Why Potter stuck–and will continue to stick–in a way other contemporary fantasy stories don’t.
You poor soul. For half your life, it seems, you’ve had to deal with this. The hype every time a new book or movie in the series comes out. The idiotic costumed people in Barnes and Noble. Hearing people compare these silly children’s books to the classics—favorably. Learning with disgust that a well-educated adult friend of yours has succumbed to the craze. As the last Harry Potter movie just made a record $168 million domestically in its first weekend, it is high time somebody explained the insanity to you.
J.K. Rowling, Fantasy, and Kids
It’s true that any book worth reading can’t have its appeal fully explained in a bullet point or two, and J.K. Rowling’s writing is no different. Certainly, it has many features common to other popular fantasies like gripping plots, believable imaginary worlds, and great characters. It also has less common features, like a superb sense of humor, a healthy degree of borrowing from great fantasies of the past, and a richness of detail. But you can be forgiven, even with a sum of ingredients like this thrown at you, for still wondering why Harry is more popular than his many recent rip-offs.
This is because the answer, in my opinion, goes beyond a sum of ingredients. Unlike the authors of other recent fantasies, Rowling understands both the purpose of fantasy and her 21st-century audience in a way that allows her to get the most out of the fantasy genre.
Fantasy appeals to us, to put it crudely, because of the relationship between magic and morality. An alternate world filled with strange and wonderful things, a world defined by imagination, gives us a setting in which to (consciously or not) engage with moral questions free from the complications and biases with which we engage our own setting. This can be blindingly obvious, as with Lewis’s explicitly allegorical Narnia, or more subtle, as with Tolkien’s stubbornly not allegorical Middle Earth. Fantasy, mythology, and fairy tales allow an author to shape our unconscious ideas about what our own world should be like—without beating us over the head with them or even stating them outright.
And today’s Millennial generation (born 1982-2003ish) is dealing with a real world increasingly bereft of the healthy families, relationships, and institutions that gave previous generations a framework for considering moral questions. Rowling, a single mom when she started writing, understands that most kids from this generation are trying to cope with this. As Morley Winograd and Michael Hais write in their 2008 book Millennial Makeover:
“As much as The Wizard of Oz was an allegory for the politics of the Populist era of the 1890s, the Harry Potter series…provides just the right metaphor for understanding contemporary American politics. And while Rowling understands and captures this dynamic perfectly…[many adult leaders] make the fundamental mistake of thinking that today’s young people think and act just like they did when they were young. Nothing could be further from the truth.”
Today’s kids have been told to follow their passions and find themselves, but amidst broken families and a world recreated in a terrible way by the effects of the 1960s, they’re often not sure how to go about this, how to fit into the world the Baby Boomers built, or even if they want to fit into it.
Few fantasies allow a teenage reader to grapple with growing up in precisely this situation. In Harry Potter, a modern teenager can watch a boy struggle with the same things he does, and see precisely what ultimately distinguishes the boy from the man he becomes. Norman Lebrecht thinks Potter is about a subtle form of teenage rebellion against the adult world, and in a way this is true—but not the adult world as such; rather, the specific adult world Harry’s generation will inherit. Rowling offers the rare fantasy that gives a young reader a vastly different look at the well-lived life than he is getting from his high school, college, and too often, parents.
As a result, the most powerful themes of the Harry Potter books are about identity—and they are profoundly countercultural. Besides the obvious (and beautiful) theme of unconditional love that runs throughout the books, two key focal points emerge, which are illustrated well by the three most poignant moments in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, which I saw in a packed house on Friday.
First Theme: We Are Defined By Our Loyalties (Relationships and Institutions)
Near the end of this movie, Harry has decided to sacrifice his life to defeat the evil Lord Voldemort. As he is about to do so, he has an opportunity to speak briefly with ghosts of his dead loved ones—notably his parents and his godfather. They remind him that they are with him; he is not and never will be alone, because they are a part of the person he has become—their love and their influence have shaped him. (Few dry eyes in the theater during this scene.)
Kids aren’t getting this from The Golden Compass or their iPhones. David Brooks recently pointed out:
“[Young people] are sent off into this world with the whole baby-boomer theology ringing in their ears. If you sample some of the commencement addresses being broadcast on C-Span these days, you see that many graduates are told to: Follow your passion, chart your own course, march to the beat of your own drummer, follow your dreams and find yourself. This is the litany of expressive individualism, which is still the dominant note in American culture.”
