Tuesday, May 08, 2012


Like millions around the world, SHANTINI SUNTHARAJAH falls under the spell of J.K. Rowling’s boy wizard

WHAT DO HARRY POTTER and Michael Jackson have in common? Each is a cultural phenomenon in his own right and they both have an amazing ability to entrance and unite people of all ages, across all nations and from every kind of background imaginable.

However, Michael Jackson comes in a close second to Harry Potter because, for a fictitious character, the boy wizard’s ability to touch the lives of millions is absolutely incredible. Harry Potter changed the world and we Muggles (non-wizards) will never be the same again.

He didn’t do it himself, of course. J.K. Rowling dreamed up the bespectacled boy wizard with the rather dull name during a train ride between Manchester and London.

Way back in 1997, when the first of the seven-book series, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, in the US), hit the bookshelves, Rowling was completely unknown. A divorcee on welfare with a daughter to take care of, she rose with breathtaking speed from the depths of obscurity to become one of the world’s richest people and was bestowed the esteemed Order of the British Empire (OBE).

Are the Harry Potter books really worthy of such acclaim? There is no single answer to this question. Everyone—both the literary and the not-so-literary types—seem to be eternally divided on the issue. Some believe the Harry Potter books are the result of the kind of literary genius that comes around once in a century or two, while others scoff and dismiss the stories as vastly overrated. A few religious factions have even condemned the “evil” and “wrong” witchcraft and wizardry in the storyline.

When I heard about the first book, I wasn’t exactly inspired to run out and get myself a copy, despite the hype and the hoopla. For one thing, I was totally put off by the name; “Harry Potter” made me think of a balding, middle-aged man with a beer gut!

When I finally got hold of a copy (I borrowed it from a friend) and began reading, I felt that Rowling had ripped off Enid Blyton. Hogwarts was essentially Blyton’s Malory Towers or St. Clare’s series with magic thrown in just so Rowling could create a world with no rules.

All writers know that a fantasy world is difficult to create from scratch because it requires an especially unfettered imagination. Such a world, however, has no boundaries and is not confined to the physical limitations of the real world. In other words, the writer can pretty much do whatever he or she wants.

I believed Rowling took Enid Blyton’s successful “children in boarding school” theme and smoothed away all the encumbering edges, which I felt made the writing fairly easy.

That was what I thought in the beginning.

Within a few chapters, it became apparent that Rowling’s work was anything but easy. In fact, I began to see her as not just a talented author who could keep readers engrossed through hundreds of pages but a courageous one who dared to go where others feared to tread. The story, although aimed at children, had very adult themes (which explain why everyone and their mothers have read the series). Death, especially the loss of a parent or child, was virtually unheard of in children’s fiction but Rowling changed that when she bravely tackled the subject with refreshing honesty.

By killing some of the most beloved characters, like Sirius Black in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Albus Dumbledore in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince and Professor Severus Snape, she added a great deal of dimension and depth to her story.

Rowling is also a master at creating a fantastical yet believable world and this is no small feat. Readers just can’t seem to get enough of Hogwarts, the “living” portraits and photos, Quidditch, Lord Voldemort, ghosts, giants ... The Potterverse is also filled with multidimensional characters who are easy to fall in love with.

Where would Harry be without the bumbling, lovable Ron Weasley and the fiercely intelligent Hermione Granger? Although life at Hogwarts would have been a lot easier, it would also have been a whole lot duller without Draco Malfoy and his dimwitted sidekicks Vincent Crabbe and Gregory Goyle. Then there’s the loyal softhearted, half-giant Rubeus Hagrid. These are just a handful of literally hundreds of major and minor characters conjured by Rowling.

Above them all, of course, is Harry Potter himself. We can all relate to him in some way.

He had to face his worst fears, the one destined to battle a terrible foe. He had to bear the crushing responsibility of being everybody’s saviour, while finding his true self, all under incredibly difficult circumstances. Though he’d journeyed with his friends, his path was essentially a lonely one.

Harry Potter is a literary legend, an icon and a role model. Rowling’s brilliantly written story of the boy wizard has created a generation of readers, provided comfort and inspiration and touched the lives of millions around the world.

Now that’s what I call magic.

The enduring enchantment of the Harry Potter series
• Sold more than 400 million copies.
• Translated to more than 60 languages.
• Set records for the fastest-selling books in the history of publishing.
• Led to the rise of the Young Adult genre in literature.
• Added the word “Muggle” to our vocabulary. In 2003, the word was included in the online Oxford English Dictionary.
• Inspired the creation of the Harry Potter Alliance, a non-profit organisation. The group’s achievements include creating a library for children in the Bronx, New York, and raising money for earthquake victims in Haiti.
• College students play “Muggle Quidditch” as a sport. Boston, Harvard and Yale universities are part of the International Quidditch Association.
• The Harry Potter movies are now ahead of Star Wars as the most successful movie franchise of all time.

Reproduced from the April-June 2012 issue of Quill magazine


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