SUPERVERSIVE: What was the Appeal of Harry Potter?

Tuesday , 17, October 2017 16 Comments
Image result for harry potter and the sorcerer's stone

The Mary GrandPre covers are deserved classics

With Harry Potter having so saturated popular culture, to the point where it has become the main cultural touchstone among millennials, I’ve heard some people wonder this. They’re good books with some great moments, but heavily flawed. So why them? What did Harry Potter tap into? How did it turn into the juggernaut that it did?

Truthfully, I can’t really answer that. I can only tell you what happened with me.

I was – stop me if you’ve heard this one – a voracious reader when I was younger, except everything I read was crap. I read and enjoyed “The Chronicles of Narnia”, but it was only in later years that I was able to grasp the astonishing philosophical and theological depth of the books, and never fully appreciated them. “A Wrinkle in Time” was a rare exception, Otherwise, for people my age…well, there wasn’t much. Captain Underpants? Are you kidding me? Yeah, no. I read lots of Hardy Boys mysteries, which I liked, and moved onto Boxcar Children mysteries as well (for some reason child detectives were very in vogue at the time; the Boxcar Children were an interesting case in that book one clearly had nothing to do with the rest of the books in the series, but someone got the bright idea to franchise it out into mystery novels).

It was slim pickings. Hardy Boys were all right, but formulaic. And what else was there?

Then, one day, my mother brought home “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone”. At the time book 4 had come out relatively recently, but I’d never jumped on the Potter train. I wasn’t a fantasy fan after all. Why would I like a book like that?

“Try it,” said my mom. “It’s popular! Who knows?”

So I did. And let me tell you, I was gobsmacked.

First off was the length. This was – I am not kidding you – the first book I had ever not been able to finish in a single sitting. I was amazed. I’d never read a book that long before. I didn’t even know there WERE books like that!

And the story! No Hardy Boys here. This was a complex, engaging plot. Each character was distinct and well defined. Everything was new and fresh. It was fantastic! To that point it was easily the most complex book I had ever read. I gobbled it up.

But what really got me – what absolutely blew me away, what totally stunned me – was the ending. It turns out…Snape WASN’T the villain? It was Quirrell all along?


This was a possibility I had never even considered, a level of narrative complexity that hadn’t even crossed my mind to anticipate. It was such a brilliant twist, such an unexpected turn, that by the time the novel ended I couldn’t believe what I had read.

Good? That wasn’t “good”. Hardy Boys was “good”. That was fantastic. It is also what made me decide to take the idea of writing a book seriously. As it so happens, I still own that first copy of “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone”. The spine is bent, the cover is missing, the pages are dog-eared and slightly yellow. It is, of course, one of my most prized possessions.

I kept going, through books 2 and 3 next (book 4 had to wait until Christmas). And to me, at least, the series just got better and better. Book 3 was a real turning point when Sirius Black was mentioned.

Sirius Black? Wait a minute…

Turns out he was first mentioned in “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone”. And all of a sudden a series of what appeared to be episodic adventure novels achieved yet again a new level of complexity and cleverness I had never anticipated.

Image result for snape kills dumbledore chapterMy brother likes to point out to me that it was fairly obvious in retrospect after Snape killed Dumbledore in book 6 that the killing was staged – but this doesn’t tell the full story of the impact of that moment. For long time fans, reading to the end of that book, seeing things unfold in real time from Harry’s perspective…wow. It was mind-blowing. It is to those day one of the most shocking things I have ever read. I don’t think people who weren’t a part of the whole zeitgeist can really understand exactly how far our of left field that was, how unexpected the twist. Dumbledore’s death was more or less a given in a story like “Harry Potter”, but Snape? SNAPE!?!

It made the wait for book 7 practically unbearable!

I wasn’t quite a part of the fandom, in that I never participated in cons, talked with any other super-fans, or engaged in any cos-playing outside of Halloween costumes. But I did follow along with it, my favorite site being Mugglenet (which still exists and along with the Leaky Cauldron is the premiere Harry Potter fansite to this day). And it was Harry Potter that got me into science fiction and fantasy; I devoured “The Hobbit”, still one of my favorite books, and read “Artemis Fowl” and discovered Eoin Colfer. I read “Percy Jackson and the Olympians”, which tapped into a love I already had for Greek mythology, and I read “A Series of Unfortunate Events”, which wasn’t sci-fi or fantasy but which had a Harry Potter-ish looking boy with glasses on the cover that made me pick up the book and read the fascinating blurb on the back.

