Many articles have been written on the subject of Harry Potter and his remarkable appeal to the mass market, but that’s not going to stop me putting in my five cents on the subject.
I came to Harry Potter late myself, having dismissed the books as something for children for several years. It was a silly dismissal on my part since I can name several children’s books that I still happily read. However, a couple of years ago the staggering media coverage of the movies forced me to read the books to see what all the fuss was about. Since then, like most everyone else, I have been captivated.
I have read all of the Harry Potter books in order, watched the movies and read many articles about various aspects of both Harry and J.K. Rowling and I believe that I have identified two key elements in the success of Harry Potter. I make no claims that these are the only elements, but I believe they are central to its appeal to both children and adults.
GROWING UP ALONG WITH THE READER
One obvious feature of the Harry Potter novels is that Harry ages. With each book, a year goes by. While this is not unique to Harry Potter, it is unusual for a writer to stick with a single feature character over so many years. Particularly when those years encompass the key ages of ten through seventeen.
As a result of this, and the fact that the books have come out over an approximately nine year period (most likely ten by the time the final book is published), the children who read the Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s/Philosopher’s Stone have effectively grown up with Harry Potter.
Whether by accident or design, it seems that J. K. Rowling has reflected that increasing maturity in both Harry and her audience by telling tells that become progressively darker and more complex in their characterization.
This reflection of Harry’s growth towards adulthood conveniently mirrors the same growth that Rowling’s core audience was experiencing. It also has the side benefit of attracting the interest of adults, many of whom became aware of the books through their children but discovered something with a little more depth than the average children’s tale.
So the increasing sophistication helped Harry Potter capture an ever larger audience, but what was it that appealed to them in the first place?
THE IMPORTANCE OF ARCHETYPES
The Harry Potter books are packed full of archetypes. From the Dursely’s, a family that will be very familiar to anyone who has read the works of Roald Dahl, to Lord Voldemort (Tolkien anyone?), to the boarding school environment (a setting used in many older British children’s books) to the magical creatures which inhabit Harry Potter’s world.
Now, it’s important to be clear on this point. I am not suggesting plagiarism. Those allegations have been made and in each case, clearly showed to be false. No I am talking here about archetypes:
“the original pattern or model from which all things of the same kind are copied or on which they are based; a model or first form; prototype.”
Like all writers (like everyone), J K Rowling has been influenced by her own experiences, by what she has seen and by what she has read. In creating Harry Potter she has called on much of that and made use of (knowingly or unknowingly) many archetypes from both fantasy and children’s literature. Archetypes are present to some degree in almost all fiction and used well can create extremely satisfying stories.
They also tend to create stories that have a mass appeal, because archetypes are things that we are all familiar with to some degree and humans by nature (whether they will admit it or not) like the familiar. Don’t believe me? Look at one of the most popular movie series of all time.
Star Wars was heavily influenced by Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with A Thousand Faces which maps out the common underlying structure of myths using archetypes. It is the use of that very structure which allowed Star Wars to break out from the sci-fi niche and become a cultural phenomenon. The use of archetypes made the alien situation less threatening to audiences.
Rowling is in good literary company on her journey. J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings can also be mapped against the same mythic structure and it has more than stood the test of time and popularity.
Of course following Campbell’s roadmap the story should end with “The Hero’s Departure”…
But that’s a whole other discussion.
Eoghann Irving is the webmaster for Solar Flare, the long-running science fiction news blog. A lifelong fan of the sci-fi and fantasy genres, Eoghann writes news, reviews and commentary for all forms of science fiction including tv, books, movies and comic books. Eoghann is always looking for news and information on all things sci-fi. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.