We’re off to see the wizard
Harry Potter has cast a reading spell over a generation. The final instalment of his magic appears next weekend, writes Peter Lalor
ADECADE after Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone rewrote the rules of publishing, it is clear J. K. Rowling’s series is far more than just a cinderella story of a humble boy wizard who defies the curse of death and suburban circumstance. It is the tale of a literary form that did the same.
Harry Potter is a phenomenon, an epic narrative where the black marks on the page rose up to battle the humming trickeries of cyberspace and the portable entertainment devices that threatened to lay them to waste forever. It is a heart- warming, against- the- odds triumph of good sense and old- fashioned values over the nonsense of the experts who announced that the classic children’s book was dead.
The dark forces gathered before Harry Potter took literary form and have continued to download at a steady rate since. Back then publishers and teachers urged authors to offer up bite- sized snacks of earnest urban realism for the attention deficit generation. The Famous Five were in therapy and the Secret Seven had formed a support group that presented its outcomes by bullet point. The PlayStation and MP3 moved in to fill every flickering microsecond of concentration.
The boy wizard, however, was not to be rushed, underestimated or trifled with. Despite the distractions and doomsayers, armies of children and adults have marched into bookshops and out again with book after weighty book and the final instalment, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows , looks as if it will outsell its six predecessors.
And it’s no passing fad. The first book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone ( it was retitled Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone for the US, where publishers thought the modern world had erased any memory of what a philosopher was, or is), was published in June 1997. In the decade since, more than 325 million Harry Potter books have been sold in 64 languages ranging from Gujarati to German.
In the tiny Australian outpost of the global publishing industry the half- dozen Harry Potter titles have sold nine million copies. A literary novel by a fine writer such as Paul Auster or Don DeLillo will sell 10,000 copies, tops; Rowling does one million in her first week in New Zealand and Australia.
Rowling and Harry Potter have rattled the cage like few fictional works. The books sparked a literary revolution among the great unread and left their mark beyond the literary landscape, engaging and perhaps even rearranging the world. It is evident wherever you look.
On BBC radio one night early last month author Nassim Taleb, a self- described ‘‘ epistemologist randomist’’ included Potter alongside September 11, the computer, the laser and the tsunami as part of his black swan phenomena ( random events that contradict everything we thought we knew but affect everything we know from there on in).
Harry Potter may be a triumph of the classic novel form but references to him are found in a million shapes in every corner of cyberspace. During April and May there were 45 days when he was the subject of more blogs than George W. Bush. In a corner of the blogosphere somewhere you can find a group comparing ‘‘ Potterverse’’ existentialism with Jean- Paul Sartre’s definitions of the same. The contributors are earnest and studious, citing book references from both sources with easy familiarity. Somewhere in the thread someone posts a discussion about death between the ghost Nearly Headless Nick and the boy wizard. At some stage Soren Kierkegaard gets a mention.
And Harry was challenging God long before Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens reentered the argument recently.
While the secular celebrate the fact the books have brought children back to the written word, conservative Christians warn Harry and his magic are an agent of the devil. And Lord knows what al- Qa’ida makes of HP.
In 2002 Rome’s chief exorcist pontificated that the Potter books carry the ‘‘ the signature of the king of darkness’’. Fortunately for Rowling, Catholics don’t issue fatwas, and even if they did most Catholics aren’t listening. Even the conservative Archbishop of Sydney, George Pell, wrote in a column that while he found the Potter books enjoyable fantasy, he was always a J. R. R. Tolkien man.
Some priests may not like Harry but the medical fraternity has noted his presence. The head of pediatrics at the University of Melbourne uses the Potter narratives to inform his lectures and to help his students to understand children.
And The New England Journal of Medicine published a letter from a pediatrician, Howard J. Bennett, who reported treating three eight to 10- year- olds for tension headaches traced back to their reading the 870- page Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix in 2004. Bennett noted that when they were told the best way to cure the headache was to stop reading, two children opted for painkillers instead.
