I was vaguely aware that the books existed, and that they were popular, but I was determined to avoid them because they were so popular. Before J. K. Rowling cast her spell over the world, the kids I knew who actually read books were all reading Goosebumps and The Babysitter’s Club. Having read a couple of the Goosebumps books, I absorbed the lesson that if all the kids were reading a particular series, I was probably better off reading L’Engle and Dickens. Given their astonishing popularity, the books had to be demonic, or, worse, badly written.
At the time, much of the media attention on the Potter books in the U. S. was focused on the accusations of witchcraft coming from American fundamentalists. This controversy dominated all discussion of the first three books, obscuring the books’ more literary qualities, including their obvious indebtedness to novelists like Dickens. If you had never picked up a copy of Sorcerer’s Stone or Prisoner of Azkaban, you could be forgiven for thinking that they were nothing but lowbrow kid’s stories, basically Sweet Valley High with wizards. It wasn’t until the release of the fourth book in the summer of 2000, when the term “Pottermania” entered the lexicon and Stephen King penned a glowing review for The New York Times, that Rowling’s tomes began to be taken seriously as a literary phenomenon.
In the years between the release of the fourth and fifth books I was in high school, writing articles for the school newspaper about “Christian alternatives” to Harry Potter like Tolkien and Charles Williams. During book fairs I would surreptitiously steer friends away from the novels and towards more wholesome fair. “Have you heard of the Shadowmancer trilogy?” I would say. “I hear they’re giving those Potter books a run for their money…”
It wasn’t until the disastrous and bizarre end of my freshman year in college in 2005 that I finally decided to see for myself what all the fuss was about. “Boze,” my friend Allison said to me on the last day of school, as we gazed sadly over the wreckage, “this has been just like Harry Potter.”
Curious to know what she meant, and desperate to understand what had just happened, I went to the library shortly after I got home and checked out the first couple of books. What I found, 10 years ago this week, was revelatory. The books weren’t demonic or lowbrow at all; they were traditional British fantasies, combining the wit and whimsy of a novel by Roald Dahl or Edith Nesbit with a sly contemporary sensibility. They were effortlessly readable and almost dizzyingly enjoyable. Within a matter of days, the Sorting Hat and the Sword of Gryffindor, Dumbledore and Hermione and Hagrid had become permanent fixtures of my imagination. By the time Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince was released at the end of that summer, I had resolved to become, not just a writer (for I had always aspired to be a writer) but a writer of novels for young adults.
Which raises the question: how did these books (and their surprisingly adequate movie adaptations) grab such a hold of us, to the extent that nearly 20 years after the release of the first book we’re still talking about them? Still eagerly anticipating new movies set in the same universe? For those of us who grew up in the Potter generation, Rowling was like a second mum, fostering our imaginations, gently leading us through our first experiences of death and mortality, modeling how to write great stories, and raising up a veritable army of young readers, Dickens lovers and aspiring novelists.
There’s probably no single explanation for the hold these books exerted, and continue to exert, on the modern imagination. Instead, there are moments, moments when her storytelling power reaches the level of high art, and in these moments we can catch glimpses behind the veil into the mystery of Harry Potter.
One: “Harry, Yer a Wizard.” (Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone)
There had been stories about wizarding schools before this one. There’d been books about bespectacled boy wizards with dark hair and pet owls who learned they were part of a secret wizarding community, but none of those books are remembered apart from their parallels to Harry Potter.
So why does this particular version of an old story carry a whiff of destiny about it? There are clues in the famous first meeting between our young hero and the half-giant Rubeus Hagrid. For the last three chapters the reader has sensed that there’s something not quite normal about Harry, and in the chapter “The Letters from No One” Rowling draws out the tension to its physical and emotional limit, as Harry’s horrible aunt and uncle, determined to keep him from reading the mysterious letters, take him on a long journey to a deserted island in the middle of a storm. It’s a perfect physical symbol of Harry’s distress and the agony of hidden secrets, an agony that finally achieves satisfying release when a giant man with hands the size of trashcan lids bursts through the door of their cabin and says, “Harry, yer a wizard.” Already in these opening chapters Rowling has ingeniously built suspense, delaying mystery and leading her readers almost to the point of frenzy before finally easing back with a single, story-defining revelation.
