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Harry Potter and the mental furniture

How J.K. Rowling’s novels shaped a generation of young readers

Katherine Rundell | July/August 2015

The book arrived on my 11th birthday, in the diplomatic bag. “I hope you enjoy this,” said the card, from a family friend. “I believe it’s quite popular.”

Not in Harare, it wasn’t. Nobody at the international school had heard of Harry Potter. A few of the more sophisticated 11-year-olds were disdainful. The Baby Sitters’ Club had given us a wipe-clean, pastel-coloured girlhood to aspire to, and wizards were not in fashion. But I fell in love with Harry, who was just a month older than me; or, if not with him, because he is the least sharply drawn character, then with the secret world lying so discreetly alongside my own. By the fourth book, all but the coolest children were in love with it too. That taught me an early lesson – that the cool miss a great deal. They lose more than they gain; here, they missed out on a phenomenon that moulded the minds, morals and desires of a generation.

J.K. Rowling, who is 50 in July, has ruled the world of children’s stories for 18 years. The eight movies based on her seven books grossed $7.7 billion. The 450m Potter books in print created a generation of adults who remain hurt, in the secret crevasses of their hearts, that they were not called up to be wizards. Harry’s story, like a long friendship, left an imprint on us. It gave deep comfort to girls who were more clever than likeable. It gave strength to red-haired children against bullies. It gave a taste for slightly wonky Latin. It taught us to covet, above all things, an owl.

As a children’s author, I was warned early on that people would ask, somewhere on a sliding scale of well-meaning jocularity, “So, you’re hoping to be the next J.K. Rowling, then?” It’s a question authors laugh about, along with “Do you write with a pen?” (Secretly, I long to ask that myself. Do you write with a pen? Where do your ideas come from?) I was also asked, often: “Are the Harry Potter books any good?”

It’s easy to argue that they are not. If you enjoy stripping a superstar down to a naked emperor, the Potter series is easy prey. If good prose is the ability to say the most with the fewest words, the style is poor. Rowling does not deal in ambiguity; on a single page opened at random, characters speak briskly, impatiently, quickly, angrily and bleakly. The books lean on other writers; the idea of King’s Cross station leading to a magical world and a skinny orphan who sleeps in a cupboard being a skivvy to a fat family appears in Eva Ibbotson’s “The Secret of Platform 13” (1994). The Potter world is only erratically logical; Harry has a magical map which should have given away the plot secrets of books three, four and five. Grouping all the offspring of evil wizards in one house is a peculiar decision. There appear to be no wizarding universities, the wizarding prison is a place of medieval brutality, and nobody at any point reads a novel.

"Unexpectedly lovely": Diagon Alley, part of the Harry Potter studio tour at Leavesden, on the outskirts of London

These holes are part of the fun, as in “Cinderella” (why the emphasis on shoe size when most women are a five or a six?). And the tonal mix flies straight to children’s souls. Rowling blends grand, outsize action with small, unabashedly childish jokes. Knockturn Alley, lined with Dark Magic stores, is best visited by night. If you’re going to be ludicrous, you have to be bold about it, and Rowling is: A-levels are NEWTs, Nastily Exhausting Wizarding Tests, and jellybeans are reimagined as Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans, one of which tastes like bogeys. The overarching story is about love, bigotry, survival, redemption. Adults might say that bogeys and evocations of the Christ narrative should not go together. Children know they do. 

The joy I took in those books was life-changing. I was engulfed by their glorious over-abundance, the over-told, over-described giddiness. I could have told you how many lampposts there were in Privet Drive. I could have sung the song of the sorting hat, in Stephen Fry’s voice. I had a friend who could recite the whole first chapter verbatim. These days, I couldn’t tell you that level of detail about my own books. But children are Columbuses – they have just discovered discovery, and its deep visceral pleasure. A child’s imagination is palatial, and needs large books to furnish the rooms.

The Potter books thrum with Rowling’s belief in human goodness. Children need permission to be bad, to take risks, to hate adults in a safe way, and authors like Roald Dahl and Francesca Simon have long met that need. But, in a world that prizes Simon Cowell’s pantomime cruelty, they need even more permission to be good – to have books that champion kindness, brains, compassion. And I do not believe that too many adverbs at an early age ruin anyone’s ear for good prose. I grew up to love Muriel Spark, Kafka, Beckett, Coetzee, writers whose pens are eradicators of fat; but also Trollope and Dickens, the forebears of Rowling’s sprawling detail. Her style has heart. As the chaplain of my college says, “God loveth adverbs.” 

