.
But the boy wizard and his pals have had an unprecedented cultural impact in the twenty years since Philosopher’s Stone was published. Rowling could not have dreamed, when she first wrote of Harry Potter that ‘every child in our world will know his name’, how nearly her words would come true. Not just children, either – the thousands of adults who caught the Potter reading bug were wooed with grown-up looking covers to disguise any possible shame. Words like ‘Muggle’, ‘Sorting Hat’ and ‘Hogwarts’ have now entered everyday usage; the series has sold 400 million copies worldwide; the eight original films, seven of which sit comfortably among the 50 highest-grossing films of all time, have made Warner Bros $6.5 billion in profit. What were the secrets of Harry’s success – and what impact did he have on the books that followed him?
The concept of the Hogwarts letter, and especially the Sorting Hat, is surely a perennial draw. Young (and adult) readers struggling to find their real-world niche may well relish the idea of being chosen and ‘sorted’ into an imagined rightful place by an omniscient outside entity – witness the success of Veronica Roth’s Divergent (featuring Factions to which all teenagers must pledge themselves, followed by an interrogation of what happens to those who ‘diverge’). There are innumerable Sorting Hat quizzes on the internet (though Pottermore’s is still considered the gold standard), and anyone with the barest acquaintance with either books or film will have an idea of the House into which they best fit – Gryffindor for the brave, Ravenclaw for the bookish, Hufflepuff for the kind, or Slytherin for the cunning. (Mine is Ravenclaw.) The idea of such a summons, such a Sorting, and then such a school is entirely compelling; the world of the castle, especially, invites the reader to wander it forever in imagination. Astronomy towers, shifting staircases, the Room of Requirement, the Great Hall with its ceiling ‘bewitched to look like the night sky’ – Hogwarts has encouraged countless writers, like Gabrielle Kent, Django Wexler and Ellen Renner, to construct landscapes of bewitching complexity for young readers to inhabit.
Despite her sometimes clunky, ‘workmanlike’ prose, Rowling is also ambitious in the use of her interwoven influences. In the seven books during which Harry Potter and his peers grow from nervous eleven-year-olds to fully-fledged witches and wizards (unprecedented in itself, as the series grows darker and more searching with each title, demanding its reader grow with Harry), she plays with several literary traditions; the boarding school story, the puzzle or detective novel, the Bildungsroman, the heroic quest. Boarding school books have had a resurgence in the wake of the juggernaut, whether realistic, fantastical or even murderous; and the fantasy genre as a whole has been given a ‘Potter effect’ boost (not to mention a rising average word-count). Tonke Dragt’s superb quest story, The Letter for the King, spearheaded Pushkin Press’ new children’s list in 2013 – it’s doubtful whether its appearance in English translation, fifty years after its first publication in Dutch, and subsequent rapturous reception could have happened in a pre-Potter (and Pullman) publishing landscape.
Another significant factor in Harry’s enduring popularity is Rowling’s willingness to confront challenging ideas, demanding that her child and teen heroes regularly risk death, shame and expulsion from the school’s wizarding wonderland when principle is at stake. Adult readers might find it unexpected that a children’s fantasy should deal explicitly with the idea of death; how to face it and make sense of it, how to cope with grief, and how to understand what’s worth the ultimate sacrifice. The phrases Potterheads choose to wear as jewellery, or even tattoos, suggest how resonant this willingness remains, however. Severus Snape’s despairing love for Harry’s murdered mother Lily is especially popular (‘Even after all this time?’ ‘Always’), as are Dumbledore’s philosophical utterances (‘After all, to the well-informed mind, death is just the next great adventure’; ‘Do you think that the dead we loved ever truly leave us?’ ‘It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live’; ‘We must all make the choice between what is right and what is easy’.)
More unusually still, Rowling’s intricate, involving world remains vivid twenty years on, flinging out offshoots in unexpected directions and creating new devotees without any sense that its author is flogging a dead horse. The eight original films, which helped spread Potter-fever worldwide, have now been joined by another, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, in which the preoccupations of the original series remain prevalent – the defence of tolerance against bigotry, the inherent dangers of power, and the preservation of fragile, extraordinary creatures. A new two-part play, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, is a superb, joyous, terrifying and utterly theatrical excursion into Harry’s future, full of swirling cloaks and suspended disbelief. The Pottermore site, with its wizarding challenges, sense of community and ‘Easter egg’ nuggets of Rowling’s new writing, is as unprecedented in its way as the series itself. And Bloomsbury’s series of fully-illustrated reissues, with Jim Kay’s extraordinary artwork on every page, are a beautiful boon to first-generation Potterheads now impatient to share the books’ remembered magic with their own children.
Though Harry’s lasting impact on literacy levels is debatable, the children who grew up with him were exposed to unprecedented book-related phenomena en route – midnight launches, house allegiances, fan fiction, feeling themselves part not of a small geek sub-section but of a colossal world-wide wizarding reading collective. By the time Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows came out in 2007, I too was a Potterhead through and through – and, having just started writing about children’s books for the Guardian, I stayed up all night to live-blog my tearful, over-caffeinated experience of reading it. Despite my initial snobbish reservations, and the fact that I was well past my Hogwarts-letter deadline when I first came to the books, in a way, I too grew up with Harry Potter – and he will always hold a special place in my heart.
Imogen Russell Williams is a journalist and editorial consultant specialising in children’s literature and YA.