Sorry for the long delay. This semester has been beating me up lately, and it’s difficult to find the time to write these things. I’ll try to at least have something up for these last few weeks.
I’m also writing most of this very late at night, hyped up on caffeine and sugar, procrastinating from the two papers I should be writing. I apologize in advance for clumsy writing and any typos I may miss.
So. This was going to be my analytical post about Harry Potter, and I had it all planned out and everything, but I don’t feel like writing it right now. Instead, I’m going to take a more personal approach and talk about how this series has impacted my life. Then I’ll get into why I think it ended up becoming so beloved and successful.
I grew up in a family of readers. You can’t walk five feet in my house without tripping over a book. Fiction, nonfiction, any genre and subject matter imaginable, it’s there. Every time I go home and look around for books, I rediscover something or find something new. My parents and I have our own bookshelf(ves), though we borrow from each other’s liberally.
I don’t think any Harry Potter book has ever been on any one bookshelf in my house. They all end up in places that are easily accessible: the dining room table, the big armchair, the kitchen next to the cookbooks, even the bathroom. Both bathrooms. It’s the only book series that I can have detailed discussions with both my parents about. (Well, not really, but it’s the only one where all three of us are very familiar with the material).
My grandmother was also a big reader and Harry Potter fan, and a lot of my later memories of her are of us reading and talking about the books together. I would bring books to her in the hospital, as many as I could carry, and make sure that at least one of them was a Potter book. She preordered the books for all of her grandchildren, including Half-Blood Prince, but never got to read that one, as she passed away two months before its release in July 2005. The day the package came to the door, I spent all day in my room reading (warding off my parents from reading over my shoulder at mealtimes). Every time I got to a character or a theory my grandmother and I had discussed, I wished that she could be there reading it with me, and I still think of our times together fondly every time I reread it.
Harry Potter didn’t just impact my relationship with family members. A girl who I became friends with in middle school was dyslexic and initially hated reading, something I found impossible to fathom. I finally got the books on tape from the library for her to listen to as she read along, so she had no choice but to give into my demands to read. Eventually she started reading them on her own, and fell in love with them. Her reading improved drastically, and she began to devour every book I recommended and find some favorites of our own. Often she would thank the Harry Potter series for helping her to love books (something I’ve heard happened to a lot of people who were initially against reading). Our friendship (which was based on more than Harry Potter and books, don’t worry) lasted for many years and several moves across the country, until she eventually moved to Hawaii and we lost touch in high school. When I think about her, I hope that her love for books, started with Harry Potter, has not diminished, wherever she is now.
As for me, well, of course I love the series. I sort of fell out of full-on fan mode after Half-Blood Prince, especially after I went into high school and started to get really into anime and console video games, but I’ll still pick up one of the books if I find it lying around the house. There’s something special about these books, which had such a strong impact on me and so many people around the world.
Why? How did they get so popular? I’m sure that there are plenty of other people who have written lots and lots (I just typed ‘splendidly’ there… I need to go to bed) of long academia things trying to explain exactly that, involving lots of statistics and stuff like that. It was the right place and the right time. There was a niche that needed to be filled. J.K. Rowling got lucky. Whatever.
Let’s be honest, Rowling is not an incredibly good writer, although she did improve over time. I actually preferred George R. R. Martin’s prose. What she is good at is storytelling. Worldbuilding. Character developement. Her world is engaging and relatable while still managing to be whimsical and fantastic; her themes are clear and strong; her love for what she has created is obvious. In short, Harry Potter moves beyond shallow entertainment and into something that can be talked about, and wondered about. It’s not ‘Art’ — its main goal is to tell a story. But it makes people care. And once you start caring about a story, it’s got you.
You can’t simply rely on bizarre architecture, or flying unicorns, or lists of spells to make good fantasy. The trick is taking these things and making it so that people care about them. I cared about Harry Potter. I wondered how the series was going to end. I hoped that he would defeat Voldemort and live happily ever after. I ultimately did not care about the people in A Game of Thrones. The story didn’t ‘catch’ me, even though technically the writing was better.
Some of this is a matter of personal opinion, of course, since I know plenty of people who love A Game of Thrones. But even so, my point still stands. Fantasy settings should not be used as a crutch. They should be used to enhance the story, adding new depth and possibilities. And that’s what Harry Potter did.