As the world looks forward to the latest – and the last – Harry Potter adventure, here’s looking back on what made the series so magical.
JULY 15, 2007 – ABOUT TWO-THIRDS INTO Book Five, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Dolores Umbridge, the hateful High Inquisitor of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, sacks the flaky Divination teacher Trelawney, and there’s a brief moment where I thought: Why look for possible replacements for the post? Why not employ JK Rowling herself! Not that the most popular author in the universe would have magicked herself into her own story, but think about it: Who better to instruct students on ways of foretelling the future than someone whose fictional predictions about Harry Potter have ended up so eerily, so extraordinarily as fact? All the way back in Book One, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, as the infant Harry is dropped off for safekeeping at his Muggle relatives’ home, Rowling wrote these lines for Professor McGonagall: “He’ll be famous – a legend – I wouldn’t be surprised if today was known as Harry Potter day in the future – there will be books written about Harry – every child in our world will know his name.”
Has there been a prophecy more accurate? Sorcerer’s Stone was published in 1997. A decade later, it isn’t just children who await Harry Potter day – July 21, when the seventh and last book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, will finally zoom into the outstretched hands of slavering multitudes – it’s also adults like Melissa Anelli, webmaster of the popular Harry Potter fan site named Leaky Cauldron, whose borderline-embarrassing passion for Potter was revealed recently when, quivering with indignation over the prospect of spoiler e-mails, she wrote, “If Harry dies, we don’t want to know about it until JK Rowling decides to tell us. And if you decide to tell us before that, you’ll incur the wrath of a staff of almost 200, most of whom have been waiting almost 10 years for these final revelations and can NEVER get back the moment you rob by spoiling them. That’s some wrath, right there. We own pitchforks, hot wax and feathers. And we’re not afraid to use them.” The last time an instance of popular culture fomented such frenzy, it involved either a member of the Skywalker clan or a quartet of mop-topped Liverpudlians.
AT LEAST ONE PERSON can’t understand what the fuss is all about – Yale professor and literary scholar and critic Harold Bloom, who famously fumed that “Rowling’s mind is so governed by clichés and dead metaphors that she has no other style of writing.” Even the far less distinguished Stephen King – horror novelist and self-confessed Harry Potter admirer – conceded, in his review of Order of the Phoenix, that Rowling “never met [an adverb] she didn’t like.” Harry, he observed, “speaks quietly, automatically, nervously, slowly, and often – given his current case of raving adolescence – ANGRILY.” (Perhaps out of kindness, King chose not to mention the one recurrent adverb that I loathe the most: sleekly.) But whether literature or not, we’ll leave for the experts to duel out. What we fans love the books for are Rowling’s hardly insignificant gifts in spinning – breathlessly, entertainingly, enormously inventively – these yarns. If Book One tells us that the entrance to the common room of the Gryffindor House is guarded by a portrait of the Fat Lady, Book Four, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, expands this character’s horizons by giving her a friend, the witch Violet who flies in from her own portrait elsewhere to ensure that the Fat Lady doesn’t miss out on the latest Hogwarts gossip.
Part of the tragedy of facing the very last of the Harry Potter adventures is that we can no longer look forward to these slight revelations that snowball into Rowling’s staggering, fully-imagined magical world. She appropriated the popular tropes of children’s fiction – as found in the Enid Blyton books (you don’t need to be Hermione Granger to make the leap from, say, ‘Five Find-Outers and Buster the Dog’ to ‘Three Mystery-Solving Wizarding Students and Scabbers the Rat’, or ‘First Term at Malory Towers’ to ‘First Year at Hogwarts’) – and possibly took a hint or two from the movies (the highlight of Ron Howard’s fantasy Willow was a sorceress who could transform into animals, which is essentially what Rowling’s Animagi are all about), and the ingenious way she brewed together these various ingredients would have gotten toothy smiles of approval from Severus Snape himself. The concluding portions of Book Two, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, are a particularly telling instance of Rowling’s inexhaustible imagination. Tom Marvolo Riddle is really the 16-year-old self of the Dark Lord Voldemort preserved in a diary? Who could have figured that one out!
