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In 2005, Dr. Stephen Gwilym of John Radcliffe Hospital conducted a study to examine the number of visits that children ages seven to 15 took to the E.R. after the release of the fifth and sixth Harry Potter novels. When compared to the average over a three-year period, he discovered that on the weekends when the books were released, the rates went down by almost half. [1] J.K. Rowling created a story that defined a generation, captivated all ages, and brought millions of children a love for reading. As Professor McGonagall so accurately predicted right from the very start, “this boy will be famous, a legend. I wouldn’t be surprised if today was known as Harry Potter day in future. There will be books written about Harry, every child in our world will know his name.” (PS, 15). The success of Harry Potter can be narrowed down to three qualities intrinsic to the text: the progression in maturity throughout the series, the perfect combination of realism and wonder, and the universal and ageless themes that lie at the heart of the story.

Most teenagers and young adults today would readily admit that Harry Potter made up a great part of their childhood. Many will report that they attended the book launches with their parents, listened to the audio book during car rides to school, or stayed up well past midnight reading as a family. J.K. Rowling once said that a woman in her twenties came up to Rowling on the street and told her “you were my childhood.” [2] Harry Potter is a bildungsroman — a coming-of-age story — that is spread out just long enough for fans to experience their own growth at the same time.

When Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was released in 1997, many of the kids who picked up the book would have been fairly close to Harry’s age, 11. As the young wizard ages with every new book, so do the readers. We can relate to him for the span of a decade. More importantly, the plot and style of the series mature just as the main characters do. While the first three books are relatively short in length, simple, and positive, book four turns extremely dark towards the end and the plot continues to complicate and thicken from there. Themes of death, loss, and power are introduced after the readers have gotten to know the characters, and can understand the new layers that the story presents. The characters are also very accurately representative of their age, which allows for readers to empathize with them. Rowling doesn’t overlook the common issues of relationship drama and moodiness that plague teenagers as her characters grow, despite their lives being drastically different from ours in many respects.

Rowling is careful to keep the familiar aspects of everyday life in the foreground of her story, while also painting a marvellously detailed world. Harry Potter is among the most skilfully constructed low-fantasy universes. The detail involved is striking, with exquisite page-long descriptions of Hogsmeade village, Diagon Alley, the Ministry of Magic, not to mention the centuries of wizard history and politics behind her series. Harry’s world is on par with the greatest alternate universes of Tolkien, Baum, Lewis, and Carroll. Every reading brings a new detail to light. Unlike in high-fantasy stories however, there is a lot that readers can still relate to.

While most teenagers do not have to worry about battling an evil dark lord in order to save the planet, they do worry about homework, sports, and how to ask out a crush. Some of the most critical parts of the series — though unfortunately, parts often excluded from the films — are the regular days at Hogwarts. Daily life at Hogwarts actually looks very similar to the daily life of an average student — classes, homework in the library or common room, meals in the dining hall, then sleep in the dorms. However, reading about our regular lives would be boring; Rowling adds a twist to all of these activities — classes about potions and charms, magic homework written with quills on parchment, meals levitated to your plate by house elves, and sleep in dorms guarded by a talking painting. It is familiar enough to be recognizable, but fantastic enough to be wondrous.

A good example of this balance is shown in Rowling’s description of the sweet shop, Honeydukes:

There were shelves upon shelves of the most succulent-looking sweets imaginable. Creamy chunks of nougat, shimmering pink squares of coconut ice, fat, honey-coloured toffees; hundreds of different kinds of chocolate in neat rows; there was a large barrel of Every Flavour Beans, and another of Fizzing Whizzbees, the levitating sherbet balls that Ron had mentioned; along yet another wall were ‘Special Effects’ sweets: Drooble’s Best Blowing Gum (which filled a room with bluebell-coloured bubbles that refused to pop for days), the strange, splintery Toothflossing Stringmints, tiny black Pepper Imps (‘breathe fire for your friends!’), Ice Mice (‘hear your teeth chatter and squeak!’), peppermint creams shaped like toads (‘hop realistically in the stomach!’), fragile sugar-spun quills and exploding bonbons. (POA, 147)

Every child can relate to the wonder of walking into a candy store and marvelling at colourful chocolates and jelly beans, but Rowling’s vivid description of Honeydukes is that of a paradise beyond any child’s wildest dreams. The universe she creates is so vibrant and detailed, just a step away from reality, which makes it very easy for young readers to take magical elements and insert it into their own lives. Sticks as wands, mud pies as potions — for a generation of children not yet lost in iPad screens, make-believe games were enough to captivate thousands of minds for recess after recess. As the series gained popularity, it was even more rewarding to be a part of the Harry Potter community, to be able to join in lunchtime conversations, discuss predictions for the next instalment, and dress up as the characters for Halloween. While Rowling’s world is extremely intricate and complex in detail, it is also remarkably easy to picture. For children, who have unlimited imagination, it was easy to rebuild Harry’s experience and the wizard community in our own reality. While many other children’s books have well-constructed worlds and intelligent writing, Rowling struck the perfect balance between the magical and the mundane, launching a phenomenon unlike any other.