I read Cornelia Funke’s “Inkheart”, and “Dragon Rider”, and “The Thief Lord”, and I even tried out a crappy Harry Potter clone once called the Charlie Bone series (I threw it away in disgust when the protagonist, raised by terrible aunts, realizes he’s magical after seeing pictures move). And, most importantly of all, I started work on my first novel attempt, a crappy Harry Potter clone that used cats to deliver letters instead of owls (it was never finished and mercifully lost).

Why am I telling you all of this?

I’m just trying to get across what, exactly, Harry Potter means to some people. It was more than a book. It was a book of gold. Maybe it’ll help you realize why I’m so angry at the nasty person Rowling has revealed herself to be, why I am still excited to see the new Fantastic Beasts movie, and why Harry Potter still matters – why it will always matter.

Contra John C. Wright, I actually think there may be an argument that book 7 of the series isn’t superversive – something I will get around to explaining another time, since it is something of a complex argument, and in any case I am not sure yet if my conclusion is correct. It pains me to admit this, but it is important to be honest with ourselves. Even so, I still can’t discount Harry Potter entirely. There really was something magical about it – and whatever sort of ugly person Rowling has turned out to be, I will always be grateful to her for creating it.

Long Live Harry Potter!

Draco dormiens nunquam titillandus

Image result for harry potter series

  • Traumaboyy says:

    Describes very nearly my experience with the series except for being grown with a daughter that I reluctantly had to take to see the second movie….I grabbed the third book and took it to work with me and I was in. You mentioned Snape killing Dumbledore…we were on vacation in the Smokey mountains in a villa overlooking a beautiful stream. I was so angry at the end of the book that I hurled it into the gorge. Very dignified for a grown professional with kids watching while on vacation. I cannot remember another book hitting that raw of a nerve in my life. Glad it was not just me!!

  • Xavier Basora says:

    What appealed to me was the medieval quest adventure story. Also it was interesting to see the medieval bestisry and symbolic colours.
    My favourite book is the Prisioner of Azakaban. I thought it had the perfect balance between humor and sobriety; between exuberance and fear and so on. I regard it as the zenith of the series. After that it becomes a little too grimedark lite.

    • Anthony says:

      PoA is definitely the zenith of the series. It fit right in that sweet spot where her books were still being edited but her writig style had matured, creating a taut, sharply written story with a clever plot that balanced the humor and darkness perfectly.

  • Rufusdog says:

    It just wasn’t that good compared to the other stuff I had already read when I was a kid. Hickman and Weis, Eddings, Tolkien, CS Lewis, Feist, Asimov…
    I found the Potter books to be tedious (I stopped after #3).

    I never liked her characters, the whole constantly tripping over your own dick thing gets to be a predictable bore after a while.

  • maniacprovost says:

    I wanted to disagree at first, but… I grew up before the Harry Potter books, and I had to begin reading in the adult section around 3rd grade because there simply wasn’t anything left in the Children’s section. I think YA did exist, but it wasn’t a fully fleshed out category. The Xanth novels in particular started out as adult novels until Piers Anthony realized that teenagers were a demographic he could target and exploit. In a literary sense.

    • BLUME says:

      This is my experience. So the whole thing started taking off when I am a freshman in high school and I just ignored it since it didn’t make sense. Why 14 and 15 year olds were going gaga over a story for elementary kids was odd to me.

  • Ingot9455 says:

    I will quote a friend of mine when he says, “I don’t know how she did it, but her rendition of Harry’s growing-up adolescent rage was exactly me. To the letter. Corrupt authority figures and all.”

  • Ben says:

    My Father almost literally put me in a headlock to read Harry Potter – the reason was that he actually got sent to Prep school – unlike most Americans – so he wanted something in popular culture in common with me. He likes Harry Potter still and I enjoy it with him and pay enough attention to the franchise to keep up.

    However, IMO it’s hardly original and only popular because huge, behemoth companies prop it up.

    There’s a place for that though – Mainstream. Just don’t want big companies to make mainstream the ONLY choice.

    I guess I’m glad there’s a few things in the “Mainstream” that I like or rather don’t hate with a burning passion. I doubt Harry Potter will be more remembered than Penny Dreadfuls from the 1850s and earlier come the 2100s though. Like it’s pure ‘surface only’.

  • deuce says:

    I could never stomach the original “prep school” novels like TOM BROWN’S SCHOOL DAYS or anything resembling that. I never liked Beverly Hills 90210, either. What is the attraction of reading about — or viewing — other people going to school?

    The whole structure of Hogwarts is just vile as well.

    I slogged through “Sorcerer’s Stone”, tossed it behind me and never looked back.