Two: The Great Hall (Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone)
The first of the seven Harry Potter books is not the best, but it is the most crucial to the success of the series. If Rowling had failed to engage the imaginations of readers in this novel, those readers would not have gone on to read Harry’s further adventures in Chamber of Secrets and Prisoner of Azkaban. Luckily, she more than rose to the challenge, cramming her first novel with indelible images that today are as much a part of our shared culture as Marley’s ghost or the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park.
In particular the Great Hall sequence in Philosopher’s Stone is notable for just how much of the Potter mythology is presented here for the first time, with a narrative ease that only occasionally lapses into exposition. In less than 20 pages we’re introduced to the Sorting Hat; the four Hogwarts houses and their house ghosts; the mysteriously appearing food (the source of which we will not learn until Goblet of Fire); and the odious Professor Snape. With the exception of Dumbledore (much more whimsical here than he would be in later books), these elements remained remarkably consistent through the run of the series, largely maintaining the contours they were given in this scene even as the Wizarding world evolved and expanded around them. Rowling also demonstrates some remarkable early facility with narrative staging, leading our heroes from a train station onto a boat, through a tunnel in the water, to the doors of the castle, along a torchlit stone corridor and into the Great Hall, transforming a simple trip to school into a journey with the scope of myth.
Three: The Chamber of Secrets (Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets)
While Philosopher’s Stone bore the burden of setting this world in motion, Chamber of Secrets needed to prove that the first novel wasn’t just a one-off, and in most respects it succeeded. Harry’s second year at Hogwarts lacks the freshness and joy of the original, and the story hasn’t yet attained the maturity and complexity it would manifest beginning in the third book. For all that, however, it is surprisingly scary, revolving as it does around a monster that lives inside the walls of the school and a memory trapped in a diary that possesses a young woman.
“Her skeleton will lie in the chamber forever,” read the ominous words written in blood that set in motion the final sequence, in which Harry must rescue himself and Ginny Weasley from a horrible fate, and comes face to face with Tom Riddle, Voldemort’s past, present, and future, for the first time. Rowling displays some of her characteristic inventiveness in making the antagonist of this novel a memory of a teenage boy from 50 years before, in the process resolving the mystery of why Hagrid is not allowed to do magic, a mystery that had lingered over him since his first meeting with Harry.
Four: Dementors on a Train (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban)
Harry and his friends had some notoriously awful Defense against the Dark Arts professors over the years, so it came as a shock during the third book when the new DADA professor, Remus Lupin, turned out to be pretty great. His connection to Harry’s parents, particularly Harry’s mother Lily, and his own quiet sadness provided the emotional core to the most wistful and elegaic book in the series, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.
His introduction is a stunner, too: sleeping in a compartment on the Hogwarts Express, dressed in shabby clothes, he suddenly awakens during a particularly rainy and eerie train ride when Harry is attacked by Dementors, foul wraiths that suck all the happiness out of the world and leave a fog of misery behind them. Lupin’s ability to fight the Dementors immediately endears him to Harry and the reader, establishing the parameters of the emotional and physical battle Harry will be facing in the year ahead. Plus, it’s the most genuinely chilling scene we’ve encountered in the story so far. Alfonso Cuaron’s depiction of this scene was a turning point in the film series, vividly signaling the films’ increasing artistic ambitions, dark tone and thematic maturity.
Five: The Death of Cedric Diggory (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire)
The middle book in the Harry Potter series is the most emotionally compelling, the scariest, the saddest, and also the most flawed. Rowling’s prose occasionally shows signs of wear (particularly in how she keeps returning to Neville as a punchline), and the mystery is overly convoluted. (The film version, by discarding all but the essentials, staged this aspect of the novel much more effectively).
And yet, for all that… there’s not a single death during Harry’s years at Hogwarts, not even Dumbledore’s, that lands with the sickening impact of Cedric Diggory’s at the end of the Triwizard Tournament. Cedric’s murder—so sudden, so unnecessary—lives in our memories like the death of a real friend. Partly this is because Rowling stages the final task of the tournament, and the whole nightmarish sequence of events which follow, with a sense of tragic irony culled from her reading of the ancient Greek playwrights. (She’s admitted in interviews that the scene where Cedric’s ghost asks Harry to take his body back to his parents was lifted from Homer). As Harry and Cedric work their way through the maze, the ironies multiply: although the two competitors began as rivals, in the end they agree to set aside their rivalry and win the tournament together. It’s in allowing Harry to share the victory with him that Cedric seals his own fate. And Harry has only “won” because, as he soon learns, all along someone was trying to kill him.