Harry Potter, like these kids, has no family or identity—and he longs for both. Yet he emphatically finds them in some disturbingly conservative things:
- He is shaped in profound ways by his dead parents and longs to know them and live up to them. Rowling’s perspective on family is very unusual in general: Harry’s unofficial adoptive family, the Weasleys, lives in a run-down house in the country but is characterized by sibling affection and respect for parents (when Percy Weasley perceives his family as inadequately supportive of his dreams, it is Percy, not his family, that is portrayed unfavorably). The Weasleys are contrasted with Harry’s affluent aunt and uncle, the Dursleys, who live a lifestyle familiar to the 21st century kid: they reside in a cookie cutter house in the suburbs (see right) and give their single kid every gadget he desires.
- Harry’s fierce loyalty to his friends (notably his best friends Ron and Hermione) constantly motivates him; in fact, he has a tendency to make stupid but noble decisions when his friends are insulted or endangered. Ultimately, as noted above, he is willing to unhesitatingly die–on purpose–in order to save those he loves.
- Even his school, Hogwarts, is a place that represents a golden past that he, an orphan, has never had. Where Voldemort and even the “good” wizarding government are about raw power, Hogwarts remembers its roots, lets the little platoons work, and is defined by (pre-political) noble traditions and principles. In short, Harry grows up through a process of developing a home and responsibilities to it. He faces Voldemort surrounded by those he loves, those who have helped make him who he is—and he is unafraid.
Rowling thinks that children find—make, really—their place in the adult world by the strength of their character; by the structures of their connections with the past and with loved ones, and not by “finding themselves.” Tellingly, Harry never finds a passion in life (unless you count sports), nor does he ever have much of an idea of what he wants to do with his life. The very thing most kids today are told to seek—Harry never finds it or even seriously looks for it. He doesn’t need to.
Second Theme: We Are Defined By Our Choices, Not Our Abilities
The two moments in the final Harry Potter film that got the best reactions from the audience on Friday were, again, not exactly normal for modern culture.
Both moments involved a seemingly invincible villain being slain by an unlikely hero. One hero was Neville Longbottom, a more or less talentless fat kid whose sole apparent virtue was his loyalty to his friends—but whose incompetence turned to heroism when those friends needed defending. The other hero was Mrs. Weasley, a dumpy stay-at-home mother of seven, whose kindly exterior gave way to ferocious power when she saw her child threatened. Don’t tell the Baby Boomers, but the loudest cheer from the audience in my theater came when the villain realized too late that nobody stops a real mom.
Both of these scenes illustrated something Harry’s mentor, Professor Dumbledore, had said back in the second book: “It is our choices, Harry, that show who we truly are, far more than our abilities.” No Aladdin-style “his worth lies far within” nonsense here. We watch Harry eventually triumph—in book after book—not by particular skill or intelligence, but usually by being the only person (along with his friends) willing to fight for what’s right—whether in the face of a minor injustice at school or in the face of certain death. Harry blunders over and over, but the most satisfying moments in the books are when he is vindicated for his humble determination to protect those he loves at all cost to himself.
The setting of Harry Potter, to listen to the prevailing culture in America, is just wrong. Families and traditional institutions are central, government experts are viewed with distrust, and the celebrity hero doesn’t want to be a celebrity. And likewise wrong is the path by which Harry and his friends seek adulthood. They find meaning in responsibility, learn respect for rightful authority, and sacrifice their individuality and even their lives to preserve a seemingly unpreservable past. (On top of all that, Rowling’s idea of an epilogue is to show us that, 19 years later, the main characters are all married with a bucketload of kids, nothing more.)
Yet Rowling, it seems, was right to think that this was precisely the message that would appeal to today’s rudderless youth. They loved the story of an angst-filled boy who found meaning in all the right places, and triumphed. Whether they realized it or not while they were reading, Rowling was doing for them with a fantasy world what the best fantasy writers do–helping readers understand their own world better.
So cut those Potter fanatics a little slack—there are worse things for them to be into. And—yes, I’ll dare to say it—if you can get through the first two short books (which are good but definitely aimed at a younger audience), perhaps you should even give Harry (the books, not the movies) a try.
Brian Brown loves building the environments, habits, and networks that make people thrive. He is the founder of Humane Pursuits, where he writes a featured column and edits the Give channel. He started his consulting company, Narrator, to help great mission-driven organizations modernize and grow. He lives with his wife Christina and son Edmund in Colorado Springs, where they mix cocktails, hunt for historic architecture, and see how many people they can squeeze into their house for happy hour.