The Boy Who Lived: 20 years since the first Harry Potter novel came out, a look at what makes it a classic for all times

At any given point in time, we have all been one of the characters of JK Rowling’s Harry Potter universe.

Written by Anushree Majumdar | Updated: June 25, 2017 12:00 pm
harry potter, harry potter books, harry potter movies, harry potter magic, harry potter twenty years, harry potter 20 years, harry potter wizard, indian express, indian express news (Illustration: Mithun Chakraborty)

The night before, June 3, had been particularly rough for London, but the scene at Platform 9 ¾ at King’s Cross station was perfectly normal, thank you very much. And while attacks at the London Bridge and Borough Market were still fresh on everybody’s minds, the Muggles and No-Majs outside the Harry Potter shop the next day were the last people you would expect to cower in fear and apprehension, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense — not when they were so close to magic.

Business inside the store was booming, as children and adults alike held wands, hoping the plastic facsimiles would warm to their touch and choose their owners (oh how Ollivander would have sniggered!); school supplies such as quills and Time-Turner necklaces were purchased in bulk to tide them over the upcoming school year. I was tempted to throw the Dobby toy my smelly sock, but thought against it. After all, he doesn’t need to be free, he’s home at last!

Standing inside the crowded shop that felt like we were in Diagon Alley, so was I. In 2000, I had read the first three books in a state close to Petrificus Totalus, an almost complete body bind, where only my hands moved to turn the pages. And to think that the first book was nearly not published! In 1996, Joanne Rowling’s agents sent the first 200 pages of her manuscript to 12 publishers — each of them rejected it, except HarperCollins, who showed interest but were too slow in following up. Legend has it that the only reason Bloomsbury signed Rowling was because of Alice Newton, the eight-year-old daughter of their chairman, who demanded the second chapter after reading the first.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was published on June 26, 1997, but only after Bloomsbury asked Rowling to put her initials instead of her first name — their research had shown that boys were unlikely to read books by women authors (hmph!). The Philosopher’s Stone swept up several major children’s books awards in Britain, but it wasn’t before Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire (2000) that the series became a global publishing phenomenon.

Is Harry Potter an original story? No, not really. The character of the orphan protagonist is as old as the novel form; Rowling cites JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy and CS Lewis’s seven-part fantasy series, The Chronicles of Narnia, as her influences. There are far too many similarities between Tolkien’s work and the Harry Potter series, but Rowling makes magic her own, simply by setting them in the present age. The events of Narnia, too, ran parallel to the actual timeline in the 1940s, but Rowling’s achievement lies in making Hogwarts a world within our own, a world within reach.

One may argue that fantasy fiction’s greatest friendship is the one between Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee — and they won’t be wrong. But Rowling’s characters develop multiple, enduring friendships outside of their comfort zone, outside of their own kind; embracing differences without sweeping them aside with a broomstick; and, most of all, more than any fantasy series in the modern age, Rowling offers each and every one of her characters a chance at redemption.

“It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities,” says Albus Dumbledore in The Chamber of Secrets (1998). Sirius Black would echo that sentiment in The Order of the Phoenix (2003): “We’ve all got both light and dark inside us. What matters is the part we choose to act on. That’s who we really are.” These sound like platitudes, but as in the post-truth, post-Trump, Brexit world, these oft-quoted dialogues from the books and films offer much comfort to those who seek it.

At any given point in time, we have all been one (or even more) of the characters of Rowling’s world. Honestly, Harry Potter is the least interesting character, and the books would be nothing without Dumbledore, Sirius Black, Luna Lovegood, Rubeus Hagrid, Remus Lupin, and even Bellatrix Lestrange and He-Who-Has-No-Nose, Voldemort. But who would Harry be without one of the greatest feminist heroines of our age, Hermione Granger? She set the bar high for Rowling’s young readers — she was the one who used her intelligence without apologising for it; who punched Draco Malfoy “like a girl”, (which is more than anybody else had done till then); who fought for better pay for house-elves; and who chose to love Ron Weasley because she knew what she prized in a partner, all those think-pieces be damned. As for Ron, what can I say? I was like him all through high school, and I still think he made us fools look good.

Back at the shop, multiple coloured editions celebrating the 20th anniversary of The Philosopher’s Stone are stacked high, but it is time for me to leave, so that my friend who has patiently been watching our bags, can browse. I clutch the Marauder’s Map that I have bought close to my chest, and watch scores of fans pose with the trolley that has half-disappeared into the barrier. The mood in London had been sombre since the news of the attacks broke, but there was only unbridled joy here. When she came out of the shop, my friend and fellow Potterhead gave me the one thing I’d forgotten to purchase inside — the train ticket from King’s Cross to Hogwarts. “You never know when you may need it,” she said. Nitwit! Blubber! Oddment! Tweak!

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