The good versus evil storyline has existed since the beginning of time; in fact, it is ultimately the basis of most of the world's religions. Stories of magic have existed almost as long, and the story of the orphan who overcomes great odds was popularized by Charles Dickens more than 150 years ago. Yet J.K. Rowling took these very well-known elements and produced something both familiar and new at the same time.
Harry Potter himself could have easily been a one-dimensional character, the lone hero forced to confront the greatest evil the world has ever known. Frodo in The Lord of the Rings trilogy is such a character, never really growing or maturing during the journey, simply putting one foot in front of the other. But Rowling did something with Harry and the rest of the young characters that hadn't been done before in children's literature: she let them grow up. Harry is 11 years old when we meet him, downtrodden by the Dursely's and unaware of his magical abilities. Over the next seven years he grows in the same way any child does, through trial and error, having goods days and bad (sometimes very, very bad), and discovering who he is as a person, a friend, and a reluctant hero.
Harry is the ultimate underdog, and people love an underdog. He is an orphan whose destiny will have him battle the most powerful dark wizard ever, which is daunting enough, but Rowling goes a step further and throws in enough obstacles to deter Hercules. Having most of the drama take place as Harry is going through puberty helps us relate even more; none of us have ever fought a mountain troll, but we've have fretted over asking someone to a high school dance. We love Harry and his friends first and foremost because they are us.
The other characters, particularly Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger, also develop and grow throughout the series, and the romantic tension between them in the later books was yet another twist on "typical" children's literature. Rowling also makes the stories and characters real by having them deal with death in virtually every book. Death is a subject that rarely receives thoughtful consideration even in adult fiction, yet Rowling tackles it from the first chapter of "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone."
The way Rowling portrays the adults in the Harry Potter series is yet another surprise. In most children's books, adults are either not present at all or are little more than bumbling idiots for the kids to outwit. The adults in the Harry Potter books are fully formed characters whose stories could stand alone if you removed the kids entirely. Rowling shows us the adults' strengths and flaws, glories and failures, and she does it from the perspective of the students in most cases; what they (and we) learn about Dumbledore, Sirius Black, Lupin, Snape, and others comes out in bits over the course of the narrative. And as in life, sometimes the kids seem more grown up than the adults and sometimes it's the other way around.
As adults, we love Harry Potter because the books (much more so than the films) have enabled many of us to both share a rare bond with our children and briefly relive childhood ourselves. Countless parents around the globe have either read the books to their children or waited patiently for the kids to finish so we could read them. Harry Potter has given us something in common with our children at a time when we might otherwise think they were from a different planet. And the books have transported many of us back to the days of our own childhood when we actually read during our free time rather than sitting in front of a computer or smart phone. They allow us to escape, however briefly, to a time when we had far fewer worries and responsibilities.
None of these things, however, would make the Potter books the best-selling series of all time (400 million copies in over 30 languages and still growing) if Rowling hadn't also written an amazingly compelling page-turner of a series. That it is both a great beach read and truly literature at the same time is all the more remarkable. She has woven the best parts of the hero-quest, magical fantasy, romance, Gothic suspense, social commentary, and even detective fiction into a tapestry that looks like nothing we'd ever seen before.
Furthermore, Rowling and her boy wizard did something many thought impossible: they made reading cool again, for adults as well as children. Prior to 1997, who would have imagined that millions of children would attempt to read an 800-page book in one sitting, or that their parents would be anxiously waiting for them to finish reading so they could start?
With the Harry Potter books, J.K. Rowling opened up a world of imagination to a generation of kids who thought for anything to be entertaining it had to have a plug, a screen, or an Internet connection. And these kids (and hopefully their parents as well) will keep reading, if only in the hope of finding another book or series that grabs them the way Harry Potter did. Even if Rowling had never written another word, people everywhere who love books would owe her a debt of gratitude for making reading a novel something we, and more importantly our children, look forward to again.
In the end, each person who has read the books loves Harry Potter for their own individual reasons, which is as it should be. But the reasons discussed above are the communal reasons, the things that draw us together as fans of the series. That shared experience in a disconnected and fractured world may be the best magic of all.
Happy Birthday Harry, and Happy Birthday Jo Rowling.