I knew I wanted to be a writer before Harry Potter, but was unaware of any author’s life beyond the glamorous exceptions of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and Roald Dahl, who mined their own lives for plot. At 11, if you didn’t fly a plane, I didn’t care about your biography. But Joanne Rowling’s life was shaped into a fairy-tale narrative, the model of what it was to be a writer: a person whose imagination transfigures them into an idol. At readings, she was mobbed like a film star by people wanting to touch her, to take some piece of her. She was painted, inevitably, as a Cinderella. A Telegraph story in 2007 – “From the dole to Hollywood” – told the tale of the single mother who was now richer than the Queen. In fact, Rowling’s father was an engineer with Rolls-Royce, and she read French and Classics at Exeter. But the story had some truth in it, and that truth changed lives. “I thought the publishing world would only open its doors if your name was Austen, or Dickens, or you’d attended a top university,” says Mel Salisbury, now a successful young-adult novelist. “I didn’t know you could have had free school meals, and carried your PE kit in a plastic bag, and still be a writer. She opened my eyes. It gave me the boost I needed to try it for myself.” On her Twitter page, Salisbury gives her location as Slytherin Common Room.

The most famous chapter in Rowling’s biography is those six months spent living on benefits in Scotland. The story goes that she wrote the first Potter book in a café with her baby, to escape their unheated council flat. It’s obviously Dickensian, and not strictly true; the flat, Rowling told the BBC in 2001, had heating. She worked in cafés for the sake of the walk, which made her daughter fall asleep, and for the hum of noise and presence of other humans. (I write in cafés, and so do half the writers I know. I have an app on my phone that produces café noise when I work at my desk. Sometimes, I play the café noise in an actual café, if the other people are being too quiet.) In the version of Rowling’s story I most treasured, the first three chapters of the book were sent to hundreds of agents before Christopher Little asked to see the rest of the manuscript; genius, we were urged to believe, could go unnoticed. (We might yet be geniuses ourselves, billionaires-in-waiting.) In fact, Little was the second agent Rowling tried; genius was probably overlooked only by the first agent’s intern.

The story of Harry walking into Rowling’s imagination fully formed, a gangly fairy godson, does seem to be true. As her website tells it, it belies the idea that characters are built piecemeal from scratches and errors. “It was 1990. My then boyfriend and I had decided to move up to Manchester. I was travelling back to London on my own on a crowded train, and the idea for Harry Potter simply fell into my head. I had been writing since the age of six, but I had never been so excited about an idea before. To my immense frustration, I didn’t have a pen that worked, and was too shy to borrow one…but this was probably a good thing. I simply sat and thought, for four (delayed train) hours, while all the details bubbled up in my brain, and this scrawny, black-haired, bespectacled boy who didn’t know he was a wizard became more and more real to me.”

The books are another kind of fairy tale. They transfigured children into readers, and readers into model citizens. In a 2005 survey, 59% of British children felt the Potter books had improved their reading; 48% said that they had led them to read more often. These numbers are magical indeed in a nation that scores poorly on literacy – 22nd out of 24 comparable countries in a 2013 study. The respondents may have been more enthusiastic than accurate; academics now see the rhetoric about the books bringing children (especially boys) to reading as over-optimistic, the effect short-lived. In 1998, when the first Potter book landed in America, the National Assessment of Educational Progress found that the percentage of children who reported reading for fun dropped from 43 in the fourth grade to 19 in the eighth. In 2005, once Pottermania had woven its spell, the results were just the same. But that academic instrumentalisation of books obscures the series’ true gift. For a decade, it gave children intimate knowledge of what it is to fall in love with other people’s inner lives, their hearts and minds and erratic decisions.

Some loved it so much, they wrote their own version of the story, feeding off the rich detail of the Potter universe. Potter fan fiction became a worldwide phenomenon and begat the word “fanfic”. The online space carved out for Potter-fic allowed “Twilight” fanfic to flourish, and it’s well known where that led. George Harrison once said, “No Shadows, no Beatles”; by the same token, no Harry Potter, no Christian Grey.

Harry Potter also seems to be good for your soul. The Journal of Applied Psychology reported in 2014 that Italian high-school students had been asked about their reading and their views on homosexuality. The more Potter books they had read, the more likely they were to be tolerant. This kind of study has obvious holes – the correlation may be between tolerance and reading in general – but it rings true. For me, Harry Potter did lend glamour to speaking out for the oppressed. Ethics, so often left to languish with lentils and stern adults in brown clothing, were lit and made to shine, surrounded as they were by spells and dragons. Magic and moral tenacity went together.

