Discovering Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone as a 12-year-old was like discovering a world that I knew I belonged to. It was immediate and exhilarating. I was an obsessive reader as a child, and not easily impressed by anything remotely fantastical, but the completeness of J.K. Rowling’s wizarding world drew me in. Her invention was plausible, and her imagination so soundly anchored to my own perception of the world that I revelled in Harry Potter’s familiarity. After all, the series was so wonderfully British. Instead of elves, foreign lands and knights were railway stations, cups of tea and boarding schools I had for so long read of in Enid Blyton and C.S. Lewis.
It is a world I can return to with ease; it has not only accommodated my own eccentricities, longings and habits as a devoutly studious and imaginative individual, but validated them. For 14 years, the seven Harry Potter novels have been my ‘comfort literature’, their filmic translation ideal when procrastinating. I’ve been in love with Hogwarts and all who sail in her.
With the release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part Two in July, I – like a great proportion of the reading world – was preparing myself for post-Potter-partum. As a fan who once painstakingly whittled her own wand, I’ve been struggling to accept that Harry Potter is finite. Even Rowling acknowledged she was in mourning like the rest of us: ‘It’s exactly like an ex-boyfriend […] I’ve never cried for a man as I cried for Harry Potter.’ It has all ended, and I am at a loss as to how to move on.
The Harry Potter books are the most successful book series of all time. The statistics are almost unfathomable. Each of the books has broken sales records, and the series has sold approximately 450 million copies worldwide – this is the equivalent of every person in Australia owning 20 copies each. The books have been translated into 70 languages, including Latin and Ancient Greek, and by the time the third book was published, in mid-1999, booksellers worldwide were asked to ‘keep it off their shelves until late afternoon’ for fear school kids would wag school to buy it. The final book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, published 10 years after the first, holds the world record for the fastest-selling book of fiction: 8.3 million copies in 24 hours, or the equivalent of 100 books a second. Rowling is the first – and so far only – billion-dollar author: her annual earnings in 2007–2008 were estimated to be US $300 million.
Rowling, her agent and her publisher, Bloomsbury, are not the only ones to have made billions from the cultural phenomenon that is Harry Potter. Eight films based on the books have earned Warner Bros a tidy US $21 billion, inclusive of merchandise. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part Two currently holds the record for the highest US and UK box-office opening weekend (taking in approximately US $500 million).
But we can’t measure the power of Potter by profits alone. The recent rise in children’s literacy levels in the US and UK have been directly attributed to the Harry Potter series, with data from the 2006 ‘The Kids and Family Reading Report’ demonstrating that 51 per cent of children who read Harry Potter in the US did not previously read for fun. This same study also revealed that 89 per cent of parents said that the series had encouraged a love of reading in their child.
Indications of the ways in which the books and films have infiltrated our culture include the introduction of ‘Muggle’ in the 2003 edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (the word is attributed to Rowling), and the popularity of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter Theme Park in Orlando, Florida. As fantasy-researcher Caroline Webb from Deakin University pointed out in the journal Papers: Explorations into Children’s Literature, the Harry Potter series is also currently used to teach various topics in higher-education institutions – ‘from the trauma of Holocaust survival to the operation of Latin etymology in English’.
In fact, over 14 universities in the US and UK have taught Potterthemed coursework. Additionally, thousands of academics have developed critical and theoretical discourses surrounding the books and films. My favourite example of this is a peer-reviewed article recently published in American Family Physician, titled ‘Harry Potter’s Headaches: Magic or Migraines?’
Famously imagined by Rowling on a delayed train journey from Manchester to London – and just as famously composed while she was a single mother struggling to afford coffee in the cafe in which she wrote – Harry Potter is the eponymous character of the series, which is part quest-fantasy, part bildungsroman, and part old-fashioned boarding-school story.
At the beginning of the series, Harry is an orphan, neglected and miserable under the malignant guardianship of his aunt and uncle. On his eleventh birthday, however, Harry learns that his parents, who he believed died in a car crash, were magical, and that he too possesses powers. Not only this, but his parents were murdered by the dark wizard Lord Voldemort, whose attempt to kill Harry mysteriously backfired. As Harry commences his education at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, his destiny and connection to the dark wizard, who returns to seek absolute domination, is slowly revealed.