The magic of the book has rubbed off on the publication process. The British publisher denies the book is being printed in the dark behind razor wire by east German factory workers who are strip- searched on leaving work, but it does gag all who come in contact with it by forcing publishers and bookshop workers to sign confidentiality agreements. Ask the local publishers a question and they won’t answer it because they can’t. The master copy of the manuscript moves from one territory to another under escort.
Rowling’s story is almost as well- known as the adventures of the characters she created. An unemployed single mother, she came up with the idea of the boy wizard while she was stranded on a train between Manchester and London. The death of her mother further informed the situation.
All fairytales involve the hero defying expectations, and Rowling is no exception. The first book was rejected by 12 publishing houses before Bloomsbury gave her $ 3000 and advised her to get a day job. It printed 1000 copies of the first edition, 500 earmarked for libraries.
The Americans were more optimistic, giving Rowling an advance of $ US150,000 for the first US rights, good money for most writers, but a fraction of what was to come. Rowling is now a billionaire and was voted Britain’s greatest living author in a magazine poll last year, receiving three times as many votes as the runner- up, fantasy writer Terry Pratchett. Last month, business magazine Forbes put Rowling, 48, in its list of the 100 most powerful people alive.
Not that everyone is wild about Harry. Almost 40 per cent of independent booksellers in Britain refuse to stock the new book because they cannot compete with the discounts offered by the chain stores.
In Australia Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows has a list price of $ 49.95, but most people will buy it for less than $ 30. One independent bookseller in Melbourne rails that he makes no money on HP and says the book has ruined business. But other booksellers, such as Sydney’s Gleebooks and Better Read than Dead, see HP as an opportunity.
Gleebooks charges $ 135 for tickets to ride the Gleewarts Express, a Harry Potter- themed steam train trip to a secret destination. The first such trip, to celebrate the publication of the third Potter novel, attracted 300 customers, but 1000 will ride this time.
A spokesman for the bookshop could have taken another 2000.
Even at $ 29 booksellers make a profit; it just annoys them it is not as handsome as usual.
Rowling guards her work like a mother hen. She stands on set when movies are made to ensure they are faithful to a tale she admits is dark.
‘‘ My books are largely about death,’’ she said in an interview some time back. ‘‘ They open with the death of Harry’s parents. There is Voldemort’s obsession with conquering death and his quest for immortality at any price, the goal of anyone with magic. I so understand why Voldemort wants to conquer death. We’re all frightened of it.’’
But we are fascinated as well. University of Technology, Sydney, academic Rosemary Johnston, a children’s literature expert and an unabashed Potter fan, celebrates the ‘‘ triumph of Rowling’s black marks on the page’’. She believes the Potter decade has been a positive experience for teachers, publishers and children.
‘‘ It changed everything,’’ she says. ‘‘ Prior to the Potter phenomenon there was all this talk, I use to read it over and over again, publishers would say things such as: ‘ we live in a visual age, children want quick grabs, you’ve got to write in the quick grab, you can’t write a long paragraph, you can’t have a long chapter, you can’t have big words’. And yet here comes Potter with six or seven hundred pages in the books, with big words, with long paragraphs sometimes and with complex existential ideas, and it shows that all that talk that publishers and teachers were going on with was incorrect and that if you get a story that’s gripping enough children will engage with the reading of it.’’
Johnston remembers watching seven- yearolds walk out of a bookshop with the 700- page second book. ‘‘ People were saying sceptically that they weren’t going to read it, but they did, and what’s more they enjoyed it,’’ she says.
‘‘ It’s been a good lesson because there is a power in the printed world. And we do live in a visual age and we do live in the age of the quick grab, but if you get that magic ingredient in the story and package it in a way that’s attractive, then the magic of the black mark on the white page still works.’’
Johnston argues that, while the books defied