The books could have battled even more boldly than they did. There is a conservative side to them which may account for some of their popularity. The principal villain and the main authority figures are men; the sidekicks are women. J.K. Rowling’s own name was a compromise: she has no middle name, but her editor, Barry Cunningham, thought boys might be reluctant to read a book written by a woman, so Joanne was excised and the K added, to stand for Kathleen, Rowling’s paternal grandmother. There are no gay couples in the book; Rowling announced a few years after his fictional death that Dumbledore was gay, but never said so in the texts themselves. She satirises the Dursleys’ middle-class small-mindedness – they eat too much, consume too much, care too much about the opinions of their pristine neighbours – and yet the socioeconomics of the characters roam no wider than lower-middle to upper-middle. Hermione’s parents are dentists. “My name was down for Eton, you know,” Justin Finch-Fletchley tells Harry. “I can’t tell you how glad I am I came here instead. Of course, mother was slightly disappointed.”

Eton looms large in the books. The castle, the robes, the Hogwarts song and the houses all owe a debt to the classic British boarding school. And this too has had an impact in the real world. The number of pupils sent away to school in Britain, which had fallen steadily from 1987 to 2000, stopped falling after Harry and his friends had made boarding look like heaven. For those who argue that boarding militates against maturity, compassion and social change, Harry Potter was not a happy phenomenon. My own envy of Hogwarts came with ambivalent feelings about what boarding school did to its students. My father boarded when he was very young, and it gave him poise, and an intimate knowledge of the script for a particular kind of Englishman, but it also gouged holes out of his childishness and filled the space with pre-emptive adulthood. I’m not sure J.K. Rowling intended to shore up the boarding-school tradition. But then, fiction is an unwieldy beast, and is not on anyone’s side.

There is one outcome from Harry Potter of which we know Rowling does approve. The most impassioned Potter fans have something in common: they have the idealism associated with youth. The books have become the centre around which a community of like-minded people gather to fight what they see as real-life versions of the monsters Harry fights. Their tagline, “The Harry Potter Alliance: the weapon we have is love”, draws on the desire the books encode: a lust to become an idol in the pursuit of justice. The alliance, they say, “turns fans into heroes…We believe that unironic enthusiasm is a renewable resource.” They go on: “by translating some of the world’s most pressing issues into the framework of Harry Potter, [the alliance] makes activism easier to grasp and less intimidating.” It led a successful four-year campaign to force Warner Bros Entertainment to go Fairtrade with its Harry Potter chocolate, and end its relationship with a company that had alleged ties to child labour. It raised $120,000 after the earthquake in Haiti in 2010. It has taken to the streets in protests in Manhattan and Atlanta, dressed in Hogwarts house colours. The marches have to be held at weekends as many of the participants are still at school.

Lovers of the books have worked hard to keep Harry in their daily lives. Many universities, including Oxford and Cambridge, have Quidditch teams. They seem to be free of the aura of sexual glamour that college sport often bestows, perhaps because the players run around with brooms between their legs. “An average match is about 20-21 minutes of game-time,” says Oxford’s president, Jan Mikolajczak. “The Snitch comes on the pitch at 18 minutes, so that’s the minimum, but barely any Snitches last longer than about five minutes. It’s a tennis ball attached to the back of the pants of a so-called Snitch Runner. This is an impartial athlete whose sole purpose is to avoid getting caught by either team for as long as possible, which can include running away as well as pushing and throwing the Seekers.” People get hurt, but less, he says, since they introduced PVC brooms instead of wood. It’s no madder than many other sports.

Other people make do with attending the marathon screenings of all eight films held on Harry Potter day. I revisited all eight films before writing this and found some of the joy that Richard Linklater offers in his hit “Boyhood”. They show time to be the extraordinary magic trick that it is. There is immense pleasure in seeing someone, anyone, grow up in fast forward. The films are beautifully put together by a team of old hands, marshalled by the producer David Heyman, who started out on David Lean’s “A Passage to India”. And they changed the rules of film-making. Along with “The Lord of the Rings”, the Potter films created a different set of imperatives for family film-makers, a new vocabulary. But the fact remains that they are in equal parts joyful and excruciating to watch. Child acting improves every year, and back then we were still in the foothills. There is a great deal of enunciating per person per minute. 

A while ago the internet was seized with the hope that Emma Watson, who plays Hermione, was dating Prince Harry. She would, the world felt, make an ideal princess. The moment crystallised the feeling that Watson, talented though she is, was the wrong choice for the part. From the very first film she was a pretty girl disguised by an ugly jumper, and a missed opportunity. Hermione, brilliant but always saying the wrong thing, dowdy and longing for a place to rest her heart, is awkward to her bones. It was why I loved her, her awkwardness worked in step with her intelligence. For me, and for thousands of girls and women, she was something remarkable; an unapologetic high-scorer in a world in which the worst thing to be was bossy and clever. I might, now, have questions about female agency and the feminist limits of the books, but at the time she was the closest thing to myself I could find. At school, I was called Hermione.

