The magic of love

Print edition : August 12, 2005

JUST a week after the London bombings, we open the sixth volume of the Harry Potter saga, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, to see the Prime Minister of Muggles waiting for an important phone call from his counterpart in another country. As he waits, he gets a not quite welcome visit from the Minister of Magic who tells him that the magical world is at war. It is like an eerie echo floating in from the real world outside.

But first, getting to the first page of the new Harry Potter book means pushing through the hype. Such as this: at eight o'clock in the morning on July 16, and the bookstore near our house in Mumbai is buzzing with Harry Potter magic. Well, sort of. There is a small crowd of excited children, there are some not-so-excited children, and then there are some bored children. At the Take-a-Picture counter, where children are invited to sign up for a Harry Potter picture dressed up in wand and glasses and scar and all, a mother is ticking off her reluctant daughter in no uncertain terms - all because the child does not want to be photographed.

"I just want to read the book, Mom," she tells her mother. "I don't want all the other stuff!"

But the mother is not taking no for an answer. She is determined that her child shall squeeze every drop out of the Potter hype. "You'll regret this when you grow up!" she chides darkly. Finally the poor girl relents, agrees to be photographed holding a wand - "But no glasses, and no scar," she says sulkily - and the photograph is duly taken. I feel sorry for the child: she might wear this incident as a tiny scar inside her mind for life. But this is how hype happens.

And this is exactly how I feel about the whole phenomenon of Pottermania. We know all the details so well. They call it the witching hour. We are not allowed to forget that at midnight or dawn on a Saturday morning, depending on where they are, children and grownups all over the world are waiting for bookstores to open. We have been told that it is the fastest-selling book in history. That in one bookshop in Canada, a shop assistant has inadvertently sold some copies of the book, and a court order has been taken to muzzle them - even though, technically, they own the copies of the books. That 1.4 million copies have already been pre-ordered on Amazon. That the books are to reach bookshelves at exactly one minute past midnight, London time, that is., 4-31 a.m. Indian time. In Edinburgh, Rowling reads from the book. The next morning, 70 aspiring cub reporters have a press conference with the author. In some bookstores, shop assistants wear capes and hats. In Sydney, children board a special train to get their copies. In bookstores across the world, children and grown-ups alike grab the nearest chairs and stools in order to begin reading the book right there. Close to ten million copies were sold within the first 24 hours. The first five books have already sold 270 million copies the world over. The three Harry Potter movies to date have made more than $2.5 billion. And of course, as we all know, it was in 1990 that Joanne Rowling first thought up the Harry Potter character. Fifteen years and six books later, she is the richest woman in the United Kingdom, with an estimated personal fortune of $1 billion.

No wonder, then, that some people just moan and shut their ears in the midst of all the hype. They want the world to get a grip.

As for me, I just want to read the book; I do not want the hype. I do not want a Sorting Hat, or a Book VI bracelet, or a ride on the Hogwarts Express. I will not wear Harry Potter horn-rimmed glasses, or carry a wand. I am a person, not a Muggle. I do not need 23,800,000 results in Google. I just want the book.

And yet two years is a long time to wait for the next instalment of the saga, and so, I must admit, we, too, arrive early at the bookshop to get our copy. I flip to the back pages at once, to see who dies. I am not alone in doing this: many readers love the magical world of Hogwarts so much that they simply cannot bear the thought of any of their favourites dying.

Different readers plan their reading experiences differently. Some London readers, who speed-read the book, stayed awake through the night, ever since they got their copies at just one minute past midnight; others decided to save the pleasure for a leisurely, quiet and private reading experience. Yet others like to read it a chapter a day, thinking of alternative plots, trying to guess what happens next.

But as I said, I just want to read the book; I do not want all the other stuff. And so, for those who have come in unfashionably late and are wondering who Harry Potter is, and why we should care: a quick recap. Harry is a boy wizard studying magic at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Here, in this boarding school, new students are "sorted" into the various Houses by the Sorting Hat at the beginning of every year. They study subjects such as Potions, Divination, Care of Magical Animals, and Defence Against the Dark Arts. They also play games: specifically, Quidditch, a kind of flying hockey, except that it is played on broomsticks.

It is also one boy's story. Harry has been an orphan ever since his parents died defending him fro the Dark Lord, He Who Must Not Be Named, otherwise known as Voldemort. During the holidays, Harry mostly stays with his Muggle relatives, the Dursleys, at Privet Drive. While he is there, he waits for letters from the magical world to be delivered by post-owls. The brilliantly colourful magical world is thus thinly separated from the unmagical world of Muggles, and every interaction between the two involves a dangerous thrill.

SO just what is it that makes young Harry Potter so - for want of a better world - endearing? Probably the same thing that made The Lord of the Rings such a success just about 50 years ago. From the Narnia of C.S. Lewis to the Dark Materials of Philip Pullman, and from Spielberg's E.T. to his War of the Worlds, we have always loved fantasy, and many explanations have been offered for this. A.S. Byatt suggests that we like to regress; others have suggested that the Harry Potter books offer a certain sense of reassurance in a harshly rationalist, secular world. Some critics have - somewhat uncharitably, but not entirely inaccurately - even seen hype in the story of Rowling's single mother status when she began writing, sitting in an Edinburgh cafe to escape the freezing cold of her council flat, living off welfare and a small Arts Council grant. And Rowling has spoken, though not at any great length, about her early fears about when the money would run out; about writing through her depression and counselling; and that the first draft is always in long hand.

