Even after two decades, it resonates in the minds of those who first discovered it as 11-year-olds
It was 20 years ago that Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was first published. Whether it is Enid Blyton’s tales of pixies, boarding schools and toy towns, Roald Dahl’s subtle understanding of the childish imagination, or Beatrix Potters trivial tales of flawed animals -– children’s fiction from Britain has often had the ability to connect with its readers despite the differences in culture, context and sensibilities. The success of Harry Potter across the world and in translation is hence not surprising. It is a story of magic, good over evil, boarding schools, camaraderie, and the unavoidable and often painful experience of growing up.
It should be no surprise then that children who picked it up years after its publication are obsessed with it and enamored by the movies, merchandise and websites that complement it. But what is surprising is that even 20 years later, it continues to resonate in the minds of its readers, who first discovered it as 11 year olds. Somehow, maybe because JK Rowling tweets, or Fantastic Beasts lash at our screens, or we dream of watching Harry Potter and the Cursed Child on West End – the craze never really ends. But the puzzling question here is why Harry Potter and not any other series? What is about these books that make them transcend generations, age, and time?
Yes, a terse plotline, along with witty writing, and the promise of escapism combine to make it a compelling read to all. But there is something far deeper and more meaningful in the book that takes place. Beyond the magic, invisibility cloaks, and flying cars, Rowling is actually introducing her readers to peek into the psychology of the human mind. And beyond that, emphasizing onsomething bigger that shapes how each character navigates through the story.
Who are the characters in the series really? Harry Potter is a hero who longs to feel a sense of belonging. Ronald Weasley is that friend, overshadowed by a brood of cantankerous siblings and over achieving friends. Hermione Granger is that girl who wants to fight for the suppressed, but realises that simply following the rules is not enough. Dumbledore is a leader plagued by his own limitations and whose greatness lies in his self-awareness. Severus Snape’s only redemption is his very human ability tosimply love someone, long after they are gone. It may be a children’s book but Rowling has successfully created characters that reflect what people, flawed and cracked, actually look like. There is a universal appeal to the books, and age and time don’t matter.
Much of Literature talks about the “human condition” andtells us that people are complicated entities with strange reasons for their action. When Rowling writes for children, she is doing is the same but with something more. She is examining the simple traits that drive us at our core, and layering with the principles of each character, that drives their choice. Through the series, what the readers are actually doing is engaging with all the maladies which plague the real world,along with significance of equality, empathy, and the limits of ambition.
Tom Riddle is nothing but the study of power corrupting someone incapable of seeing the world beyond him, much like the authoritarians we see in our Muggle world. The Ministry of Magic represents the dysfunctional institutions that shut their eye to evil that looms within and outside. The reason we bat for Harry, Ron and Hermione, or Sirius black, or Dobby is not because they are the good guys. But because the books tell a deeper and human tale of sincere relationships being the pivot around which life and all choices – no matter how dark and disconsolate at times –can revolve.
Graham Greene once wrote, “But in childhood all books are books of divination, telling us about the future, and like the fortune teller who sees a long journey in the cards or death by water they influence the future?” The books we love as children don’t end when the page turns and story is over. They grow with us, and within us, fitting neatly into our wordly personas. They not only shape our imagination as children but they are our first steps into forming our perceptions of the world, our relationships with it and with each other, and of who we want to be when we grow up.
In the age when politics is shifting perceptions of identity, and ideology justifies intolerance and bigotry, the relevance of Harry Potter is deeper. Even 20 years after its publication, the magic of the series is not in the spells or in the wands, but in the characters it portrays and the humanity it depicts.
By Sarah Farooqui
The writer is currently a graduate student at the University of Oxford. She tweets as @sarahfarooqui20