The lessons and conflicts that appear in the series are also easily applicable to the issues we often see in our world. For example, a recurring theme of the series is prejudice and equality. We see clear prejudice against “muggles” (non-magic folk), “muggle-born” wizards, and “half-blood” races, such as half-giants or werewolves. In fact, the villains of the story are those who believe that “pure-blood wizards” are superior, and should therefore have the right to oppress all beings of lesser magical blood. This draws a clear parallel to the discrimination seen in the Holocaust, when Jews were believed to be biologically inferior to the “white race.” The rise to power of both these dictators can also be paralleled; Hitler fought for white supremacy when he wasn’t Aryan, and Voldemort fought for pure-blood supremacy when he was a half-blood — they both employed Social Darwinism to gain power. In a recent study released this year, research found that secondary and post-secondary students who had read the Harry Potter series were less prejudiced against immigrants, homosexuals, and refugees.[3] These students were able to connect the prejudice against “muggle-borns” in the series to the prejudice shown against these stigmatized groups.

Another example of prejudice that Rowling draws attention to is the treatment of house-elves. Sirius Black met his death in large part due to his treatment of Kreacher, the house-elf. As Dumbledore explains, “he regarded him as a servant unworthy of much interest or notice. Indifference and neglect often do much more damage than outright dislike… (…) We wizards have mistreated and abused our fellows for too long, and we are now reaping our reward.” (OOTP, 735). Harry, by contrast, was saved multiple times by his kindness to Dobby the house-elf, culminating in Dobby taking a knife for him. A huge part of the story emphasizes kindness to everyone, regardless of their species or status in society. As Sirius himself said, “if you want to know what a man’s like, look at how he treats his inferiors, not his equals.” (GOF, 456).

Binding all of this together are the remarkably mature themes embedded at the heart of the series. The great messages that these books promote play a big role in attracting older audiences, who then encourage their children or students to read Harry Potter, thereby contributing to its popularity. Predominantly, the theme of selfless love as the ultimate weapon is one that every reader, regardless of class, race, or age, can connect deeply with.

The story itself starts off with an act of love. Upon Voldemort’s first attempt on Harry’s life, his mother, Lily, gave her life selflessly to protect his, which cast a shield and saved him. Dumbledore explains to Harry: “your mother died to save you. If there is one thing Voldemort cannot understand, it is love. He didn’t realize that love as powerful as your mother’s for you leaves its own mark. Not a scar, no visible sign… to have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection forever.” (PS, 216). Harry becomes the Boy who Lived thanks to his mother’s sacrifice. This protection was what was described as “old magic,” a powerful act rooted in the most basic instincts of human nature. The last time that Harry was saved, almost seventeen years later, was also by a mother’s love — Narcissa Malfoy’s love for her son, Draco. Ordered to make sure that Harry was dead, Narcissa lied to Voldemort in order to cease the fighting, just so that she could be reunited safely with her son. The villain of the series is one who cannot understand this power, one who constantly undermines it, and who ultimately meets his downfall for this mistake:

That which Voldemort does not value, he takes no trouble to comprehend. Of house-elves and children’s tales, of love, loyalty, and innocence, Voldemort knows and understands nothing. Nothing. That they all have a power beyond his own, a power beyond the reach of any magic is a truth he has never grasped. (DH, 568).

The true bad guy in real life, therefore, is not necessarily a wand-wielding sorcerer in a dark cloak, but simply one who cannot understand the value of selflessness and love.

The central claim of the Harry Potter series is simple: our greatest ability is our ability to love. The greatest magic that we have is love, despite the suffering it causes. Love is the weapon that Harry uses to defeat Voldemort; it is the “power the Dark Lord knows not” (OOTP, 741) that the prophecy foretold. Dumbledore describes it as the most powerful force on earth:

There is a room in the Department of Mysteries that is kept locked at all times. It contains a force that is at once more wonderful and more terrible than death, than human intelligence, than the forces of nature. It is also, perhaps, the most mysterious of the many subjects for study that reside there. It is the power held within that room that you possess in such quantities and which Voldemort has not at all. That power took you to save Sirius tonight. That power also saved you from possession by Voldemort, because he could not bear to reside in a body so full of the force he detests. In the end, it mattered not that you could not close your mind. It was your heart that saved you. (OOTP, 743)

When Harry was possessed, he drove Voldemort out the moment he thought of being reunited with Sirius in death: “as Harry’s heart filled with emotion, the creature’s coils loosened, the pain was gone. (OOTP, 720). Similarly, Harry was protected as he grieved over Dobby: “Just as Voldemort had not been able to possess Harry while Harry was consumed with grief for Sirius, so his thoughts could not penetrate Harry now, while he mourned Dobby.” (DH, 387). It is in his moments of selfless love, despite the accompanying grief, that Voldemort cannot touch him. As Dumbledore explains: “you are protected, in short, by your ability to love! The only protection that can possibly work against the lure of power like Voldemort’s! In spite of all the temptation you have endured, all the suffering, you remain pure of heart, as pure as you were five years ago, when you looked into a mirror that reflected your heart’s desire, and it showed you only the way to thwart Lord Voldemort, and not immortality or riches.” (HBP, 477-478).

