The Harry Potter magic

Print edition : December 11, 1999

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (1997, pages 224, 4.99, paperback); Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (1998, pages 251, 4,99, paperback); Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (1999, pages 317, 10.99, hardback); by J.K.Rowling; published by Bloomsbury, London.

IT has had more than a touch of magic about it. The summer of 1999, for the British publishing industry, was to be the season of Dr. Hannibal Lecter, the fictional serial murderer with a proclivity for cannibalism and fine wines, who was brought to inter national stardom through the novels of his creator, Thomas Harris, and the movie, The Silence of the Lambs. Harris, a slow-paced wordsmith who prides himself on the thoroughness of his research, had at last completed a new Lecter saga. Heinemann, his publishers, came up with the title Hannibal and entered into battle mode, preparing a promotional blitzkrieg that would propel the book beyond the status of a mere bestseller: Hannibal was to be the fastest, biggest selling book of all time.

In June, all seemed to be going to plan. In its first week, Hannibal notched up close to 60,000 copies in sales in the British general retail market, entering the record book as the fastest selling hardback fiction title in recent history. Demand through out the United Kingdom threatened to outstrip supply; customers at one London bookshop queued up for extra copies shipped in by taxi. Random House, the owners of Heinemann, began projecting hardback sales of half a million.

Then, with the whoosh of a broomstick and a shout of 'Quidditch!', there arrived if not nemesis then a rival from entirely unexpected quarters. A small, on the face of it unremarkable rival: a bespectacled, undersized, unkempt boy on the threshold of his thirteenth birthday, distinguished from the run of boys only by the thin, lightning-shaped scar across his forehead. Even his name, Harry Potter, breathed ordinariness. Yet little Harry, or rather his creator Joanne ('J.K.') Rowling, was about to effect a feat of magic totally belied by his youth and apparent meekness. In a manner expected by thousands of children, in Britain and beyond, who were already familiar with his extraordinary gifts, Harry Potter in July took hold of the publishing industry, s hook it and turned it upside down. For week after week thereafter, it would be Harry Potter, not the blood-curdling Hannibal Lecter, who would lord it over the bestseller lists.

THE origins of the Harry Potter phenomenon lie with Rowling's decision, in the mid-1990s, to try her hand at writing children's fiction. There is a magical quality to her own story, a rags-to-riches rise out of unemployment and financial insecurity. She found a publisher, and her first book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, appeared in 1997 with a print run of just 7,000 copies. Just what happened next is not entirely clear, but it seems that, by word of mouth, from child to child and sc hool to school, the phenomenon began to take shape and grow. The message was simple: against the temptations of television, computer games and the other diversions available to modern children above a certain level of affluence, here was a book that simp ly had to be read, that children could not put down.

By the appearance of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets in 1998, Rowling's publisher, Bloomsbury, was aware of the golden goose it had unwittingly nurtured. So much so that careful planning was set in motion for the launch of the third Harry Potter title in July 1999. A print run of 75,000 hardback copies for the British trade alone was decided and, to justify this level of risk, the eight weeks prior to publication were marshalled into a strategic campaign. Extracts from the book were publi shed in major national newspapers, reviews were arranged to appear in adult book review sections, and Rowling was interviewed in the magazine section of The Daily Telegraph. Publication day itself was observed with the ritual normally associated w ith public examinations: copies of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban arrived at booksellers' doorsteps, wrapped and sealed, on the morning of July 8, but sales were embargoed until 3-45 p.m. - the end of the school day.

Presented thus, Harry Potter's ascendancy looks a little less than innocent, not quite the story of fresh-faced simplicity triumphing over the smug assumptions of publishing house boardrooms. Further doubts are raised when one confronts the actual conten t of the books. Even Rowling enthusiasts among her adult readers and reviewers concede that her fiction is essentially formulaic, conforming to conventions of plot, character and setting that other writers for children have sought to move beyond. Yet for all the hype, for all the inherent literary limitations, children love Harry Potter, are excited by his feats, cannot wait for his next adventure. In classrooms throughout Britain (now, too, in the United States, where the phenomenon has taken hold with similar force) teachers report that Harry Potter has the quite supernatural ability to quieten the unruly, engage the disruptive - and get children reading.

