Twenty Years of Magic
Twenty years ago today the first Harry Potter novel was released. I was four years old, at pre-school and blissfully unaware of it. At that age I could read, but only short simple sentences. I had a room full of books but most of them were fairy tales, or picture books, or about ballet, or all three! In fact, Harry Potter wouldn’t enter my life until the year after. My nanny read about the hype surrounding the release of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and decided it was something her grandson (my then 9 year old brother) would be interested in. She bought him the second novel to read on our summer holiday and everything changed.
My parents made sure my brother had the first book to read before starting CoS and one of my overriding memories of that summer is how he devoured the two at lightning speed. An avid reader myself by this time, I was determined to read them as soon as possible – well, after my mum had read them first and made sure that they were suitable! I think I was seven before I was allowed to pick up a Harry Potter novel by myself for the first time. I had graduated off my guided reading scheme and had chosen Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess for my first solo read, so my parents were no longer concerned I’d struggle with any of the words.
I loved the world of Harry Potter almost from the moment I first entered it. Before long my brother’s interest in the series had waned but I picked up the mantle with joyful abandon. I begged my mum and dad to take me to queue up at midnight to buy my copy, but was never allowed. They did, however, always pre-order them for me. By the time The Deathly Hallows was released, my mother had heard about it being available to pre-order before I did and picked me up from a tap dancing lesson by telling me she’d already secured our copy! Harry Potter was officially part of our family and there it has remained.
So what is the appeal of Harry Potter and why is it still so beloved by my generation? Those of us in our twenties constantly imagine and reimagine the world, creating our own backstories and minor characters so that it completely mirrors the world we see around us. For me personally, the stories endure because they speak to something deep inside. Harry Potter taught me that being kind and trying to do what is right is more important than who you are and where you come from. It showed me that bravery and intelligence aren’t mutually exclusive. And, ultimately, it gave me a role model to hold on to.
I was a painfully self-aware and bookish child. I was bullied, made to feel boring, and spent most of my time feeling at best plain, and at worst hideously ugly. Then along came Hermione Granger. She wasn’t the blonde and beautiful princess of my fairy stories; she wasn’t even popular. Instead she was a bookworm, like me. She thought the acquisition of knowledge trumped everything. She did her homework! Hermione was a character I could relate to like no other I’d encountered before. And as she grew up, so did I.
Now, I will never look like Emma Watson. But in my head Hermione never became blindingly attractive, she looked more on a par with me. She became politically aware just before I did. She cared for the plight of others, something I felt keenly as a teenager and even more painfully and helplessly now. She stood up for what she believed in and over the years I have learnt to do so as well. Although Hermione cared whether people liked her, it never stopped her from being herself – a lesson we could all do with learning.
This feeling of love and fellowship with Hermione is by no means exclusive to me. I know many people who feel the same and so I wasn’t surprised to see that she was voted favourite Harry Potter character. The thing I have always loved about the book version of Hermione is how her romantic relationships never overshadowed her impressive intelligence and compassion.* It is similarly inspiring to other women who are used to having their romantic worth seem more important than any other quality.
Another character we were truly blessed with in the Harry Potter books was Neville Longbottom.** Shy, awkward, and bullied in the first book, by the final instalment of the series he is as much of a hero as Harry. He has a sad and terrible backstory, he could have been the Chosen One after all, but he shows that everyone can evolve and that we are all capable of great things. Moving from being a minor sort of character to a bone fide champion isn’t easy, but JK Rowling’s depiction of Neville makes us all root for him. He is a treasure.
Finally, a word on something almost entirely erased from the big screen adaptation of the series. I love the films, but they are entirely different beasts to the books. One of the major problems in the later films came with fitting all of the content of the novels into the running time of the movies and this lead to some things being dropped. One of those was the raw political nature of Harry, Ron and Hermione’s actions in The Deathly Hallows. Our Golden Trio literally drop out of school to fight against a great evil that has wormed its way into government and every other facet of daily life. They go underground, fighting a guerrilla war as they try to bring down a tyrant. Building on Hermione’s earlier social justice initiatives with SPEW, they literally become soldiers of truth trying to save the entire world via any means necessary.
But in this they are not alone. Although Ron’s departure is utterly heart-breaking, it is necessary for the plot. When he returns we finally learn that the three of them are not alone in their efforts. Everyone’s favourite pranksters the Weasley Twins are running a secret radio station. Other familiar figures from Hogwarts are also involved. During the build-up to the grand finale at Hogwarts, we learn that Neville and Luna Lovegood have been undermining the regime at the school from within. All of those we love are turning out to have hidden strength, unknown grit and a desire to fight on the side of the angels. It is as heart-warming and inspirational as any other story ever told.
I could go on at length about all sorts of other aspects of the Harry Potter novels. About Professor McGonagall. Molly Weasley. Even Narcissa Malfoy. But I won’t. Instead I shall just implore you to give Harry Potter a go if you haven’t already. And if you have, why not step back into the magical world JK Rowling created twenty years ago? After all, Hogwarts will always be here to welcome you home.
*I just want to register my dislike of the hints of a love triangle in the film between Harry, Hermione and Ron, and make clear that I don’t care what JK says, Hermione and Ron are PERFECT together. Also, book Ginny is amazing and badass and I love her. Maybe I’ll get around to writing about her at some point. **Film Neville is similarly great but in a different way. Perhaps I shall also get around to talking about him another time. For now I am all about the books.