The Magic of Harry Potter: Celebrating Twenty Years

Friday, 27 October 2017 5-minute read

This being the twentieth anniversary year of the publication of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, there were a number of prominent celebrations of the books over the course of the year. The National Library of Scotland, amongst many libraries across the UK, had a special event on the 26 June to mark the anniversary. There is already a cottage industry of Harry Potter tourism in Edinburgh. And from 20 October to 28 February, the British Library in London is running an exhibition on the history of magic. All of the promotional material for these events as well as the many articles about the anniversary in the press contemplated made Harry Potter magical.

I remember A.S. Byatt’s 2003 critique of the Harry Potter books as a Freudian ‘family romance’, as a ‘secondary secondary world, made up of intelligently patchworked derivative motifs from all sorts of children’s literature’ that ‘has no place for the numinous’, being ‘written for people whose imaginative lives are confined to TV cartoons’. Its primary purpose is to provide the comfort of regressing into children’s or childish fantasies, especially for an ‘adult generation that hasn’t known, and doesn’t care about, mystery’, ‘inhabitants of urban jungles [… who] don’t have the skills to tell ersatz magic from the real thing’. Byatt’s critique was levelled against The Order of the Phoenix, and until that point in the series is fair and exacting. The tropes of being an orphan and escaping to a secret world of magic, mystery and boarding school hijinks are, in a psychoanalytic reading, an immersive escape from the mundane dissatisfaction of one’s immediate environment through fantasy. It was only in the last book that the stakes of the conflict between Harry and Voldemort took on a vaguely ‘numinous’ character, depicting the rise of a genocidal regime that sought racial purity of its society and the chosen hero who defeats it. The symbiotic coexistence of this magical world and the muggle world, far from being a mere ‘caricature’ that Byatt suggests, serves to simultaneously defamiliarize the modern world through its alterity but nevertheless reflect the same world through its proximity in a way that makes these ethical truths more apparent.

I was down in London last weekend to see the British Library exhibition. I had booked myself tickets to see it back in April, but then forgot about it until I was sent a reminder email two days before and had to find an ad hoc way of travelling down in time. The exhibition showcased many of the rare manuscripts and artefacts in the BL’s collection, many of which detailed some of the historical and textual sources that J.K. Rowling drew from to create her magical world. The Edinburgh City Library is also running a similar event in partnership with the BL’s exhibition. Having seen this exhibition, I think it is somewhat unfair for Byatt to dismiss the Harry Potter books as a patchwork of derivative motifs from children’s literature. The depth of research that went into the stories, drawing on numerous historical sources on witchcraft and science, show that the books draw on a much larger wealth of magic than Byatt allows. The exhibition was arranged by subject, exploring the historical antecedents for Hogwarts subjects like Potions, Alchemy, Herbology, Divinations, Charms and Astronomy. This was a fascinating exhibition that shed light on the several years’ worth of research that went into the world of Harry Potter, and the longer history of witchcraft and folk beliefs that are taught at Hogwarts.

But Harry Potter is magical not because it has some profound political or ethical insight into society nor because it displays a rich historical tapestry of witchcraft. It is magical because the readers have come together and made it so. Because Hogwarts is a world that is symbiotic with our own, it is easy to imagine ourselves fitting into it, imagining which house we’d be in or what our patronus would be. And it is something which my friends and I have spent a long time debating. What is especially surprising is that these are all friends from different countries, all of whom I met when I emigrated to the UK to study, and Harry Potter gave all of us a common point of reference (along with The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Star Wars, Doctor Who and other media franchises). The lore of Harry Potter is something that encourages the participatory culture of fan sites and blogs over the Internet. This, coupled with a commercial strategy that feeds off of the energy and enthusiasm of its fans and the dominance of Anglo-American forms of cultural production in a transnational literary marketplace, makes Harry Potter ubiquitous to the point of appearing universal. Harry Potter is not so much written for a generation that only knew of TV cartoons, but for one which uses the Internet to participate and invest their imagination in a shared cultural text with a wider community of fans.

The BL and the NLS’s exhibitions had a section dedicated to the universality and international proliferation of Harry Potter by showcasing the many different languages into which it is translated. Moreover, the NLS also canvassed all of the visitors to the exhibition for their recommendations on which fan sites to archive, acknowledging the tremendous role played by fan culture in making the phenomenon of Harry Potter what it is. What makes Harry Potter so special for me is not that it gives me a comforting fantasy to which I can escape, nor is it the nostalgia for boarding school hijinks, but it is the joy that I get from geeking out over it with my friends from around the world.