BUT ROWLING’S REAL TRIUMPH is in rooting all this fantasy in an instantly recognisable reality, in setting this magic amidst the mundane. That her world is fathoms removed from its fictional predecessors like Narnia (whose chronicles CS Lewis laid out in seven – again, seven – installments) or Middle-earth is evident right from Book One, when a tall, thin man with silvery hair and beard long enough to tuck into his belt rummages in his cloak, finds what seems to be a silver cigarette lighter, flicks it open and clicks it. The nearest street lamp goes out, and he does this till all the lamps are extinguished and the street is plunged in darkness. Now this is no ordinary man – he’s Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore (we had to wait till Order of the Phoenix for the full name), Headmaster of Hogwarts, Order of Merlin (First Class), Grand Sorcerer, Chief Warlock of the Wizengamot, Supreme Mugwump of the International Confederation of Wizards, and oh, just about the only wizard that Voldemort fears. He could have most certainly put out the lamps with a swish of a little finger; instead, he uses a near-mechanical contraption – one that Rowling charmingly labels a Put-Outer – which appears tangible enough to be on sale at a neighbourhood electronics outlet.
Rowling’s wizarding world is cluttered with many such artifacts of Muggle civilisation – with non-Muggle equivalents of everything from newspapers (whether legitimate ones like The Daily Prophet or trashy tabloids like The Quibbler) to governing bodies (The Ministry of Magic) to student exams (first the OWLs, Ordinary Wizarding Levels, then the NEWTs, Nastily Exhausting Wizarding Tests) – just as our world brims over with magic. We only need to look, and we’d understand that the next time we hear things going bump in the night, it could well be The Knight Bus barreling past our homes, causing mailboxes and trash cans to jump out of its way as it approaches them and back into position after it passes. Rowling’s most tongue-in-cheek extrapolation of this conceit (that the magical and the non-magical blur into one another) is her revelation – in Book Three, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban – that witch burnings were, quite simply, a waste of time because “the witch or wizard would perform a basic Flame Freezing Charm and then pretend to shriek with pain while enjoying a gentle tickling sensation.” (Passages such as this one are, no doubt, why Christian groups have branded the Harry Potter books as satanic, as gateways to the occult, but Rowling is nothing if not catholic in detailing her universe. Hogwarts does celebrate Christmas, though with the decidedly unholy tradition of suits of armour being bewitched to sing carols.)
THIS WEALTH OF IMAGINED information is why re-reading the Harry Potter books is such a joy. Like many fans, I have gone back to Books One through Six in anticipation of number Seven, and despite the groaning flab of the later installments – did we really need the episode in Order of the Phoenix about Harry and the others ridding a house of creatures called doxies? – there’s always a terrific nugget somewhere that you missed the first time around, when it was all you could do to simply keep up with the major plot points. The Sorting Hat song in Goblet of Fire, for instance, is something I merely skimmed through earlier, but now I learn that the hat – whose function is to determine which of the four school houses a new student will best fit into – once belonged to Godric Gryffindor, the wizard after whom the house is named. And reading the series-so-far at one stretch – and not with two-year gaps – also allows you to appreciate how much of the story was already in place in Rowling’s head. Very early in Book One, when the half-giant gamekeeper Hagrid delivers Harry to his new guardians, he arrives on a flying motorcycle. “Young Sirius Black lent it to me,” he says – and there’s no further mention of Black till Book Three, where he’s revealed to be Harry’s godfather.
This interconnectedness has certainly fuelled the anticipation for Deathly Hallows, having engendered a veritable cottage industry of guessing games about The End. I think, for one, that we can count on help from Peter Pettigrew (a.k.a. Wormtail), a servant of Voldemort whose life Harry saved in Prisoner of Azkaban. (As Dumbledore says, “You have sent Voldemort a deputy who is in your debt… When one wizard saves another wizard’s life, it creates a certain bond between them…”) And while it’s a no-brainer, thanks to the prophecy, that either Harry or Voldemort will end up dead, I’m wondering if Rowling will actually lean towards Harry. She has, after all, been steadily upping the ante when it comes to killing off her characters. We gasped when poor Cedric Diggory, one of the good guys, got it in Goblet of Fire. (To remember how shocking his death was, you only have to go back to Book Two, where the students who looked into the eyes of the murderous basilisk did so conveniently through a mirror or a camera, thus ending up merely Petrified, not dead.) But at least Diggory was a minor player; Sirius Black is killed in Book Five, and in Book Six, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Dumbledore himself drops off. Book One began with the destruction of both good (Harry’s parents) and evil (Voldemort), so will Book Seven come full circle? It’s only a while, now, before we know if Rowling will conclude her remarkable series with the death of The Boy Who Lived.
Copyright ©2007 The New Sunday Express