DECONSTRUCTING the Harry Potter phenomenon is easily done. To start things off, take a hero who is both male and vulnerable: with his weedy physique, the orphaned Harry is the quintessential target of bullies, whether in the shape of his unspeakable rela tives (uncle, aunt and over-indulged cousin Dudley) or in the form of classroom nasties. Children everywhere instinctively identify with the picked-upon - the more so when the 'victim' proves capable of striking back in all manner of resourceful and unpr edictable ways. And this Harry achieves through his access to magic. For he is no run-of-the-mill hero. On the contrary, he is perhaps the most astonishing boy who has ever lived: the son of practising wizards, Harry, when just a baby, managed to confoun d the evil machinations of the darkest of dark forces. What child reader could fail to be gripped?

With utmost confidence and literary sure-footedness, Rowling places her hero in the setting that has proved a mainstay of children's fiction in the Anglo-Saxon tradition: the British public school. Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, which Harry enters at the age of 11 (and from which he will graduate at 18, thereby guaranteeing a sequence of seven Harry Potter sagas), roots its hocus-pocus and extraordinary goings-on in a familiar framework of prefects, examinations, detentions and competitive sport. Pupils are organised into Houses (named with suitable outlandishness), and there is the well-worn cast of eccentric teachers: the stuttering professor; the strict female teacher with glasses and her hair in a bun; the sinister master darting malev olence with every glance. As generations of writers for children have discovered afresh, the boarding school offers a world in which children, detached from their families, can build new sets of relationships with their peers, but still within a context of adult authority and implicit safety and security.

Rowling's achievement - whether serendipitous or calculated one does not know - lies in combining the boarding school genre of children's fiction with the much more free-ranging, expansive tradition of fantasy and magic. What lifts the Harry Potter books above the status of contemporary Billy Bunter-style larks and wheezes is an engagement with the supernatural that shows imaginative range, narrative skill and the ability to zero in on children's hopes, fears and ways of thinking.

Magic, in the world of Harry Potter as conveyed to his young readers, is fun and also deeply menacing. At one level, it offers and sustains a parallel universe from which non-wizarding adults are excluded, enabling children to unfold their inherent capac ities and, where necessary, give insensitive or oppressive adults their come-uppance. Here, there are clear affinities with the children's fiction of Roald Dahl, one of a number of writers whose influence can be discerned in Rowling's work.

But at another level, magic opens a window into a darker world shaped by myths that reach back deep into the history of humankind. In this universe lurk monsters beyond the reach of reason, ready to pursue their prey along limitless nightmare ways. In th is universe, too, lie treachery, double-dealing, revelations that stun by their ability to stand old assumptions on their head, the remorselessness and finality of death. In the 20th century, no writer has explored this realm more thoroughly and with mor e literary effect than J.R.R. Tolkien. Rowling's ventures into it are altogether more modest, but the response to her work underlines its continuing potency. Contemporary children, it seems, crave as much as their forebears did for the terror zone.

Such imperatives may be all too easily forgotten once children cross the threshold of adulthood. This, at least, seems to be the message from South Carolina, where the Board of Education, under pressure from a group of agitated parents, is currently revi ewing the use of the Harry Potter books in the state's schools. The suspicion in some Bible Belt quarters is that little Harry Potter is luring his enthralled followers into satanic rites and devil worship; in the view of one horrified mother, the books possess "a serious tone of death, hate, lack of respect and sheer evil".

Any of Harry's readers could have told you what happens next. Harry and his friends Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger, aided perhaps by Rubeus Hagrid, the avuncular school gamekeeper and by Hedwig, Harry's ever useful and obliging owl, will concoct a spel l that brings upon the ludicrous South Carolina parents not mayhem but ridicule. And, around the world, thousands of children will raise a cheer.

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