The climax of the novel is built around these ironic reversals of fortune, all culminating in a graveyard sequence that rapidly and decisively takes Harry from being a tournament winner to a traumatized young man fighting for his life. By the time he returns to Hogwarts carrying Cedric’s body, his world has been irrevocably transformed. In a final irony, this is not immediately clear to the spectators at the tournament, who continue to celebrate when they see Harry, unaware that a student has just been murdered by Lord Voldemort.
Six: Fred and George’s Farewell (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix)
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the fifth and longest novel, is far and away my favorite book in the series, and one of my favorite novels. It’s the ultimate school story, leading the reader through Harry’s fifth year at Hogwarts in what feels like real time, with a sprawling expansiveness that revels in small moments like the arrival of the morning owl post or Hermione going over Ron and Harry’s homework in the Gryffindor common room (and having to explain that the surface of Europa is covered in “ice,” not mice).
Paradoxically, it’s this willingness to linger over these small, seemingly trivial details that gives weight and scope to the whole Wizarding war that’s unfolding. Rowling has honed her facility for characterization to a fine art, crafting page after page of memorable scenes in which seemingly each line spoken by a character has a vividness to it perfectly befitting the personality of that character. After spending five books with most of these characters, we know them; we know what they would say in a given situation; and she nails it every time, and yet continues to surprise us.
In his review of the fifth book for Entertainment Weekly, Stephen King wrote that Order of the Phoenix, while the darkest of the Potter books, might also be the funniest. In a year where Harry can’t seem to catch a single break, in which Voldemort is at large and Dolores Umbridge is taking over the school and the Ministry of Magic is making Harry out to be some kind of maniac, the sharpest and most memorable scene gives us a rare moment of triumph, in which Fred and George Weasley, confronted by an enraged Umbridge after they’ve turned a school corridor into a swamp, grab their confiscated brooms and fly out the open front doors into the sunset.
Seven: Professor Slughorn’s Memory (Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince)
I’ll have more to say in a later post about the way the Harry Potter books played with ritual, history, and a sense of place. The rhythms of a school year at Hogwarts, and the way the whole story is intimately bound up with a single location that’s almost a character in its own right, offer a secular version of the sort of religious experience that the Church and its liturgy used to offer during the Middle Ages, but which is increasingly rare in our a-historical, quasi-Gnostic society.
Another way in which Rowling draws on older traditions to give her story structure and meaning is by incorporating fairytale and folklore motifs. This was already apparent in the first book, which is sort of a modern retelling of Cinderella by way of King Arthur, but it reaches a new level in the sixth book, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, in which Harry and friends don’t seem to be attending a school of magic so much as a school of fairy-tale tropes.
Half the joy of reading this book now is seeing how Rowling plays with these old tropes, finding inventive ways of adapting them to work within the established framework of her story. Harry’s deception that leads Ron to triumph on the Quidditch field is a variation on the “magic feather” plot in which a character is given an object that has power only because he thinks it has power. The various schemes involving poisons and love potions would not feel out of place in a story by Boccacio or Shakespeare. And the scene where Harry gets Professor Slughorn drunk so that he can persuade him into giving up an important memory is a new spin on the “elixir theft” motif, a recurring trope in magical stories where the hero or heroine gets another character drunk and then encourages him to part with something of value. The oldest version of this trope, one of the oldest-known stories in the world, is the Sumerian story of Inanna, who steals all the laws and rites of civilization away from her grandfather so that she can return home and assume her rightful place as ruler of her people.
Harry’s retrieval of Slughorn’s memory follows the broad outline of this tale, except that Rowling introduces a bit more ambiguity about whether Slughorn gave up the memory willingly or not. And, because of the rules of magic laid down in the previous volumes, the object of Harry’s theft ends up being a memory, thereby underscoring the significance memory has played in the story since Chamber of Secrets (a novel that bears a curious narrative and thematic kinship with Half-Blood Prince). And not just any memory, but a liquid memory, another important liquid in a novel already teeming with mysterious fogs, madness-inducing potions, silvery basins, snow and liquid luck. Sensing the importance of memory not just to this scene but to the whole novel, the film version gives us a scene of quiet beauty, in which Slughorn remembers Harry’s mother and a rare bit of magic she performed for him when she was young. “It was beautiful magic,” he says sadly; “wondrous to behold.”