  • Constantin says:

    Pretty much my experience as well. My main attraction to this series was the brilliantly crafter mystery and suspense. They are, in fact, the books got me into reading more mystery and detective fiction, which I’ll always be grateful for.

    I will say this, though, to me the books lose more and more of their initial appeal the more I grow up and read other, more superior fantasy. One thing that amazes me is just how derivative Harry Potter actually is.

    Despite the fact that I despise J.K. Rowling, especially after how she treated her fans when they rightfully called her out on her BS, the series still gave me some very enjoyable moments in my childhood.

    • Flavia deJesus says:

      My feelings are very much like yours.

      I started reading Harry Potter in 2004. I devoured the 5 books in less than 6 months, and followed the release of the last two books. Harry Potter was the fever of my teenage years. What I think made me like HP was not exactly the characters themselves, but the universe created by JKR. I liked to imagine myself inside that universe, being a witch like Harry and studying at Hogwarts.

      Of course, as a teenager, I knew very little about other fantasy works and literary classics, so back then I really believed that Harry Potter was a genius story and JKR was the best writer in the world. Today I recognize that this is far from being true. JKR’s characters are mostly shallow, static and stereotyped. Voldemort is part of the villain trope I least like, an irremediable psychopath who was born evil and died evil, remaining eternally static, and without any trace of humor. There are villains who are irremediable but at least they have a vein of great humor, like Joker. Voldemort is nothing like that.

      In addition, I think JKR made some bad decisions and wasted a lot of interesting characters on the books. I’ve always found it a shame she’d never delved into such treacherous characters as Wormtail / Peter and for example. Traitorous characters can make great stories, but instead of going into a story of redemption, she decides to put him in the shadows of the story with a death so irrelevant that it does not even appear in the film’s adaptation. Game of Thrones does a much better job with Theon Greyjoy for example, giving him more prominence and a arc of his own.
      Talking about her bad decisions… I never liked JKR’s decision to make Ginny be Mrs. Potter. In a universe where we have unique and fantastic female characters like Luna and Hermione, why did JKR make Ginny the Mrs. Potter? The romance between Harry and Ginny was poorly written in the books, and extremely cringeworthy to watch in theaters. They make the most insipid and generic pair of literature, IMO. Luna Lovegood would was the best choice for Harry’s romantic pair, imo. Or if Harry finished the story with no one, it would not be bad either. I just think Ginny / Harry was hideous.

      I’m not saying that the HP series is horrible and unimportant. Quite the contrary, it was part of my adolescence and in a way, it is nostalgic. The fact is that like you, the Harry Potter books also lose more and more appeal to me every time I revisit them, and today, I do not feel like reading them any more.

      • EBA says:

        I think the reason HP succeeds is that it is a classic orphan hero tale from the folklore tradition, found around the world – Benin just as much as Japan. The reason HP attracts criticism is that the HP books are literature, set in a real world, where some feel the hero should earn his triumphs, which isn’t necessary in folklore. Consider Cinderella who, in no way, would have been able to transition from domestic slave with no social life to princess-in-waiting. We accept this because it’s a fairytale. In the world of literature, we expect Jane Eyre to make her own way in the world, once she’s escaped her wicked aunt. We don’t expect her to be rewarded purely for her virtue (if that’s the right word) as happens to orphans in fairytales, who like HP, somehow manage to remain sweet-natured despite the abuse.

  • Tom says:

    Harry Potter partially inspired me to write my novel. But, it was a desire to contradict what I saw as Harry Potter’s main problems. I wanted to show that you could still have actual heroes with real personalities and reasons for their actions.

    Harry isn’t a hero. He’s just an empty vessel for the reader to inhabit with the frame work of the story. Just like Bella in the atrocious Twilight books and the idiotic protagonist in the BDSM Grey series, Harry is given no actual personality so that you can insert yourself as the reader into his place. It is more of a device from Romance novels than anything else if I understand it correctly.

    • Terry Sanders says:

      Tell that to Arthur Conan Doyle. Or Edgar Allen Poe. Or the people who told stories near a fireplace to the Brothers Grimm.

      The generic viewpoint character is extremely useful in a story w

      • Terry Sanders says:

        –with an exotic setting or an eccentric hero. Hogwarts certainly qualified as the latter.

        I stopped reading after PoA because I’d soaked up enough of the setting–which I regarded as the “main character” of the story. And because the self-contradictions were starting to pile up. But the blandness of the main character didn’t bother me much.

        (Sorry ’bout the interrupted post. “Smart” phone. Hmph.)

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