So. Twenty years ago today, a little book about a boy who learns he’s a wizard was released in the UK. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone hit book shops on the 26th June 1997, following in the US on the 1st September 1998 as Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone. I first heard about it in high school when I was eleven years old in 1999. A friend of mine, who my mind tells me was called Harry, had stood up in class and talked enthusiastically about it. The name alone caught my attention: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. It wasn’t until my best friend Chris Marshall revealed he was a fan of Harry Potter that I even saw a copy of the book. He agreed to lend it me.
I can remember how my room looked, how the row of back gardens and garages outside my bedroom window appeared in the late evening, as I reached the moment in the book that Harry finds out from the half-giant Hagrid that he is a wizard. I’d put the book down to reflect on the beginning of the story, and began grinning, hardly believing my luck. It’s one of my earliest memories of purposefully delaying further discovery of a brand new story, because I valued the precious moment of enjoying it for the first time. These days I tend to do it with movies I know I’ll love, I’ll leave them on the shelf for years at a time, as if they’re ageing like a good wine, ready to be experienced at the perfect moment. (Sidenote: I don’t necessarily recommend this process, it can occasionally backfire.) I was already in love with the world that J.K. Rowling had created, and it had barely even been revealed to me.
I don’t remember finishing the book, just feeling ever so slightly anxious that the second one wouldn’t take place at Hogwarts, the school for witchcraft and wizardry that Harry attends. (Wait, did I really just type that needless explanation out?) Chris assured me that it did, and promptly lent me the sequel, The Chamber of Secrets. I loved it even more than The Philosopher’s Stone, and recall being utterly chilled to the bone by the moment when Harry finds the final message: Her skeleton will lie in the chamber forever. *shudder* The series was utterly thrilling, in a way that the books of my youth had never delivered. My childhood favourites were of the Enid Blyton variety: The Adventurous Four, The Magic Faraway Tree etc. They were wonderful little adventures, and admittedly perhaps, catered more to under 10s. Harry Potter presented rich characters and believable relationships in an unbelievable setting. The adventure, intrigue and mysticism of Harry’s story was supported by an ever deeper beating heart that lay underneath and alongside the humour and charm of Rowling’s writing.
I would eventually borrow Chris’ copy of the third book, The Prisoner of Azkaban, rounding off what was then a trilogy of novels, all read at the perfect age of 11. I too was entering a new world at the time (high school) and the time and place of me finding the Harry Potter universe couldn’t have been more appropriate. I got lost in the world, fell in love with the characters, and had the good luck to grow up with the series as it continued until 2007, maturing along with the characters of the story. In 1999, I was starting high school, it was exciting, scary, and new. In 2007, I was a young adult, utterly lost, but hopeful. My experience with the series was bookended at very pivotal points in my life.
The excitement at getting to buy The Goblet of Fire, the fourth book, at launch in 2000, is truly hard to describe. Unaware of exactly when it would be coming out, I spotted it for sale in a makeshift book shop set up in my school, and was subsequently filled with adrenaline for the next few hours before I got home and begged my mum to buy it for me. The following day I returned to school, money desperately clutched in hand, bought the book, and cradled it in my bag like the Holy Grail, trying not to smirk broadly in Maths, knowing the NEW Harry Potter book was under my desk!
The movies were a whole other kind of excitement, which really peaked with the first two films, then my interest petered out for most of the middle of the cinematic series. I remained enraptured with the books however, and the only time I went to one of those midnight launch gimmicks was for The Deathly Hallows, the final of the seven novels. A car drove past WHSmith at 11:58pm, and a girl brandishing a copy out of the window bellowed “HARRY DIES! HARRY DIIIIIIES!”
At no point before it, and perhaps at no point ever again, did people take such utter glee in trying to spoil other’s enjoyment of something than on the launch of the last Harry Potter book. Weird. Nevertheless my reading experience was incredible, as I devoured the final novel wide-eyed and accompanied by a few boxes of Cadbury Milk Chocolate Fingers.
Harry Potter has provided me with an alluring escape at many difficult periods of my young life, whether it was bullying, depression, heartache, heartbreak, or life’s great evil: boredom. It’s one of the ultimate comforts, always there to transport me to a fictional plane that welcomes me warmly every time, whether it be through the movies, the written word, or even Stephen Fry’s delicately performed audio books.
I suppose this is a personal account of my history with these books (it is a blog after all, right?) and any attempt to answer why Harry Potter has been such a phenomenon over the past twenty years would be quite pointless, and yet I still feel like taking a bite sized shot at it. What Rowling did was combine elements that have been quite familiar in children’s fiction before (boarding school story, young witch and/or wizard story, distinctive British humour) but with the loaded and expertly crafted back story of Harry being an orphan, and the continued presence of death in his life. Then you follow it up with six more books that get progressively darker and mature, each making an almost seamless transition to the next.
I once heard that the death of Rowling’s mother heavily coloured her creation of Harry Potter, and that seems to really ring quite true, the entire story is all about mortality. I’m forever tied to a morbid fascination with death, it terrifies me as an eventuality, draws me in as an unknown experience, and captivates me as a subject to be explored in storytelling. Amidst all of the great characters, superb writing, razor sharp yet realistic wit, textured plot and tremendous fun that make up the skeleton, flesh and blood of Harry Potter, at its heart it is just that, heart.
The central theme is compassion, and, quite cheesily, but not ineffectively, the power of love. In the overall arc of the story, it’s quite a broad stroke, but it really is about how love is the most powerful and positive part of the human condition. From confronting your fears to doing the right thing, finding inner strength and courage, the importance and weight of friendship, and making sure you’ve managed your mischief, all of life’s great lessons are contained within the few thousand pages of Rowling’s magnum opus.
Authors and publishers the world over have no doubt been scrambling to create and discover the “next Harry Potter” for years, and that’s actually a phrase I have heard multiple times from writers, prompting an inner eye roll. There is no next Harry Potter, it’s a once in a lifetime occurrence, not too dissimilar, I would imagine, to The Lord of the Rings. A fantastical event story that truly captures that wonderful thing we all take for granted, and all have unlimited access to: imagination.