To JK Rowling, Always
A question for all those aged between 18 and 30: Where were you when Dumbledore died?
I know where I was: curled into the foot of my bed, clutching a three day old copy of Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, a book I almost hated myself for loving as much as I did, because to my unbearable ten year old ego, art which was loved by the masses was to be mocked and scorned (I was … a handful).
But despite my prepubescent hipsterism, I couldn’t put the book down. To this day I struggle to tear myself away from anything JK Rowling writes, be it the Dickensian town drama of The Casual Vacancy or the delightfully drab adventures of Cormoran Strike. But, like most of us, the works I find myself returning to again and again, are the Potters.
I wish I had the wit to come up with an insult like “Just because you’ve got the emotional range of a teaspoon doesn’t mean we all have”
But why? With all due respect, Joanne, your books about a wizard on (and later over) the edge of puberty are not exactly, well, revolutionary. The worlds of Tolkein and Pratchett and Peake really set the standard for fantastical worlds and adventures, a standard that the Potter books did little to alter. Even the notion of magical schooling had been well explored by Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Wizard of Earthsea and Jill Murphy’s The Worst Witch years before Hogwarts was anything more than a farmyard medical condition!
If one was to reduce Harry Potter to the sum of its influences and tropes, one would find little more than yet another work of escapist fiction – a world acting as wish fulfilment which trades in character archetypes to tell a cliched story about a chosen one who triumphs over evil, just as the prophesy foretold.
But that’s not true. And millions of people around the world know that’s not true. And I’m going to use the works of the greatest writer in the English language to explain why.
My favourite Shakespeare character is Falstaff. He is a clown – not at all uncommon in the plays of the bard – designed to provide levity in otherwise serious plays. But Shakespeare made him more than that – he took a stock character and gave him the mind of a trickster and the heart of a poet – he created a lovable rogue who became a symbol of innocence lost, dying while babbling of green fields. He is, in my view, Shakespeare’s greatest creation.
Joanne Rowling did the same. Through a young adult novel series which focused on a “chosen one”, she had the insight to create a world full of characters who grew and changed along with her readers. Harry wasn’t always perfect – he struggled with what his “destiny” meant to him, and at times you wanted to slap him. Things didn’t come easily for him, and he relied on his friends (who had their own dreams and shortcomings) to help him across the finish line. And, most importantly, he lost things. The death of Harry’s parents wasn’t just a tragic backstory used to give easy weight to a cheap fantasy adventure. It gnawed at him – you felt the weight of that and every other setback (and oh boy, were there setbacks) on Harry’s path to his final duel with Voldemort.
The Harry Potter books were a part of my childhood. And, one day, a part of my children’s
JK’s genius was to populate an easily entertaining and accessible story with characters we could both relate to and admire (I may have compared myself to Hermione growing up, but I wish I had the wit to come up with an insult like “Just because you’ve got the emotional range of a teaspoon doesn’t mean we all have”). Here was an adventure populated not by inaccessible supermen, but by kids – smart and brave kids, yes, but kids nonetheless – kids who tried their best, messed up, and sometimes won.
Oh, and there was one other thing: The climax of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Every child expected the skulking, glowering Professor Snape to be in cahoots with Lord No-nose, but he wasn’t – he was a good guy! Well, not a “good” guy, but definitely not a villain.
And pure, serene Dumbledore? Turns out there was a time in his past when he supported the subjugation of muggles “for the greater good”. JK Rowling wrote her characters not as characters, but as people. She created a world which may not have been the most original thing ever, but remained intriguing and enjoyable, and then populated it with flawed, nuanced, brilliant human beings who inspired us, motivated us, and grew up with us.
The Harry Potter books were a part of my childhood. And, one day, they will be a part of my children’s.
Thank you, JK. Always.