Friday, August 15, 2014

The Birthplace of Harry Potter

I recently returned from a vacation in Scotland which included a couple days sight-seeing in Edinburgh. I spent my junior year of college at the University, and it was fun to visit old haunts and reacquaint myself with beautiful city. It's the capital of Scotland, founded in the twelfth century, with the castle and many buildings on the Royal Mile dating from the sixteenth century. It's role in the history of Scotland, and its present importance to the country on the verge of independence, cannot be over-stated. It's also where J.K. Rowling wrote Harry Potter.

Specifically, she wrote the first book mostly at the Elephant House, a little coffee shop just down from the castle. That fact is now displayed quite prominently on the shop's front window. Quite a number of places mention their connection to Harry Potter, and we frequently saw tour groups being lead by someone in a wizard's robes. These groups mingled with the regular tours at places like St. Giles Cathedral and Greyfriar's Kirk, but the guides didn't point out the nation-changing weddings or historical characters (like Deacon Brodie, the inspiration for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), instead they pointed to tombstones bearing names that matched fictional characters in the Potter series, or places J.K. was believed to have visited or gained inspiration from. It made me reflect a little on how a children's book will fit into the history texts of the future.

I have to admit, I still don't understand why Harry Potter was/is such a phenomenon. I read the first book years ago and stopped there because it didn't appeal to me. After my visit to Edinburgh I picked up the rest of the series and am working through them - got a long way on the flight back home. I do think it's a good middle-grade book, and the stories are well-crafted, but it seems too simple, too generic and stereotypical, with rather ordinary prose, to be held up as a classic of our times (though I have no doubt it will be considered so if only because of its unprecedented popularity).

Now, I'm not trying to bash anyone who likes the books. I have no problem with adults reading children's literature. Everyone can enjoy whatever they want and I think that Harry Potter expanded the world of readers and has done great things for books in general. It's just the analysis of what makes one book so successful while others languish in obscurity that's so hard to figure out - probably impossible, but worth the effort to learn what I can and bring it to my own writing.

Greyfriars Kirkyard
For instance, Harry is a rather undeserving hero in many ways. He was born to greatness - didn't do anything to earn it. He's got powerful magic right from the first book, even though he doesn't seem to work that hard in school. He's a natural flier, winning Quidditch matches right off the bat. He constantly breaks rules and does careless things that put himself and his friends (and the whole world) in danger. But at the end of the day he shows some moral fortitude and saves the day, so all is well. I see how this appeals to a twelve-year-old, but don't us adults know a little better?

And the rest of the characters are equally thin, especially the bad guys. Could the Dursleys be any more terrible people? Could Malfoy be any more generic of a bully? Why do Ron and Hermione reset to the same personality after each book, showing little growth or change from what happened last year? And why are all the adults so clueless? Even Dumbledore, who, at the end of every book, seems to have known what was happening all along, never figures out all the stupid things the kids are doing that could end in serious harm. Wizards are so clever but they can't figure out how a telephone works or how many stamps to put on an envelope. And how come the best wizarding school in the land has teachers that are totally incompetent or just plain awful human beings when it comes to interacting with students? It's all funny and silly but even as a child I would have been annoyed with the lack of depth and cut and dried good vs. evil message. Magic beans and silly candy only take you so far.

Heriot School (Hogwarts?)
So what is it that broadened the appeal of these books and swept up the world their rush to greatness? What is it that J.K. buried behind simple words and cookie-cutter characters that brings out such passion and inspires tours in a city with so much more to offer? I don't have a definite answer to that, but I think it's how she tapped into several fundamental story concepts that we all know and love. The orphan child whose real parents did love him; the mystery of who is the bad guy and how'd they do it in each book; the dream of an ordinary person who can save the day, not through hard work but just by being himself and so very special; and above all a world of magic that is full of wondrous things, even if they make no sense. A great mix of things to hook different people in different ways.

I do understand many of the elements that lead to the success of Harry Potter, but I ultimately think that success at that level comes from somewhere else. It's random, a cultural phenomenon that has no complete explanation and certainly no repeatable path to follow. Nothing deserves such success, and it certainly isn't earned, but in this day and age there are far worse things that rise to the top in various media. Harry Potter isn't for me, but it's a good book (or several). J.K. seems as good as person as any, and better than many, to be rewarded by the capriciousness of fate. I'll keep writing what appeals to me and hope it merits at least a little success.


  1. I got into Harry Potter after studying abroad in Scotland during college. It was on my reading list. Lol! I was the only non-fan in my class, so I wanted to read it to see what the big fuss was about. I don't know if we ever know why something takes off like that. But there is one line in that book that I have glued to my wall to this day. The teacher was thrilled that I fell under the Harry Potter spell. And then my sister read it and she loves it, too. And she knows people who are such big fans they flew to the UK for the movie premieres! And still, I know people who have said they found that first book boring.

    It boggles the mind. :)

    I actually originally passed on the books because they were middle grade and I was a teenager at the time and didn't want anything to do with them. But the older I get, the more I realize that a book is a book. And it's fine if people want to write for children, but I think people should just write books that they love. We all have something in common, you know. I think that's why the books blew up the way they did. She didn't write them for children. She wrote them for herself. I really think it makes a difference.

    But yeah, it's not for everyone. There are things that are popular, like The Walking Dead, that's just not appealing to me at all. I'm sure the fans would love for me to get into that show, like I would love everyone to love Harry Potter, but yeah, it's just not possible.

    I try to remind myself of this when I'm in the querying trenches. Not everyone is going to love my book, but I really feel like if I love it, surely there are other people out there who will, too. So yeah, definitely keep doing your thing. I think it's really the only way to achieve any kind of lasting success at all.

    1. Great point - you have to love what you write, because not everyone else will (no matter how great or how popular it becomes). Thanks.

  2. I would love tho get to visit Elephant House! I think I'd have to touch every table, just so I could maybe soak up some of her writing magic. ;)

    1. I have to admit - I didn't go inside. Too crowded with people looking around and taking pictures. Probably touching all the tables too :)