This talk was part of the British Library’s ongoing exhibition, Harry Potter: A History of Magic, to mark the 20 years since Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was first published.
20 years! What a phenomenon. By no means the only piece of literature or art to have had a big impact on me, JK Rowling’s stories of the boy wizard’s adventures are undoubtedly among the most important books I’ve read. And judging by the variety of people in the audience, young and old, I’m not the only one. The discussion last week centred precisely on the impact Harry Potter has had, from increasing literacy to reinvigorating children’s fantasy to defining a generation of readers’ shared values. No mean feat for a messy-haired boy and his friends.
The panel included Nicolette Jones, Katherine Rundell, Rebecca McNally, and Shami Chakrabarti. What unites these women, aside from their individual successes, is a belief in the central principles of the Harry Potter series. Whether you believe Harry Potter is quintessentially British – with its language, encyclopaedic cultural references, and general niceness – or represents a shared human experience in the universality of the battle of good versus evil, the panel agreed that Harry Potter is a story about the struggle to overcome huge odds, about standing up for principles and for justice, and that the message it transmits is among one of the most important young people can learn.
And Harry Potter’s message is hard to ignore. Midnight crowds outside bookshops, sell-out readings, global translations, a film and media phenomenon, several them parks and spinoffs, and millions in royalties for JK Rowling. But as loud as that may sound, it’s the silence that really sums up the power behind Harry Potter; the silence that falls on the playground as every child bows their head to the pages; the silence as listeners look up to Rowling reading from the final monumental book; as a reader enters Rowling’s world. Ten years after the last book was published, sales are still strong, according to Rebecca McNally, publishing director at Bloomsbury.
Because for all the criticism – the skeptics who dismiss children’s literature as simplistic or not appropriate for adults, the ones who condemn the books without having read them – Harry Potter is enchanting. The world Rowling has created is a powerful and detailed one. There is nothing simple about a series of seven books, the last four of which could be described as tomes. There is nothing simple in its seamless transition from a relatively light ‘caper’, as it was referred to in one of Bloomsbury’s early letters to Nicolette Jones, children’s critic at the Times, to a dark land overshadowed by an extremist and fascistic ideology. And there is nothing simple in its characters’ complexities, the artful and refreshing blurring of the lines between good and evil that leaves no one black or white; they all have a little grey in them.
A children’s book it may be, but it touches on some serious themes. Shami Chakrabarti referenced the infamous torture scene in The Order of the Phoenix, drawing parallels to the war on terror and the controversies around torture during the Iraq War, as well as the role the Home Office played during that time. Some may say it’s been done before, she said. Look at Orwell’s 1984, Shami said. But it’s still relevant because it’s still happening today, and Harry Potter put it back in the spotlight. Indeed, the political tensions in Harry Potter are one of the driving forces behind the plot in the later books, as a failing Ministry of Magic struggles to cope with what might be compared today to the rise of the far right.
So what is the Harry Potter effect? Perhaps it’s too soon to tell. But what the panel hoped was that its wide spread would encourage a generation of readers to grow up with a strong sense of fairness. Though there is some scope to criticise Rowling in terms of her representation of women (Hermione, though capable, always takes a back seat) and lack of representation of gay people (Dumbledore was not gay in the books; nothing to indicate his sexuality either way), there is still a strong sense of diversity being championed. We have Professor McGonagall, Mrs Weasley, Luna, Cho Chang, Bellatrix, and many more; all present and vocal. And we have the outsiders, the underdogs, the weak, the poor, the powerless, taking on the almighty, the powerful, and the rich; think of Neville, standing against Voldemort when all seems lost. He stands up to the powers of evil because he believes in what Harry stands for: the right thing to do. And so do all who read the books. We are all Neville.
Thank you to Nicolette Jones, Katherine Rundell (enjoying The Wolf Wilder, by the way), Rebecca McNally, and Shami Chakrabarti for a fantastic and inspiring discussion that made me want to read the books all over again. Thank you to the British Library and the Royal Society of Literature for hosting the event.