If the wand fits: the gift shop at Leavesden

It is with some trepidation that I set off to the Warner Bros Harry Potter Studio Tour. It did not begin promisingly. It is hard to be optimistic about anything that begins at Watford station, surely one of the least lovely in England. For Margaret in E.M. Forster’s “Howards End”, “King’s Cross had always suggested infinity”. Watford suggests a dead bird so crushed as to be unidentifiable. It is icy, and raining. I queue with several groups of women in their early 20s, some tourists in their 60s from Hong Kong, and a boy of about ten with his mother. The young women are the most excited. The boy, faced with them, tries to look cool, but keeps grinning into the collar of his raincoat.

The Harry Potter bus that takes you to the studio is a normal London bus, except for a television screen with a posh voice. “We thought you’d like to know a little bit about Warner Bros,” it says. There is laughter, and snorting. We are not here for Warner Bros. We are here for epic, and hope, and glory.

As we get off the bus, a woman says to her boyfriend, “Oh. It looks like an IKEA.” It does – with more gleeful children than are usual in Scandinavian furniture warehouses. The tour opens with a cinema screening of clips from all eight movies, set to music. Without the dialogue to remind us that the acting is not always impeccable, the clips are heart-stirring: people cheer raucously at the end. This sets the tone for the tour, which is unexpectedly lovely. The sets and props are more, not less, beautiful off screen, and their detailed fidelity brings the wizarding world more alive when you can reach out and touch the beds, the trunks and wands, the magic doorways. You hear how they were made: Dumbledore’s weighty books are phone directories covered in leather.

Next, children ride brooms against a green screen. They look bone-deep, remember-forever happy. In the lunch hall, they can try Butterbeer; it has foam on top, thick as yogurt, and, underneath, something sharp and fizzy and thin. It tastes like sweetish plastic. There’s a bin in case you want to take the plastic tankard home, but can’t face the contents. It is well used.

“The hall was very extremely good,” says a girl on a birthday outing. And the beer? “Horrible.”

Her father laughs. “She spat it out.”

“It was so sour,” she says. “But I like the foam.”

Later I buy some Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans. Some of the Warner Bros beans seem deliberately unpleasant, others unintentionally so. I ask a boy to try some in case it’s just my faded adult palate. “Disgusting. Can I try some more?” I let him keep them.

On the way home I meet two women, both American students. They are going through their photos of the day, talking about the characters as if they were celebrities. “I love Cho’s dress. I want that dress.”

I ask about the books. “I got into them in high school,” one says. “They were somewhere to escape to. I can picture the world so clearly in my head that they’re easy to step into. They have so much detail.”

The other woman nods. “They’re like home.”
 

Stations of the Cross: there is a corner of King’s Cross that is forever Potter

There is one last spot where you can touch the edges of the Potter world. In a corner of King’s Cross station is half a trolley nailed to a wall under a sign saying Platform 9¾. On top of it are old-fashioned trunks – everyone in Harry Potter has exquisitely battered leather luggage; no awkward nylon backpacks here – and a birdcage with a fluffy toy owl. Each person selects a scarf in house colours, and poses, pushing the trolley, one leg bent, both gleeful and self-conscious. Out of sight, a helper holds the scarf up so that it appears to be billowing out behind as the would-be wizard pushes through the wall into the secret world.

I ask one of the helpers if anyone ever takes a Hufflepuff scarf. “Yeah! It’s the least popular, though.”

The popularity goes, in order, Gryffindor (Harry’s house, for would-be protagonists), Slytherin (for rebels and people who wish they had a motorbike), Ravenclaw (for those who are realistic about the limits of their own bravery but not about the limits of their brains) and Hufflepuff. Hufflepuffs are good people. Hardly anyone wants to be a Hufflepuff, though everyone probably should.

Some children are shrieking, on a sugar high or Potter high or both. Have they had any incidents, I ask the scarf-holder. Someone dislocated a knee, once – a grown man, running too hard into Hogwarts. They get queues out the door of the station in the holidays, he says, but Potter fans are mostly well behaved. “The owl gets dirty, though. We have to keep updating it.”

Harry Potter became, for my generation, a kind of Esperanto, and a model for self-definition. I think I am a Ravenclaw, I wish I was a Gryffindor, I fear I might be a Slytherin-Hufflepuff hybrid.

To remember the books feels a lot like remembering childhood. To remember the characters feels a lot like love. “The purpose of anthropology”, Ruth Benedict said, “is to make the world safe for human differences.” Harry Potter pulls the same trick. What Seamus Heaney said of poetry – we go to it “to be forwarded in ourselves” – is true of these books too. They were huge, in every sense. So confidently absurd, so exuberant and warm, so unashamedly sprawling, they were a world large enough to fit an entire generation.

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