Superficially, the series mimics the good versus evil narrative commonly found in British fantasy, such as the Lord of the Rings and Narnia series. But anyone who looks to this motif to explain its commercial success or its winsomeness inevitably comes up short. There has been an entire army of critics engaging in battle over whether Rowling is pro or anti-Christian, with writers like prominent theologist and author John Killinger claiming that Harry Potter represents the destined Messiah figure, opposing Voldemort’s embodiment of evil. This, he claims, is why the books have resonated with so many. But as Professor James W. Thomas – a leading voice in academia for the ‘literary legitimacy’ of Potter – has argued, this citation of good versus bad biblical parallels ‘impoverishes’ Rowling’s books.
Other academics, such as Professor Shira Wolosky, author of The Riddles of Harry Potter, argue that the series’ true message is the triumph of love over death. It is not escapist literature, but a consideration of the human condition and this is why the world has fallen in love with the story and its characters. It is life-affirming; love-affirming. ‘That’s why people are caught up in it,’ says Wolosky. ‘It answers to deep psychological, deep moral, deep historical concerns.’
Personally, I feel that any discussion that attempts to locate the books’ popularity in a single message, narrative or theme will fail. Yes, all of the above contribute, in part, to the pleasure obtained by reading Rowling’s work. But it’s not Shakespeare; it is not literary, per se, and any in-depth academic treatment as such results in the (Forbidden) Forest not being seen for the trees. Harry Potter is simple storytelling at its finest, doing lots of things well at the same time, flourished with numerous mythological and literary references and wordplay.
And the books are reference-heavy, with Rowling borrowing from ancient mythology, Greek, Latin, medieval theology, classic English literature and much more. They also contain a rich lexicon of invented and borrowed language, which frequently lends humour and intelligence to the prose, and on a deeper level conveys an appreciation of language, its history and its suggestive power.
Take the names given by Rowling to her characters. There’s Harry’s schoolyard nemesis, Draco Malfoy. Latin for dragon, Draco may also refer to the Anthenian lawyer Draco (from whom we derive the word Draconian), and Malfoy is a clever representation of ‘mal foi’, French for bad faith. Then there is the suggestive and onomatopoeic names of Severus Snape (severe, snipe), Alastor Moody (Alastor meaning avenging deity in Greek), while Nagini, Voldemort’s serpentine sidekick, is surely named after Naga, Sanskrit for snake.
The magical universe of Harry Potter has a cultural depth infrequently found in children’s literature. Yes, there are dragons and wands and castles and forbidden chambers, but it is Rowling’s imaginative treatment of the utilitarian and ordinary facets of the modern world that are especially captivating: they are transformed yet never altered beyond recognition. Yes, there are banks, but they are run by goblins. Of course there is mail, but it is delivered by owls. Detention is still a hazard, but school kids are more likely to find themselves searching for unicorns in a forest than picking up rubbish. In this world are proverbs (‘The fire’s lit, but the cauldron’s empty’) superstitions (‘Jinx by twilight, undone by midnight’), junk food (‘Every Flavour Beans’) and alcohol (‘Firewhiskey’ and ‘Butterbeer’) – all the tired, wordly things that we encounter every day – only heightened, made new and wondrous.
Not everyone thinks Harry Potter is so wonderful. World-renowned literary critic Harold Bloom famously derided the books as ‘rubbish’ and the writing ‘dreadful’. Australian critic Peter Craven wrote in 2007 in The Australian – while acknowledging that it was a ‘stroke of genius’ to combine the boarding-school prototype with fantasy – that Rowling’s ‘literary powers’ are relatively modest, and that they ‘have technical improbabilities and are flawed by obvious blind spots’.
Others object to the social constructs within the text. Rivka Temima Kellner, in The Midwest Quarterly, argues that despite several emancipated and empowered female characters, the series consistently presents ‘a nuclear family structure’ that is ‘intensely traditional and patriarchal’. She goes on to point an accusatory finger at the series’ ‘house elves’, claiming that they are ‘an allegory of oppressed women as presented by Rowling who, through them, expresses ambiguous ideas about feminism.’ Elizabeth E. Heilman, in Critical Perspectives on Harry Potter, claims that the elf, Dobby, speaks in ‘racially charged pidgin’.
