In 1995, British author J.K. Rowling was typing away on an old manual typewriter, the words on the page a magical beginning. Rowling was a depressed, divorced, single mother writing an idea that had come to her five years earlier. That manuscript would become Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, the story of an 11 year old boy attending a school for young wizards. Initially, the book was only published with 1,000 prints in June of 1997.
Twenty-one years later, the Harry Potter series has sold over 450 million copies worldwide, translated into 67 languages. Not only were the award winning books a commercial success for Rowling, but they have had an unprecedented cultural impact. The Harry Potter fandom is possibly the largest in the world, creating a strong bond between Potterheads. The fan base has created an extensive world outside of the books and movies that Rowling herself has praised. Websites, podcasts, fan art and fan fiction, conventions, festivals, role playing games, Wizard rock bands, and more are part of the fandom universe.
Children and adults alike have fallen under J.K. Rowling’s spell. However, the beauty of beginning the series as a child is that the books grow with the reader, especially if you were reading them as they were being released. With ten years between the first and last installment, the series could take the reader through elementary, high school, and into college, being a part of important developmental years. With such positive themes as tolerance, justice, diversity, and loyalty, the story influenced its readers for the better. In his book Harry Potter and the Millennials: Research Methods and the Politics of the Muggle Generation, a political-science professor at the University of Vermont Anthony Gierzynski explored the politically relevant lessons learned from the series.
“Harry Potter was one of the great cultural events of our generation’s time,” Gierzynski quoted a student in his book. The Potter books “helped raise the children of our generation by instilling in them some of the basic moral conceptions of right and wrong.” Gierzynski and colleagues also surveyed 1,141 college students in the United States in 2013, finding fans of Harry Potter to be more tolerant, more opposed to violence and torture, less authoritarian, and less cynical than those who did not read the series.
Bridget Quitter, an American student receiving her Masters in International Human Rights Law in Galway, Ireland, has been hooked on Potter since her fourth-grade teacher read The Sorcerer’s Stone aloud in class. Unable to wait for the in-class reading, Quitter got the book from the library right away and read it cover to cover, stopping only for dinner. She says of the books, “It’s hard to judge how much Harry Potter shaped me as a person because it was a constant in my life for about seven years (the very formative years, too). I had already had very strong opinions and feelings on a lot of the themes in Harry Potter like fairness, justice, and equality.” Bridget jokes that Harry Potter is her longest relationship, being in her life for 15 years between the books, movies, and theme parks. It’s no doubt that relationship has strongly impacted her life.
Beyond its political lessons, Harry Potter has strong themes of death, darkness, and depression. This is not surprising considering that J.K. Rowling was battling depression when she began writing, originating from the death of her mother and estrangement from her husband. Dementors, creatures who feast on the souls of their victims, were inspired by Rowling’s illness. These evil beings are what Harry fears most in the world, as they leave him paralyzed with emotional agony, not unlike depression itself. The character of Severus Snape could be seen as a sufferer of depression as he holds onto the pain of the loss of Harry’s mother, Lily, and pushes all others, especially Harry, away from him. A quote from Professor Dumbledore in The Goblet of Fire seems to reference the dark spiral of addiction that often goes hand in hand with depressive disorders. “Numbing the pain for a while will make it worse when you finally feel it.”
One reader that found hope in the pages of the books is Irish actress Evanna Lynch, who played Luna Lovegood in the films. Lynch was hospitalized for an eating disorder for two years when she was 11, where she spent much of her time reading Harry Potter. When the fifth book of the series, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, was released in 2003, Evanna was permitted to leave the hospital for one hour to retrieve an autographed copy. She then began corresponding with J.K. Rowling, telling her how much the books, and especially Luna Lovegood, inspired her. Evanna overcame her illness and went on to audition for the role of Luna in the Order of the Phoenix movie, winning the part over 15,000 other girls.
As they become adults, Potter fans have found ways to incorporate their love of the wizarding world into their changing lives. CompleteSet CEO’s wife, Ashley Darna, planned a Harry Potter themed baby shower, the invitations designed to look like tickets for the Hogwarts Express. Other parents are passing the legacy to their children from conception with Harry Potter inspired baby names. Last month HOP Media turned the Think Tank Gallery in downtown Los Angeles into the Wooden Beetle Bar for “A Night of Magic.” The 21 and up only event was complete with magically themed cocktails, tarot readings, face painting, and even Quidditch beer pong.
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child has brought readers of all ages back into the world of magic, but may resonate more with adults as the characters they know and love are now grown up and raising children themselves. Set 19 years after the events of The Deathly Hallows, Cursed Child follows the story of Harry Potter and Ginny Weasley’s son, Albus, and his strained relationship with his father. As the book is actually the script for the play of the same name and not a novelization, it introduces the wizarding world in a new way, though the positive themes remain the same.
Beginning in a dark place, J.K. Rowling has brought so much light to the world with her creations. With the book, films, theme parks, and fandom it seems the Harry Potter excitement may never end, and I don’t think anyone is opposed to that! Remember, “We’ve all got both light and dark inside us. What matters is the part we choose to act on. That’s who we really are.” – Sirius Black, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.