Similarly, despite all of Severus Snape’s mistakes and wrongdoings, it is his love for Lily Evans that governs his path, and turns him into a good man. This is the one instance of romantic love that stands out in the series because of its selflessness. Snape does not gain anything by protecting Harry, since Lily was married and is dead. His love and loyalty to her demand nothing in return, but instead help him to become a better person. While love, particularly romantic love, is often discussed and explored in literature, it rarely comes in such a selfless form. We read a lot of stories about overcoming obstacles and risking everything in order to save a loved one, or be with a loved one, but the kind of love that Rowling equates with magic is the love that overcomes obstacles for no apparent reward.

Dumbledore said: “do not pity the dead, Harry. Pity the living, and, above all, those who live without love.” (DH, 578). Contrary to what Voldemort believed, death is not the worst thing that can happen. Harry embraced death in order to save those he loved, and in doing so, vanquished Voldemort and lived on. Voldemort, in not understanding the power of sacrifice, died relatively young in pursuit of immortality. Being able to stay true, to love selflessly despite all hardship, is the true magic of the series, and the power that wins in the end. This timeless message is one that resonates with people of all ages and all races because it comes from a very pure and deep-rooted place in our nature. At the same time, it is presented in a fantastic and extraordinary way, again combining an element we can all relate to with an element of wonder that we are all captivated by.

Throughout the story, the importance of good-heartedness is considered more important than all else. This connects to the theme of power, most prominent in the final novel. The Deathly Hallows, magical objects that would make one “master of death,” are only suited to those who do not want them, just as the best leaders are those who do not seek out power. As Dumbledore says: “it is a curious thing, Harry, but perhaps those who are best suited to power are those who have never sought it. Those who, like you, have leadership thrust upon them, and take up the mantle because they must, and find to their own surprise that they wear it well.” (DH, 575). Dumbledore himself, as a young man, tried to attain power through the Deathly Hallows in order to dominate others, and failed. It was only when he realized that true power should only ever be used to benefit others, that he was able to acquire it. As he explains to Harry: “maybe a man in a million could unite the Hallows, Harry. I was fit only to possess the meanest of them, the least extraordinary. I was fit to own the Elder Wand, and not to boast of it, and not to kill with it. I was permitted to tame and to use it, because I took it, not for gain, but to save others from it. (DH, 576-577). Such is the mark of true leadership, a universal theme that readers can apply to every aspect of their lives.

Of the many themes in this story, a prominent one is also the power of words and the imagination, and by consequence, the power of stories themselves. Northrop Frye once said that while “science begins with the world we have to live in (…) [and] moves towards the imagination, (…) art (…) begins with the world we construct, not with the world we see. It starts with the imagination, and then works towards ordinary experience.” [4] The series does a remarkable job of taking readers away from reality, but more importantly, of also bringing readers back to their own lives, so that they can come back with a better understanding of this world. In the first book of the series, Dumbledore tells Harry that “it does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live” (PS, 157) and yet in the last book, he tells him that “of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?” (DH, 579). For a long time, I couldn’t reconcile how these two statements could exist simultaneously. It was only recently that I understood. In the first instance, Harry is lost in the vision of his family that he sees in the Mirror of Erised, and while he is hung up on it, he cannot move on with his life. In the second case, Harry is about to wake up from his vision of Dumbledore in King’s Cross. He is about to come back to life and keep fighting, armed with the knowledge that the conversation with Dumbledore brought him. It does not matter whether or not it was “real,” because it made him a better person and allowed him to lead a better life thereafter. Similarly, it is irrelevant whether or not the stories we read are “real,” as long as they make a difference to our perspectives and choices. If they matter to the reader, then they are real regardless of their physical existence.

As an 11 year-old reading these books for the first time, Harry’s world felt like an escape, a wonderful daydream just out of reach — one where I would actually look forward to homework. As a teenager, Harry Potter was a community of enthusiastic fans, avid readers to dress up and attend movie premieres with. In reading them again as I further aged, I realized that there was so much more to the story than transforming rats and owls carrying letters. The story, spells and potions aside, was simply about the goodness of humankind.

Readers stick with Harry Potter because there are so many aspects to the series that go far beyond a designated age group. Younger audiences will latch onto the adventure, the characters, and the wonderful elements that make up this marvellously constructed universe; older audiences will understand what the battle between good and evil really means, while still appreciating the innocent, whimsical components. There’s something there for everyone, and new things to pick up on with every reading.

[1] Nagourney, Eric. “With Harry Potter, Injuries Dip Like Magic.”

[2] SPIEGEL Interview with J.K. Rowling: ‘I’ve Really Exhausted the Magical’

[3] Gale, Hannah. “Reading Harry Potter Lowers Prejudice against Immigrants, Homosexuals and Refugees, Study Shows.”

[4] Frye, Northrop. “The Motive for Metaphor.” The Educated Imagination, pp. 8-9.

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