It’s June 1997. A new book, whose unassuming cover features a bespectacled youth about to board a steam train, has just hit the shelves of bookstores in the UK. The book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, would quickly become a global smash and turn its author, JK Rowling, into a household name. The release of each of its sequels became events, with children and their parents queuing outside bookstores from Maine to Melbourne to get their hands on the latest Harry Potter. With her latest creation, The Crimes of Grindelwald, now in theatres, Leaders League examines how a simple kid’s book became a pop culture sensation.
More than 450 million books sold in 200 countries, big screen adaptations that have brought in nine billion dollars, theme park attractions, a passionate fanbase that writes fan fiction and organizes Quidditch matches… two decades on from Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone hitting the bookshelves in the UK, much like its titular hero, Rowling’s work has transcended its humble origins and become a global phenomenon.
On top of the carefully crafted sequels, we have had a play, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, and a spin-off movie series, Fantastic Beasts, the second of which, The Crimes of Grindelwald, has made over half a billion dollars since its release in mid-November.
Marie-France Burgain, author of a book on the saga, believes the reasons for the success of Harry Potter are to be found elsewhere, in Rowling’s magic formula which takes a pinch of history and social commentary, a dash of literature and a liberal dose of folklore and mythology to blend something that defies categorization and has universal appeal – and adventure novel and a thriller, the classic hero’s quest and pure fantasy: children’s literature and literature period.
Dense and logical
“If Harry Potter has managed to bridge divides of class and generation, it’s because everyone can find something in the stories for them,” adds Burgain. A cultural touchstone, a depositary for real world hopes and fears, Harry Potter takes a well-worn literary archetype – the orphan, put upon member of his new family who is destined to be a savior – and puts him in a tale that has elements of gothic fantasy, schoolboy adventure and detective story. This choice has helped Harry Potter appeal to a wide audience.
For noted French philosopher Jean-Claude Milner, this world of sorcerers fascinates because of its inventiveness and verisimilitude. “The prowess of the author comes from the fact that she has been able to construct a universe that is at once consistent - with its own language, rules and history - and extremely complex. In this book sorcerers are not all good, and the heroes have flaws which the reader discovers and appreciates over time.”
The moral, ethical and political aspects of the saga are punctuated with universal themes, good vs evil, sacrifice and betrayal, free will vs determinism, justice and power, which invite us to draw parallels with our world.
“JK Rowling created a universe entirely different from our own that delighted the imagination, but was wise enough to anchor it with real world issues,” assesses Burgain. “The power of the story resides in its ability to make us dream and reflect.” A reflection that grew weightier as the storylines of the books became darker and more serious with each new release. “The story grew darker, more political, broached such topics as the system, the slavish press, totalitarian power, class struggle and even the rise of fascism.” Allusions to the Third Reich were obvious in themes such as racial superiority with talk of ‘half-bloods’ and ‘pure-bloods,’ a vision of power that crushes and controls and the singling out of non-sorcerers in society, evoking anti-Jew laws of the 1930s, but also the plight of immigrants. All of which served to transform what had been a children’s book into something that more closely resembled a social novel and gives the story a ‘evolutionary dimension’ that goes a long way to explaining the success of the saga, according to Burgain. “This allows the reader to leave behind the light world of fairytale and enter a darker, more oppressive realm of death, ambiguity and flawed heroes, all tied up in questions of society and power.
Having anchored the story in reality with great skill, it’s no surprise that JK Rowling uses magic as an allegory for modern technology. From the Marauders Map, a sort of geolocation device that Harry Potter uses to locate the Diary of Tom Riddle, to the Pensieve, a kind of mystical water font that stores memories, these fantastical devices evoke the modern magic of our connected reality. Ideal for creating a universe which “by multiplying the number of references to our society, give us a story that is at once fantastical and credible, like some alternate version of our own reality which the reader can identify with.”
The attachment of readers to the saga is something Rowling well appreciates, whether it’s by releasing Harry Potter news exclusively to fan site Pottermore, or filling in gaps in the story for ‘Potterheads’, who have themselves written copious amounts of fan fiction, which, according to Burgain, enriches the world of Harry Potter, without betraying it, which is slightly magic in itself.
By Caroline Castets
JK Rowling publishes the first of seven Harry Potter novels: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. The saga has been translated into 79 languages and has sold over 450 million copies.
The book receives its first literary award, winning Best Children’s Book and the British Book Awards. 50 other major literary prizes would follow over the life of the saga.
Harrry Potter make the cover of Time Magazine.
The first Harry Potter movie appears in theatres. It becomes the biggest movie of the year at the box office.
The first Quiddich Cup is held.
Fantastic Beasts 2: The Crimes of Grindelwald is released in theaters in November. As of December 1st it had made $500m worldwide.