Twenty years ago this week, something magical happened. With the publication of one book about a seemingly unremarkable bespectacled boy, reading suddenly mattered again.
For a generation – two, by now – Harry Potter was the boy who lived, in our hearts and in our minds. His creator, Joanne Rowling (known as JK, because it was easier to sell books by a male author), conceived Potter, Hogwarts and the entire world of wizarding while living hand to mouth as a single mother on a council estate in Edinburgh. The fairy tale was not just in the pages, but in the story of how Potter came to be, and in the story of what he has come to mean.
Children’s publishing was in the doldrums; experts were predicting the death of the printed book; and the fantasy genre had become something to be slightly embarrassed about, the preserve of Dungeons and Dragons playing nerds.
Two decades later and Potter has become an icon. He gave new life to classics of fantasy literature like the Chronicles of Narnia and Lord of the Rings, making them more than just the preserve of bookish kids, but bringing them back into the mainstream and ensuring they were discovered as books rather than Hollywood blockbusters.
The books sparked a love of reading among millions of children, and their parents. Amid accusations of Satanic messages (we should’ve spotted the rise of the US Christian right about then), they smashed records worldwide and created the kind of heroic character we could all aspire to being.
Alleged Satanism aside, the magic of the Harry Potter series was not just in the spells and potions. It was in the ordinary, everyday magic that all of us can experience – the value of teamwork, the love and support of good friends and of a community, and the embrace of difference in the books were all painted in so skilfully as background that they couldn’t help but make you feel just a little bit warmer about the world. In terms of morality tales and narrative arcs – overcoming the odds, making sacrifices for the greater good and the simple tale of good versus evil – it’s got the same ingredients as classic tales from the Bible right through to Narnia, but the difference is that Potter never preached.
Never once as a teenager reading Harry Potter did I feel I was being lectured. I was reading a rip-roaring tale of danger and derring-do, with relatable characters (surely every bossy, brainy teen girl related to Hermione?) and I was always, with every one of them, desperate to get to the end.
Potter accompanied me right through my teens. By the end, I was considerably older than him, but that didn’t matter.
At the age of 20 I queued outside a bookstore in Boston for the release of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, and devoured the book during a two day trip to New York. I don’t remember that much about the Big Apple but I do remember the feeling of utter devastation that overtook me when, halfway through the return journey, I learned the fate of Dumbledore, gazing out at wooded hillsides through a blur of tears and mourning a character who was like a surrogate father to every reader, not just to Harry.
I couldn’t, of course, say it better than Rowling herself
“No story lives unless someone wants to listen. The stories we love best do live in us forever.”
Happy birthday, Harry.
Published in The Herald, Tuesday 27 June 2017.
I haven’t written many book posts recently, simply because I haven’t had time to read! Hopefully that will soon change – I’m looking forward to interviewing author Carol Drinkwater at the West Cork Literary Festival next month. Do come along and say hi!