There are other, less disputable absences in the books. Professor Meredith Cherland has complained that ‘no mention of homosexual desire in the Harry Potter novels and no inclusion of discourses that might invoke it’ is ‘a silence, an important absence in the text’. When Rowling let slip in 2007 that she always thought of Hogwarts headmaster Dumbledore as gay, John Cloud in Time magazine retorted:
‘Why couldn’t he tell us himself? … We can only conclude that Dumbledore saw his homosexuality as shameful.’
At the same time, the Harry Potter books have also been frequently listed on the American Library Association’s list of most-banned books, and have generated enormous controversy and concern (known by social commentators as ‘Potter Panic’) amongst the US Christian Right, who believe that the series endorses and celebrates the occult. These ‘Potter-Poohers’ and the communities they represent have claimed that the books are morally ‘ambiguous and spiritually harmful’, ‘present anti-Christian messages’ and ‘glamorize … the occult’. Pastor Joseph Chambers in North Carolina wrote: ‘I believe the Harry Potter series is a creation of hell, while David Bay of USbased Cutting Edge Ministries is reported to have declared that Harry Potter books ‘are so overtly Satanic they are designed to quickly put Satan’s key in the lock of your children’s hearts!’ Their solution to quashing such sorcery was fittingly medieval: Harry Potter books were burnt by the stakeful.
We can only assume that Satan, along with the rest of the world (barring the preachers above), was devastated after the release of the seventh and final book. Perhaps he, like me, was preparing to ride out the inevitable dregs that follow cultural phenomena – the fan-fiction, nerd conventions, video games and the DVD box sets until something else came along that he could get his claws into. Fortunately for him (and for Potter-fans everywhere), Rowling had one last trick up her sleeve.
In June, ten various Potter fansites, including MuggleNet and The Leaky Cauldron, were contacted with instructions to solve a ‘Secret Street View’ riddle. Each site had received separate street coordinates which guided them to a single letter on Google Maps. The 10 letters, once discovered, spelt ‘Pottermore’, and led fans to www.pottermore.com (whose ‘Coming Soon’ page received over one million hits within 36 hours of launching).
Speculation about what the site would be went ballistic – here was the promise of a new life for Harry Potter. Some hoped it would be a new book. Others argued that ‘Pottermore’ stood for ‘Potter Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Experience’. Others still (including my diehard Potter partner, who rang me at work shrieking incoherently on first news of the website) believed it would be the encyclopedia long-promised by Rowling.
None of these guesses were right. On 23 June 2011, in a special live YouTube broadcast, Rowling announced that Pottermore would be a free online ‘interactive’ reading experience based around the books:
I wanted to give something back to the fans that have followed Harry so devotedly over the years, and to bring the stories to a new digital generation. I hope fans and those new to Harry will have as much fun helping to shape Pottermore as I have.
Pottermore will enable its users to ‘navigate’ their way through the books. On entering the site, fans will receive a username, and then move through the chapters of Harry Potter, reading, exploring and accessing new material along the way. When Harry goes off to Hogwarts, so will the user. As Harry is put into Griffindor, so will fans be sorted into their house by answering a selection of questions from the ‘vast pool’ Rowling has composed for this purpose. (‘It’s not a terrible thing to be in Slytherin,’ Rowling has already stated, as if anticipating the dread of her readers.)
The site will, additionally, offer 18,000 words of Rowling’s new and unpublished writing about the wizarding world, including personal histories of characters such as Professor McGonagall and Petunia Dursley, encyclopedic details about wand wood, and fresh material about events known and unknown to readers. New illustrations have also been commissioned, which – from the very few screen shots released for publicity purposes – promise to be arresting.
The website will also be the exclusive home of the HP ebooks store, selling directly from Rowling’s publisher. Such an arrangement has predictably raised the ire of online bookselling giants like Amazon, who have been intentionally cut out of the distribution loop.
On 31 July (Harry’s birthday) a lucky few million people were chosen to complete a virtual treasure hunt of clues and questions, and one million have since been promised early access to the site which opens for the rest of the world this month. At the time of writing, no one has yet caught a glimpse of the site, but it is fair to say that when Pottermore opens its digital doors, it will usher in a whole new generation of tech-savvy Potterphiles, some of whom may only come to know the story through online reading. It is a remarkable next step for Rowling, and one that will inevitably secure Harry Potter unprecedented longevity in the imaginations and reading lives of several generations. How it will influence the practices of the publishing world, and the advent of children’s literature, remains to be seen. I for one am pleased. The boy who lived, lives on.