J.K Rowling.-AP

Rowling's success is quite a remarkable story really, but it is not the reason why Harry Potter books are so popular. For me, it is somewhat simpler than that. Indeed, it is so simple that Rowling, intelligent storyteller that she is, does not make such a big deal out of it. It is the old battle between Good and Evil; between terror and light-heartedness; between friendship and snarkiness; between hatred and love.

As Dumbledore tells Harry in the sixth book, Harry has "a power that Voldemort has never had." To which Harry replies, impatiently, "I know! I can love!" And here, we are told, he contains himself with difficulty from saying, "Big deal!" To which Dumbledore adds: "Which, given everything that has happened to you, is a great and remarkable thing." Harry does not sound quite convinced; nor are we, I suppose, but it is still a wonderful, optimistic thought to keep at the back of one's mind. That Evil can really, after all the terror and the dreadful events, be countered with Good; that hatred can be fought with love.

Even if this is going to entail a great sacrifice. As Dumbledore tells Harry: "Your mother died to save you. To have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection for ever."

This is the real reason for Harry's success as a character. Here he is, an orphan, marked literally by a scar and by the tragedy of his parents' death; and really, his Muggle family, the Dursleys, are quite ridiculous. With every year, the young boy learns a little more about the world of magic, about his parents and about himself. His magical world has not only wands, charms and Avada Kedavra spells but also trains, night buses, talking portraits, exploding letters and newspapers. And in the middle of all this, here is this perfectly normal, likeable, lovable schoolboy. Sure, it has the old struggle between the forces of Evil and those of Good, but it also has enough time for the other great things of life, like friendship and romance and loyalty - and a good game of Quidditch.

And there is another way in which Harry's like us, simple and funny and middle-class. Apart from his great enemy Voldemort, he also dislikes the bureaucratic ways of the Ministry of Magic, especially their way of reacting to crisis and terror by looking for mascots and scapegoats. Surely this rings many bells for all of us, everywhere. And so, when the Ministry makes a scapegoat out of Stan Shunpike, the Knight Bus conductor, Harry decides that he is not going to be their mascot. Steadily, through this and other choices that he makes, we see in him a nice, likeable, decent kid, and though he makes his little mistakes now and then, we can see that he will grow up to be a decent adult.

DO we regress when we read Rowling? Her prose is certainly not as dark as Dahl; but it is also not as uniformly cloying as Enid Blyton; nor is it as cardboard-cutout as Nancy Drew. Also not as complicated as Tolkien and - dare I say it? Not as solemn.

Copies of Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince move along a conveyor belt at the Amazon.com shipping facility at Fernley, Nevada, on July 11.-AFP

But her themes are similar to those of the great quest fantasies. Rites of passage; engagement with right and wrong; personal jealousy; the difficulties of fame; relationships; death; more deaths; and the loss of innocence. As Harry grows up, these are the things that the books are increasingly about. "I don't want to write about death as if it's something that doesn't happen," Rowling has said; and after all, the story itself begins with the killing of Harry's parents.

But through all this, as Stephen King has pointed out, it is Rowling's deliciously inventive, pun-filled, mischievous humour that remains with us. Whether this is in the byways of Diagon Alley or at the Leaky Cauldron, on the shelves at Fred and George's shop, the trick telescope that gives Hermione a purple black eye. Or the ghostly characters, such as Moaning Myrtle, firstin the girls' toilet and then in the boys' loo; Nearly Headless Nick; the Fat Lady in the Portrait; and the endlessly talking, ticking-off past headmasters in the paintings in Dumbledore's room. And through the Quidditch games, the Triwizard Tournaments, incompetent commentators, and pushy journalists out for a scoop.

As in her previous books, Rowling follows a reasonably standard formula: a few pages of life in Privet Drive, flash forward to Hogwarts but with a detour through the Weasley household, a fair amount of Quidditch and as always, a new Defence Against the Dark Arts Teacher - because, remember, no one has ever stayed on for more than a year. Oh, and ever since the fourth book, some romance (after all, these are teenagers and their hormones are acting up) and a death or two. Build-up is everything.

In the fifth book, Harry had grown into an awkward, adolescent 15-year-old. This is one aspect that has always distinguished Harry and his friends - unlike "poor Julian", as Rowling has said, and the other Kirrins in Enid Blyton's Famous Five, these children are not stuck in time, but actually do grow up over the years.

As for the sixth book, I am not giving away any spoilers. But suffice to say that Fleur Delacour is at The Burrow; Dumbledore gives Harry private lessons; Snape gives Harry detention; and the magical world is at war. Read on.

And of course, the formula works. Ignore the hype: plug up your ears and shut off the television. Rowling is a wonderful storyteller, and this is a great story, making us grin and gasp and turn the pages feverishly all the way to the end.

And if those are not reasons enough to read the book, here is this. "The only way to show how evil it is to take a life is to kill someone the reader cares about," Rowling has said, and I cannot think of a more important lesson for our times. For magic is delightful, but we live in an unmagical world. And those lovely magical owls who fly through the dark night bringing post and excitement and come in dripping with rainwater, never fail to remind us that it is raining out there in the real world.

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