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.
My 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