It seems incredible to me that the first Harry Potter book was published 20 years ago. Of course, when the first book came out it stole quietly into the ether, yet to create the queues at midnight with people dressed as their favourite characters amid a frenzy to find out what fates befell those dwelling in the world JK Rowling had so deftly created.
It sounds trite to say that she has cast a magical spell over audiences young and old for 20 years and, yet, that is the truth. It’s easy to dismiss her work as children’s fantasy, as her bitter Twitter rival Piers Morgan often does, but the reason these books have captivated millions around the world is that her characters, though based in a fantasy land of wizards and witches, face the age-old battle between good and evil.
Her characters are complex constructions, many scarred by their upbringings and forced to make those choices we all face at different times in our lives about what path we will take. The books prompt readers to wonder what type of person they will choose to become.
Harry is a boy orphaned as a baby and raised by a family who fear and hate him in equal measure. He is forced to sleep in a cupboard, has no clothes of his own and is thin from lack of food, which is in stark contrast to his obese cousin Dudley, whose old clothes drip off Harry.
When Harry discovers he has immense magical powers at the tips of his fingers, he doesn’t punish his pseudo-family, and he even saves Dudley from having his soul ripped from his body, despite the years of bullying.
With biblical resonances, echoed by CS Lewis in his tales of Narnia, Harry must sacrifice his own life in order to defeat an evil that threatens the world. He must walk to his fate alone, leaving friends who have also sacrificed much to support him, to face a jeering crowd before being killed by his nemesis Voldemort, not sure if the resurrection stone in his pocket will work. He faces those choices at 17.
The books start off with the unbridled joy of Harry starting a new life in Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, meeting friends, joining clubs, enjoying wealth of his own for the first time with the wild-eyed wonder we would all have at entering a magical world. Soon, the whispered menace of a Dark Lord manifests into a new world order, where people are forced to testify against family members and friends, where your genetics matter, and an air of fear and hopelessness pervades. The new regime must be defeated, but who will stand up to face down the threat? It is on the shoulders of young people that the fate of the world rests. Harry is constantly advised to give up, run away and take his friends with him, usually by concerned or jaded adults, but he and his band of young friends stand firm in the face of violence and death. It has the hallmarks of the sacrifices made during the two World Wars, when young men and women, in the face of unspeakable horrors, had to make similar choices. The book forces you to wonder what choices you might make if your family were killed or threatened.
Harry is surrounded by strong female characters. There’s Mrs Weasley, the struggling mum of six sons and one daughter, who takes on Harry as one of her own. Despite having to bear the loss and serious injury of her sons, she rises to protect her daughter by slaying one of the toughest villains.
His sidekick Hermione, whose ‘mudblood’ status condemns her in the eyes of the new regime, is the heart to Harry’s headstrong nature and her love of books and the knowledge she gleans from them saves them on many occasions.
And don’t overlook Luna Lovegood, the dreamy girl with a backbone of steel. Having lost her mum at an early age, she prefers to see magical creatures where others don’t, earning her the title ‘Looney’ Lovegood. She is mocked at school and has her shoes stolen. She displays a fierce loyalty to Harry, despite being imprisoned and separated from her beloved father, a father who, in a bid to get her back, caves in to the Death Eaters’ demand to deliver Harry.
I loved being curled up in bed with two of my daughters snuggled in beside me as we read, sometimes well beyond ‘lights out’, of the adventures of Harry Potter. I have watched the books spark a love of reading that I hope will last them a lifetime. Sleeping under their Hogwarts’ duvet covers, Gryffindor scarves strung from their beds, quills at the ready to create their own tales, I commend JK for getting kids excited about reading.
She promotes friendship, loyalty, courage, and learning, while showing that everyone has a back story, often only uncovered by chance, which shapes your world view.
I can’t wait to introduce daughter No 3 to this extraordinary world and, even though I’ve already bought two complete sets, I might have to invest in new ones. They have a funny habit of being left on buses and in friends’ houses.
So let’s all raise a glass of butterbeer to JK and hope she continues to cast a spell over children for years to come.