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J.K. Rowling: The Magic of Potter

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Three and a half years ago, no one on earth had heard of harry potter except J.K. Rowling, the writer who dreamed him up, and the publishers’ readers who had rejected the manuscript of her first book featuring the bespectacled boy wizard. And now? Four Harry Potter novels later, translations into 42 languages later, 76 million copies sold worldwide later? Strange, strange things are happening wherever on Earth the young fictional hero and his friends can be found.

In Germany, Eberhard Brmann, president of the Berlin magicians’ club Zauberfreunde, reports that “more and more grandparents and parents are calling me because they want to know where their grandchildren and children can learn conjuring tricks.” Brmann’s colleague Wilfried Possin, the head of a magicians’ organization in Frankfurt, attributes this surge of interest to Harry Potter: “The books have brought our trade into the limelight.” VLast July the New York Times Book Review revised its best-seller list by splitting off a separate category for children’s books. The move came just in time to prevent Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire from zooming to the top of the fiction list and joining the three earlier Harry Potter titles firmly ensconced among the 15 slots. By shunting the wizard books out of its main chart, the Book Review fiddled with logic but appeased publishers and authors who believed they had been “Pottered” denied best-selling status by the J.K. Rowling juggernaut.

In China the People’s Literature Publishing House, which once issued the collected poems of Chairman Mao, this year released 600,000 boxed sets of translations of the first three Harry Potters, the largest first printing of any fiction since the communists came to power in 1949.

Rowling’s books have bridged political and cultural chasms; they have altered publishing industries; they have even spurred censorship moves by some religious fundamentalists. But any assessment of her extraordinary impact should focus principally on the private transaction, as old as storytelling, between the speaker and the listener or, a more recent innovation, the writer and the reader.

Here, in the hush of the imagination, is where Rowling works her magic. Listen to her readers; listen to the children.

Tyler Walton, 9, who submitted an essay for Scholastic’s “How the Harry Potter Books Changed My Life” contest, has undergone arduous treatment for leukemia. “Harry Potter helped me get through some really hard and scary times,” he wrote. “I sometimes think of Harry Potter and me as being kind of alike. He was forced into situations he couldn’t control and had to face an enemy that he didn’t know if he could beat.”

Ashley Marie Rhodes-Courter, 15, another contestant, lived in 14 foster homes over a 10-year period. “Harry has a lightning scar on his forehead to remind him of his past,” she wrote. “There’s one on my back to remind me of mine.” A child who has not experienced personal trauma but has witnessed social strife is Magda Anastasijevic, 8, who lives in Serbia. Thanks to the international sanctions put in place after Serbia’s war in Kosovo, the Harry Potter books have only just begun to appear in translation. But Magda’s father knows English and has read all four Harry Potters aloud to her, simultaneously translating the original into Serbian. “I like Harry Potter because he never gives up,” she says, “even though sometimes his best friends are against him.” She knows that Lord Voldemort, the archvillain in the Potter books, is a bad guy, and she believes the same of deposed Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic. This provokes some literary criticism and political analysis: “They were totally different because you can see right away that Voldemort is evil. Milosevic was always pretending he was a nice, good man.”

Or how about a child facing nothing scarier than the process of growing up, which can, some adults may dimly remember, seem very scary indeed? Greta Hagen-Richardson, 12, lives in Chicago and proudly says she has read each Harry Potter book many times 15, 11, 22 and 24, in order of publication, by her count. “When I first read them,” she says, “I thought, ‘The characters really relate to you they’re kids. They have bullies and bad teachers.’ It’s helped me understand something people, maybe my friends, my teachers. It’s influenced me to read more.”

Multiply such testimonials each heartfelt, each slightly different according to the circumstances of the speaker by millions, and Rowling’s effect on the world around us becomes, just barely, imaginable. And it’s not only young people who love the Harry Potter books; they have been eagerly adopted by uncounted adults and have prompted serious academic attention. Vance Smith, an assistant professor of English at Princeton University who is spending this year as a visiting member at the Institute for Advanced Study, Einstein’s old bailiwick, has just delivered a lecture called “Harry Potter and This Ever-Changing Medieval World” to an alumni seminar. He praises, among other things, Rowling’s clever use of Latin and her “important and rigorous medieval agenda.” Not since Charles Dickens has a novelist writing in English achieved Rowling’s command over a whole society young and not so young, of modest means and with money to flambe and the Dickens analogy quickly outlives its usefulness. None of his novels were simultaneous best sellers in dozens of languages; the 19th century world was a markedly slower place than our own. And Dickens’ audience had none of the distractions that beguile Rowling’s readers: no radio, films, recorded music, TV, video and computer games, the Internet. For years, literary culture has been portrayed as gasping on life support, sustained only by old-fogey teachers and hidebound school curricula. The death of the author was surely at hand. And then along came Rowling.

No one can explain the literally unprecedented Harry Potter phenomenon, starting with Rowling, now 35, whose life has been changed utterly by the product of her imagination. Seven years ago, she was the single mother of a small daughter, living in a two-room flat in Edinburgh, listening to mice skittering behind the walls. Now she is internationally famous and earning, according to various estimates, somewhere in the range of $30 million to $40 million a year. Once, during a bad patch, she dreaded the hostile looks she would attract while lining up at the local post office to claim her weekly income-support check. When she visited the U.S. and Canada in October, she stood, with 10,000 pairs of eyes on her, and gave a reading in the Toronto SkyDome. Nothing in the wonder-filled saga of Harry Potter seems remotely as implausible as the triumph of his author.

Rowling has managed to maintain a private life despite the maelstrom of attention and adulation roaring about her. She now has a comfortable house in Edinburgh that she keeps off limits to outsiders. When not traveling, she takes daughter Jessica, 7, to school each morning and is able to stroll and window-shop on Edinburgh’s Princes Street almost always unrecognized by fans. She did extensive publicity during the summer and fall for Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, not to increase sales a laughable notion given the enormous, pent-up demand but to make herself available to some of her young readers. In October she went public for a project unrelated to Harry Potter but of personal concern to her. She agreed to become the first ambassador, i.e., spokeswoman, for the National Council for One Parent Families, a British charity, and donated $725,000 to the cause.

Rowling has a very good reason for trying to keep the world at bay. She is after all a working writer, committed to producing three more novels that will bring to an end the seven years Harry and his classmates spend at Hogwarts. And ominous news on this front emerged late in the year: Rowling’s agent, Christopher Little, announced that there would be no new Harry Potter novel before 2002. (Imagine here a worldwide gnashing of teeth baby, permanent and false.) But there will be two brief new, pseudonymous Rowling books coming this winter, based on titles in the Hogwarts library: Quidditch Through the Ages, by Kennilworthy Whisp, and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, by Newt Scamander. Rowling will give the net proceeds to the Harry Potter Fund at Comic Relief U.K., a charity helping children in the developing world.

With no new novel in the offing, Harry addicts will perforce focus their anticipation during the coming year on the film version of the first book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, directed by Chris Columbus and scheduled for release in November by Warner Bros. The studio, which shares a parent company with Time, has already begun stocking its franchise stores with Harry Potter merchandise. This is a sensitive matter, and all involved are hoping it proceeds serenely. Rowling knows product spin-offs have become essential to the marketing of blockbuster films for children, but she has expressed reservations about the commercialization of Harry Potter.

In one sense, the boy wizard has slipped beyond her control; he is out there, everywhere, and legions of people feel a sense of ownership. But in the most important way, Harry still belongs to her. His future is in her head, as is that of the entire fictional universe she has set in motion.

With reporting by Mairi Brahim and Sue Cullinan/London, and bureau reports

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