Spellbinding

So, what about Harry Potter so captivates readers that they are worked into a frenzy over the release of a book or film? The fever pitch of excitement around the world is almost overwhelming, as Harry pops up in more and more media every day. I half expect to see a front page, above the fold review in the Times next Saturday, and I’ll bet that spoilers will abound in global news stands. This next week is going to be insane for ardent Harry Potter fans, as they drink in any scrap of news and try to avoid learning about too much of the plot. I’m still jealous that every English speaking country in the world other than the United States gets the book at midnight British time. It seems silly to do that, when the whole world could have been simultaneously reading!

When the books were first released in England, the run was fairly small, because the publisher didn’t expect them to take off that much. Contrast that with the first printing of Deathly Hallows: over 12 million books around the world. I’m not sure what caused the series to take off to the point that millions of books are included in a first run. Especially when you consider the fact that remarkable children’s books are written every day. Take His Dark Materials, a trilogy of books set in a magical version of England which abounds with strange technology, talking creatures, and smart, sensitive people. Indeed, one might argue that the plot and language in this series are far more sophisticated. Or the Bartimaeus Trilogy, a romp through an intelligent and witty England filled with classist magicians, powerful spells, and djinn. Why aren’t these books as wildly popular as Harry Potter?

After all, the language in Harry Potter is fairly simple, so one might imagine that adult readers would be easily bored. On the other hand, the plot is extremely complex, although not immensely emotionally sophisticated, representing years of focused work, backed up by extensive notes and checking of references. A look into Rowling’s office must be amazing, because I imagine it’s just filled with reference material to remind her of all the delicate details in the books, like what color Luna’s eyes are, or the exchange rate for Galleons.

I think that one of the things that readers like most about Harry Potter is the aspect of believability. It is not set in a patently different world, one so alien from our own that we cannot imagine it really existing. Harry is an ordinary boy living in a dull suburb at the beginning of the series, and many of us can imagine ourselves there. The books suggest that the possibility of magic is always around the corner. I think that’s satisfying a dream for readers of all ages, don’t you?

For English readers, the book follows a familiar model, using the setting of a boarding school and harnessing the emotional responses that setting evokes. We Americans, secretly obsessed with English society, see the books as a dip into the world of the British. The characters of the books also mature with them, something which is difficult to accomplish in a single book or a short series. Readers who started reading young are actually growing with the characters, and probably finding a lot to emphasize with.

I would be tempted to put the Harry Potter fever down to hype, but I do not think that it is that simple. Something about the books has fired and gripped the imagination, and I think that the end of the series is going to be sad for a great number of people. Not simply because characters will die, but because this is the end. No more. And although it may be finished and wrapped up, there’s a sadness in that as well, just as there is when you finish a superb single book and you realize that there are no more chapters left to read.