Wednesday, April 24, 2013

What Makes Harry Potter So Magical

Earlier today I shared a Harry Potter-themed meme that read "Harry's life would have been very different if Hermione didn't read." What surprised me a bit was the number of people who not only missed the fact that this was simply an encouragement for all of us to be readers, but even more so that a number of folks flat-out disparaged the Harry Potter series in general. Apparently it's time to revisit the impact of this phenomenal series.

J.K. Rowling's tale of a boy wizard has held the world spellbound for more than fifteen years now, and done it while using story elements so ingrained in our collective memory that readers were amazed by the freshness of it. Albus Dumbledore may be the greatest wizard of all time, but when it comes to weaving a magical tale, he doesn't come close to his creator.

The good versus evil storyline has existed since the beginning of time; in fact, it is ultimately the basis of most of the world's religions. Stories of magic have existed almost as long, and the story of the orphan who overcomes great odds was popularized by Charles Dickens more than 150 years ago. Yet J.K. Rowling took these very well-known elements and through a gifted literary alchemy produced something both familiar and new at the same time.

Harry Potter himself could have easily been a one-dimensional character, the lone hero forced to confront the greatest evil the world has ever know. Frodo in The Lord of the Rings is such a character, never really growing or maturing during the journey, simply putting one foot in front of the other. But Rowling did something with Harry and the rest of the young characters that hadn't been done before in children's literature: she let them grow up. Harry is 11 years old when we meet him, downtrodden by the Dursely's and unaware of his magical abilities. Over the next 7 years he grows in the same way any child does, through trial and error, having goods days and bad (sometimes very, very bad), and discovering who he is as a person, a friend, and a reluctant hero.

The other characters, particularly Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger, also develop and grow throughout the series, and the romantic tension between them in the later books was yet another twist on "typical" children's literature. Rowling also makes the stories and characters real by having them deal with death in virtually every book. Death is a subject that rarely receives thoughtful consideration even in adult fiction, yet Rowling tackles it from the first chapter of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.

The way Rowling portrays the adults in the Harry Potter series is yet another surprising piece of magic. In most children's books, adults are either not present at all or are little more than bumbling idiots for the kids to outwit. The adults in the Harry Potter books are fully formed characters whose stories could stand alone if you removed the kids entirely. Rowling shows us the adults' strengths and flaws, glories and failures, and she does it from the perspective of the students in most cases; what they (and we) learn about Dumbledore, Sirius Black, Lupin, Snape, and others comes out in bits over the course of the narrative. And as in life, sometimes the kids seem more grown up than the adults and sometimes it's the other way around.

None of these things, however, would make the Potter books the best-selling series of all time (400 million copies in over 30 languages and still growing) if Rowling hadn't also written an amazingly compelling page-turner of a series. That it is both a great beach read and truly literature at the same time is all the more remarkable. She has woven the best parts of the hero-quest, magical fantasy, romance, Gothic suspense, social commentary, and even detective fiction into a tapestry that looks like nothing we'd ever seen before.

J.K. Rowling may not be able to turn lead into gold, but getting both a generation of kids and their parents to put down the PlayStation and TV remote long enough to read a tale that spans 7 books and more than 4,000 pages is an even more remarkable feat of alchemy. She is without a doubt the greatest magician in the literary world.