Hip Hip Hooray for Harry

Twenty years after his first appearance, readers (and viewers) are reflecting on Harry Potter. How did a pale, scrawny, magical orphan with a lightning-bolt scar and an unruly mop of black hair rise from the cupboard under the stairs to the top of the bestseller lists, acquiring millions of fans, both child and adult, along the way? Imogen Russell Williams considers.


n 1997, when Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone first came out, I was fifteen. Believing myself long past the age of children’s books, I read only the most grown-up, ostentatiously canonical texts, cracking open Tolstoy on the tube to demonstrate my unimpeachable maturity and the fact that I was probably in college. It wasn’t till years later, as an actual student, that I began to yearn again for the complex, vivid, transporting books of my childhood, and to read newer children’s literature alongside the ancient texts I studied.

The first inklings of Potter fever, however, completely passed me by. Despite the increasing murmurs of excitement and the haul of awards, I took an unreasoning dislike to the boy wizard’s down-to- earth surname, and refused to read any, irritably confident that Jill Murphy had already done all that was necessary by way of magical academies. Then a friend bought me the first book as a Christmas present. I opened it early on the morning of December 25th 2001, and read it, cover to cover, before coming downstairs for breakfast.

I still remember the colossal pleasure of that first reading – the sense of settling into the assured hands of a storyteller and worldbuilder par excellence. The plotting all but snicked together, like magnets meeting metal; the characters were boldly drawn, with the heft of archetypes, inspiring deep loyalty or disgust. I loved the fact that

the often tired dead-parents trope was invigorated by grief that dogged the hero’s footsteps, rather than being instantly shunted into a plastic-wrapped past; I loved the never-land nostalgia of four- poster beds, steam trains, and Regency-scale feasts; and I loved the balance of escapist wish-fulfilment and innate magical destiny with painful, personal choice – which House to wish for, which rules to break, which hills to die on. I also loved the horror and cruelty of Voldemort, finding him, despite his magic, a truly satisfying because truly human villain; unscrupulous enough to murder, torture and make use of anything in his quest for power.

As many other commenters have pointed out, the Potter books are far from perfect. There are plot-holes; the Latin of the spells is doggy; the representation of minorities is threadbare and under- researched, and the books become steadily more monumental and sprawling as the series progresses, with more and more adverb- stuffed prose, unwilling to let the reader do their share of work. When Rowling stated in 2007, after the publication of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, that Dumbledore was gay, she was

4 Books for Keeps No.225 July 2017

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