For Harry Potter outsiders, perhaps the biggest question when confronted with the scene of 12,000 caped and bespectacled wizard impersonators parading around Germantown Avenue is this: Why?
Why is this seven-book series so popular? How is it that a tale of a young English wizard in training has sparked a cult-like following that rivals the largest fantasy fan groups in the world – Star Trek, Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings?
Harry Potter today is a must read for elementary school children. They love it. And many don’t lose their fondness for the books as they get older. One need only see how many college-aged wizard robed revelers descend on Chestnut Hill for Harry Potter Weekend to find out.
How did these books become so popular? And how have they endured so long? The first novel in the series was published in 1997, making Potter a nearly 19-year-old franchise. Is it going anywhere? Probably not.
Potter certainly has had its detractors. Yale professor and leading literary critic, Harold Bloom has written about how much he detests the works and has dismissed author J.K. Rowling as anything but a serious writer of literature.
“Rowling’s mind is so governed by clichés and dead metaphors that she has no other style of writing,” he wrote in a 2003 Boston Globe op-ed on the subject of “dumbing down” American readers. (For what it’s worth, the piece was aimed at Stephen King, who had been selected to receive an honor that Bloom believed the horror writer did not deserve.)
But others have recognized the themes of Potter that have made it seemingly a classic work that will persist for generations to come.
Some have noted that the thrust of the Potter series – a tale of underdogs and marginalized young people banning together to fight injustice made palatable by the fact that it is all in the end magical fantasy – is the main reason for its success. Young people identify with young Potter and his friends.
Even the typically tough social critic Christopher Hitchens recognized these positives in Rowling’s work and praised the series in a review of the final book he penned for the New York Times. For Hitchens, Rowling’s great success was in giving the world an everyman hero.
Hitchens wrote: “The English school story from Tom Brown to Kipling’s Stalky and Co. was intimately bound up with dreams of wealth and class and snobbery, yet Rowling has succeeded in unmooring it from these considerations and giving us a world of youthful democracy and diversity, in which the humble leading figure has a name that – though it was given to a Shakespearean martial hero and king – could as well belong to an English labor union official.”
It’s impossible to know how long Harry Potter Weekend will persist in Chestnut Hill, though after five years in it seems more popular than ever. But it’s pretty easy to guess that Harry Potter the literary figure is going to be with us for a long time. As Hitchens added: “It’s achievement enough that ’19 years later,’ as the last chapter-heading has it, and quite probably for many decades after that, there will still be millions of adults who recall their initiation to literature as a little touch of Harry in the night.”
— Pete Mazzaccaro